DALLAS (Sports Network) – While Jason Garrett attempts to get the Dallas Cowboys to accomplish something they’ve yet to do this season, the Detroit Lions try once again to achieve a goal that’s eluded the perennially-struggling franchise for over three years when the two teams square off this Sunday.
The lowly Lions will be entering Cowboys Stadium saddled with an NFL-record 25-game road losing streak, a dubious record this current edition now owns by itself following last Sunday’s 14-12 defeat to the previously-winless Buffalo Bills. Detroit had also dropped 24 straight away tests one time before, spanning the entire 2001-03 seasons.
The Lions’ last positive result on the road came on Oct. 28, 2007, a 16-7 victory at Chicago’s Soldier Field. The quarterback for Detroit that day was Jon Kitna, who’ll be lining up opposite his former team on Sunday seeking to duplicate his most recent performance in addition to helping the recharged Cowboys obtain their first home win of 2010.
Dallas lost its first four outings at the palatial Cowboys Stadium as part of an awful 1-7 start to the season that triggered the dismissal of head coach Wade Phillips on Nov. 8. In his place stepped in Garrett, the team’s highly- regarded offensive coordinator who’s taking over on an interim basis.
The change paid immediate dividends, as Dallas put an end to a five-game slide with an impressive 33-20 road triumph over a surging New York Giants squad that entered that Week 10 clash having won five straight contests and was sitting alone in first place in the NFC East.
Kitna had a hand in that startling outcome as well, with the veteran fill-in throwing for 327 yards and three scores on only 13 completions as the Cowboys aggressively attacked the Giants deep.
The 38-year-old, who’s started Dallas’ last three games while Pro Bowl triggerman Tony Romo recovers from a fractured collarbone, produced his first three-touchdown day since the 2007 season opener, while then a member of the Lions.
Detroit will be putting its faith in a backup quarterback as well on Sunday. With 2009 No. 1 overall draft choice Matthew Stafford still sidelined indefinitely after re-injuring his right shoulder in an overtime loss to the New York Jets in Week 9, Shaun Hill will make his second straight start and seventh of the season.
Hill racked up 323 yards on 29-of-50 passing in last weekend’s tussle with the Bills, with the final completion a 20-yard touchdown pass to star receiver Calvin Johnson that cut the Lions’ deficit to two points with only 14 seconds left. The two could not connect on the ensuing conversion try, however, leaving Detroit with its fifth setback of five points or less this season.
Acquired from San Francisco in an offseason trade, Hill also started five straight games for the Lions earlier this season after Stafford separated his throwing shoulder in a season-opening loss at Chicago.
Dallas has an 11-9 lead in its all-time regular-season series with the Lions and won a 28-27 thriller in the most recent meeting between the teams, which took place in Detroit in 2007. The Cowboys scored the game-winning touchdown with just 18 seconds left on a pass from Romo to tight end Jason Witten. The Lions are just 2-6 in non-playoff games held in Dallas, but did come through with a 39-31 victory there during Week 17 of the 2006 season.
In addition to their regular-season history, the teams have met twice in the postseason. The Cowboys were 5-0 winners in a 1970 NFC Divisional Playoff, and the Lions won a 38-6 affair in a 1991 NFC Divisional Playoff.
Both Garrett and Detroit’s Jim Schwartz will be facing one another, as well as their counterpart’s respective teams, for the first time as head coaches.
WHEN THE LIONS HAVE THE BALL
Detroit doesn’t scale back the playbook with Hill (1632 passing yards, 10 TD, 8 INT) under center, as the steady veteran has averaged nearly 45 pass attempts in the five full games he’s played this season and eclipsed 300 yards in three of those assignments. And it makes sense for the Lions to let it rip, considering the offense’s strength lies in a deep pool of receivers headlined by the six-foot-five, 236-pound Johnson (49 receptions, 679 yards), whose nine touchdown grabs are tied for the league lead. The gifted 25-year-old also has surpassed the 100-yard mark in three of the last four games and is coming off a 10-catch, 128-yard effort versus the Bills. He’s not the only weapon in the league’s seventh-ranked passing offense (266.7 ypg), however. Fellow wideout Nate Burleson (30 receptions, 3 TD) and tight ends Brandon Pettigrew (42 receptions, 3 TD) and Tony Scheffler (31 receptions, 1 TD) are all viable options for Hill as well, while speedy running back Jahvid Best (380 rushing yards, 45 receptions, 5 total TD) is a terrific playmaker out of the backfield when healthy. The rookie’s production has been curtailed out of late due to a nagging turf toe problem, however, with less explosive backup Kevin Smith (133 rushing yards, 11 receptions) having received more touches in recent weeks. The Lions don’t run the ball often or particularly well, ranking 30th overall in rushing yards (81.1 ypg) and 29th in attempts (213).
