With less than four months to go before opening kickoff, the off-season has slowed to a crawl. Free agency is effectively over and the post-draft hangover is real. Rookie minicamps and OTAs are not the most exciting period in any given NFL calendar year, as very little newsworthy stuff goes on. For hardcore fans of the league, it’s difficult to get by on recycled rookie profiles, waiver wire transactions, and injury reports. Luckily, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. The season always gives us something to look forward to, however far away it may seem. So, rather than wallow in the darkness, we’ll spend this article looking ahead to bigger and better things, such as the Lions’ slate of games in 2016. More specifically, I’ll preview their games with non-conference opponents, since so many of us are already familiar with our divisional foes. This will be the first installment in a series of articles which will examine not only the match-ups, but the storylines that go along with them. It only makes sense to start with Detroit’s first game, which is scheduled for August 11th against Indianapolis.
Were this the opener last season, the game likely would have been in a prime-time slot, as both the Lions and the Colts went 11-5 in 2014. Networks would have billed it as a battle between former no. 1 overall picks, and would have harped ad infinitum on what the teams certainly felt were early, wrongful playoff exits. They would have talked of Ndamukong Suh’s departure and Reggie Wayne’s ousting. With twelve combined Pro Bowlers – the Colts with seven, the Lions five – there would have been plenty of star power. It would have pitted Detroit’s stingy defense (no. 2 in 2014 in terms of total yardage) against Indianapolis’s high octane offense (no. 4 in 2014 in terms of total yardage). Megatron would have been shadowed all game by Pro Bowl corner Vontae Davis. Boy, would this have been a doozy.
Alas, it’s 2016 and Lions-Colts simply isn’t a marquee matchup. It features two teams that, for different reasons, failed to return to the playoffs in 2015. Detroit’s offense languished for the first half of the season under former OC Joe Lombardi before finishing the season strong under his successor, Jim Bob Cooter. Indianapolis, on the other hand, ended their campaign in disappointing fashion. They saw Andrew Luck go down with a season-ending injury and proceeded to go 4-3 (including losses to Houston and Jacksonville) over the final seven games to narrowly miss the playoffs in a weak AFC South division.
Colts are Still The First Game of the Season…
Even though their week one clash might not draw national attention, you’d better believe that both of teams are placing a lot of emphasis on their first game of the season. That’s not to downplay the general importance of starting the year out right, but it’s especially important for two teams trying to get back to the playoffs. It will also serve as something of a grudge match, as the game will mark Caldwell’s first time returning Indianapolis to face his former team. There’s a lot riding on this for both teams.
Despite the talent on the Indy roster, one would have to think the Lions have a slight advantage over the Colts given the timing of their match-up. If this game were to be played mid=season, I’d give the edge to the Colts, but they simply have a lot to work out from now until week one. Andrew Luck will be playing his first NFL game since week nine of 2015. Rust should prove to be a factor, and he might even be gun-shy after taking that vicious hit that lacerated his kidney. He’ll also be taking snaps from under a first-year center. Even though Ryan Kelly was lauded for his smarts throughout the draft process, he’ll be facing a veteran nose tackle in Haloti Ngata, not to mention a defensive scheme which likes to utilize stunts. Rookies all face a learning curve while adapting to the next level, but Kelly’s will be especially steep. This will also be the first time in Luck’s career where he won’t have Coby Fleener to throw to. From 2012-2014, Coby Fleener ranked third in targets with 227, behind only Reggie Wayne (369) and T.Y. Hilton (360).
The Lions face their own questions, namely how the loss of Megatron will affect the offense. However, they added Marvin Jones, who should excel as a possession receiver in Jim Bob Cooter’s quick passing attack. Because the new system won’t be predicated on verticality nearly as much as it has been in the past, it softens Johnson’s departure. Furthermore, the Indianapolis defense is transitioning to a new coordinator after Ryan Mullarkey was fired in January. The Lions have the benefit of some continuity, and shouldn’t have trouble putting points up on an Indianapolis team that was ranked in the bottom 25% of defenses last season.
While the Colts might ultimately prove to be the better team come playoff time, they project to have some growing pains as Luck returns from injury and they usher in a new defensive coordinator. I think the Lions get out of Lucas Oil Stadium with a win in week one.
Prediction: Detroit, 24 – Indianapolis, 17