Keys to the Game: Detroit

Posted Sep 7, 2012

1. Deprogram Megatron

There is, perhaps, no player in the league who is a more dominant force than Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson.

Nicknamed Megatron, after a popular Transformers robot, Johnson is the type of player who can single-handedly take over a game. At 6’5, 236 pounds with sub 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash and a vertical jump that would make many NBA players blush, Johnson is almost impossible to cover, no matter how many defenders are thrown at him.

In 2011, Johnson had his best season yet, becoming only the second wideout in league history (along with Randy Moss) to post 1,600 receiving yards and 16 touchdowns in a season. He finished with 96 catches for 1,681 yards and 16 scores in leading the Lions to the playoffs.

The task of slowing Johnson – stopping him is asking too much of anyone – will fall to a revamped Rams secondary led by veteran corner Cortland Finnegan. Finnegan will likely draw the short straw in taking the first crack at Johnson.

The physical Finnegan is known for his ability to bump receivers around and take them out of their game by getting in their heads. Johnson seems unflappable but the Rams will do their best to throw him off.

“Everybody wants competition,” Finnegan said. “That’s why you play at the highest level like we do. He’s a great, great model for the NFL and receiver in the NFL, a future Hall of Famer. So you have got your hands full with him always and you just try to contain him. It’s not stopping him, you just can’t do that. You’ve seen that all last year and in the playoffs.”

Still, it’s unfair to expect Finnegan to take on Johnson by himself and it’s almost certain he’ll get help over the top from the safeties. Rookie Janoris Jenkins could also get some opportunities to cover Johnson.

2. Slowing Stafford

Of course, maybe the best way to keep Johnson from having a big game is to keep the ball from even being thrown his way. Johnson’s partner in crime is quarterback Matthew Stafford, who possesses one of the strongest arms in the league.

Stafford posted his best NFL season in 2011, earning Comeback Player of the Year honors for his 5,038 passing yards and 41 touchdowns and a rating of 97.2.

Stafford has emerged as one of the league’s best passers in coordinator Scott Linehan’s offense. The Lions like to get Stafford in the shotgun and let him use his variety of weapons through the passing game.

While he’s a little underrated as an athlete, Stafford isn’t going to kill teams with his ability to scramble; he uses his rifle of a right arm for that. In order to slow down Detroit’s potent offense, it starts with getting pressure on Stafford.

The Lions were in the middle of the pack in sacks allowed in 2011, giving up 36 but while they have some older pieces on their offensive line, they also have a lot of continuity up front as well.

In fact, Detroit’s offensive line will have the same five starters in the same five positions for the third consecutive season. It’s a group, led by veteran tackle Jeff Backus and center Dominic Raiola, that has combined to make 494 regular season stats, the most of any group in the league.

That means it’s up to the Rams to find a way to get after Stafford with ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn leading the way.

“They have a pretty good offense,” Long said. “They are going to get the ball out so it’s going to be a challenge for us and their O line has been together. It’s one of the few O lines that is returning as a whole in the entire league. It’s going to be tough but the onus is on us to get there.”

3. On the Line

Speaking of line play and continuity, it’s something the Rams don’t have much of in terms of their offensive line. In fact, this week during practice was the first time all preseason that the group that will likely start against the Lions has played together.

While Rodger Saffold (left tackle), Harvey Dahl (right guard), Scott Wells (center) and Barry Richardson (right tackle) seem set in their spots, there is still some mystery when it comes to the left guard spot.

Rookie Rokevious Watkins is the most likely bet to open at that spot but Robert Turner could also get the call.

Regardless, whichever group plays will have a tough task in taking on Detroit’s punishing front seven, particularly the defensive line. Led by tackle Ndamukong Suh and end Cliff Avril, the Lions are capable of generating a devastating pass rush while using only the front four.

Keeping quarterback Sam Bradford upright will be imperative as injuries in Detroit’s secondary (to safety Louis Delmas and cornerback Chris Houston) could allow for some big plays in the passing game if Bradford has time to let some deep routes develop.

“They’re good,” Bradford said. “No doubt about it. They’re extremely talented up front. They’re going to put pressure on me. They’re going to push the pocket. It just means that I’ve got to be aware, pocket-awareness, sliding around, trying to make some plays with my feet. When we do have time and we’re able to take shots down field, we’ve got to take advantage of them and hit them.”
4. The Best Defense…

While the Lions front seven is particularly dangerous in passing situations, it was vulnerable against the run, at least in 2011 it was. Of course, every year is different but with the same players back in the front seven, there could be potential for the Rams to exert their will on Detroit’s defense in the running game.

Clearly, that’s the approach the Rams want to have anyway, to pound it with running back Steven Jackson and sprinkle in rookies Daryl Richardson and Isaiah Pead.

The Lions gave up 128.1 yards per game on the ground in 2011 and opponents averaged 5 yards per carry against them as well.

A strong running game from Jackson and Co. would serve three equally important purposes: it would help the Rams move the ball and control the tempo, it would open up things for Bradford on play action and it would keep Johnson, Stafford and that Lions offense planted on the sideline.

“Detroit has a very explosive offense and their front four on defense really get after the quarterback especially,” Jackson said. “They are a very feisty team that we know if we can control the game through the ground we can give our defense some rest and therefore keep their offense off the field.”

5. Discipline Demands

At just over 25 years old, the Rams have the youngest roster in the league in terms of average age. Their likely two-deep depth chart will feature as many as 10 rookies including up to five starters including the kicker and punter.

In total, the Rams have 16 rookies on the roster and only five of 53 players have celebrated their 30th birthday. Fisher is not afraid to use his youngsters and has made it clear repeatedly that if you are one of the 46 active players on gameday, you’re going to play.

This week in Detroit, though, that youth will be put to the test in what figures to be an extremely hostile atmosphere. Coming off a playoff appearance and entering the year with high expectations, Lions fans will undoubtedly have Ford Field rocking and rolling like Motown does.

That’s going to put plenty of pressure on the young Rams to remain disciplined. Playing a team as talented as Detroit is tough enough without having to deal with the intangible factors such as crowd noise. It will be imperative for the Rams to give nothing away in terms of free yards via false starts, jumping offsides or any other sort of pre-snap penalty that can be directly attributed to a noisy crowd.

“It’s a challenge,” Bradford said. “I think regardless of who’s playing, anytime that you’re on the road for someone’s home opener it’s obviously going to be loud. Their crowd’s going to be fired up. Their team’s going to be fired up. They want to come out and put on a good show. Schotty (Offensive Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer) challenged us today to be great with communication, great with all the pre-snap stuff. So it’s something that we’ve accepted and I’m looking forward to seeing how those guys react. But I’m confident they’re going to go out and play well.”