On Paper: Detroit Lions At Dallas Cowboys

Last week, the Lions pulled off an amazing 20-point comeback against the Vikings. When the Lions got the game to 17-20, I was getting pretty excited about the chances of a win, but I couldn't help myself from getting a little giddy about my 24-20 prediction. In the end, I didn't have an exact prediction for the second time in three weeks, but I was pretty darn satisfied with the final result.

This week the Lions take the national stage as FOX's premier game against the Cowboys. The Lions come to Dallas as one-point underdogs despite their 3-0 record. Oddsmakers apparently were convinced by the Cowboys' impressive (?) win over the Redskins on Monday night. Not sure I agree with that, but what do the numbers say?

Lions Pass Offense (4th) vs. Cowboys Pass Defense (12th)

Lions_pass_o_medium 

Ah, the illustrious perfect chart. It's a beautiful thing. The Lions undoubtedly have one of the best passing attacks in the league. They rank fourth in yards, second in TDs, third in passer rating, seventh in completion percentage and have the seventh least interceptions in the league. It's going to be fun seeing how long they can keep this chart entirely green.

Cowboys_pass_d_medium

The Cowboys pass defense looks pretty average. All opponents came within 10 points of their passer rating average, while the yardage numbers are kind of all over the place. Not surprisingly, the Cowboys sit exactly in the middle of the league in passer rating allowed (87.2). 

Obviously, the key to this matchup is pass protection. The Lions forfeited their first sack of the season last week, then gave up four more. The offensive line's job doesn't get any easier with DeMarcus Ware, potentially the best pass rusher in the league, lining up opposite the Lions this week.

Out of curiosity, I watched last year's game between the two teams. Ware was only credited with a half of a sack and two tackles. Ware did get to the quarterback multiple times this game, but Shaun Hill got rid of the ball very quickly that day. Interestingly, Ware lined up on both sides of the line, so he will not just be Jeff Backus' responsibility. In that game, Ware was not the most dangerous pass rusher on the field. Jay Ratliff, though only credited with half of a sack as well, was giving Dominic Raiola fits. Ratliff only has one sack on the year, but watch out for him on Sunday. Still, we have seen what the Lions can do despite sketchy pass protection. Lions +2.

Lions Run Offense (26th) vs. Cowboys Run Defense (2nd)

Lions_run_o_medium

Now the ugliness. Despite their commitment to the run, the Lions could not get things going against the Vikings. Though they trailed nearly the entire game, the Lions stuck with the gameplan and ran the ball 19 times. While it was ineffective on the stat sheet (20 yards), it undoubtedly had a positive effect on the passing game. But Jim Schwartz said it himself, "I think we had nine lost yards in the run game and that puts you behind the eight-ball." The Lions are nowhere near where they want to be as a running team, but that hasn't changed the final product ... yet.

Cowboys_run_d_medium 

The Cowboys' only "bad" performance was allowing 74 yards on 24 rushes against the 49ers. In that game, Frank Gore averaged 2.4 a carry, while the rest of the yards were gained mostly by a scrambling Alex Smith. Dallas has only given up 3.0 a carry overall (third) and is one of four teams yet to give up a rush of over 20 yards.  

There's no question Dallas has the advantage in this matchup. However, as Schwartz said last week, the Lions effectively used Brandon Pettigrew as the Lions running game. Therefore, while the Cowboys have the clear advantage, it might not matter much in the outcome of the game. Cowboys +1.

Cowboys Pass Offense (3rd) vs. Lions Pass Defense (4th)

Cowboys_pass_o_medium

*Romo+Kitna

Dallas counters Detroit's high-octane offense with one that is just as lethal ... or is it? The Cowboys passing attack ranks third in yards, but only 13th in passer rating and 17th in completion percentage. The Cowboys have thrown for only five touchdowns to four interceptions (though two interceptions were thrown by their backup, Jon Kitna). Tony Romo is still ailing from a rib injury, but he played effectively last week. Romo was without one his favorite targets, Miles Austin, last week and will not have him back on Sunday. 

Lions_pass_d_medium

I find this verrrrrry interesting. Despite being ranked the fourth best passing defense, the Lions have a pretty awful-looking chart. This begs the question, is Detroit's high ranking a result of playing against poor passing teams or do those teams look bad because of Detroit's good pass defense? Well, so far, the Lions have faced the 21st, 29th and 31st ranked passing offenses. Obviously, these ranking can fluctuate greatly throughout the season, but it's something to keep your eye on. 

In other stats, the Lions rank third in passer rating allowed, 11th in sacks, 23rd in completion percentage allowed and are tied with the seventh most interceptions in the league (four). It seems like the Lions probably aren't a top five passing defense, but it's clear they are, at least, above average. Therefore, it would be reasonable to expect the Cowboys to perform slightly below average. The Cowboys are averaging 334 yards and 1.6 TDs a game through the air. I expect them to tally up a bunch of yards, but as we all saw on Monday night, they struggle in the red zone. Therefore they get a small advantage. Cowboys +1.

Cowboys Run Offense (27th) vs. Lions Run Defense (21st)

Cowboys_run_o_medium

Dallas has not been too successful so far on the ground. Last week, they finally got it going against an average run defense. Speedster Felix Jones leads the team with 184 rushing yards on 4.6 a carry. Jones is struggling with a shoulder injury, but he participated fully on Thursday, so expect him to play.  

Lions_run_d_medium

Detroit, while having faced two (maybe even three) solid running teams, has not done a very good job. Week one they effectively shut down LeGarrette Blount, but they have since allowed the Chiefs and Vikings to rack up 5.2 and 5.7 a carry, respectively. Overall, the Lions have allowed opponents to gain 5.0 a carry on the ground, which is third worst in the league. Things may get worse this week, as Justin Durant has yet to be cleared to practice from a concussion suffered last week. 

It was believed, originally, that this would be the first week we saw Nick Fairley, but it's becoming clearer and clearer that he isn't quite ready. I would be surprised to see him active on Sunday. While Detroit's run defense is less than stellar, Dallas doesn't exactly bring a strong running offense to the table. This week there will be no Marion Barber hair-pulling controversy, as he now resides in Chicago. Therefore, we got ourselves a draw.

Overall

As unsatisfying as it is, we are left with an overall tie, which leads me to look elsewhere for a game-changer. The sample-size of special team statistics is still too small, but we know the dangers of Stefan Logan and the reliability of Jason Hanson. Dallas obviously has the homefield advantage, but Detroit is riding a four-game road winning streak (!!!). Still, it's hard to objectively give one of these teams the advantage over the other. Therefore, I have to rely on my subjective, Lions-biased brain. Lions 30, Cowboys 27. 

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