This may be a mirror game between two teams built from the top of the draft, but the glass is a little foggy as the Bengals.com media roundtable peers at Sunday's matchup (1 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 12) between the Bengals and Lions at Ford Field.
The Table gives it to the Lions, but not by much. Dan Hoard, the voice of the Bengals who made his first radio call for the club at Ford Field during the 2011 preseason opener, voiced the sentiments. Detroit has a built-in edge at home, but the way the Bengals have played the last two weeks, that could easily be reversed.
The other three Table members give it to the Lions by a touchdown or less. Alex Marvez of FoxSports.com, who broke into the pros as the Bengals Beat Man for The Dayton Daily News during the Jeff Blake mid-90s, doesn't think the Bengals linebackers and safeties can keep up with running back Reggie Bush and the Lions tight ends.
Tim Twentyman has covered this edition of the Lions since the inception, if you count the 2009 draft as when it all began. Back then he did it for The Detroit News, now he does it for detroitlions.com, and he sees that homefield advantage that erupted during Detroit's 2011 breakthrough season being the difference Sunday.
There's no truth to the rumor that Mike O'Hara, the estimable columnist for detroitlions.com, covered the only home game the Lions have won against the Bengals back on Sept. 27, 1970 at Al Kaline's Tiger Stadium.
But it's close.
His quick-witted 43-year career at The Detroit News included more than three decades covering the Lions in a stint that began with the 6-8 1977 season and the firing of head coach Tommy Hudspeth. No one gets canned Sunday. O'Hara says these talented Lions have grown up from the 4-12 disaster of last season and mentally ready to win a game at home against a team he says is the most balanced team across the board this season.
Let's go around The Table:
I think on offense the Bengals have to do what they've done the last two weeks and that is effectively run the ball to set up the passing game and it's a matchup where they should be able to if you look at the Lions dead last in the NFL in yards per rush.
It's really an interesting stat when you break it down, more specifically because they've had 139 running plays against them this year. Seven of those runs on first-and-10 have gone for 20 or more yards. On the other 132 runs they're giving up less than four yards per carry, so it's not like they get gashed on every play. But it's a very aggressive defensive front with Suh, Fairley, etc., and because of that aggressiveness they occasionally get out of position and give up the huge gash play. Cincinnati needs to keep pounding away, even when it's not working, and at some point they're going to have an opportunity for BenJarvus Green-Ellis to burst up the middle for 25 or Giovani Bernard to burst for even more. That's what they've been able to do the last couple of weeks and I think the opportunities are going to be there on Sunday.
It's a very scary matchup for the Bengals defense because of the sheer number of weapons Detroit has. Last year it was Calvin Johnson or nothing and while he had arguably the greatest season by a wide receiver in history with 122 catches for more than 1,900 yards, the team was 4-12. It gets back to what we say about A.J. Green and the Bengals. As much as you want him to get the ball, you can't throw it to him on every play. The whole point of surrounding Andy Dalton with weapons this year is that when opponents take away A.J. Green, you can still score points.
That's what the Lions are doing so much better this year. Johnson has been hurt. He still has decent numbers (24 catches, four touchdowns). But tight end Joseph Fauria has five touchdowns. Reggie Bush is averaging more than 120 total yards per game between rushing and receiving. Running back Joique Bell has been a very productive player with 23 catches. Brandon Pettigrew is an excellent all-around tight end, much like Jermaine Gresham. So it's scary from that perspective.
But I have trust in Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer that he'll be able to hold the Lions to a reasonable number and it reminds me a little bit about how we all felt going into the Green Bay game. You're probably not going to beat the Lions, 20-17. You're probably going to have to score three touchdowns, maybe four to have a chance and the combination of holding Detroit to below their average and getting a good performance out of Andy and the offense will be a key to getting out of there with a win.
THE EDGE: Both teams are very evenly matched as the statistics and records suggest. The Lions playing at home have a slight edge, but I certainly think the Bengals are capable of winning the game. If they can avoid turnovers and if their offense plays up to its potential, which I think we started to see last week, I can definitely see a scenario where they get out of there with a win.
Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins is a huge factor in this game against a Lions offensive line that has played pretty well. They've only given up nine sacks. They've done pretty well on the interior with guards Rob Sims and rookie Larry Warford. They've really given Reggie Bush some avenues to run. That's a huge matchup.
On the outside, Lions cornerback Chris Houston and A.J. Green. The Bengals like to push the ball down the field with Green and a lot of double moves. Chris told me this week that he's really got to force A.J. inside on short routes. He doesn't mind Green catching six or seven balls of the short variety. The Lions are going to get into trouble when he gets those plays over the top. The Lions are going to treat A.J. Green like teams treat Calvin Johnson, where you always see that safety over the top to help. I don't think they'll leave Chris on an island very often.
