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5 Questions with the Enemy: Brian Branch stands out for the Lions

Branch, a safety prospect who is playing in the slot for Detroit, has quickly developed into one of the team’s best players.

Detroit Lions v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

Ryan Mathews of Pride of Detroit, Acme Packing Company’s sister site covering the Detroit Lions, took some time out of his week to help us preview the upcoming Packers-Lions Thursday Night Football game. If you want a look in the mind of a Lions fan heading into the game, you’ll get no better look than Mathews’ thoughts on the team.

Here is this week’s edition of 5 Questions with the Enemy:

Tell me about these new offensive weapons that the Detroit Lions have. I know people were surprised that Sam LaPorta was drafted earlier than some of these other tight ends in the draft and I don’t think anyone had Jahmyr Gibbs going 12th overall. How have they been used so far this season?

As you alluded to, LaPorta wasn’t really part of that top tier of tight ends during the pre-draft process. Names like Dalton Kincaid and Michael Mayer paced the class and earned the most attention, while LaPorta flew under the radar until the week leading up to the draft–where his name started to get more buzz than guys like Darnell Washington and Luke Musgrave.

The learning curve is pretty steep for rookie tight ends, and there’s a lot of responsibility for tight ends in this Ben Johnson offense, so expectations seemed to be pretty tempered for LaPorta heading into the season. It’s fair to say he’s completely surpassed anyone’s wildest hopes for him through three games, but it’s been more than just the box score numbers: he’s making the kind of plays in the run game that made T.J. Hockenson expendable at last year’s trade deadline. It’s not all perfect by any means, but Dan Campbell’s comments post game last week about LaPorta not making the same mistake twice is an indication of how much this coaching staff trusts him–and the workload he’s been given bears that out.

Drafting Gibbs twelfth overall shocked a lot of folks–including you guys–but the writing was on the wall. People weren’t anticipating him getting drafted that early, but he was going to be a first-round pick, and it’s clear the Lions wanted to reimagine their backfield after choosing David Montgomery over Jamaal Williams in free agency. D’Andre Swift’s inability to stay healthy or to play through being hurt meant Detroit had a spot for a dynamic player in their offense, and that’s what they hope to get out of Gibbs–a complementary, positionless player who is a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. He isn’t the lead back or the feature back that fantasy football nerds expected him to be because of where he was selected, but getting him around 15 touches per game seems to be the plan when Montgomery is healthy. Last week, when Montgomery was out, Gibbs got the bulk of the carries (17 for 80 yards) with a patchworked offensive line, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out on Thursday given Montgomery’s injury status.

What’s the deal with the passing offense? Is the key still pressuring Jared Goff? It’s felt like every time the Packers and Lions play, pressure is the difference between Goff sitting back there and patting the ball like he’s Tom Brady.

Pressuring most quarterbacks usually does the trick, and Goff falls into that group, but through three games this year, Goff’s numbers under pressure rank in the top half of the league. He’s ninth in passer rating (91.8) and 12th in both adjusted completion percentage (65.5%) and big-time throw rate (5.9%). The Lions haven’t faced a pass rusher the caliber of Rashan Gary yet this season, and with left tackle Taylor Decker trending towards playing through an ankle injury that’s kept him out of the lineup the past two games, Gary lined up against either Decker or Penei Sewell will be a matchup to keep an eye on to see just how well Goff can operate under pressure.

What’s the injury update in Detroit? Which players has the coaching staff hinted that might get back on the field in a short week?

As mentioned, Decker returning to the lineup would be a huge boost for this offensive line. For the past two weeks, Sewell has flipped over to left tackle in Decker’s absence, so getting both of those guys into their natural positions on the line would get things back in order. After the way Montgomery exited the game against Seattle in Week 2, and given the short turnaround to get ready for Thursday, it seemed like a longshot to see him suit up against the Packers, but he’s been limited in practice this week and there’s a real chance at him getting back on the field sooner than expected. Detroit will likely be without starting safety Kerby Joseph for the second week in a row, and they lost C.J. Gardner-Johnson for the season, but Tracy Walker and Ifeatu Melifonwu stepped up and played well in their first bit of extended action last week against Atlanta.

A lot of Packers fans wanted Brian Branch in the first round as a potential starting safety in this past draft. I know he’s playing the nickel, which I thought was his best position, for you guys. How much of a game-changer has he been?

A lot of teams fans wanted Brian Branch, but after getting passed over 44 times, the Packers traded the 45th pick to the Lions and that’s going to be something they regret at least a couple of times a year for the foreseeable future. Branch should be the poster child for prioritizing play speed over timed speed. When the Lions signed Gardner-Johnson, he seemed like a natural fit to play the nickel position in Aaron Glenn’s defense, his former defensive backs coach in New Orleans. Branch’s play at the nickel spot during training camp, however, had the Lions change course and move Gardner-Johnson to safety. His run/pass anticipation, his short-area quickness near the line of scrimmage to sniff out screens, and his sure-tackling has made a huge difference for this Lions defense through three games.

If you had to make one bet on this game, what are you taking?

There’s a weekly special bet over on DraftKings I’ll make at some point: Amon-Ra St. Brown 100+ receiving yards and Jahmyr Gibbs 50+ rushing yards at +500 odds. Goff targets St. Brown unlike any other player in this offense (27 targets through three weeks) and St. Brown has cleared that receiving total in the past two games. With the offensive line back together, all it could take is one hole for Gibbs to clear that total of 50 rushing yards, and if they’re managing the workload of Montgomery, Gibbs could be in line for more carries.