The Detroit Lions offense has some extremely potent weapons, but they have virtually no depth anywhere. Matthew Stafford has a ton of talent at quarterback¸ Reggie Bush has become a really good running back, and Calvin Johnson is as good as any wide receiver in football. After those three players, the Lions offense does not really do much that scares teams. And with Johnson’s availability up in the air for this week, it really has the potential to take the roar out of the Lions offense when they come into Cleveland to take on the Browns.
Everything the Lions do seems to revolve around the threat Calvin Johnson brings to the table. He is a receiver that is open when he is covered for the most part. He is so big and so fast that it is really difficult to take him out of any given play. As good as Joe Haden is, it is unlikely that if Johnson is able to play and were at full strength, that Haden would be playing him alone the entire game. There might be various plays where they leave him on an island but there would definitely be situations where they have Tashaun Gipson helping over the top.
When the defense has two players covering Johnson and especially Johnson’s ability to take the top off of a defense, it means there are only nine players left to defend the rest of the team. This creates huge openings for Bush and their complementary players like Nate Burleson, Brandon Pettigrew, and Joique Bell. Certainly, those players have talent in their own right and can and have made plays, but they are a lot easier to defend when Johnson is not in the game.
The difference in that situation is that Burleson would be covered by Haden alone, which is not a good matchup for the Lions. The Lions are running against a team with another potential player to help stop the run in the box as well as potentially work to contain Pettigrew. They are nowhere near the same team and that is hardly surprising when it comes to having a superstar like Johnson.
The Lions offensive line has some interesting pieces but the overall unit does not really wow anyone. Their rookie, Larry Warford, has been a nice boost as a mauler in the running game. There were many draft analysts stunned when he lasted until the third round and to this point, they look right and the Lions got a great value at right guard. Dominic Raiola, coming off of his own issues with the Wisconsin band, is still their pivot at age 34. Rob Sims is solid as a left guard. Riley Reiff made the move to left tackle despite questions about arm length. Last and definitely least, they have Jason Fox in at right tackle. None of them are in the who’s who of their respective positions and only really Warford and Reiff have a bright future with the Lions.
The Browns defensive line should have a decisive advantage in the trenches, especially in terms of size. Phil Taylor has a substantial size advantage against Raiola and he is going to need help from one of their guards to keep him out of the backfield; likely Warford, so they have the option to double team Desmond Bryant with Reiff and Sims. They are probably going to have to take full advantage of Pettigrew’s tremendous ability to block and to either help Fox get a good block or possibly as an extra tackle to get out and block Paul Kruger. Jabaal Sheard should be back this week, so Reiff will have his hands full with him as well as Barkevious Mingo.
If Johnson is unable to play, the Browns are going to be able to put the clamps on stopping the run, put Stafford in obvious passing situations and just pin their ears back and get after him. The Lions do employ a quick passing game that tries to take pressure off of the guys up front but a lot of that is opened up by the presence of Johnson. If he can go, it makes defending the Lions far more difficult because they have less numbers to cover ground on short passing plays to receivers as well as their running backs. It would not be overly surprising if the Browns are somewhat conservative compared to what Ray Horton usually uses in terms of blitz packages and might drop a few more players or different players in hopes of either finding themselves in position to make a play on the football or significantly reduce the amount of yardage after the catch receivers can get.
If the Browns can effectively remove the short passing game, Stafford will have to drop back and try to make plays down the field and at that point, the Browns can bring pressure and try to put hits on him. Stafford has the ability to be brilliant with the throws he can make, but if the Browns can make him uncomfortable and get him off of his spots, he can make mistakes and throw passes into coverage.
At this point, Johnson has being described as a game time decision and it is only Thursday, so it does not sound optimistic for his ability to play. If he can play, the job of defending the Lions gets far more difficult but the Browns defense has consistently shown the ability to be extremely effective and make it an absolute grind for the offense. There is no reason that should not continue this week against the Lions and it really needs to as the Browns have a tough three game stretch heading into the bye week with the Packers, Chiefs, and Ravens as their next three opponents with the first two on the road. Coming off of what they described as a disappointing performance, this defense is looking to get back to the lock down brand of defense they are capable of playing.