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The Detroit Lions sail down the Lake Erie shoreline to face the Cleveland Browns in a quest to capture The Barge, the commemorative trophy awarded to the winner of the “Battle of the Edmund Fitzgerald.”
The matchup between the 0-8-1 Lions and 5-5 Browns is one where the Lions do have a chance to notch their first victory of the season. It will not be easy and should absolutely not be expected. Cleveland is favored by double-digits and rightly so, even though the Browns are coming off a 45-7 drubbing at the hand of the New England Patriots and feature several key injuries across their roster.
Here are four keys to a Lions victory in the latest installment of the Lake Erie Classic.
All hands on deck vs. Nick Chubb and D'Ernest Johnson
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The Browns welcome back the NFL’s most effective running back in Nick Chubb, who was activated off the team’s reserve/COVID-19 list on Friday. Chubb leads the league at 6.0 yards per carry and sits third in rushing yards despite missing two full games.
He’s backed up by D’Ernest Johnson, who has proven to be the best No. 3 RB in the NFL. With Kareem Hunt out, the Browns rushing offense hasn’t missed a beat when Johnson stepped up. In his two starts in place of Chubb and Hunt, Johnson trucked his way to 245 yards on 41 carries.
Both Chubb and Johnson are very adept at making the first tackler miss and then bursting away for a big gain. For the Lions, preventing the latter is the key. This is a Browns offense overly dependent upon hitting the big play.
Lane discipline and gap integrity from LBs Alex Anzalone, Derrick Barnes and Jalen Reeves-Maybin will be critical. Safety Will Harris is coming off one of his best career games in run defense and he’ll need to do it again if the Lions are going to contain the mighty Browns ground game.
Come out throwing
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The Lions don’t pass the ball effectively, but they have a chance to exploit the Browns if they can get it rolling early in Cleveland.
The Browns pass defense splits by quarter are ridiculously skewed negative in the first quarter:
Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Pass Quarter #Pl ToGo Yds Cmp Att Cmp% Yds Y/A TD Int Sk 1D Rate ANY/A 1st Qtr 123 8.76 6.56 49 61 80.3 572 9.4 5 1 2 33 126.2 10.0 2nd Qtr 157 9.08 4.97 54 86 62.8 556 6.5 3 1 9 20 88.1 6.0 3rd Qtr 158 8.61 4.58 56 87 64.4 565 6.5 3 2 11 33 84.7 5.5 4th Qtr 173 8.44 5.36 54 98 55.1 793 8.1 10 1 7 34 111.5 9.0
There are two keys to the Browns first-quarter passing defense struggles. Take note of the sacks compared to the other three quarters and the completion percentages. Their pass rush doesn’t really get rolling right at the beginning, with Myles Garrett and his accomplices getting a feel for the opposing blocking scheme.
The Browns tend to play more passively in coverage early in games too. As they ramp up the pressure up front, they also tighten up the outside coverage with better adjustments.
Detroit’s passing offense splits by quarter don’t reveal any strong trend other than being weak in just about any game situation. Coming off a week where the Lions ran for 229 yards in Pittsburgh, and perhaps starting a quarterback making his Lions debut in Tim Boyle, it makes perfect sense for the Browns to expect more of that style from the Detroit offense.
Bucking conventional wisdom and coming out with Boyle (or Jared Goff if he can play) slinging the ball early and often just might work. Remember the brilliant start Detroit seized against the Rams in Week 7 by going against the grain and being aggressive. That can work in Cleveland, too.
Protect the ball at all costs
Turnovers are always a major factor in outcomes, but they need to be emphasized with Detroit and Cleveland.
The Lions’ two closest brushes with victory came against Baltimore in Week 3 and last week in Pittsburgh. Not coincidentally, those are the only games where the Lions offense did not turn the ball over a single time.
Now flip to the Browns defense. Cleveland’s inconsistent play on defense trends closely with the unit’s ability to create takeaways. In the five games where the Browns defense has notched a turnover, the Browns are 4-1 and allow 21 points per game. That PPG figure is heavily skewed by the Chargers hanging 47 on the Browns, too.
In the other five games, Cleveland’s hit-and-miss defense has really struggled. The Browns are 1-4 in those games and give up over 27 PPG. The win came against Chicago, a game where the moribund Bears managed the same number of points and first downs, six apiece, in rookie QB Justin Fields’ first career start.
The Browns are a team that thrives off momentum and big plays. Preventing their defense from making any of those big plays blunts the ability to generate momentum for the offense and gives the Lions a better chance.
Win on fourth down
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The Lions and Browns are two of the most aggressive teams at going for it on fourth down. Alas, they’re also two of the least successful.
Detroit has gone for it 23 times on fourth down and converted just 10 times. The Browns are 9-for-22, and both teams have suffered some spectacular misses too.
The Lions defense must attack Cleveland when Browns coach Kevin Stefanski leaves the offense on the field. Browns QBs have been sacked five times on 16 passing dropbacks on fourth downs, the same number of chances they’ve converted.
Detroit’s defense has held just once on five opposing fourth-down chances, the worst percentage in the league. Cleveland has faced 15 efforts against the defense and held eight times, which puts them right at the league average.
If the opportunity comes and it’s in field goal range, coach Dan Campbell might want to opt for the field goal. Even with a new kicker in Riley Patterson, it’s still a much better bet than going for it, particularly in a game where points might be hard to come by. The hope would be for the defense to get a stop or two when the Browns eschew the FG and go for it.