On Paper: Detroit Lions At Tampa Bay Buccaneers

For those of you who aren't familiar with my previews or have just forgotten how it works, here's the breakdown. "On Paper" previews focus on the statistical performance of each team and builds conclusions based on such analysis. What makes "On Paper" unique is that I analyze prior performances in the context of the opponents each team has played.  

Each chart represents one unit of a team (Bucs Pass Offense, Lions Run Defense, etc.). Therefore there are eight total charts (four units, two teams). Each chart lists the opponents the team has played, their performance that week and season averages to compare their performance for that week.

The purpose of this is because stats can be very misleading without the proper context. If the Lions give up 250 yards, two TDs, and one INT through the air, that looks bad.  But if it's against the Packers, who are (hypothetically) averaging 290 yards and three TDs, that is actually a very good performance. So if the team performs better than average on a given week, the cell is highlighted green; a bad performance is red. The color-coding system is based on the team being analyzed, so green doesn't necessarily mean good for the Lions. Confused? You can check out my past previews, but you'll get used it.

After analyzing each chart, I give a matchup edge to one team on a 0-5 scale. The scale is based not only on which team looks better in this matchup, but how likely this edge will affect the final outcome of the game. A +5 advantage would predict that this matchup is key and likely to win the game for the team.

One last note before I get started: for the first few weeks I will be using preseason data for the lack of better statistics. All preseason data in the charts are from the first three weeks only and represent ONLY the first-string players. It's important to keep in mind that, not only was this the preseason, but the sample size is very small so far. The charts should be considered an aide for analysis, not a crutch.

Lions Pass Offense vs. Bucs Pass Defense

Let's start this thing off right by reveling in what was an amazing preseason by Matthew Stafford:

Lions_pass_o_medium

As you can see, Stafford dominated almost every category. His only failure to meet averages was when he threw a 60% completion rate against a Cleveland defense that gave up a 64.1 completion percentage in the preseason.

Now here's how the Buccaneers pass defense performed in the preseason:

Bucs_pass_d_medium

In an "On Paper" first, the first-string Chiefs offense did not throw a pass against the Bucs. They did run one pass play, but Matt Cassel was sacked. In the other two games, the Bucs first string failed to stop the quarterback from reaching their averages. Even Chad Henne had his way with the Bucs defense. However, if I've learned anything from doing these previews in the preseason, it's that passing offenses typically have their statistics artificially inflated in preseason games. Both of these charts should be taken with a grain of salt.

So how do we analyze this matchup? The most obvious way is to look at last year's matchup. However, there are two big differences from last year: Tampa Bay will have Aqib Talib and Detroit will have Stafford. Last year, Calvin Johnson single-handedly won the game for the Lions, pulling down ten catches for 152 yards. He was absolutely essential in the game-tying and game-winning drives. However, this year, he will likely be shadowed by Talib all day. But with Stafford behind center, and most of Detroit's other options healthy, the Lions will not have to rely on Johnson like Drew Stanton did last year. 

The last aspect to consider in this matchup is the Bucs' pass rush. Tampa bolstered their front four by spending two draft picks on linemen. Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers are both expected to see significant playing time in their debuts (although Bowers is not starting). However, the Lions are bringing back the same offensive line from last year, who was surprisingly solid in pass protection.

Tampa Bay will likely be one of the better pass defenses the Lions face this year. It will be a great test, both for Stafford and the offensive line. But Detroit has too many weapons for 90% of the league to contain.  This matchup might be in the Lions favor every game this season. Lions +2.5.

Lions Run Offense vs. Bucs Run Defense

Lions:

Lions_run_o_medium

*Best and Brown

**Brown and Harrison

It's no secret among Lions fans that the running game has been iffy (at best) this preseason.  With Jahvid Best getting concussed, Maurice Morris being absent, and the Lions shuffling the bottom of the depth chart, it's hard to know what to expect from them in week one. The offensive line was not very impressive this preseason, but the biggest question from this unit is, how many snaps are the Lions going to devote to the run game? There's absolutely no question the strength of this offense is through the air, and earlier this offseason, I pointed out that teams with no running attack can still be very successful in this league. This year should test this hypothesis. 