The Hill-to-Johnson connection could be prolific once again on Sunday, as not only have the Cowboys struggled to defend the pass all season long, they’re banged up in the secondary as well. Starting cornerbacks Terence Newman (37 tackles, 1 INT) and Mike Jenkins (34 tackles, 1 INT, 6 PD) both exited last week’s win due to ankle and neck injuries, respectively, which helped attribute to the 373 yards the team allowed through the air to the Giants. Dallas did intercept three passes in the game, however, one of which was returned a club-record 101 yards for a key touchdown by reserve corner Bryan McCann, and both Newman and Jenkins are expected to be available to a backfield that given up 20 touchdown passes on the year, the second-most in the league. The Cowboys also haven’t been able to consistent complement to pass-rushing terror DeMarcus Ware (37 tackles, 8 sacks), as both outside linebacker Anthony Spencer (37 tackles, 3 sacks) and 2009 All-Pro nose tackle Jay Ratliff (21 tackles, 1 sack) are in the midst of down seasons.
WHEN THE COWBOYS HAVE THE BALL
Dallas has been just as pass-oriented as the Lions this season, with the Garrett-run offense next-to-last in the league in both rushing yards (78.7 ypg) and attempts (708). The Cowboys are averaging close to 300 yards per game through the air (3rd overall), however, and can boast a collection of pass- catchers as dangerous as any team has to offer. Kitna (1076 passing yards, 7 TD, 7 INT) has developed a strong rapport with rookie sensation Dez Bryant (41 receptions, 5 TD), who’s averaged six catches and over 90 receiving yards in the three games the journeyman quarterback has started. The young wideout has already been pushing Pro Bowler Miles Austin (47 receptions, 725 yards, 3 TD) for the title of Dallas’ No. 1 receiver, with ex-Lion Roy Williams (25 receptions, 5 TD) having been reduced to a supporting role in the wake of Bryant’s emergence as well. The Cowboys also possess one of the game’s premier tight ends in six-time Pro Bowl selection Jason Witten (46 receptions, 3 TD), while running back Felix Jones (353 rushing yards, 27 receptions, 1 TD) offers an additional big-play threat out of the backfield. The third-year pro took a short Kitna pass 71 yards for a touchdown against the Giants last week and will continue to split carries with short-yardage specialist Marion Barber (258 rushing yards, 2 TD, 8 receptions) when Dallas does run the ball. Turnovers have been an issue at times, with Kitna having thrown seven interceptions in his three starts.
The Lions won’t make it easy on the Dallas offense due to their ability to generate pressure from a quality front four led by rookie standout Ndamukong Suh (33 tackles, 1 INT), whose 6 1/2 sacks from his tackle position tops all interior players this season, and energetic veteran end Kyle Vanden Bosch (45 tackles, 4 sacks). Lineman Cliff Avril (19 tackles, 4 sacks) had also been making an impact as an edge rusher, but he’ll likely sit out a second straight week due to a quadriceps injury. An improving secondary headed up by ball- hawking corner Alphonso Smith (34 tackles, 5 INT, 8 PD) is coming off a strong showing last week, with Buffalo’s Ryan Fitzpatrick completing just 12-of-24 passes for a modest 146 yards on the unit. Detroit wasn’t nearly as effective at containing the run, however, as the Bills’ Fred Jackson erupted for 133 yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. That’s been a problem area for the team through much of the year, as the Lions rank an unwanted 26th in rushing defense (130.2 ypg) and are giving up 4.7 yards per attempt. Second-year safety Louis Delmas (57 tackles) leads the club in tackles and can make plays as a hitter, having come up with two sacks and a pair of forced fumbles on the year.
Though neither of the quarterbacks participating in this game can be termed as elite, there should be plenty of opportunities for both Hill and Kitna to make each a decent fantasy option for those in a bind. There are two must-start receivers here in Detroit’s Johnson and Dallas’ Austin, and Bryant has put himself on the cusp of that category as well with his recent exploits. The Cowboys’ Witten is one of the most reliable fantasy tight ends you’ll find, and the Lions’ Pettigrew offers some value as a secondary choice at that position. Give a thumbs up to Jones, who’ll be taking on a Detroit defense that gave up a big day to a running back last week, but lean towards the sit side with the Lions’ Best due to his injury concerns. Steer clear of either defense in a potentially high-scoring matchup, and neither Dallas’ David Buehler or Detroit’s Dave Rayner can be completely trusted as kickers.
Don’t go rushing to judgement about the underachieving Cowboys off one good performance, as a case can be made for the competitive Lions to pull off what would be considered an upset win. Detroit has played better defensively than Dallas over the course of this season and the offense has the capability of matching its more touted counterpart in the event of a shootout, as Hill has proven to be a competent substitute at quarterback. The Cowboys still have the more talented roster of these two teams, however, and the accountability that was noticeably lacking under the Phillips regime seems to have been re- established under Garrett’s command. Look for the Lions to once again play an opponent tough, but wind up with a too-familiar result on the road against a Dallas squad that’s finally regained its focus.