With things getting critical in the playoff push, the Detroit Lions prepare for a pivotal late Sunday afternoon date with the Oakland Raiders. This Raider squad is particularly resilient, having already endured the loss of owner Al Davis and plenty of injuries this season to stay in the hunt for an AFC West title. This year, they were even able to derail the Chicago Bears and New York Jets at home, so the Lions will undoubtedly have their hands full when they battle in the O.co Coliseum.
Here's five important things to watch this week from the left coast as the Lions attempt to win their ninth game and push towards a playoff birth.
1. How Will Ndamukong Suh Play Following His Return From Suspension? Suh was reinstated this week after missing the second half of the Thanksgiving game and the two subsequent contests against New Orleans and Minnesota. Will Suh play as tough and as strong as Detroit fans have been used to seeing in his young career, or will questions about his character cause him to scale things way back? There is no reason Suh can't play just as imposing as he always has, he will just need to stop nonsense after the whistle. He will also need to be careful not to be too aggressive near a quarterback that is without the ball and avoid contact with helmets.
2. Will the Lions' Run Defense Be Up To The Challenge? The Lions' inability to stop the run has been a topic of much contention in Detroit. Currently, the Lions rank 27th in the NFL in rush defense, and that number will face another stiff test this week. Though the Raiders will likely be without Darren McFadden, Michael Bush is still the type of strong, in between the tackles runner that will pose a huge challenge. The Lions' front has been getting abused by lesser backs, so they will need to step up in order to stop a team committed to running the ball from simply ramming it down their throats.
3. Penalties. Jim Schwartz has made a big deal about eliminating penalties after the whistle, but last week, the Lions even struggled with calls during the play. Racking up 8-12 penalties per game is no recipe for success (especially on the road) so the team will want to try and play a cleaner game. It shouldn't matter if the penalties are fifteen yards or five, both are critical towards backing a team up and killing field position. Too many silly penalties, no matter when they occur, may kill the Lions in a tough road game. They will need to keep their number of infractions to a minimum, ideally 6 or 7. Both these teams are tops in the league with regard to gathering penalties, so whomever manages this the best will have a great chance to win.
4. Lions' Passing Game Against Oakland's Pass Defense. Though the Raiders will have the advantage on the ground against a suspect Lions run defense, Detroit will enjoy the same type of advantage against an Oakland secondary that has been getting torched recently. Last weekend, the Packers did nearly whatever they wanted in the air, so the Raiders will need to be aware of Calvin Johnson, Titus Young and Nate Burleson this week. If that's not enough, Detroit's tight ends looked fired up in last Sunday's game against Minnesota as well. This means Oakland will need to try and generate pressure on Matthew Stafford to force errant throws. If he has time to survey the field, the Lions should have a big advantage on the Raider defense.
5. How Big A Role Will Injuries Play? The Lions' defense is injury riddled, but may get help with Louis Delmas and Lawrence Jackson getting healthier and Chris Houston returning. Cornerback Eric Wright and linebacker Justin Durant are the latest to be slowed by injury. Oakland has their own problems, with Michael Huff and Denarius Moore questionable, Darren McFadden doubtful and Jacoby Ford out. The team who's backups weather the injury storm best will win this game. That means from the Lions' standpoint on defense, yet another gutty effort will be needed all afternoon.
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