Two weeks into the NFL season and another week of an AFC South versus NFC North matchup for both teams.
The major difference is the AFC South team, Tennessee, is coming off a loss versus the Minnesota Vikings in a game they expected to win. Detroit, representing the NFC, beat a solid Indianapolis Colts team in a wild shootout. This game also matches the wits of two former New England personnel men. This offseason, the Titans hired Jon Robinson as general manager and the Lions brought in Bob Quinn to run their front office. Both men worked under Bill Belichick as Patriots and are now trying to put their own stamps, with a little "Patriots" way, on each team.
One interesting nugget about this game is the head coaches. Many pundits in the football community expected both Jim Caldwell of the Lions and Mike Mularkey of the Titans to be fired once the new general managers were put in place. Neither was fired and both men, who also happen to be second-time NFL head coaches, were given a chance to prove their worth to their new bosses.
Both staffs have good quarterback play, but Detroit has gunslinger Matthew Stafford at the helm and he was up to his old tricks versus the Colts. With the retirement of wide receiver Calvin Johnson, Stafford looked more in control and took a very poignant leadership role. Stafford was 31-for-38 passing for 340 yards and three touchdowns.
"When he's in command and running things, he puts a lot of pressure on the defense. He doesn't give them much time. And he's been very, very accurate. When things are a bit spread out, he spreads it around," said Caldwell of his offensive leader Stafford.
In past years, the Lions have always had a powerful passing attack. So an obvious key to the game for the opposing defense was to stop the run. That may not be so easy anymore. Running backs Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah combined for 107 yards rushing on 19 carries. Combine those statistics with the yardage the combo picked up via the air game (63 yards and 57 yards, respectively) and together they each had 100-plus total yardage days.
The Titans have a solid run defense led by defensive tackle Jurrell Casey and linebacker Wesley Woodyard. This unit held Vikings All-Pro rusher Adrian Peterson to 31 yards on 19 carries. While defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau will not have to build his game plan around taking out one of the best in the business this week, the Titans defense cannot take the Lions' two-headed rushing attack lightly.
This same Titans defense did flash points of brilliance last week. They pitched a shutout in the first half. The blame falls at the feet of their own offense which gave up two turnovers for touchdowns. The focus this week must flip flop from facing the Vikings. Last week was all about stopping the run. Versus Stafford and wide receivers Golden Tate and Marvin Jones, the emphasis must be on the passing attack.
The Titans pass defense will need to step up their game this week against Stafford. Tennessee produced zero sacks and zero turnovers against a pedestrian quarterback Shaun Hill. If the Lions offensive line, led by center Travis Swanson and tackle Riley Reiff, keeps the Titans defenders off Stafford like Minnesota's offensive line did, Stafford will throw for 400-plus yards.
Tennessee head coach Mularkey knows he has a special player in Marcus Mariota at quarterback. Mularkey also believes his team has a chance to be good. But two costly turnovers versus the Vikings in the second half cost his squad the game.
"There's a chance, and we still thought we had a chance. So we've got to do it obviously to confirm that we can do it, but I believe these guys feel they can win at any time, especially with Marcus as their quarterback," said the former Buffalo Bill head coach.
Robinson, the Titans general manager, traded for running back DeMarco Murray this offseason to give Mariota some balance on offense. Robinson then drafted Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry out of Alabama to team up with Murray. Unfortunately for Robinson, Mariota and Mularkey, those moves did not pay off versus the Vikings. The Titans run game was limited to 65 yards and a fumble by Murray turned into a touchdown return.
Against the Lions, the running game may not be as effective either so Tennessee needs to rely on Mariota through the air. This can happen if left tackle Taylor Lewan, who is traveling back to the state he played college football in, can handle Lions pass-rush expert, Ziggy Ansah. By using either Murray or Henry to chip and help Lewan, this should give Mariota time to get his offensive playmakers into the mix. Tight end Delanie Walker was barely a factor in the Minnesota game as he was held to three grabs for 42 yards. He needs to be a focal point when matched up versus safeties Da'Norris Searcy and Rashad Johnson.