NFL

AUTHOR: Star Sports Content

STAR NFL PREVIEW Sun: Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Detroit Lions

The Motor City of Detroit had waited a long time for their Lions to get into the playoffs again but after beating the Rams last week in the Wild Card Round 24-23 they now play their second home playoff game in franchise history, improving their chances to earn two postseason victories in a season for the first time since winning the 1957 NFL title.

Tampa Bay the visitors will have something to say about that though as they are the only NFC team in the playoffs for a fourth straight year and their win over Philadelphia was their sixth in the postseason during the span, a total that trails only the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs since 2020.
The surprise victory of #7seed Green Bay at Dallas has given the Lions another home game and a chance to move one step closer to their first ever Super Bowl. Having a #3 seed host a #4 seed in the Divisional Round is also a first for this playoff format.

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This game is a rematch of an early season battle that Detroit won 20-6 while playing without a couple of key offensive players. The Bucs offence has improved significantly since that matchup while the Lions pass defence has been struggling recently. The two opposing quarterback Jared Goff (Lions) and Baker Mayfield (Buccaneers) despite both being #1 picks in the draft two years apart for different teams than they play for now have had some struggles to get this far but both have had successful seasons and with both defences being vulnerable through the air it won’t be a shock to see this game develop into a shootout. It’s certainly not hard to see why this game is the 1-2 favourite to be the higher scoring of the two of Sunday with Detroit the 6-5 favourite to be the highest scoring team on Sunday in the Star Sports Specials markets.

It’s hard to see this game being a repeat of the game back in Week 6, with the Buccaneers scoring a season low six points and the Lions had a season-low 40 rushing yards thanks to an early injury to David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs being inactive. Goff controlled that game well despite being under “attack” from the usual blitz-heavy Todd Bowles coached defence and he’s likely to face the same sort of defence again with Tampa Bay being one of the most blitz-heavy teams in the NFL. Tampa Bay left plenty of opportunities on the field in that game, but it was one of just two games in which they failed to score a touchdown this season, they won’t be able to afford such an effort on offence this time around. The Lions have scored at least 20 points in every home game this season and the Buccaneers will probably need to match that and more in a game where the over on the points is set at +48.5 (5-6) with Star Sports.

Tampa Bay have won six of their last seven games as they came from behind to win the NFC South and then had a dominant performance against the collapsing and woeful Eagles in the Wild Card round. Of late the Buccaneers have found their feet on offence scoring 29+ points in four of their last six wins with Mayfield showing some of the qualities that made him such a sought after player when he first enter the league. Here, Mayfield faces a Lions defence that since their Week 9 bye are yielding 299 yards through the air per game and 8.8 yards per attempt whilst ranking 30th in pass defence.

Mayfield who has produced 60 completions of 20+ yards (5th in the NFL) has the receivers to take advantage of such a porous defence especially indoors. In five games indoors or beneath a retractable roof this season, Mayfield netted 12 all-purpose TDs versus three turnovers.

The pass game is going to have to work for Mayfield and Tampa Bay as the Lions have shutdown the run all season long doing a real job on the Rams last weekend, a team that had found a great deal of success on the ground. The Bucs have been wildly inefficient running the ball this season and although in terms of play volume their main back Rachaad White will see plenty of touches he’s more of a workhorse back than a explosive breakout runner. He will be used in the passing game though and could well be more effective in that phase of the game. It will come as a pleasant revelation if the Buccaneers can move the ball effectively on the ground here.

That will leave the onus on Baker Mayfield and the Bucs passing game facing a Lions pass defence that has been shredded by wide receivers of the quality of Puka Nacua, CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson over that last few weeks and that points to Mike Evans being an integral part of the Tampa Bay game plan with his ability to beat man coverage and also to be a deep threat.

Mayfield after a couple of down weeks when he didn’t look right and appeared to be carrying an injury looked sharp when dispatching the Eagles last Monday night. He lit up the Eagles for 337 passing yards and three touchdowns. If not for a few dropped passes (a couple by Evans), his night could have been even more productive and he’ll be looking to do the same here. The Lions have allowed over 300 yards passing and multiple passing touchdowns in four straight games. The one saving grace for the Detroit pass defence is that they can rush the passer. They are third in the NFL in pressure rate (40.9% of dropbacks), but they have still allowed a league-high 9.3 yards per pass attempt over that period when pressuring the passer and Mayfield if he gets well protected could pick them apart.