I think Matthew Stafford, like Andy Dalton, has been good at spreading the ball around. In years past I think he's really forced the ball to Calvin Johnson. It's why he had 16, 17 interceptions. He's done a good job of taking what the defense gives him, dumping it down to Reggie and not forcing balls and I think this offense has been better for it.
The Lions have a similar guy like Green in Calvin Johnson and he also has people around him. Bush is on pace to get more than 500 yards receiving. A guy like wide receiver Kris Durham (13.4 yards per 16 catches) has come on and they don't even have wide receiver Nate Burleson back yet.
The interesting thing about Fauria is he hasn't really been used in the other parts of the field and has only been a red-zone target. Now that tight end Tony Scheffler (concussion) may be out for the year, he'll have to be a bigger factor in the whole field. One of the knocks on Fauria has been his route-running and blocking. We'll see how he develops in the next few weeks in those areas outside the red zone. They certainly have options.
THE EDGE: Lions, 24-21. I've got this one pretty close. The Lions are a really a good offensive team, but I really love the front seven for Cincinnati.
In this kind of environment, Ford Field is going to be loud and the Lions are really good on turf. I think Ford Field is quickly becoming one of the homefield advantages. It's real similar to that Monday night game against Chicago two years ago where the Bears had nine false-start penalties. When that place gets going and people are excited … that Lions team was 5-0 going into that game. Now they're 4-2, they're also in first place and I think the fans sense this is a really good team like they thought they had back in 2011. It's turned back into a homefield advantage.
And it's a fast track where Reggie Bush is better. On Astroturf he's got a 4.6 career (yards per carry) average and it's 4.1 on grass. I think they're built for speed and built to play at home in that kind of environment.
I just think the odds of winning twice in a row on the road are really tough. We saw it with Seattle when they won in Houston and then lost in Indianapolis and we saw it with New England after what they did in Atlanta and then in Cincinnati. I just don't know if the Bengals are that good of a team right now to win two straight on the road like this. Detroit is a really good team at home and what the Lions are doing that's impressing me is they're not letting down. They're winning the games they're supposed to win. You're supposed to beat Cleveland. You're supposed to beat the Redskins if you're a good team and they did both.
I also wonder how the Bengals will account for Reggie Bush out of the backfield. How will they account for Calvin Johnson? And also right now the Lions are really hot at the tight end position and I think that's an area that may hurt Cincinnati because I'm just not totally sold on the linebackers in coverage or the safety position. The Lions are really starting to click and I can't underestimate the impact of Reggie Bush on that team. He's their best threat at that spot since, dare I say it, Barry Sanders. The Bengals pass rush is going to have to carry the day here. They'll have to grind it out on offense.
I'm really impressed with the emergence of a couple of players for the Lions. Outside linebacker DeAndre Levy has become an expert on sniffing out the screen pass and he's done a really nice job. I think Glover Quinn and Louis Delmas are doing a really nice job at the safety position. This will be the toughest test of the season for the Bengals interior line. All fines aside, Ndamukong Suh is playing like an absolute beast.
THE EDGE: Lions, 24-17. They're at home, the Bengals are on the road for the second straight week, and the Lions cause a lot of matchup problems in coverage for Cincinnati. It's going to be tough to win up there.
I saw the Bengals beat New England two weeks ago and that was impressive. I still wonder about Andy Dalton and if he's a franchise quarterback. I'm not going to knock the arm strength, but without the deep passing game it's like having a sports car and not driving it above 60 miles an hour. A.J. Green can get open deep. He can stretch the field, but the Bengals aren't really using him in that fashion. I don't know if that falls on Jay Gruden or Andy Dalton, but I don't think that's the best use of his talents.
The Lions are focusing on the Bengals defense and it revolves around all three levels. It starts with Geno Atkins up front. I think they have a strong set of linebackers with power players, and a pretty good secondary. I think all things considered it is the most balanced, overall team that the Lions have played in the first seven games. They have to be able to control Atkins because they want to run the ball, so you've got to be able to control those three linebackers. It's like Stafford said about the backers. They're really downhill players. How they handle that is really key.
Stafford is at his best when they're running the ball. What they have is what they haven't had since Barry Sanders, at least on a consistent basis, is a threat out of the backfield. Bush not only gives them the ability to make a big play, but he also is a down-the-field receiver. He's not just an outlet receiver; he's just not a screen receiver. But he can really run routes down the field. The touchdown pass he caught against Cleveland last week was a screen, but it was a down-the-field screen. They found a matchup with a linebacker they liked last week and they really exploited it. I don't know if they can do the same thing against the Bengals, but they'll try to find one. The Browns wanted to match him with a linebacker and the Lions were more than happy to let them do it.
