The Atlanta Falcons got a narrow victory over the Green Bay Packers in Week 2 to get out to their first 2-0 start since 2017. Now the team heads on the road for the first time in 2023 to take on the Detroit Lions (1-1), who have aspirations to win the NFC North this season. This is the toughest test yet for the ascending Falcons, as the Lions took out the Chiefs in Week 1 and are the NFL’s 10th-ranked scoring offense through two games.
Here at The Falcoholic, we like to think we keep you incredibly well-informed on all things Falcons. We’re not nearly as diligent in covering the Lions, so I’ve enlisted the help of Detroit expert Ryan Mathews. Ryan is the senior editor over at Pride of Detroit, SB Nation’s site covering all things Detroit Lions.
I brought five questions to Ryan on a variety of topics, including how Lions fans feel about the 1-1 start, the level of concern given the length injury report, and how Detroit matches up with Atlanta on both sides of the ball.
1) The Lions got off to a hot start with a win over the defending Super Bowl champions in Week 1, only to fall just short in overtime to the Seahawks. It’s clearly been a bit of a roller coaster opening for Detroit this season. I know expectations are high for Detroit in what looks to be a very winnable NFC North. How are you feeling after the first two weeks? Has the team played up to expectations thus far?
Ryan Mathews: Point blank: this year’s Detroit Lions team had sky-high expectations after the clock hit zeroes against the Green Bay Packers in Week 18 last season. After an offseason where the Lions finally made splashier signings in free agency–spending top dollar on cornerback Cameron Sutton, having C.J. Garnder-Johnson choose Detroit as his destination–and having ample draft capital to select “positionless” and versatile football players like Jahmyr Gibbs, Jack Campbell, Sam LaPorta, and Brian Branch, the expectations got national attention.
Through two weeks, things haven’t changed: the Lions started the season as favorites to win the NFC North, and a home playoff game is still the expectation. Despite the season already being a rollercoaster of emotions with the highest of highs–beating the Kansas City Chiefs on the road to open the season–and the disappointment of dropping the home opener to the Seahawks–and the injuries to key players like the aforementioned Gardner-Johnson and David Montgomery–the end goal is still an NFC North title for the first time in franchise history.
2) I’m definitely a Jared Goff skeptic, but it seems like this offense is a match made in heaven for him. Assuming he continues at this level of play in 2023, are Lions fans ready to commit to Goff long-term? Or is there concern that once Ben Johnson leaves (which is likely to be 2024), Goff will revert back to old habits?
RM: You’re not alone in being a Jared Goff skeptic. A lot of Lions fans were highly skeptical when Brad Holmes first decision as Lions GM was to trade Matthew Stafford, the best quarterback in franchise history, for a reclamation project in Goff. In this regime’s first season, Goff and the offense took their fair share of lumps. The offensive line was banged up, the team’s top two receivers in training camp were either released or placed on injured reserve by Week 2, and it took over two months for the team to win a football game. But it took the coaching staff to find its footing, and it took Goff working more closely with Ben Johnson–then the tight ends coach and passing game coordinator–for fans to see the guy who was a Pro Bowl quarterback for one of the most prolific offenses in recent memory.
I wouldn’t be so quick to assume Ben Johnson would leave if there’s unfinished business in Detroit. Here’s what Johnson had to say this past offseason when he decided to turn down head coaching opportunities:
“You know what? There’s so many good things going on here, so many good people, coaches, players. I love the offensive staff, everyone we have on board there. I love the players. I love coming into work everyday. Coach Campbell is incredible. End of the day, talking with my family, it just made sense. It made sense. Don’t ruin a good thing.”
Goff and Johnson is a match made in heaven in terms of their working relationship. There’s a lot of trust in that room between the two of them, and Johnson’s ability to build balanced, yet unpredictable offense predicated on play-action concepts to create big plays has resurrected Goff’s career. But the success of this football team in 2023 is going to be a deciding factor in the team’s decision to extend Goff, or choose to go another route–the team did draft Hendon Hooker in the third round of the 2023 NFL Draft.
