Lions vs. Bengals: Five things to watch
Two superstar receivers. Two nasty defensive tackles. Two playoff contenders.
The Detroit Lions and Cincinnati Bengals -- both with 4-2 records -- meet Sunday at Ford Field in an intriguing Week 7 interconference matchup.
Here are five storylines to follow:
1. JOHNSON VS. GREEN
There's not much debate that Calvin Johnson, when healthy, is the league's best receiver, but A.J. Green isn't far behind.
Johnson is 6-foot-5, 236 pounds and in his seventh season with the Lions. Green is 6-4, 207 and in his third year with the Bengals. C.J. played at Georgia Tech, A.J. at Georgia.
Since Green entered the league, Johnson has 242 receptions for 3,982 yards and 25 touchdowns. Green has 199 catches for 2,871 yards and 22 TDs.
Green isn't quite Megatron, but he's getting closer.
"I’ve been telling him that he has to come over and take the reins," said Johnson, who trains with Green during the off-season.
“Calvin has been a great mentor to A.J.,” Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis said. “They share very, very similar personalities. The way Calvin carries himself as a pro and as a man is very similar to A.J.
“They’re selfless. They can handle the game when they might only catch three passes, but the guys opposite them have seven or eight catches because coverage rolled their (Green's or Johnson’s) way. They’re able to go about their job just the same way each and every week, the same temperament."
Johnson has been hampered by an injured right knee in recent weeks, but he seems to be getting healthier by the day. Perhaps just in time to reconfirm he's still the No. 1 receiving threat in the game.
2. SUH VS. ATKINS
Detroit's Ndamukong Suh was the No. 2 pick overall in the 2010 draft, while Geno Atkins was taken by Cincinnati in the fourth round, 120th overall.
Atkins, however, is having arguably just as good of a NFL career, if not better, so far.
Suh (6-4, 307 pounds) has 24 1/2 sacks in 52 career games. Atkins (6-1, 303) has 27 sacks in 54 games.
“Both of them have the potential to wreck games,” said Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was teammates with Atkins at Georgia.
Atkins, voted All-Pro last year by the Associated Press, understood why Suh got all the hype coming out of college.
"Suh was a beast," Atkins said. "I can understand that he went first. I’m not the prototypical size of a defensive tackle (Suh is three inches taller), so I think that kind of scared people off. But once I got to the league, I just made the best of my opportunity.”
Suh has taken notice.
"I definitely have an ultimate respect for Geno,” Suh said.
Which of these game-wreckers imposes their will the most could dictate the outcome.
3. STINGY BENGALS
Cincinnati's defense has played to the level of competition to some extent, but all you need to know is this: New England's Tom Brady completed only 18 of 38 passes for 197 yards with no touchdowns and one interception two weeks ago in a 13-6 loss to the Bengals.
Cincinnati hasn't allowed a 300-yard passer in its last 20 games. Even Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers couldn't do it, finishing with 244 yards a few weeks ago.
The Bengals' defense also leads the NFL in forcing three-and-out possessions, at a rate of about 35 percent.
"They’re playing well, total defense," Lions running back Reggie Bush said. "You just have to know what you’re going into. You have to know that this type of game is going to be three yards, four yards (in the running game). You just have to be patient.”
The Lions, on the other hand, have turned into a big-play defense. They're tied for second in interceptions with 10 and tied for fifth in takeaways with 13.
“It’s huge,” Stafford said. “Our whole defense has been making plays, getting their hands on footballs and turning it back over to us. As an offense, that’s what you love. Game-changing plays and chances to have great field position is all you can ask for.”
He's just asking for more of the same this week.
4. CLOSE COACHES
There's an interesting head-coaching connection. Detroit's Jim Schwartz -- you know, "Jimmy" -- worked as a defensive assistant with the Baltimore Ravens from 1996-98 while Lewis was the team's defensive coordinator.
During a teleconference with Detroit reporters earlier this week, Lewis continually called Schwartz "Jimmy."
It was a little humorous to hear someone refer to the ornery coach in that manner.
“When you work together like we did, you spend a lot of time together,” said Lewis, 55, who is eight years older than Schwartz “When you come from the bottom like we did, you really grind together. You really are that close.”
Schwartz said: "It was Marvin’s first job as a defensive coordinator. I had moved over from scouting into quality control. The quality control guy’s sort of the right-hand man of the coordinator. So I got a chance to learn every bit of the defense.
"Marvin’s a real steady guy and I think you see that reflected in their team. Not a guy that gets high, not a guy that gets low."
They've met once before as head coaches. Jimmy lost.
"Nobody’s friends on Sunday, you know the way that goes,” Schwartz added.
5. SET FOR SUCCESS
For a team coming off a 4-12 season, including eight straight losses, this opening six-game stretch could have been a season killer for the Lions.
Four of the first six were on the road, but they got through with two road victories against Washington and Cleveland while winning both games at Ford Field.
"That was a tough way to start the season,” Schwartz said of the early road challenges.
The Lions now face back-to-back home games against Cincinnati and Dallas -- both dangerous opponents -- before a bye week.
"What a perfect situation to be coming home to," center Dominic Raiola said.
“It’s a nice setup,” Johnson said. “Our thing is to go 8-0 at home and protect that home field.”
They can put themselves in great position to make a playoff run or basically give back what they accomplished with those road wins.
What's it going to be?
LIONS -2 1/2
(Dye’s season prediction record: 6-0)
Johnson, who practiced on a limited basis all three days this week, is probable. Cornerback Rashean Mathis (groin) also is probable for the Lions.
Running backs Joique Bell (ribs) and Theo Riddick (concussion) are questionable. Riddick returned to practice Friday for the first time in two weeks.
Cornerback Terence Newman (abdomen) is probable for the Bengals.