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Behind Enemy Lines: Q&A with Pride of Detroit

Some information given to us courtesy of Pride of Detroit’s Ryan Mathews

NFL: Carolina Panthers at Detroit Lions Lon Horwedel-USA TODAY Sports

In preparing for Sunday’s matchup between the Ravens and Detroit Lions, Pride of Detroit’s Ryan Mathews and I sat down for a short Q&A for one another’s publications.

1. Starting running back David Montgomery has not participated in practice all week after suffering a ribs injury against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last week and he’s expected to be out for the Ravens tilt this Sunday. How does this impact the Lions’ rushing attack and offense as a whole?

With no Montgomery, the Lions offense will certainly look different than had he been able to suit up. Montgomery has proven to be a workhorse behind this offensive line in Detroit. He has that unique quality to his game where he seems to only get better with more touches and bringing the physicality to a defense’s front porch.

Rookie Jahmyr Gibbs looks like he’s ready to return from a hamstring injury that kept him on the sideline the past two weeks, but shouldering the load isn’t uncharted territory for him. In Week 3 against the Atlanta Falcons, the Lions were without Montgomery and it was Gibbs who led the backfield–17 carries for 80 yards. Their running styles are different, but Gibbs doesn’t shy away from contact.

Head coach Dan Campbell casually dropped a line in a post-practice presser this week that the Lions might turn to the wide receiver room to help out with the workload in Detroit’s backfield, so that’s an interesting wrinkle to keep an eye on.

2. While most of the talk has surrounded the Lions’ high-octane offense, their defense has been graded better, ranking No. 3 in DVOA and only 0.1% below the Ravens’ No. 2 ranked defense. Who are the lynchpin’s on defense that make the unit a top-performing squad?

There are so many players–and coaches–who deserve credit for how well this Lions defense is performing so far this year. Of course, Aidan Hutchinson has taken not a step, but a leap, and his game has reached a level I wasn’t expecting to see from him so soon into his second season. What’s most impressive about Hutchinson is the motor: the guy is out there in pursuit of the quarterback more than any other edge defender in the NFL (249 pass-rushing snaps), and he’s still 12th in pass-rush win rate (19.4%) according to PFF.

Players like Alim McNeill, the third-year interior defensive lineman, is playing more consistently than he has the last two seasons, and he’s starting to put it all together. He owns the third-best run defense grade (84.0) among interior defenders and his 13 pressures is good for 26th at his position. Lining up behind him, linebacker Alex Anzalone, the elder statesman of the Lions defense, is having the best year of his seven-year career. He’s playing stout against the run (10.3% run-stop rate, 19th among LBs) and his ability in coverage since moving to WILL has really improved (75.0 coverage grade, 17th among LBs).

One player who has really helped improve Detroit’s secondary is free agent addition Cam Sutton, the team’s No. 1 cornerback who is starting to show why he was general manager Brad Holmes’ first big splash in free agency. Last week he held Mike Evans to just one catch for eight yards, and the other two receptions he allowed were plays that died at the line of scrimmage.

3. A lot was made about the Lions’ 2023 draft class back in April. After six games, what can you tell us about the rookies who are involved in Year 1?

The two players who had the most tempered expectations, second-round picks Sam LaPorta and Brian Branch, are the biggest contributors at their respective positions. LaPorta has been one of Goff’s favorite targets–he’s second on the team in targets (42)–and he’s tied for the lead in touchdown receptions. His ability and instincts as a run blocker is impressive (140 run blocking snaps, 66.4 grade) for a player in their first year given the complexity of the tight end position in this offense.

Branch is an absolute dog. How or why so many teams passed him over is beyond me, but the Lions are lucky enough to have done it three times before they moved up in the second round to select him. Whatever the task at hand, Branch is capable. Run defense? He’s first among all cornerbacks in run-stop rate (15.95). Coverage? He’s 16th among slot corners in yards allowed per snap (0.96) and he has the 12th best coverage grade (80.4) among all cornerbacks in the NFL. He’s coming back from an injury that’s held him out of the past two games, so his return will be huge. His ability to diagnose and play the flats is beyond his years.

I mentioned Gibbs earlier, and fantasy football dorks are big mad about his usage. Who knows, maybe they’ll quit their bellyaching for a week with Montgomery out of the lineup. But the other first-round selection, Jack Campbell, has made good on Holmes’ promise of him being a positionless player. A ton of us were left scratching our heads on draft night, wondering why the Lions–a team that had just re-signed Anzalone earlier in the offseason and rarely showed a willingness to invest big in the linebacker position–drafted a MIKE linebacker like Campbell with the 18th overall pick. Lo and behold, Campbell has played all over the place in this defense: SAM linebacker, on the defensive edge as a pass rusher, and some time at the MIKE. They’ve slowly added more and more to his plate in his rookie season, but that’s something we’ve come to expect from this coaching staff; it’s a sign of confidence in the player and the process, and they rarely stray from working with the bigger picture in mind.

4. Who are two Lions players (one offense/one defense) Ravens fans should pay specific attention to in this game that aren’t household names?

On defense, watch linebacker Derrick Barnes–a former fourth-round pick in 2021–who went from having special teams/rotational upside a year ago to earning the starting MIKE role this training camp. The learning curve was a bit steep for Barnes, a former edge rusher at Purdue, but something clicked this offseason for him and he’s playing some really solid football. His run-stop rate (11.3%) is second only to Branch on the defense, and he has flashed some of those pass rushing chops from his collegiate career, notching six quarterback pressures on just 22 pass-rushing snaps.

On offense, it’s gotta be Josh Reynolds, the “praying mantis/spider of death/serpent of death.” Since getting claimed mid-season off waivers in 2021, Reynolds has been a reliable–and familiar–set of hands for Jared Goff, his former quarterback in Los Angeles and now in Detroit. Reynolds’ streak of first downs broke last week when he finally caught a pass that didn’t result in a first down. Prior to a catch in last week’s fourth quarter against the Bucs that went for 9 yards, Reynolds had caught 18 passes, all of them for first downs, but he’s been a serious big-play threat for Detroit’s offense. His 17.9 yards per reception ranks t-sixth among all NFL wide receivers with at least 14 targets.

5. DraftKings Sportsbook set the line for this game at Ravens -3. Share why you agree/disagree.

I have to say I agree with the Ravens getting the standard three-point favor at home against this Lions team. These are two really, really good football teams that I anticipate playing one helluva game this weekend–dare I say an early candidate for “Game of the Year”? I could truly see this game going either way, and ultimately, I think this ends up a one-score game.