While the Atlanta Falcons take yet another stab at recording an elusive initial winning streak of 2011, the Detroit Lions enter Sunday's pivotal showdown between the NFC contenders from Ford Field aiming to bounce back from a loss for the first time in 10 months.
The once-lowly Lions had ripped off an astounding nine consecutive victories dating back to December of last season before coming out on the short end of a tension-filled 25-17 home defeat to fellow upstart San Francisco last Sunday. Detroit began the year with five straight wins for the first time since a 6-0 start all the way back in 1956.
The loss was highlighted by a heated postgame confrontation between Lions head coach Jim Schwartz and 49ers sideline boss Jim Harbaugh, though the former was more upset with his team's inability to hold onto to a four-point lead late in the fourth quarter, with San Francisco scoring a go-ahead touchdown with 1:51 left to play and stopping Detroit on downs on the ensuing possession.
"We didn't play our best in any of the three phases: offense, defense, or special teams," said Schwartz afterward. We have to protect the quarterback better, have to run the ball better, make more plays down the field. We have to stop the run better. We have to cover our kicks better, we have to convert field goals."
Establishing an effective ground game could be Detroit's greatest challenge this week. Starting running back Jahvid Best, an essential part of Detroit's high-scoring offense, is virtually certain to sit out Sunday's tilt after sustaining a third concussion in the last two years during the San Francisco game, and there's been talk that the Lions have privately expressed concern that the speedy playmaker's condition may be a long-term problem.
Detroit took a step towards addressing its backfield situation by agreeing on a trade with Philadelphia for veteran Ronnie Brown on Tuesday, but the deal was voided when the other player involved -- fellow running back Jerome Harrison -- was diagnosed with a brain tumor by the Eagles' medical staff in a subsequent physical, according to an ESPN report.
Atlanta has no such questions about who'll be handling those chores. The Falcons own a two-time All-Pro at the position in Michael Turner, and the powerful back made his presence felt by rushing for a season-best 139 yards and two scores to help his team to a key 31-17 triumph over division-rival Carolina in Week 6.
The Falcons, annually one of the league's top rushing teams during Mike Smith's four-year tenure as head coach, racked up a season-high 166 yards on the ground on the afternoon.
"We did what we felt like is our DNA, that [want] we want to do, and that is control both sides of the line of scrimmage," said Smith. "I really liked the way we got our running game going."
Atlanta will now attempt to string together back-to-back wins for the first time since an eight-game unbeaten streak from Nov. 7-Dec. 19 that highlighted a stellar 2010 regular season, in which the reigning NFC South champions compiled a 13-3 record and captured the conference's top playoff seed.
The Falcons have alternated losses and wins through the first six weeks of this campaign and have gone 1-2 on the road, following up September losses at Chicago and Tampa Bay with a hard-fought 30-28 decision at Seattle in Week 4.
Detroit sports a 23-10 lead in its all-time series with Atlanta but was dealt a 34-21 loss to the Falcons in the latest encounter between the teams, which took place at the Georgia Dome in the 2008 season opener and marked the head coaching debut of Smith as well as the first career start for Falcons' then- rookie quarterback Matt Ryan. The Lions did post a 30-14 home win over Atlanta 2006, which avenged a 27-7 defeat to the Falcons at Ford Field on Thanksgiving Day of the previous year.
Smith has not faced the Lions since that 2008 victory, while Schwartz will be opposing both the Falcons and Smith for the first time as a head coach.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta had morphed into more of a pass-oriented team during the earlier stages of this season, but got back to basics by placing a greater emphasis on running the ball against Carolina. The Falcons called 35 rushing plays and only 23 passes, with Turner (499 rushing yards, 6 TD, 7 receptions) putting up big numbers on his season-high 27 attempts. Last week's shift in the game plan may have in part been due to the absence of rookie wide receiver Julio Jones (25 receptions, 358 yards), who sat out with a hamstring strain and looks to be a game-time decision to suit up on Sunday. If the impressive 2011 first-round pick can't go, usual slot man Harry Douglas (13 receptions) will once again line up opposite the prolific Roddy White (34 receptions, 2 TD) on the outside, with ageless veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez (30 receptions, 4 TD) manning his regular post as Ryan's safety valve and preferred option in the red zone. The Falcons have been among the league's most proficient teams within the opponent's 20-yard line this year, producing touchdowns on an NFC-best 70 percent of such drives. That success is a testament to Ryan's (1465 passing yards, 8 TD, 6 INT) poise and sound decision-making skills, though the 2010 Pro Bowler has had a somewhat inconsistent season and often hasn't gotten adequate support from a front line that's allowed 15 sacks through the first six weeks.