Calvin Johnson (knee) practiced every day this week and when I asked how his health was on Thursday, he just laughed and said, "I feel a lot better." When he feels better, everybody feels better on that team. He played about half the snaps last week, but he played most of them in the second half and he's clearly feeling better this week.
The one thing I've been surprised about is the Lions pass rush. Over the years they've invested heavily in the defensive line and I don't think they've got the results they want this year. I think they've got nine sacks in the first six games and that's not really the way that front four is set up.
But they're plus-five in turnover differential and they're in the top quarter of the league in that regard. A guy they're really getting great production from is DeAndre Levy, who has four picks in the first six games and one for a touchdown. He had another one, but it was called back. He's really been good.
If you look at the '09 draft class, Stafford, Delmas and Levy, they're really getting production out of them.
They're second in the NFL in third-down conversion on defense. They really don't blitz much and that's one thing that has surprised me. But they think they can get home with their front four. A guy that has really come on is the left end Will Young, a seventh-rounder in 2010 that has come on and played his best ball in the last month. He's cut down the penalties and personal fouls and has just been consistent with a couple of sacks.
I would think they would cover Bernard out of the backfield with a combination of Levy and middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch. Levy, I would think, gets him in most situations. Houston Island follows the No. 1 receiver usually, so he'll be on Green. He's held his own. Sometimes he's gotten beat deep, but he's their best corner by a wide margin. They have tremendous respect for Green. Tremendous.
They've unearthed a weapon here in their rookie punter Sam Martin, who is also a kickoff specialist. (Martin leads the NFC with a 43.1-yard net and has put nearly 60 percent of his kickoffs deep enough for touchbacks.)
THE EDGE: Lions, 27-20. After taking the Lions to beat the Packers, 37-33 (the Packers won, 22-9) and taking the Browns to beat the Lions 21-20 (the Lions won, 31-17), who cares what I think? But since I have to do this, I pick the Lions over the Bengals in a close one. I think this is the most balanced team the Lions have played so far this year. I think it will be a white-knuckled fight all the way, but I like the Lions in this game. I think this team has developed a personality where they don't get too far ahead of themselves. That's certainly not the case now.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Here's one matchup we haven't heard about all week. The Bengals have one of the finest young outside linebackers in the NFL in Vontaze Burfict with the third-most tackles in the NFL, and so do the Lions with DeAndre Levy and his four picks.
They're both going to be huge factors Sunday. Levy has to slow down Bernard and the tireless Burfict has to stand up to both the run and pass against the revived Reggie Bush. The Lions are going to put the Bengals in nickel with their spread offense and try to run it, but if they stop the run then the Lions are going to have a hard time protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford.
There are some red flags in a game the Bengals really miss their best cover backer, Emmanuel Lamur. Burfict and safety Taylor Mays have stood up well enough in the nickel that the Bengals are eighth-best in the NFL on third down, but they haven't faced a human being yet like Bush.
All the more reason to take the elements of Cincinnati's last two wins on the road. That time of possession fueled by the running game that is now at 32:16 kept Tom Brady and C.J. Spiller on the sidelines and Bush would look nice there Sunday. Never mind that Dalton is 16-1 when the Bengals run it at least 30 times, but the aggressive Lions have been known to get gashed in the run and Dalton needs to freeze Levy and his four picks with play-action.
And Dalton has to take a page out of Stafford's book and keep taking what the defense gives him. Forget all the noise about the deep ball to Green. Houston has already said he won't give it to him.
Houston hasn't given up a touchdown yet, according to Pro Football Focus, so why the Web site has him rated No. 88 among cornerbacks is another question. Take what they give you. If anyone goes deep Sunday, it may very well be Bengals wide receiver Marvin Jones. Jones has done everything in his breakout season but catch a touchdown bomb off his signature "Go" route.
The Bengals are going against a hot punter in rookie Sam Martin indoors, so they can't have a big field-position gaffe, another reason to establish the run. It's a huge match up for the Bengals offensive interior against grown-up men like Suh and Fairley, but Kyle Cook, Kevin Zeitler and Clint Boling have been pushing people lately and they thrive on it.
Veteran residents of Bengaldom are no doubt uneasy about this one. They've seen if before. Hopes high with a two-game winning streak that now goes indoors, where the Bengals have a .418 winning percentage, and face a hostile, supernatural defensive front drawing on the blood from one of the loudest venues in the NFL.
But it's a little different now. A physical, committed running game is a great equalizer and playing Beat The Clock is a lot better than trying to match the quicksilver Lions on their own speedy turf.
And the Bengals may be .418 all-time indoors. But it is better than their overall road record of .345.