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Scouting the enemy: Detroit Lions

The Denver Broncos square off against the Detroit Lions in prime time on Sunday Night Football. You know what that means? Bad news for the Lions.

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

It's a tale of two different teams when the Denver Broncos face off against the Detroit Lions this weekend in prime time on Sunday Night Football.  The Broncos have been a consistent contender over the past several years, while the Lions have widely been considered underachievers in the NFC. The gridiron battle this Sunday is the twelfth time the franchises have faced off against one another and the most recent match-up since October of 2011, when the Lions traveled to Denver and decimated the Broncos 45-10 in front of 75,000 fans.

Fans should expect a far different outcome this time around, even though it is the Broncos who will be on the road traveling to Ford Field on their quest to remain undefeated. As you can see by referencing the article's main image, the Broncos identity presently is much more different than the handicapped Broncos teams of 2011 led by former quarterback Tim Tebow.  The same goes for the Lions, who have undergone significant transformations and coaching changes since the teams last met four years ago.

Looking back at the 2014 Detroit Lions

When you think about the Detroit Lions, you think an offensive team that can put up a ton of yards and score a decent amount of points with Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson leading the team.  In 2014, it was the opposite. The Lions ranked 22nd offensively in points scored and 19 in total yardage.  However, they dominated on the defensive side of the ball with a 3rd overall defense in regard to points and second in yards allowed.

Under the leadership of new head coach Jim Caldwell, the Lions were able to amass an impressive 11-5 record, but ended up second to the Green Bay Packers in the NFC North. They earned a Wild Card Playoff birth and faced off against the Dallas Cowboys in early January, but weren't able to get the job done on either side of the ball and lost by a score of 24-20.  Despite being a vast improvement compared to their prior two seasons under Jim Schwartz, the season ending defeat in Dallas was displeasing to Lions fans across America who had greater aspirations for the team.

The 2015 season has rolled around and the Lions are currently winless at 0-2 and face a gauntlet of a schedule in the coming weeks with not only Denver, but Seattle, Arizona, Kansas City, Green Bay and a few division rivals on slate.  If they aren't able to turn their losing tide around, there is a decent chance that the Lions will be out of playoff contention by the time their bye rolls around at Week 9 of the NFL season.

A win against the Broncos this Sunday would be a huge statement victory for a squad in desperate need of a morale booster, but whether or not they have the capability of defeating one of the NFL's most formidable franchises is another question I will have an answer for later in the article, but for now, lets take a deeper look at the identity of the 2015 Detroit Lions.

Listed below is a comprehensive review of their recent offseason transactions:

Identifying the 2015 Detroit Lions

Key Additions: WR Lance Moore, G Manuel Ramirez, DE Phillip Hunt, DT Haloti Ngata, DT Tyrunn Walker, CB Josh Wilson, CB Chris Owens.

Key Losses: RB Reggie Bush, FB Jed Collins, OT Corey Hilliard, G Rob Sims, C Dominic Raiola, DE George Johnson, DT Ndamukong Suh, DT Nick Fairley, DT C.J. Mosley, DT Andre Fluellen, OLB Ashlee Palmer, CB Cassius Vaughn.

2015 Draft Class: 1st round (28): Laken Tomlinson (Duke), Offensive Guard | 2nd round (54): Ameer Abdullah (Nebraska), Running Back | 3rd round (80): Alex Carter (Stanford), Cornerback | 4th round (113): Gabe Wright (Auburn), Defensive Tackle |5th round (168): Michael Burton (Rutgers), Fullback | 6th round (200): Quandre Diggs (Texas), Cornerback | 7th round (240): Corey Robinson (South Carolina), Offensive Tackle | UDFA Gem: Zach Zenner (South Dakota State), Running Back

Note: All Lions draft picks made the teams active roster.  Alex Carter is on short-term IR with a designation to return and will not see the field in this week's match-up.

Summary: The 2015 Detroit Lions added a handful of players through free agency and the draft that will help their squad down the road, but they certainly lost a lot of quality players on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines where they have struggled to perform well at early this season.

Detroit's Cause for Concern: Atrocious Play in the Trenches

The Lions currently rank 19th in points score and 25th in yards offensively, which is a near flip statistically compared to last season. Unfortunately, instead of having a top ranked defense like they did last season, the Lions are one of the worst in the NFL out the gate, coming in at 28th in points and 31 in total yards allowed.

Offensively, their line play has been horrendous.  Manny Ramirez, who was acquired from the Broncos in a draft day move has failed to impress and former first-round selection Riley Reiff has not looked good at the tackle position.  To make matters worse, undrafted rookie right tackle Cornelius Lucas has performed miserably in place of LaAdrian Waddle.  The combination of the aforementioned has put the Lions in an offensive predicament, where they can't run the ball effectively or protect Stafford long enough to make plays in the passing game.

Defensively, the team has been without linebacker DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch has failed to become the player he once was after suffering an ACL injury last season.  The lack of play-makers at the position certainly haven't helped their cause, but the beef they lost on the defensive line to free agency is a primary reason for their early defensive woes. Their top four defensive tackles from last season, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, C.J. Mosley and Andre Fluellen all are with different teams in 2015. The tandem of Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker has failed to hold their ground at the line of scrimmage and the handful of no-name players behind them haven't provided much impact either.

