|National Football League|
Improved Lions' defense takes on Falcons
The Detroit Lions rely heavily on the powerful right arm of Matthew Stafford. That's why they awarded him the richest contract in NFL history near the end of training camp.
Stafford has done his part in the team's first two games, but he's getting a surprising assist from the defense.
Stafford has thrown six touchdown passes, tying him for the league lead with Denver's Trevor Siemian. Detroit's defense has been just as productive in victories over Arizona and the New York Giants.
The Lions will face an even sterner test Sunday when they host the defending NFC champion Atlanta Falcons, who are also off to a 2-0 start.
Detroit snuck into the playoffs as a wild card last season without a lot of big plays from its defense. It had 26 sacks, tied for second-to-last in the league. The Lions forced only nine fumbles and made 10 interceptions, ranking in the bottom third in both categories.
Opponents have only scored 33 points against the Lions this year and one of the touchdowns was an interception return. The Lions have already collected six sacks, forced three fumbles and picked off four passes.
The Lions sacked Giants quarterback Eli Manning five times in a 24-10 Monday night victory, three by defensive end Ziggy Ansah.
"We've had some production there just in terms of collapsing the pocket and getting ourselves near and around the quarterback," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "(Monday) was one of those unusual days where you get five, but I do think that our guys are coming along. They've stepped up to the challenge for two weeks, but there's a third one looming, and a very good one at that.
"The minute you start talking about what you think you've gotten done in this league, you end up getting your ears kicked in."
Detroit's rushing offense, which finished last in the NFL a year ago, also showed some signs of life. The Lions gained 138 yards on the ground and averaged 4.3 yards per carry against the Giants. Lead back Ameer Abdullah picked up 86 yards on 17 carries.
"I think overall we performed better. Not quite where we want to be yet, but we're better," Caldwell said. "Ameer is getting back into his old form. He ran hard and guys were patient with the running game, so our offensive line did a nice job there creating some holes for us. But we still got a ways to go in that area."
The offense still revolves around Stafford, and Atlanta coach Dan Quinn notes that Stafford is adept at avoiding the rush.
"We'll have our work cut out for us, but you better be able to finish your rushes because he's not going to just stay where you want him to be," Quinn said. "He'll be in different spots, move, and be active.
"The last part of their offense that they don't talk about a lot is they have a very good screen game. It's something that they use actively. They've got runners that can catch it and wideouts that are good catch-and-run guys like Golden Tate and Marvin Jones Jr."
The Falcons have already defeated two NFC North opponents, squeaking past Chicago 23-17 in their opener and topping Green Bay 34-23 on Sunday night.
Quarterback Matt Ryan has completed 69 percent of his passes and thrown two touchdowns. Lead back Devonta Freeman has scored three times while averaging 3.9 yards per carry, and the receiving duo of Julie Jones and Mohamed Sanu has combined for 20 catches and 306 yards.
Atlanta has kept opposing defenses off balance by varying its looks.
"I think it's the personnel groups that also present some challenges because now there can be two backs in there," Quinn said. "We've shown four wide receiver sets and big packages. When you defend us, there are a lot of groups you have to go through. Then you add in the motions, shifts, and playing fast.
"It's a challenge, and we're really fortunate that Matt Ryan is able to get it on the ball with whatever comes his way."
The Falcons have shown a strong pass rush with seven sacks, but will go without top edge rusher Vic Beasley Jr. He has been declared out with a hamstring injury. Defensive lineman Courtney Upshaw (ankle) will also sit out.
Lions linebacker and first-round pick Jarrad Davis is going through the league's concussion protocol and is questionable to play.
Updated September 20, 2017