This is the Jim Schwartz Reunion Show.
While it’s unknown exactly how Lions fans will treat Schwartz when he enters Ford Field on Sunday for a game for the first time since cursing at some fans in last season’s home finale, former players will almost definitely be cordial to him.
ESPN.com Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Bills reporter Mike Rodak break down this week’s game.
Rothstein: So this is the Jim Schwartz homecoming game. How much similarity is there in what Schwartz is running now and what he ran the past couple of years in Detroit?
Rodak: It’s almost uncanny how similar the blitz numbers are between Schwartz’s defense so far this season and his defense in five seasons with the Lions. From 2009-2013, the Lions blitzed on 23 percent of plays. Through four games with Schwartz as defensive coordinator this season, the Bills have blitzed 22.7 percent of the time. Over that time, the Lions had an identical QB pressure rate of 23 percent, while the Bills have a 24.4 percent pressure rate this season. Schwartz’s defensive line is again the strength of his team, and he’s able to use Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes in some of those wider alignments that were part of his scheme in Detroit. Schwartz has also been known for his defense’s ability to stop the run. That hasn’t changed, either; the Bills rank second in the NFL behind the Seattle Seahawks, allowing just 2.89 yards per carry.
On the flip side, how much has changed for the Lions since Schwartz left? This always seemed like a talented team that underachieved during Schwartz’s tenure. The Lions are now 3-1, so what has been different?
Rothstein: A lot has changed. Schematically, the Lions are using two tight ends a lot more than they did under Schwartz and Scott Linehan. Defensively, Detroit is blitzing a lot more than it did last season, when the Lions blitzed less than any team in the NFL. More important, though, there's more accountability this season than there was in 2013 under Schwartz. Schwartz never belittled his star players -- particularly Matthew Stafford -- publicly, but multiple players have pointed out this season that it feels like every player is treated the same under this coaching staff.
Also, Jim Caldwell is not a yeller. Not even close. He has a very calm demeanor, and with this team right now, it appears to be working. Detroit's players are buying into that and it's a big reason the Lions are 3-1. It also helps that Stafford is playing extremely well right now and the defensive front is making it hard for teams to run on the Lions. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has also been a big factor. His ability to scheme despite losing starting linebacker Stephen Tulloch and a multitude of defensive backs over the first four weeks of the season has been impressive.
Rodak: I wouldn’t go as far as to say Orton can take over and win games where Manuel was unable, but it gives the Bills a better shot. The Bills felt as though they surrounded Manuel with plenty of weapons for him to succeed -- a strong running game with two showcase backs, a top-flight talent in Sammy Watkins, and two other capable receivers in Robert Woods and Mike Williams. It just never came together for Manuel and a shake-up was inevitable. The Bills’ hope is that Orton can take advantage of those weapons. He’s not going to be Aaron Rodgers, but if he’s better than Manuel, then the move was worth it. The Bills’ passing “attack” was the main contributor to their last two losses. It may not be the main reason why they win -- if they do with Orton -- but it takes some pressure off the defense to do all the work.
The Lions’ offense gains 76 percent of its total yards through the air, the seventh-highest rate in the NFL. Even with Calvin Johnson hobbled lately by an ankle injury, how have Stafford and others been able to get it done?
Rothstein: A lot of underneath routes and Golden Tate. The Lions signing Tate gave them a legitimate No. 2 receiver and a player who could pick up the targets effectively for this particular scenario. Detroit also added Eric Ebron in the first round of the draft, and while he hasn't done much so far, his role appears to be expanding by the week. But a lot of it has to do with Stafford. He's making smarter decisions, finding the open player and showing more patience than last season, even as his line is not protecting him nearly as well as a year ago.
We talked about the defense at the top of this, so let's come back to that for this final question. The Bills are second in the league in run defense, allowing 2.89 yards a carry. Is this a defense better at stopping between-the-tackles runners or can they handle an edge guy like Reggie Bush as well?
Rodak: It starts up front with a defensive line that is unmatched. Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams, both Pro Bowlers last season, clog up the middle better than anyone, while Mario Williams and Hughes have buttoned up the outside. The problem, however, is a knee injury to Kyle Williams in last Sunday’s loss to the Houston Texans that could threaten his availability in Detroit. If the Bills need to turn to backups Stefan Charles or Corbin Bryant, they’ll be more prone to runs up the middle. On the second level, they added Brandon Spikes this offseason, and while he has been limited in his playing time, he has brought some physicality that has added another dimension to the run defense. The Bills don’t have the fastest group of linebackers, so if the Lions want to find a way to exploit that, they should give the ball to Bush in space and see if he can make some plays.
One of the Lions’ strengths is their defensive line, and we know the impact Ndamukong Suh can have on a game. Yet the Lions' defense as a whole has allowed only 15 points per game, fourth fewest in the NFL, so surely there’s more to the defense than the front four. Where else have they excelled?
Rothstein: Teryl Austin has done a great job masking any issues the Lions may have because of injury (linebacker, slot corner) and has come up with different ways to pressure opposing offenses. It has probably helped some that there hasn’t been a ton of film on Austin’s tendencies yet, so it’ll be interesting to see if this keeps up. But four weeks in, it has been tough to face the Detroit defense. DeAndre Levy is a major reason for the success, too. He’s still pretty underrated nationally, but is one of the best coverage linebackers in the league and is always around the ball. Having a guy like that in the middle third of your defense can hide any problems.