The Lions enter Sunday's showdown with the goal of containing the run on defense, something the team wasn't sufficiently able to do in last week's frustrating loss. Detroit permitted a season-high 203 rushing yards to the 49ers, with top back Frank Gore ripping off 141 yards on only 15 attempts, and presently stand an unwanted 26th in run defense (129.5 ypg). The Lions have been considerably tougher to beat through the air, with ex-Falcons cornerback Chris Houston (30 tackles, 3 INT, 8 PD) and counterpart Eric Wright (28 tackles, 1 INT) heading up a much-improved secondary that's yielded the sixth- fewest passing yards (205.5 ypg) in the league thus far, and the backfield's gotten plenty of assistance from a formidable pass rush from a star-studded four-man front. Veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch (15 tackles) has notched four sacks and forced three fumbles over Detroit's six outings, while 2010 NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Ndamukong Suh (18 tackles, 2 sacks) has quickly earned a reputation as one of the game's premier interior disrupters. Weakside linebacker DeAndre Levy (48 tackles) has compiled double-digit tackle totals in three straight weeks and figures to be busy once again this weekend with Turner expected to receive another heavy workload.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
A Detroit offense that generally favors the pass will probably be even more skewed in that direction now that Best (390 rushing yards, 27 receptions, 3 total TD) -- easily the team's most dangerous weapon in the backfield -- will be sidelined for the time being, as the combo of the serviceable Morris (5 receptions) and Redskins refugee Williams (49 rushing yards, 1 TD) has averaged a poor 2.5 yards per carry between them in their limited reps this season. Fortunately the Lions do possess a top-flight quarterback in 2009 No. 1 overall pick Matthew Stafford (1729 passing yards, 15 TD, 4 INT) and perhaps the most dominant wide receiver in football right now in Calvin Johnson (36 receptions, 564 yards), who's amassed a league-best nine touchdown catches on the year and surpassed the 100-yard mark in three of the past four weeks. There are a few other quality targets for Stafford to choose from as he operates the NFL's eighth-rated aerial attack (277.2 ypg), as tight end Brandon Pettigrew (34 receptions, 2 TD) has been among the most productive players at his position this year and wideouts Nate Burleson (21 receptions, 1 TD) and Titus Young (15 receptions) are each fine complementary pieces. The offense will still miss the contributions of Best, a proven big-play threat who's averaged nearly 50 receiving yards per game on the year.
Stafford will be taking his shots at an Atlanta defense that's surrendering an average of 283.3 passing yards per week (26th overall) but is coming off a strong performance last Sunday, intercepting Carolina rookie sensation Cam Newton three times and keeping the Panthers' playmakers squarely in check throughout the afternoon. Cornerback Brent Grimes (29 tackles, 1 INT, 7 PD) is the team's best cover man who will likely draw the difficult assignment of Johnson, though the 2010 Pro Bowl participant should get help over the top from free safety Thomas DeCoud (35 tackles, 3 INT), who enters Sunday's matchup with an interception in three of his last four appearances. Defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder will also be counting on his accomplished end tandem of four- time Pro Bowl honoree John Abraham (10 tackles, 2 sacks) and offseason addition Ray Edwards (15 tackles, 2 sacks) to bring the heat upon Stafford, who was sacked five times in last week's loss. The Lions' reserve running backs could find the going tough against an Atlanta front seven that's allowing under 100 rushing yards per game (97.5, 7th overall) and fields a very good linebacker corps of Curtis Lofton (54 tackles, 1 INT, 4 PD) and Sean Weatherspoon (54 tackles, 1 sacks) and Stephen Nicholas (14 tackles) manning the outside.
KEYS TO THE GAME
The numbers say it's in the Falcons' best interests to put the ball in the hands of Turner as much as possible this week, as they've won all three games in which the bruising back has had 21 carries or more and lost all three when he's had 16 or less. It's equally as important for the Lions to prevent Atlanta's running game from gaining steam, which could put Ryan at the mercy of the team's potent pass rush if the Falcons' offense is placed in obvious throwing situations.
Ryan himself certainly looms as an x-factor as well, as he's been crisp in Atlanta victories and not so sharp in the club's 2011 losses. The former first- round pick owns a 64 percent completion percentage with six touchdown passes and has tossed just two interceptions in the Falcons' three wins, but he's been picked off four times and lost three fumbles while taking 10 sacks in the three defeats.
A fast start would serve the Lions well in this one, as Atlanta has yet to come out on top this year when trailing at halftime and would be more inclined to abandon its run-based approach if faced with a deficit of more than one score. That scenario should play into the hands of a Detroit defense that excels at pressuring the quarterback and has been quite opportunistic, having forced 13 turnovers in six games.
Though the Falcons have yet to perform to the level they did during last season's run to the NFC's top playoff seed, their solid all-around showing against Carolina may be an indication that Smith's charges are getting closer. If Atlanta can run the ball with the same authority as this past week and make a Detroit offense that will be missing its main running back one-dimensional, the Falcons will have more than a reasonable chance of coming out of the suddenly-hostile environment of Ford Field with a win. Atlanta's also going to have to be careful with the football, however, which has been a problem for the team on the road in the past, and the Lions have shown a knack for causing critical mistakes out of the opposition. Detroit's also had the more consistent offense of these two teams and will be eager to put a stinging loss from the previous week behind, making the home team a slightly more confident play.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Lions 27, Falcons 20