There’s no doubt that Mayfield’s main target will be Mike Evans but they will need the ancillary pieces in their offence to step up also. It is worth noting that the Lions defence held the Rams, Vikings, and Cowboys offenses to 23, 20, and 20 points, respectively, despite the top receiving options for those teams accumulating a combined 601 receiving yards and they could very much be classed as a bend but don’t break defence. The Lions secondary are susceptible to explosive passes though and Evans is in an excellent spot to exploit that outcome. Evans has 21 receptions of 20 yards or more this season, 10th in the league. The Lions have been crushed by long gains, allowing a league-high 56 receptions of 20 or more yards to wide receivers. They have allowed 10 touchdowns on those receptions, 29th in the league. The Lions have allowed receiving touchdowns of 38, 50, 42, 38, 92, and 26 yards to wide receivers over their past four games to go along with another pair of touchdowns inside of the 10-yard line. Evans has a receiving yards line of +71.5 (10-11) with Star Sports and it can’t be ruled out that he will surpass that easily if he hangs onto one of those Mayfield bombs.

The Lions offence will want to hit the ground running as they did last week when they scored touchdowns on their first three possessions, playing in their usual aggressive manner very much in the style of their head coach Dan Campbell. The strange thing from thereon was that they then only added a field goal to those three touchdowns in the remaining 37 minutes of the game. They ran a very balanced offence last week running the ball 25 times compared to only 27 pass attempts but they face a very different defence this week and that may see them tilt their offence more towards the pass game despite the fact that they have a very effective 1-2 punch at running back via David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs.

When Goff played Tampa Bay before he was almost forced to play through the pass game due to Montgomery leaving the contest through injury and Gibbs missing the game. Typically the Bucs tried to pressure Goff and his numbers will show that he is sensitive to pressure but the key to Goff and the win last week was pass protection. He was pressured on just six of 30 dropbacks and went 21-of-21 passing for 266 yards and a TD from what was a very clean pocket. The Bucs may well blitz at the league’s third highest rate but they finished bottom 12 in pressure rate and if the Lions can keep Goff clean and upright they could be in for a torrid time. If the Buccaneers are going to have any shot at pulling an upset here, their pass rush has to be markedly better at creating disruption on Goff than it was in Week 6.

The Lions backfield tends to be a timeshare although Montgomery and Gibbs are two very different types of back. Montgomery is more of a traditional running back between the tackles whilst Gibbs is an explosive runner who also can play a part in the pass game. Where Montgonery has the edge is in the goal line work which makes the 5-6 on him to score at TD with Star Sports look one of the better propositions in the game.

With the pressure that the Bucs typically bring Goff will want to get the ball out quickly to his receivers not only to negate the pass rush but also to exploit the Bucs porous pass defence. To that end we could see yet another big game from Amon-Ra St. Brown who had seven receptions for 110 yards last Sunday. St. Brown now has at least 90 receiving yards in each of his past five games with four games going over 100 yards over that span. For the season, St. Brown now has either 100 yards or a touchdown in 15-of-17 games. St. Brown had 15 targets when these teams played back in Week 6, catching 12 passes for 124 yards and a touchdown. The 2023 Bucs gave up the league’s eighth-most WR catches (225) and fourth-most WR yards (3,036). St. Brown is 9-5 favourite in Star Sports Sunday Specials Market “Most Receiving Yards” and it’s hard to argue with that although in the same market the 5-1 on Evans appeals.

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Goff also had plenty of other receivers he could use apart from St. Brown with Josh Reynolds and the explosive Jameson Williams both an integral part of the offence.

There’s no doubt that this could be an entertaining game in an environment that sets up well for a contest with plenty of back and forth and hopefully some lead changes. There was not a single lead change in the final 22 quarters of Wild Card weekend. The Lions are favourites (-5.5, 10-11) with Star Sports and rightly so given that they can be more than one-dimensional of offence.

In the end, it could be the continuation of Campbell’s aggressive style of play especially at home with this talented offence to be enough to outscore Tampa and advance the Lions to the NFC Championship Game.

ANDY RICHMOND


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