Welcome to “Watch of the Week,” a new recurring—but by no means regular—feature spotlighting particularly exciting games you won’t want to miss.
There’s a lot going on in the NFL this weekend, from a probably very one-sided game in the UK to a battle between the original Russell Wilson and someone who might be either Wilson 2.0, or merely the poor man’s version in Marcus Mariota. But for our money, there’s one game that sticks out this week above all others: Lions vs. Falcons.
Both teams are presently undefeated, and both have something to prove. For the Falcons, they’re on a much-publicized quest for redemption after a humiliating choke-job in last year’s championship game. For the Lions, they’re fighting to prove their own legitimacy in the face of sixty years of mediocrity…and to validate the record-setting investment they just made in their franchise QB.
Through two weeks, both teams seem dangerous on both sides of the ball. While the Falcons’ secondary hasn’t wowed, their pass rush has been excellent, with Vic Beasely leading the league in sacks (more on him in a minute). Their offense may be best-in-class, led by reigning MVP Matt Ryan, superstar receiver Julio Jones, and already-has-three-touchdowns-this-season running back Devonta Freeman.
The Lions, meanwhile, have an offense built around surrounding franchise cornerstone Matt Stafford with dangerous pass-catchers, whether it’s the freakishly difficult to bring down Golden Tate, the fresh-from-training-all-summer-with-Randy-Moss Marvin Jones Jr., rookie and so-called “Minitron” Kenny Gollady, red zone conversion machine Eric Ebron, or checkdown specialist Theo Riddick.
On the other end, they’ve got a defense built around Ziggy Ansah butchering quarterbacks at the line of scrimmage, and a deadly and deep secondary that features not only “Big Play” Darius Slay at cornerback and All-Pro safety Glover Quin, but also PFF’s top ranked corner Quandre Diggs and promising youngster Miles Killebrew at strong safety.
But that impressive Lions secondary has yet to face an offense with nearly as many weapons as Atlanta. Even if Slay (or Diggs) can shut down Julio Jones, they’ll still need to account for Mohammed Sanu and Tevin Coleman. Detroit will also need to keep an eye out for rookie Austin Hooper, already making an impression (and an eighty-plus yard touchdown) at tight end… which just so happens to be the position Detroit most struggles to defend.
They’ll also need to be aggressive on the line, not only to pressure Ryan, but to contain a run game much more explosive than any they’ve faced so far. If the Lions D is “for real,” they’re going to have to prove it against an elite offense; this will be their first chance to do so.
On the other end, Atlanta’s D hasn’t been great in the secondary thus far, and that could bode poorly against threats like Tate, Golladay, and Jones Jr. They let Chicago put up way more points than Chicago ought to put up in Week 1, and in Week 2 they allowed a snake-bitten Packers team to break 20 without Jordy Nelson. No matter how good their offense is, they’re not going to win in Detroit if they let Stafford have his way in the open field.
Worse, the Falcons currently sport the league’s 31st ranked run defense (despite not playing against any teams known for elite running games), opening things up for Lions back Ameer Abdullah, fresh off a minor breakout against a pretty stout NY defense. When the Lions can get their run game going, it opens things up even more for Stafford, so Atlanta had better hope they can nip that option in the bud.
Unfortunately, we won’t be seeing either team at full strength—Atlanta is without Vic Beasely (their best pass rusher) and Courtney Upshaw, while Ryan Shraeder is listed as questionable. That’s good news for the Lions, who won’t have to work as hard to protect iffy left tackle Greg Robinson as they did in New York, but they’ve got problems of their own. First round pick—and the linebacker tasked with calling their defensive sets—Jarrad Davis is questionable with a concussion, and they’re still without preferred left tackle Taylor Decker.
With both teams loaded with offensive firepower and either injured (Falcons), unproven (Lions), or both (Lions without Jarrad Davis) on defense, this game looks to be a shootout between two of the highest profile QBs in the game today. Both franchises have outfitted their Matts with deep warchests and both men are playing under a microscope after their disappointing playoff finale (Ryan) and giant contract (Stafford) respectively.
Rather than offer a prediction, we’ll close here with two key players who could swing the game for their teams:
For the Falcons, if Hooper can take advantage of the Lions’ shaky linebacker situation—and if Ryan targets him a bit more than the 2 or so per game he’s getting thus far—he could win the game almost on his own, especially if the open field ability and steel-hard stiff-arm he showed off in the opener weren’t just beginner’s luck. This is a potentially game-swinging scenario with or without Davis on the field, but if he’s out, it might be the single most important storyline in the game.
On the Detroit side of things, if Ziggy Ansah can be as successful against the Falcons’ offensive line as he was in New York, Matt Ryan is in for a long night. Ansah is fast, crafty, and relentless, and if he can keep Ryan out of his comfort zone, it’ll largely neuter the devastating Falcons’ passing game. Ryan is one of the best QBs in the league and will make at least some hay either way, but if Ansah can take away the option to play with patience (and especially if the Lions secondary can stay sharp the first few seconds after the snap), Atlanta won’t be able to simply out-gun the Lions. That’s a big if, but it’s one that could swing the game for Detroit, or at least put a ton of pressure on Atlanta’s Beasely-less defense.
Either way, Lions vs. Falcons figures to be the game of the week. Plenty of starpower, storylines, and stakes; what more do you want?