The San Francisco 49ers travel to face the Detroit Lions on Sunday, with both teams playing out the string in lost seasons. We took a few minutes to chat with Chris Lemieux of Pride of Detroit. You can check out answers to his questions here.
NN: There were rumors early in the year about Matthew Stafford potentially being on the outs with the organization after this season. Given his $17 million salary next season, what is his status for next season?
POD: I'd be shocked if Matthew Stafford was not back with the Detroit Lions next year. I haven't exactly been his biggest defender and there's reasons to remain skeptical of just how much more can come out of Matt's ceiling, but there's no alternatives that will result in a net positive when it comes to Stafford. He's still well above replacement level given the power of his arm and how hot he gets when he's playing fast and loose.
Of course, retaining him is not a total given, what with a new front office coming in and (what we assume to be) a new coaching staff, but with Stafford on the books until the end of 2017 and no clear heir in sight from this year's draft class, there's no rush to move away from him. 99% certain he'll remain the Lions quarterback next year.
NN: How does the running back depth chart shake out, exactly? It seems like Ameer Abdullah is the guy for the future, but Theo Riddick and Joique Bell get plenty of work as well. Is it a committee approach for the foreseeable future?
POD: Ameer Abdullah is a phenomenal talent, if you can get past his rookie fumble numbers (which isn't a big deal in my book - fumbles happen quite often with the position in the first few years).
It will remain a committee approach until the end of the year. Each of the three Lions backs brings a different weapon to the table. After moving away from the zone running schemes cooked up by now-fired offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, the new OC Jim Bob Cooter (yep! That's his name!) moved to a power running scheme. This puts Abdullah in a role where he looks for gaps and uses his natural shiftiness to hit the hole; Joique Bell by contrast is the bruising back who punches right up the middle. Theo Riddick has always been a receiving running back, but he's been seeing touches out of the backfield as well, and he's just a generally versatile player.
Also, don't overlook the fullback, Michael Burton. He's been key to moving to a power run game by running counter action, and he's even filched a few touchdowns for himself.
NN: There is plenty of talk about Calvin Johnson potentially slowing down. What have you seen of him this year?
POD: It's the sixth consecutive 1000+ yard season for Megatron, but he does seem a bit of a different receiver this year. There's been a few games this year where he's been dead silent, including the last Monday night game against the Saints.
At this point, Calvin Johnson is a secret to nobody. Teams plan for him. They want to remove him from Stafford's arsenal. This year, a few teams have been successful, and that was bound to happen at some point. He's 30, he's had a few injuries the last few seasons and he's been battling an ankle strain since London. Never forget that Megatron's made his career being far more physical than many other wide receivers. He's a beast and he's had no problem in the past banging against multiple defenders to make his catches. That will put miles on a body every time.
But the Lions also have other options, which means that it's not just a matter of Stafford looking for Johnson and making things happen. With Theo Riddick, Golden Tate and Eric Ebron the passing offense is more diverse now, and it takes pressure off Johnson to have monster games in order to win the day.
NN: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Lions defense?
POD: In 2014, the Lions pass rush was one of the best in the league. That was this defense's identity, and it paid off dividends to propel the team into the playoffs. That's not to say the defensive line isn't deficient now without Suh, it just isn't as good at the pass rush this year. But what it does have is Ezekiel Ansah, who continues to evolve and rack up sacks.
I would profess that the strength of this team right now is its secondary. Darius Slay was one of the great snubs of the Pro Bowl. Last year it was Big Play Slay. This year, he's traded in the high-flying interceptions for being a quiet, smothering shutdown corner. He's not the only one in the unit. Quandre Diggs and Glover Quin have been instrumental in defending against the passing game, and Isa Abdul-Quddus has shine now and then.
If there's a weakness to this defense, it's a glaring one over the middle. The linebacker corp is desperately missing DeAndre Levy. Stephen Tulloch has struggled, although Tahir Whitehead has shown improvement. But overall, this team has been repeatedly burned with short yardage passes.
NN: What's Jim Caldwell's future look like in Detroit?
POD: Grim's too clean a word to describe it. When Martha Ford cleaned out the front office, president and general manager and all, the writing was on the wall for Caldwell. At the time, it was pretty well evident even then he was being retained because somebody, anybody, had to keep the lights on.
The numbers and trends in the NFL don't support much to think that Caldwell will be brought back. If the Lions make an external hire for the general manager, that person will want his own coach he prefers. That won't be Caldwell. The narrative that he was playing for his job this season is fairly overblown, and it probably won't pay out given the erratic pattern this second half of the season has taken.
NN: Prediction time. How do you see this game playing out? A specific score prediction is not necessary, but I'll leave that up to you.
POD: Predicting how the Lions will do in any given game this year has been a duty fraught with peril and deceit. Every game played has featured something radically different in outcome, be it the Hail Mary defeat or the victory in Lambeau or overtime with the Bears or blowouts going both ways. The only game that I can say was normal and competitive on both ends was the Oakland game. That's it. Everything else has been weird.
That said, I'll take the Lions here, and I'll spare you the ridiculous final score using prime numbers that I give my editor every week.