On Paper: Detroit Lions Vs. Atlanta Falcons

Last week, "On Paper" once again, predicted the future, albeit against my own desires. That moves the feature to 6-0 on the year, and with fairly decent score predictions as well. At this point, I have fully accepted that I am no longer predicting the future, but creating it. Therefore, I want to apologize to the city of Detroit for last week's loss. The problem was not with Stafford, or the run defense or special teams coverage. No. It was clearly me. I will try to do better, but you must realize I am at the charts' mercy. So pray to the almighty Chart Gods that they will be kinder to the Lions this week against the 3-3 Atlanta Falcons.

Lions Pass Offense (8th) vs. Falcons Pass Defense (27th) 

Lions_pass_o_medium

Okay, off to a good start.

I'll be honest, I'm a bit surprised at how green this graph continues to be. Over at my own blog, I compared Matthew Stafford's stats from the first three weeks to the past three games. Here's what that looks like:

Stafford_step_up_medium
I don't think Stafford has played his best in the past couple weeks, yet his performances continue to exceed the opponents' averages. Clearly, the Lions' opponents have improved over the past couple weeks, and that has much to do with Stafford's perceived struggles. 

Falcons_pass_d_medium

The Falcons appear to be running a somewhat average pass defense. They have prevented three quarterbacks from reaching their passer rating average but only two teams from reaching their average yardage. Falcons opponents are averaging a passer rating of 88.5 (21st), a completion percentage of 66.7 (28th), and 8.3 yards per attempt (26th). They also only have ten sacks on the year (22nd). All signs point to Stafford having an above average day. Since Stafford is averaging 288 yards and over two touchdowns a game, you can expect a great performance on Sunday. Lions +2.5.

Lions Run Offense (25th) vs. Falcons Run Defense (7th)

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The running game has been the focus of talk this week around Detroit. Jahvid Best is out due to his second concussion of the year, and Detroit's attempt to strengthen the backfield by adding Ronnie Brown was denied when Jerome Harrison was found to have a brain tumor. Atlanta will likely get a healthy dose of Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams, which shouldn't scare them at all. Both are serviceable backs but don't offer the home-run ability of Best. Detroit's chart has a lot of red. Meanwhile ...

Falcons_rush_d_medium

... Atlanta's is covered in green. The Falcons undoubtedly have one of the best running defenses in the league. They rank seventh in both yards allowed and yards per carry allowed. They've only allowed two rushes of 20+ yards (T-4th) and have forced four fumbles (T-5th). 

Last week, many thought the Lions lack of a running game cost them in the fourth quarter, when they were unable to hold a lead. If they are in a similar situation again this week, they will face the same struggles. Atlanta +1.

Falcons Pass Offense (20th) vs. Lions Pass Defense (6th) 

Falcons_pass_o_medium 

This year, Matt Ryan, appears to be having a somewhat underwhelming season. You might even say that Matty Ice ... has cooled down. (YEAAAAAAAAAAAH!) Ahem. Sorry about that. 

Anyway, the biggest issue facing the Falcons' passing attack appears to be pass protection. They have given up 15 sacks on the season (T-10th most). However, they have also attempted the sixth most passes, so the more you drop back, the more opportunities to be taken down, obviously. The Falcons rank 19th in passer rating (82.1), 23rd in yards per attempt (6.7) and 16th in completion percentage (61.5%). It seems pretty clear that they are a very average team when passing the ball.

This week, a lot will depend on the availability of Atlanta's rookie star receiver Julio Jones. Jones did not practice Wednesday or Thursday and appears to be headed to Detroit as a game-time decision. However, Jones is not their only weapon. Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez are both huge threats through the air.

Lions_pass_d_medium

Detroit counters with the seventh ranked passing defense by passing yards, fifth by passer rating. But the chart tells a different story. What's going on? Well, the entire point of these charts is to figure in strength of opponent, and it is pretty clear the Lions have not faced many decent passing teams. In fact, only one team is averaging over 250 yards a game thus far. The good news is that the Lions are continuing to hold half of their opponents below their already low passer rating averages. I think it's fair to assume the Lions' pass defense is about average, maybe slightly above-average. So we have an average pass offense against a fairly average pass defense. It looks pretty clear here: Draw. 

Falcons Run Offense (16th) vs. Lions Run Defense (26th)

Falcons_rush_o_medium

Here's the matchup most worrisome for Lions fans. Michael Turner and the Falcons bolster the 16th ranked rushing attack by yardage and 11th ranked by yards per carry. More impressively, they've done so against some pretty decent run defenses. Turner is a tackle-breaking machine and also a big-play threat with two rushes of over 40 yards on the season (T-fourth). By player, Turner ranks eighth in yards and is tied for second in rushing touchdowns. No doubt in my mind that Turner possesses an above-average threat to the Lions.

Lions_run_d_medium

Well, this is not promising. The lack of a decent run defense has been the most puzzling aspect of the Lions this season. With an incredible front four and a much-improved linebacking squad, it has been more than frustrating watching opponents continually gash the Lions on the ground. 

Over at MLive, Philip Zaroo provided a little clarity on Detroit's biggest flaw. What I found most interesting was this little snippet: "Detroit's opponents have gained 403 yards on 134 carries, which would be an NFL-best 3.0 yards allowed per carry. But on the other 15 carries, they have gained 374 yards, which would be 32nd among the 32 teams in the league."

Of course, taking out a handful of runs on any teams' defense would make them look extremely better, but as we've seen, when the Lions have needed a big stop on the ground, they've mostly stood up to the challenge. They've proven to be a great third or fourth and short defense. 

Overall, this is a tough matchup to predict, but may be the key to the game. I believe the Lions run defense is better than the chart suggests, but there's little data to prove it. I expect Turner to at the very least hit the century mark and reach the end zone once. Atlanta +1.5. 

Overall

Tallying up, it appears we have ourselves a good ole-fashioned draw. And if I'm being completely honest, I almost gave Atlanta a bigger advantage against the Lions' running offense. However, I figured that because they have such a clear advantage in the passing game, they will not be relying on the running game as often as usual. 

I think what was most striking about this week's charts was how average the Lions looked. Don't get me wrong, I'll take an average team over what we've had in the past, but I think too many fans are losing sight that the Lions could very well be a 3-3 team, if it weren't for a pair of immaculate 20+ point comebacks. 

Fortunately for the Lions, their strengths are in the right places. We all know the NFL is becoming a passing league and Detroit has a great passing offense and, at the very least, an average pass defense. And I think that is what will be the difference against the Falcons (along with homefield advantage). This game could very well go either way, but I refuse to pick against the Lions again after I clearly caused the loss last week. Lions 27, Falcons 24.

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