Deplorable performance in the trenches is always a recipe for disaster when game day arrives. Execution isn't just the issue, it is a lack of talent on both fronts that will be hard to overcome even as the season goes on. Denver should take full advantage of both situations and dominate in the trenches Sunday Night and propel themselves to victory.  With that being said, here are my three keys to victory against Detroit.

Hart's 3 Keys to Winning at Ford Field

1) Let the defense loose on Matthew Stafford

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has taken a beating this year, though it looks like he is ready to play against the Broncos this weekend.  With a poor offensive line (outlined above) the Broncos need to be aggressive in their defensive game plan and hold nothing back and allow premier pass rushers Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware and company to pin their ears back and get after the quarterback.

If the Broncos are able to fluster Stafford in the pocket and disrupt the passing game, the Lions will be forced to attempt to attack the Broncos on the ground, which has been something they have struggled to do so far this season. Stafford is a quality quarterback, but does have gunslinger tendencies, so if the Broncos are able to apply good pressure against their top signal caller, you can expect several big plays by the way of interceptions from the Broncos secondary.

2) Take away the safety valve of Calvin Johnson

Calvin Johnson has been not only one of the best wide receivers in the NFL over the years, but arguably the best player the Detroit Lions have had on their roster since Barry Sanders, though a strong argument could have been given for former defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who proved to be one of the best defensive players in all of football during his time in Detroit.

That being said, Johnson continues to be the focal point of the Lions offensive attack and the Broncos need to make sure they don't let Megatron have one of his epic performances against them. Johnson only had four balls thrown his way in the first week of the season against San Diego and came snagged two of them.  Week two was a far different story, with seventeen thrown coming his way  against the Minnesota.  He caught ten of those passes for 83 yards and a score and was one of the lone bright spots in their loss to the Vikings.

Thankfully, the Broncos boast one of the league's premier secondaries and have a plethora of options in order to cover Calvin Johnson.  I expect Aqib Talib to be manning up opposite of Johnson for most all of the game due to his size and leaping ability, with Chris Harris, Jr. matched up against Golden Tate. If Talib struggles a bit in the early portion of the game against Johnson, don't be surprised to see the Broncos roll over some blanket safety coverage his way in order to shut him down for the remainder of the game.  He may not be the player he used to be, but make no mistake, Johnson has the ability to take it the distance any time he catches the ball and the Broncos simply cannot afford to let him run loose Sunday.

3) Establish the run game to open up the passing lanes

The Lions defense hasn't been able to stop anyone this season and there is no better time than now for Denver to emphasize the running game and finally get it going against one of the leagues worst defenses.  A healthy dose of C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman should provide enough production to keep their defense honest and on their heels. The added boost in the running game should also provide an excellent stepping stone for the passing game to click on all cylinders.

Calvin Johnson has the ability to take it the distance any time he catches the ball.

Their back seven isn't good enough to compete for four quarters against the number of weapons the Broncos have at receiver and they should receive favorable match-ups all game long in this regard. The duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders will feast accordingly and my belief is that both will have huge games that will have fantasy owners talking them up at water cooler conversations at work Monday morning.

What Their Coaches Are Saying

"They're excellent cover guys. Harris and Talib are outstanding defenders. They do a great job in covering all aspects of the game. It's difficult to create space with them." Lions Head Coach Jim Caldwell on the Broncos defensive backs

"Maybe I have to recruit Jim (Caldwell) to be our defensive coordinator this week because he knows him better than anyone." Lions Defensive Coordinator Teryl Austin on defending Peyton Manning

What Our Coaches Are Saying

"They’re a great football team. It’s what we talked about as a team this morning. You go back to the end of last year and they were one of the top teams in football and had a playoff game [they] won in Dallas, and not a lot has changed. It’s just a new year and they had two road games to start the season. We know what we’re facing—their home opener, kind of a tough place to play, kind of a lot like what we faced a week ago. We’ll have to play extremely well and protect the football. We understand the challenge." Broncos Head Coach Gary Kubiak on preparing for the winless Lions

"The first game, they were ahead 21-3. They jumped on San Diego quickly. Last game, they got behind and had to throw it a little more. They're playing at home. This is their first home game. We know how hard it is to play on the road, and it's going to be a big game. The Sunday night games always—the crowds pepped up and their team has their backs to the wall. Everybody knows that. They're going to play their best game. We're going to try to play our best game." Broncos Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips on why the Lions haven't committed to the running game

Hart's Prediction for Sunday Night

After two anemic performances for the Broncos offense in the two first weeks of the season, I expect them to take advantage of a depleted and inexperienced Lions defense that ranks near the bottom of the league and finally put points on the board that we have been accustomed to over the last three seasons. Denver's defense is strong enough to shut down the great qualities of the Lions offense and I don't see Stafford and friends being able to get enough points to come away with a victory on their home field.  Denver starts off strong out the gate and never looks back and keeps marching forward with yet another victory.

Denver 31, Detroit 17.