The Lions were in position to win the NFC North and earn a first-round bye going into Week 17, but they’re much more flawed than they seem.
Detroit’s weaknesses aren’t difficult to spot and, more importantly, their main strength could be neutralized by the Cowboys’…
1. Cowboys Athletic Offensive Line
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Ndamukong Suh is playing as well as any defensive lineman in the NFL, but he’s not infallible. Bears offensive guard Kyle Long — Howie’s son — essentially erased Suh on Thanksgiving. With the exception of right tackle Doug Free, every Cowboys starting offensive lineman is capable of holding their own against him.
Detroit’s run defense allows the fewest yards per carry in the NFL, but they only rank 12th in FootballOutsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards allowed behind a team’s left tackle. Why such an odd stat? Because the Cowboys are at their best running behind their left tackle, particularly stretch zone plays to that side.
In other words, the Cowboys offensive line matches up with Detroit’s biggest strength. Neutralizing it exposes their main defensive weakness: A mediocre secondary. Cornerback Darius Slay has been better in his second season and free safety Glover Quin was a great free agent pickup, but Cowboys pass catchers will have a huge day if Romo has time.
2. An Injured Roadgrader
Normally a poor running team wouldn’t be that affected by the loss of a right guard. In the Lions’ case, losing Larry Warford — who happens to be one of the best run-blocking offensive linemen in football — could be the first domino to fall for that offense.
The Lions rank 28th in the NFL at 3.6 yards per carry on the season with a healthy Warford. Without him, they’re one-dimensional, which could be trouble because of…
3. An Erratic Quarterback
Former Highland Park quarterback Matthew Stafford might be the biggest wildcard in Sunday’s game. In some games, he looks like a sure bet for the Hall of Fame. Remember the game-winning drive he led against Dallas during the 2013 season?
In games, though, he looks completely lost. One main reason is his arm strength. Many quarterbacks with his arm talent trust it too much, often forcing throws into tight coverage or downfield when a checkdown is open.
Stafford’s real issue, though, is his inconsistent mechanics. He routinely changes arm slots and rarely displays even decent footwork, which affects his accuracy and exacerbates his gunslinger mentality. And watch how many times he throws off his back foot, which is basically like gift wrapping a batted pass or interception.
Any competent NFL offensive coordinator can scheme players open against a defense like the Cowboys’, but defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli is smart enough to know how to perplex a quarterback like Stafford…especially if he’s without an effective run game.
When Tony Romo has time to throw, there aren't many better quarterbacks in the NFL. His offensive line has the ability to give him that time and send the Cowboys to Green Bay next weekend.