Three Keys: Can the Lions upset the Rams at home?

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Things have seemingly taken a deep dive for the Detroit Lions in the last month. After beating the Miami Dolphins on the road to get back to .500, the Lions proceeded to drop three in a row. A tight home win against the Carolina Panthers put the team at 4-6 ahead of the Thanksgiving clash with the NFC North-leading Chicago Bears, only to suffer another heartbreaking loss.

Now at 4-7, it’s do or die for the Lions, and fans may be calling for the team to tank in pursuit of a higher draft pick. Despite this, the Lions remain relevant mathematically, and are not eliminated from the playoff race just yet. As football followers know, a seven-loss record is not nearly a death sentence. In the past 11 seasons, there have been 15 teams to make the playoffs with a 9-7 record.

To go 9-7 and keep the hopes alive, the Lions would need to win the rest of their games. The problem? The first team in their way is the Los Angeles Rams.

Leading the NFC West with a 10-1 record, the Rams will visit Detroit looking for yet another win to put more distance between them and the second-place Seattle Seahawks (6-5). Furthermore, home-field advantage in the playoffs is something that the Rams would like the get their hands on. The added pressure of New Orleans’ 10-2 record in the NFC South will have the Rams hungry for the win on Sunday.

The Lions have had nine days to prepare for the Rams, who are coming off their bye week. With the Rams coming at full force, can the Lions keep hopes alive and win? Here are the three biggest keys to a Lions victory.

  1. Run defense

It’s no secret that the Rams have perhaps the best running back in the league in Todd Gurley. His 1,043 rushing yards is second to only the Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, and is good enough for just under 95 rushing yards per game. Gurley leads the league in rushing touchdowns with 13.

Detroit’s acquisition of Damon “Snacks” Harrison has tremendously helped a once No. 30-ranked run defense. The Lions have given up only 90.4 rushing yards per game since Harrison joined the team. The Thanksgiving loss to the Bears also marked the third straight game of holding their opponent to under 60 rushing yards.

The Lions will need to contain Gurley. With his numbers, any total under his 94.8 rushing yards per game would be a success for the Lions. This would prevent the Rams from controlling time of possession, and force quarterback Jared Goff to beat the Lions through the air. Look for Harrison as well as young linebacker Jarrad Davis to have a big game.

  1. Establish a run game

The Rams have proven to be an offensive juggernaut this season. Currently, the Rams are second in the league in offensive yards per game, and top five in both passing and rushing yard totals. Goff and the Rams can score points in a hurry, averaging 35.4 points per game.

Keeping that offense off the field as much as possible would play greatly to the Lions’ advantage. The most traditional and easiest way to do so is to get the run game going early, and control time of possession. The trouble with this game plan is the rough status of starting halfback Kerryon Johnson. As of Wednesday, Johnson still hasn’t returned to practice since injuring his knee against the Panthers.

Assuming Johnson will remain out for Sunday’s game, the Lions will look to veteran LeGarrette Blount as the feature back. Without Johnson against the Bears, Blount had 19 carries for 88 yards and found the end zone twice. Also getting carries were Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner for a combined 21 yards.

The Rams have the No. 21 run defense in the league, so expect the Lions to be aggressive on the ground, especially on first down. Another touchdown or two from Blount would tremendously help take some pressure of Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ offense.

  1. Protect Stafford

The Rams’ total of 29 sacks this season isn’t top of the line (in fact, the Lions are ahead with 32), but the names on their defensive line sure are. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald leads the league with 14.5 sacks, while his teammate and Detroit’s former fan-favorite, Ndamukong Suh, has 3.5.

Since the dismal 11-sack performance by the Lions’ offensive line against the Minnesota Vikings, Detroit has allowed only nine sacks in three games. That span included two games against Chicago’s defensive player of the year candidate Khalil Mack (8.0 sacks).

The Lions will definitely need to keep the intensity up on the offensive line and give Stafford time to throw. After dealing away wide receiver Golden Tate, and Marvin Jones going on injured reserve earlier this week, the Lions’ receiving core is running thin. Kenny Golladay will most likely lead the team in targets and catches. The more protection Stafford has, the better chance the Lions have; it’s that simple.

The over-under for this matchup is 55, so Vegas says we should expect a high-scoring shootout. If the Lions do these three things to the best of their ability, a close game will favor Stafford and the home team down the stretch.

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