By Shawn Clarke, Contributing NFL Editor
(SportsNetwork.com) – The NFL is up to its marketing ways again and will send
the Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons to London for a showdown Sunday on the
hallowed grounds of Wembley Stadium.
The league is hoping to build a strong following overseas and has two
reputable franchises representing the sport on foreign soil.
Detroit enters the United Kingdom tied for first place in the NFC North with a
5-2 record, while the Green Bay Packers boast an identical mark. The Lions
have put a major emphasis on defense this season and were able to squeeze out
a 24-23 win over the visiting New Orleans Saints last weekend.
Down 23-10 with minutes left in the game, the Lions rallied for 14 points on a
pair of touchdown passes from Matthew Stafford, including a 73-yard connection
with Golden Tate. Stafford’s five-yard touchdown pass to Corey Fuller put
Detroit ahead for good with 1:48 remaining. The touchdown was set up by Glover
Quin’s interception of Saints QB Drew Brees and some help on fourth down.
Facing a 4th-and-5, Stafford attempted a pass to Reggie Bush and it fell
incomplete, but a pass interference call on New Orleans, its 12th penalty of
the game, gave Detroit new life. Stafford then connected with a leaping Fuller
to give the Lions their fourth win in five weeks.
“When we needed plays at the end of the game we got them,” Lions head coach
Jim Caldwell said. “It was one of those games where you keep preaching to the
guys to hang in there and keep fighting.”
It was the second straight game, and win, the Lions played without star wide
receiver Calvin Johnson. Johnson has been bothered by a high ankle sprain and
is in London with his teammates. Johnson’s status for Sunday’s game in unknown
and the one who goes by the moniker “Megatron” has 348 yards and two
touchdowns on 22 receptions.
“I’m working to get a feel each and every week, working every day,” Johnson
said. “If I’m good enough to play, I’m going to play. So I’m gonna leave it at
Johnson was limited in practice Wednesday.
The loss of Johnson hasn’t been much of a strain on the Lions, whose defensive
unit is one of the best in the league. The Lions are first in yards allowed
(290.3), second in both rushing yards (73.4) and points allowed (15.0), and
third in sacks (21.0) and interceptions (8). Quin has three interceptions, one
in each of the last two games, and George Johnson leads with four sacks.
Ezekiel Ansah has recorded 3 1/2 sacks and Ndamukong Suh owns three.
Detroit, which is the only team in the NFL allowing less than 300 yards per
game, will enter its bye week following its UK excursion.
The Falcons will also have their bye after Sunday’s game and have lost six
straight outside the Georgia Dome. Even though they are the designated home
team at Wembley Stadium, the Falcons will still be away from the comfortable
confines of home.
“We’re our own enemy. Being on the road is not an easy environment to be in,
so we’ve got to continue to acclimate ourselves,” Falcons defensive end
Jonathan Massaquoi said. “There are only a few more games left in the season;
we need to continue to fight and get better.”
Atlanta is still in the hunt in the NFC South at 2-5 and suffered its fourth
straight loss Sunday in a 29-7 setback in Baltimore. The defense has given up
no less than 27 points in each of the past four losses and is arguably the
main reason why Atlanta is three games under .500.
The Falcons are 27th against the run (137.7), 29th in pass defense (274.4) and
30th in both yards allowed (412.1) and points allowed (28.4). They are one of
three teams in the NFL permitting 400 or more yards on defense.
“We have nine games left and I know every man in that room and every coach in
that room will work their (butts) off this week to get prepared to play the
Detroit Lions,” Falcons head coach Mike Smith said. “I have no doubt what the
makeup of these football players and coaches and the organization we have in
Smith’s team was 2-1 at one point following a 56-14 beatdown of the Tampa Bay
Buccaneers on Sept. 18. A meeting with the Lions may solve Atlanta’s woes, as
the Falcons are riding a three-game winning streak in this series and are
23-12 overall. The Falcons posted a 31-18 win on Dec. 22, 2012 and were led
by Matt Ryan’s four TD passes and no interceptions.
Ryan is 3-0 in his career against Detroit.
