Jeff Gordon previews the game between the St. Louis Rams and Detroit Lions at noon Sunday at Ford Field in Detroit.
THE MATCH-UP: The Lions have big aspirations for this season. Their energized fan base will create an impressive home field advantage, especially with replacement referees working the game. The Rams will bring an extremely young team with a new coach into the fray. Injuries in the offensive and defensive backfield could limit Detroit somewhat in Week 1, but Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will attack the Rams will his impressive arsenal of wide receivers and tight ends and put points on the board. Lions coach Jim Schwartz will be eager to fare well against his mentor, Rams coach Jeff Fisher.
POINTS OF EMPHASIS
• The Rams will need to pressure Stafford early and often. Fisher deployed mostly vanilla defensive schemes during the preseason, so it will be interesting to see what he dials up while trying to disrupt Detroit’s dynamic aerial attack. And can defensive ends Chris Long and Robert Quinn cause havoc in the base defense?
• Containing wide receiver Calvin Johnson will be a handful for the new Rams cornerbacks, veteran Cortland Finnegan and rookies Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson.
• Rams center Scott Wells sat out much of the preseason while recovering from knee surgery. Right guard Harvey Dahl missed time with an infection. Rookie Rok Watkins had to whip himself into shape to bid for the starting job at left guard, so journeyman Robert Turner got many reps there recently. Can these interior blockers pull together and contain the monstrous Lions defensive tackles on passing downs? Can they get a consistent push and help Steven Jackson establish the ground game?
• After arriving on the waiver wire, Heard will get rushed into the fray at defensive tackle. The Rams suffered three key injuries there. Heard will back up starter Kendall Langford and fill-in Jermelle Cudjo. The middle of the defensive line was supposed to be one of this team’s strengths this season, but can the replacements get the job done?
• Veteran wide receivers Danny Amendola and Steve Smith seem recovered from major injury problems. Both showed well during the preseason. Can they exploit the depleted Lions secondary and give Sam Bradford some open targets? And will rookies Brian Quick and Chris Givens have any impact on this game?
SCOUTING THE LIONS: The middle of Detroit’s defensive line is frightening: Ndamukong Suh, Corey Williams, Nick Fairley and Sammie Hill. Disruptive defensive tackles are scarce in the NFL, but not in the Motor City.
Rangy Nate Burleson and speedy Titus Young are perfect running mates for Johnson at receiver. Tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler are accomplished pass catchers, too. The Lions can move Johnson around to keep defensives switching in coverage. When a defense pays too much attention to "Megatron," these others guys can blow it up.
The Lions have admirable continuity on their offensive line. Their five starters have made a combined 489 consecutive starts. Not coincidentally, Stafford has become a far more durable quarterback.
On the other hand, Detroit is likely to play without starting safety Louis Delmas (knee) and starting cornerback Chris Houston (ankle). And running back Kevin Smith (ankle) may not be at full speed.
Fisher discussed Game One this week with reporters at Rams Park. Here are some highlights:
On trying to contain Lions receiver Calvin Johnson: “He’s just a big target, he’s explosive and Matt does a great job giving him a chance to make plays. Matt will throw the ball to him unlike most other quarterbacks. It’s almost Brett Favre-like four or five times a game. He just tilts his shoulders down, throws the ball as far as he can and Calvin usually makes a play, so that’s a challenge.”
On opening with an offensive line that didn’t play together as a unit in the preseason: “I’m comfortable. They’re working well together, they’re communicating right now. I’m comfortable with the guys we have playing. It’s hard to find an offensive line that’s comfortable going to Detroit – I’ll put it that way – with the guys they’ve got.”
On his injury-depleted defensive tackle corps: “We’re going to be fine. We’re going to line up and play hard, whoever plays there. We had a good two days of practice, we’ve got to finish up tomorrow. We’ll have 11 out there, as they will.”
On new defensive tackle Kellen Heard: “He’s played in the league. He’s been with (defensive line) Coach (Mike) Waufle. He’s a big man, he’s explosive and he plays hard. With the uncertainty at that position right now, we felt like it would be a good thing for our team to get a big man in there.”
On having rookie Austin Davis as the back-up quarterback: “He’s got to be prepared to play. He knows what to do. He didn’t get a single rep out here today with the offense, but he’s paying close attention to it and if called upon, he’ll be ready.”
On preparing such a young team to play: “Nothing changes. You take the same approach, preparation-wise. You just have to maybe spend a little extra time with some of the younger guys to let them know what the regular season is all about. 17 rookies on this roster and that doesn’t include practice squad. There’s a good chance that quite a few of them are going to be in this ballgame.”
Defensive tackles Michael Brockers (ankle), Darell Scott (knee) and Matthew Conrath (knee) are all on the shelf.