Lions vs. Buccaneers: Matchups to watch, key questions heading into Week 16 game


ALLEN PARK — It’s been a weird week for the Detroit Lions. The team opened the week firing their well-liked first-year special teams coordinator and head into the weekend with much of the coaching staff deemed close contacts to COVID-19.

Lions interim coach Darrell Bevell will not coach the team this weekend, making way for receivers coach Robert Prince to fill the acting interim coach’s role. Quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan will call the offense. Staffer Evan Rothstein, an assistant to the head coach and a research/analyst, will call the defense. See below for matchups to watch and answers to key questions heading into Saturday’s Lions-Bucs game:

Offensive player to watch: QB Matthew Stafford

Matthew Stafford is both the offensive player to watch and one of the key questions heading into this one. Both the Lions and Stafford claim they haven’t given much thought toward shutting the veteran down for the year. Still, that 5-9 record and another year out of the postseason paired with Stafford’s injured rib cartilage and throwing hand’s thumb? Throw in the additional fact that the Lions have one healthy offensive lineman, and it’s not a ridiculous question to ask with two games left.

Stafford played until the game was out of reach last week and looked pretty good out there. He completed 22 of 32 passes for 252 yards and one touchdown. Detroit’s defense couldn’t keep Tennessee out of the end zone, though, and the offense made a series of crucial mistakes — two lost fumbles and a rogue fake punt call resulting in a turnover on downs.

Stafford was operating conservatively out of the gates but opened it up as things went along, even taking off twice for 12 yards. He took a late shot fielding a low snap and didn’t return to the three-score game, so his status remains one to watch. He enters the weekend officially labeled questionable.

“I felt like I could, so as far as throwing the ball? No. I didn’t feel like there were too many limitations,” Stafford said after last week’s loss.

Defensive player to watch: CB Justin Coleman

Justin Coleman’s second season in Detroit has been a tough one every step of the way. Coleman suffered a hamstring injury in the opener, then missed the next five games. Since returning to the lineup in Week 8, Coleman has mostly held his usual slot role. He’s seen at least 70% of the snaps in the last four games and could be in line for more down the stretch.

Pro Football Focus has Coleman allowing 29 receptions on 35 targets for 258 yards and one score. He hasn’t generated any takeaways, breaking up only one pass in nine games. The analytics site ranks him 84th of 135 eligible cornerbacks on the season. Coleman is looking at a tough matchup this weekend, with the Bucs working Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and their full tight end room all over the field.

Rookie to watch: EDGE Julian Okwara

Julian Okwara has been practicing for a couple of weeks and was activated from injured reserve heading into this weekend’s game. The third-round rookie didn’t see much work before suffering a leg injury in Jacksonville, failing to register a statistic across 30 defensive snaps in four games. Okwara came into the draft billed as an athletically-gifted pass rusher with a versatile ceiling. Detroit’s defensive line and pass rush will see Everson Griffen and Danny Shelton’s return in Week 16, but there are still reps to be had for the rookie in need of putting some tape out there.

Tampa Bay’s pass rushers vs. Detroit’s banged-up offensive line

Taylor Decker missed a practice this week. Tyrell Crosby has missed the previous two games. Halapoulivaati Vaitai returned from injured reserve last week but lasted only 31 snaps before being evaluated for a concussion. Frank Ragnow continues to see specialists while dealing with a fractured throat, leaving Jonah Jackson as the lone healthy starting offensive lineman.

Decker’s absence would be potentially catastrophic considering his standing as one of the league’s best tackles on a crumbling offensive line. Matt Nelson has replaced Vaitai and Crosby at right tackle and could be staring down his second start. Crosby has been ruled out. Decker, Vaitai and Ragnow are questionable.

Tampa Bay’s defense is the league’s top unit stopping the run while getting after the passer with its versatile linebacker room. Devin White does a little bit of everything, racking up 130 tackles and eight sacks in 14 games. Lavonte David remains rock-solid at what he does, stopping the run and holding his own in coverage. Jason Pierre-Paul has enjoyed a resurgent season, with a team-leading 9.5 sacks. Shaquil Barrett is right there with eight sacks on the other side. It’s a versatile group that can beat you in a number of different ways pushing the issue behind Ndamukong Suh in the trenches.

Who kicks field goals if Matt Prater is unable to go?

Matt Prater popped up on the injury report on Thursday with a back injury. He’s had a down season for his standards, missing seven of 27 field-goal attempts. The veteran kicker hasn’t missed from less than 40 yards, missing four from more than 50 yards out. Prater hasn’t missed a game since joining the Lions in 2014.