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White hauled in eight catches for 153 yards and
two scores. Stafford threw for 443 yards with no TDs and Johnson caught 11
passes for 225 yards. Stafford needs one more touchdown pass to break Bobby
Layne’s team record of 118.
WHAT TO WATCH FOR
Both the Lions and Falcons have struggled running the football, and Caldwell
gave his take on why.
“We just haven’t been as consistent as we’d like,” Caldwell said. “We haven’t
blocked consistently well enough, we haven’t run it consistently well enough
with the ball in our hands. There’s a number of different things. The blocking
includes not only lineman, not only tight ends, the lead back or whomever it
might be but then also on the flanks as well, the receiving corps.
“So, all of it, we’re constantly in an evaluation mode with that trying to
find out what suits us best in terms of what we do best. That’s been the
struggle, so we just have to stay after it.”
The Lions average 82.4 rushing yards per game and Joique Bell leads the team
with 274 yards and three touchdowns on 84 carries. Bush has 171 yards and a
score on 49 totes this season and five TDs in last five games against the
Falcons. Look for the Lions to try and get that ground attack going against a
weak Atlanta defense.
“It’s really close,” Bell said of the ground attack. “If you look at it on
film, it’s just one glitch that keeps us from having that explosive run, which
is going to lead to more. We’re right there, we just need to get over that
But as Caldwell said, the Lions should do what they do best and that’s play
defense and throw the football.
Golden Tate blew up for 154 yards and a touchdown on 10 receptions versus the
Saints and has taken over for an injured Johnson. Tate leads Detroit with 649
yards and 38 receptions, and is confident in his abilities.
“I don’t think anyone has more confidence in themselves than I do,” Tate said.
“There’s not many things I think I can’t do on a football field.
“I expected to come here and be a compliment to Calvin. Obviously, didn’t
expect Calvin to be out for a few weeks, but that’s the game of football. I’ve
taken it personal to step up and try to take on his role and help this team
So far, so good for Tate.
The Falcons can chuck it up, too. Ryan has two dynamic receivers in White and
Julio Jones. Jones leads the team with 676 yards, 49 catches and is one of
three players with three receiving scores, joining White and Antone Smith.
Jones has been slowed a bit the last few weeks, compiling 68 yards in a loss
to Chicago on Oct. 12, then posting 56 yards last week against the Ravens.
Jones hasn’t reached the end zone since that blowout win over Tampa Bay. White
recorded his franchise-best 58th career touchdown reception Sunday to break a
tie with Terance Mathis. Michael Turner holds the record with 61 total TDs.
As for their running game, the Falcons have an aging Steven Jackson (285
yards, 2 TD) and Smith (136 yards, 2 TD). They are 23rd in rushing (98.1).
Atlanta has to do a better job protecting Ryan, who was sacked five times in
Baltimore and four times versus the Bears. Ryan has been sacked 15 times this
season, while his counterpart Stafford has been taken down an NFL-high 24
times. Ryan will have another new center this week in undrafted rookie James
Stone. Stone takes over for Peter Konz, who landed on IR this week with a knee
injury suffered at Baltimore.
Center Joe Hawley is also on injured reserve.
“I thought James Stone did a great job of coming in and filling in for Peter,”
Ryan said. “It’s been one of the things that, this year, guys have had to step
up and come in and play, especially on the offensive line, through some
Each team has to get acclimated with the time difference, field conditions,
facilities, awful food and so on in London. By the time the game starts,
though, the players and coaches should be adjusted and ready to go.
“Our business is to go over there and get ready to play certainly a hungry
Atlanta team in a game that means a lot to us,” Caldwell said with first place
in the NFC North on the line. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Falcons and their offensive line have their work cut out as well facing
Detroit’s menacing defensive front with Suh, Ansah, Johnson, Nick Fairley and
Jason Jones. DeAndre Levy is a stud linebacker on the outside and the team’s
leading tackler. The secondary could be challenged with Jones and White.
Detroit will keep pace with Green Bay in the division with a close win over
Atlanta and may even take over the top spot because the Packers play Brees and
the Saints in the Big Easy Sunday night.
Sports Network predicted outcome: Lions 24, Falcons 20