Bucs:

Bucs_run_d_medium

The Bucs could not do much to hold the Chiefs and Patriots below their preseason averages, but they embarrassed Reggie Bush in the "all-important" third preseason game. Be aware that sample sizes for the running game are especially small. Bush's stats against the Bucs were four rushes for -1 yards.  

Last year, Morris had his best game against the Bucs, rushing for 109 yards and a TD on 15 carries. This year, I see the Lions struggling, but not devoting many snaps to the run game. With the Bucs having an improved line and the Detroit offensive line looking unimpressive in 2011, I have to give the advantage to the Bucs, +1.

Bucs Pass Offense vs. Lions Pass Defense

First the Bucs:

Bucs_pass_o_medium

Josh Freeman had himself an underwhelming preseason after his breakout year last season. This is especially surprising given the fact that statistics are usually inflated during the preseason. Of course, the games don't count and the sample size is small. Still, I can't help but raise an eyebrow at Freeman's 56.5 completion percentage and 72.3 quarterback rating. Analysts are quick to anoint Freeman as a quarterback destined for greatness, but I'm not convinced yet.  

And the Lions...

Lions_pass_d_medium

That's a bit surprising. The perception among many was that the Lions pass defense struggled during the preseason and will likely struggle throughout the entire year. However, these charts tell a different story. They dominated Tom Brady and the Patriots, and although Colt McCoy had an impressive QB rating, his completion percentage was less than average. 

But, once again, let's look past the preseason and into last year's matchup. Freeman didn't dominate, but he did control the game. Freeman put up 255 yards with a QB rating of 99.9 and didn't turn the ball over.

The Lions sacked Freeman three times that game, and could have had more if Freeman weren't so elusive. The Bucs offensive line is mostly intact, and although they looked sketchy in the preseason, this should be a tough test for the Lions impressive front four. 

I think this matchup may be key to winning the game, but, on paper, there's no clear advantage. Draw.

Bucs Run Offense vs. Lions Run Defense

First, the Bucs: 

Bucs_run_o_medium

Not very impressive. Tampa's smash-mouth running game only earned LeGarrette Blount 29 yards on 14 carries (2.1 a pop). Though the sample size is very small, that number should concern fans of the Bucs.

Los Leos: 

Lions_run_d_medium

*Brandon Jackson, not Peyton Hillis

After allowing Cedric Benson to run all over them, the Lions picked it up in the next two preseason games. As noted, the Cleveland stats are a little misleading, as the Browns were without their first, second and third string running back. Still, the Lions did their job against them and the Patriots.

But, statistics aside, it was clear the Lions still had much to improve on in stopping the run. Often there were clear lanes for backs, and while the linebacking crew has been improved, this is still an area of concern.  

Last year, the Bucs nearly ran their way to a victory. Blount alone had 110 yards and a TD on 15 carries (7.3 a carry). He'll have to work much harder to get to that mark this year. With Stephen Tulloch, the Lions have added a tackling machine. Blount is listed as 6'0", 247 lbs. to Tulloch's 5'11", 240 lbs. A dead heat. And that's how I see this matchup playing out. It should be very even, but due to last year's success, I'm going to give the Bucs the slight advantage. Bucs +0.5.

Special Teams and Turnovers will be broken down when there is sufficient data (week 3/4).

Overall

The Lions come out with a very slight +1 advantage, all of which is based on their passing attack. Get used to it, because that is the identity of the team. The Bucs are similar with the Lions both in expectations and talent. Both teams are starting a young quarterback hoping to make a big step toward elitism this year. Both teams have spent resources on bulking up an intimidating defensive line. The biggest difference is in the offensive styles. The Lions can attack quickly and often, while the Bucs are looking to grind out a win through hard running and safe passes. Whichever philosophy proves more competent on Sunday will likely result in a win. This week, I like the Lions' chances. 27-20 Lions.

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