The Lions don’t have any other kickers on the roster or practice squad. Pro Bowl punter Jack Fox made 5 of 12 field-goal attempts during his final season at Rice, nailing a long of 44 yards. Former Aussie rules pro Arryn Siposs remains on the practice squad, losing the training camp battle for the punter job to Fox. Siposs punted at Auburn but never attempted a field goal or extra point.

Tampa’s impressive rolodex of pass-catchers vs. Detroit’s patchwork secondary

Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, Antonio Brown are catching passes from Tom Brady this season. They’ll face a secondary that promoted Alex Myres from the practice squad into 28 snaps last week in Tennessee. Desmond Trufant and Jeff Okudah’s seasons are done, and Darryl Roberts is dealing with a hip injury. Amani Oruwariye has held down a near every-down role, with Coleman sticking the slot for the most part.

Evans has been the constant in Tampa’s passing attack, catching 57 passes for 779 yards and 11 touchdowns. He hasn’t missed a game or too many snaps this season. Godwin has been dealing with a finger injury most of the way but still has 55 catches for 623 yards and four touchdowns. Gronkowski has remained in the lineup for each game, catching five touchdowns to this point. Last but not least is Brown, who returned earlier this season after signing with the Bucs. The former Central Michigan standout caught his first touchdown of the year last week and has continued to see his fair share of targets.

Brady and coach Bruce Arians have been pushing the issue downfield more in recent weeks, and if they looked at a second of tape from last week’s blowout in Tennessee, one would expect to see some more of that.

What will the offense look like under Robert Prince and Sean Ryan?

While Detroit’s offense certainly changed some from Matt Patricia to Darrell Bevell, it’s hard to imagine too much changing this weekend. Detroit’s passing attack has turned the aggression up in the three games since firing Patricia, even with a banged-up Stafford and absent Kenny Golladay.

Receivers coach Robert Prince, the longest-tenured member of the staff, will run the show, and quarterbacks coach Sean Ryan will call the offense. Ryan has never called plays at this level before, spending the last decade coaching receivers and quarterbacks. Ryan has interviewed for offensive coordinator jobs in recent years and has said he stays involved with the whole game plan as much as possible due to his role leading the quarterbacks. Bevell said the exiled coaches would not be allowed to communicate with the team during the game but will continue working with them. The coaches have been in on virtual meetings, watching practice via a feed from quarantine.

“Truthfully, I have a great offensive staff, number one, and there’s a lot of guys on the offensive side of the ball that I have total confidence in,” Bevell said. “Really, to me, what it came down to was I’ve been prepping Sean for this for a little while. Sean and I work hand-in-hand in terms of the day-to-day operation, and I think the communication with the quarterback is super important in this. That’s a guy that speaks to him every day, so he already hears that voice (and) that kind of familiarity with that. Obviously, I think Robert Prince would do a great job in there as well, and that’s why he’s going to be making the decisions on game day and not calling the plays. He’s in that head coach role where going for it and those kind of things, ‘Are we going to no-huddle this situation? Are we going to go for it on fourth down? Are we going to do any fakes?’ Those kinds of decisions will come down to Robert.”

How about that defense under Evan Rothstein?

It’s a different story on the defensive side of the ball. Evan Rothstein has never served as a coordinator or coached a position group but will be calling the defense against Tom Brady in a regular-season NFL game this weekend. Rothstein’s title is “head coach assistant/research and analysis,” and he’s been on the staff since the Jim Schwartz days, joining in 2012.

Romeo Okwara, Detroit’s team-leader in sacks, credited Rothstein for helping him identify tendencies and other advanced areas. Duron Harmon, one of the team’s captains, made it known that while Rothstein is mostly an unknown to outsiders, he’s a familiar voice to the defense.

“He is our most knowledgeable in terms of our defense, what we’re doing really all the way across the board,” Bevell said. “He is very involved in gameday already, so he’s been in tough situations on gameday, helping with information and communication. So felt that he is the most experienced and will be able to get that done at a high level for us.”

Related links:

The NFL has rescheduled games all season because of COVID issues. They said no to the Lions.

Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, Matt Prater questionable against Bucs; Kenny Golladay out

Evan Rothstein, a research assistant, will call Detroit’s defensive plays against Tom Brady

Robert Prince to serve as Lions’ interim interim head coach after Darrell Bevell ruled out

Lions release RB Jonathan Williams, making room for Everson Griffen’s return

Detroit’s short-handed defense draws Tom Brady and the Bucs on short week


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