Lions vs. Buccaneers preview

When: 1 p.m., Sunday Where: Ford Field, Detroit TV: Fox

Tampa Bay came into Detroit last season as a struggling team trying to salvage a season and ended up stunning the Detroit Lions, who at the time appeared to be headed to the playoffs.

This season, the Buccaneers are once again struggling. The Lions are once again looking like a team that could make a strong playoff push. Can Tampa Bay knock Detroit off the playoff path for the second straight season? Or do the Lions build on their best overall performance of the season on Thanksgiving against Chicago?

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Tampa Bay Buccaneers reporter Pat Yasinskas take you inside the matchup in this week’s preview.

Rothstein: Lions coach Jim Caldwell has been saying for days now how tough this Tampa Bay team is despite its record. So what’s been the issue here? Is there one overarching thing that has gone wrong with the Buccaneers?

Yasinskas: I don't think you can put all the blame on any single area. It's been a combination of many things, and Caldwell is right that this team might be better than its record. There's plenty of individual talent with the likes of Gerald McCoy, Lavonte David and Mike Evans. But the Bucs were slow to pick up Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 scheme, and the offense never has gotten into a true rhythm since losing coordinator Jeff Tedford to a leave of absence at the end of the preseason. The defense has improved in the second half of the season, but the offense remains dreadful.

Obviously, things are much different in Detroit with the Lions at 8-4. What's been going right for the Lions?

Rothstein: A lot of everything, run game excluded. The Lions really bought Jim Caldwell’s message from the outset, and his calming demeanor has really, really helped. Players are convinced that was at least part of the reason they were able to win three straight games with scores in the final two minutes. Add into that a defense that is completely adaptable and somewhat impenetrable against the run, and that’s a large reason why Detroit is 8-4 heading into the final month of the season. The past two weeks are good examples of that, as both New England and Chicago essentially abandoned the run early as part of the game plan. That’s where teams are right now.

Looking at the Tampa offense, Evans is a guy the Lions were looking at in the draft before the Bucs scooped him up. How has he matured throughout the season? He already seems to be an effective weapon.

Yasinskas: Evans has been the brightest spot in a very disappointing season. He jumped immediately into the starting lineup and has made rapid progress. He's outproducing Vincent Jackson, and the Bucs believe Evans eventually will be a very good No. 1 receiver. For now, they're content to have him in tandem with Jackson. They form a combination that can create a lot of matchup problems for defensive backs because they both are 6-foot-5. Throw in tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who is the same height, and you almost have an NBA front line. That's tough to defend if you've got 5-10 or 5-11 defensive backs.

The Lions have endured a lot of shuffling on their offensive line. I know Riley Reiff and Larry Warford have been banged up, and Cornelius Lucas and Travis Swanson have been getting playing time. How are Reiff and Warford coming along, and how is the line shaping up for Sunday?

Rothstein: As of now it would appear Swanson will get at least one more start at right guard before Warford, who was Detroit’s best lineman this season before his injury, really has a shot to return to the lineup. Reiff also could return this week, as Lions coach Jim Caldwell indicated Reiff would have been a lot closer to returning if Detroit had played Sunday instead of last Thursday.

But Swanson and Lucas have both done fairly well -- Lucas, especially, against Jared Allen on Thanksgiving -- in place of Warford and Reiff. This is actually a better sign for Detroit’s future, considering center Dominic Raiola and left guard Rob Sims are in the final year of their contracts. But for now, Detroit will take having offensive line depth, something that ends up being critical when big bodies start to break down toward the end of the year.

Looking at Tampa’s defense, the Bucs had Darrelle Revis on defense to handle Calvin Johnson. What do the Buccaneers do this season -- especially since it seems like Tampa has allowed quarterbacks of every type to complete a high percentage of passes this season?

Yasinskas: Obviously, Revis is gone, so there won't be any dramatic, one-on-one matchup with Johnson. The Bucs have switched to a Tampa 2 defense, and trying to cover Johnson will be a collaborative effort. Cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks have been playing well lately, but they'll need plenty of help from the safeties. The Bucs have allowed a high percentage of completions, but that's part of the Tampa 2 scheme. The philosophy is to allow short passes and prevent long ones. Then again, that formula hasn't always worked to perfection for the Bucs this season.

What's been the key to Detroit's defensive turnaround this season?

Rothstein: There hasn’t been one key but a number of factors. It starts with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, who has been able to mask every defensive injury the Lions have had this season (Stephen Tulloch, Nick Fairley, nickel corners, James Ihedigbo for three games) and has been exceptional at playing to his players’ strengths. The Lions have also gotten better pressure from their defensive line, led by Ndamukong Suh and an emerging star in defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. This has allowed Detroit’s secondary to cover just a hair of a second less and allowed them to make breaks on quarterbacks’ mistakes.

It’s been a group effort, though, with the Lions.