3) I was a fan of Jahmyr Gibbs in the draft, but I was still shocked that the Lions took him so early in the first round. With David Montgomery expected to miss a few weeks, is Gibbs ready to take on the role of featured back that he was drafted to be? His production through two games, while certainly not reflective of his long-term potential, is concerning in the short-term.
RM: It was never the plan to have Jahmyr Gibbs be featured as the lead back in this offense. He was always going to be a complementary piece and a change of pace from David Montgomery. Gibbs was drafted to be a dynamic, positionless weapon that could be a legitimate threat lined up as a receiver or in the backfield.
When Montgomery got injured last week, Craig Reynolds immediately stepped in as the lead runner, while Gibbs got more usage as a receiver since the Lions were trailing last week. Montgomery is 5-foot-11 and 224 pounds, a good 20-plus pounds heavier than Gibbs, so don’t anticipate Gibbs to replace Montgomery as the team’s primary runner between the tackles on early downs–I’d anticipate that to be Reynolds. The team did sign former New York Jets running back, Zonovan Knight, from the practice squad to the 53-man roster, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see him on the field this week against the Falcons.
4) The Lions have gotten hit hard by the injury bug, particularly on defense. Emmanuel Moseley was already out of practice due to a knee injury, and it now appears that James Houston will miss significant time and C.J. Gardner-Johnson will be out for the rest of the season. The status of Kerby Joseph also seems to be in question for Week 3. After giving 37 points to what is a pretty good Seahawks offense, how concerned are you about facing the Falcons attack?
RM: The injury bug did hit the Lions hard and fast last week, and the biggest loss of them all is undoubtedly C.J. Gardner-Johnson. He emerged as the vocal leader of not only the secondary, but the entire defense during training camp, and after an injury-scare in the summer, it was a huge sigh of relief to see him avoid a serious injury. So it goes without saying, losing Gardner-Johnson is brutal. The team does have some depth at safety, the veteran Tracy Walker will assume a prominent role on defense in Gardner-Johnson’s absence, but he’s returning from a torn Achilles he suffered early last season.
Right now in Detroit, the interior of the defensive line is a concern. Alim McNeill is playing a ton of snaps–over 75 percent last week against the Seahawks–and last year’s starter alongside McNeill, Isaiah Buggs, has been a healthy scratch the first two weeks. In his place, Benito Jones, a rotational player last year, has been largely ineffective against the run and not much of a factor in the pass rush. Detroit has been pretty stellar against the run in the first couple of weeks, holding the Chiefs running backs to 45 rushing yards on 14 attempts and Seahawks running backs to 62 rushing yards on 22 carries. Of course, Bijan Robinson poses an entirely different challenge, and it will be up to the Lions to create a game plan to slow down the Falcons ground attack.
At this point, I wouldn’t count on Emmanuel Moseley to play this week after he suffered a setback with a hamstring injury. It’ll be up to backup cornerback Jerry Jacobs, who had a really tough outing against Tyler Lockett and DK Metcalf last week, to have a short memory and bounce back performance. In order to prevent the Falcons passing attack from finding its footing, it’s going to require defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn to put together a game plan that puts pressure on Desmond Ridder to take some off the Lions’ secondary.
5) The line has begun to shift towards the Falcons given the aforementioned injury news, but the Lions remain 3-point home favorites in Week 3. What’s your prediction for the game?
RM: Personally, I wouldn’t want to touch the spread or moneyline in this football game. I do, however, think this game will bring out the true nature of these two head coaches who love a physical football game on the ground, so I’d gravitate towards the under (currently 46.5 on DraftKings Sportsbook) in this game.
Many thanks to Ryan Mathews for taking the time to answer my questions. You can follow him on Twitter at @Ryan_POD, and if you’re in the mood for a Lions perspective on things, follow Pride of Detroit at @PrideOfDetroit.
Looking for more Falcons-Lions coverage? Check out our Dirty Birds & Brews game preview show. You can find my answers to Ryan’s questions here.