If you thought the Detroit Lions would be one of the toughest matchups on the schedule this season, raise your hand. I mean, I thought they'd be good, but this good?
Whatever you may have thought, the Lions have finally put it together in 2011. They have a talented young quarterback in Matthew Stafford, a cohesive offensive line, one of the best receivers in the NFL in Calvin Johnson, an extremely potent front four and underrated pieces in the secondary. They are, in short, a complete team with a lot of dangerous weapons. That's why they're 5-1.
They're also a beatable team, something the 49ers underscored last weekend. By bludgeoning the Lions with Frank Gore and keeping their tight ends in to block, mixing in a short-to-mid passing game and double-teaming Johnson constantly, the 49ers scored enough points to win and kept the high-flying Lions offense in check. Under pressure and unable to get Jahvid Best going, the Lions fizzled out. They don't even have Best this week.
Whether the Falcons can duplicate that kind of superior defensive effort is anybody's guess, but the blueprint is there. And that's where we pick up today with our one big question, our three smaller questions and our game prediction.
Follow along after the jump.
The Biggest Question
Can the Falcons shut down Megatron?
Calvin Johnson is the most dangerous receiver in the NFL, in my opinion. He's unquestionably among the elite. With his combination of size, speed and unsettling, almost robotic calm, he's a force of nature. In the red zone, he's probably the best pass catcher in the entire league.
With Stafford's cannon arm, the deep ball becomes a danger. With his solid accuracy and Megatron's ability to reel in passes in entirely different cities, the short passes become a problem. The Lions have a solid second receiver in Nate Burleson, a dynamic young slot guy in Titus Young and a talented, bruising tight end in Brandon Pettigrew. Those guys can burn you to an extent, but it's Johnson who is most dangerous.
The Falcons can't afford to fool around with him. Whether they're putting Brent Grimes or Dunta Robinson on him, they should be constantly double-teaming. That means getting Thomas DeCoud down there, it means cheating a nickel back over on long routes and it means that every guy in the secondary knows where Megatron is at all times. It only takes one beautiful spiral pass to Johnson to break the game open, and the Falcons know it. The 49ers proved that double-teaming him and making him work for it is about the only way to slow him down, so that's what they'll have to do.
Three Smaller Questions
Question 1: Will Michael Turner run all over the place?
The Falcons have to know that Turner is doing better on outside runs than the infamous up-the-gut forays Mike Mularkey so often sends him on, and they have to know that the Lions are a lot stouter in the middle than they are on the edges. They also have to know that overall, the Lions are no great shakes against the run.
So they'll turn to Turner again. The Burner was an absolute monster against a feeble Panthers run defense, and the Lions are not considerably better. The best move for the Falcons will be to turn him loose, let him run 25 times and quietly augment the ground game with a controlled passing attack. The 49ers made it work, and the Falcons have better weapons than the 49ers.
Question 2: How will the Falcons' offensive line hold up?
This is a question because of the Lions' frightening pass rush ability. With Cliff Avril off the edge, Ndamokung Suh and Nick Fairley in the middle and a cast of underappreciated talent in the front seven, they'll be a real challenge for the Falcons.
Working in the team's favor is the fact that the line has stiffened up in recent weeks, allowing only two sacks over the last two weeks. Working in the Lions' favor is that they have perhaps the best defensive tackles in the league, talent that the Falcons haven't really had to deal with. It may not matter if Sam Baker can hold back Cliff Avril if a gimpy Todd McClure and a still-learning Garrett Reynolds can't do the job against Suh.
This may be the best test yet of whether the line has truly made significant improvement.
Question 3: Speaking of the passing game, how well will it do?
It's no coincidence that the three smaller questions are all about the Falcons' offense. The Lions will have difficulty running against a stout Falcons defense, especially without Jahvid Best. We know their defense is weak against the run and strong against the pass. And if the Falcons can't pass at all, the Lions can key in on Turner.
The biggest question, ironically, might be how Roddy White will fare against Chris Houston. He's no one's idea of a shutdown cornerback, of course, but White's struggled mightily this season at times and Houston is capable of giving him fits.
We also don't yet know whether Julio Jones is going to play, how Harry Douglas will fare and so forth and so on. The Falcons should go run-heavy in this game, but they won't win if Matt Ryan can't at least sling it a little bit.
It's going to be uphill, but I'm irrationally optimistic about the Falcons in this one. I think they manage to hold back Megatron and hold on for a tight win. Say 27-24.
What do you think?