It's Week 7 of the NFL season and the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints find themselves in unfamiliar places. The Lions (4-2) sit atop the NFC North with an unblemished 2-0 record in the division. The Saints (2-3), on the other hand, sit second in their underperforming division. But the Saints come into this game fresh off their bye week relatively healthy. The Lions, on the other hand, continue to run up an expensive medical bill. But injuries aside, which team has the statistical edge?
Lions pass offense (14th) vs. Saints pass defense (25th)
Matthew Stafford and the Lions pass offense continue to have an underwhelming season. Last week, Stafford threw for just 185 yards, his lowest total since October 2011 (not including games played in a snow fortress). Overall, Stafford has just two standout games this season, and the rest is pretty ugly.
Detroit now ranks 20th in passer rating (88.4), 11th in yards per attempt (7.5) and 22nd in completion percentage (62.3 percent). It is no secret that much of the failure of the passing attack has been at the hands of the offensive line. The Lions have surrendered 21 sacks this season. Only the Minnesota Vikings and Jacksonville Jaguars have allowed more.
To make matters worse, the Lions are suffering from a load of injuries on offense. Calvin Johnson remains doubtful to play, and Eric Ebron was added to the injury list this week and may be held out. Add that to an ailing Reggie Bush, a clumsy Joseph Fauria and a questionable Theo Riddick and suddenly Detroit's weapon-heavy offense is stripped down to its bare bones.
Fortunately for Detroit, the Saints have struggled to slow opposing quarterbacks all year. They were only able to hold the Cleveland Browns below their yardage and passer rating averages (and they still lost that game). Every other team was able to meet or exceed their averages in both yardage and passer rating against the Saints.
The Saints are ranked 26th in passer rating allowed (103.2), t-23rd in yards per attempt allowed (7.8) and 20th in completion percentage allowed (64.6 percent). They are also not a very opportunistic defense this season, nabbing just one interception (tied for last) and six sacks (t-28th) thus far.
Player to watch: Ryan Broyles. Yes, Ryan Broyles. If Ebron can't go, the Lions will have no choice but to give Broyles a shot. Though Broyles only has three targets on the season, I think this is the week he finally gets a chance to prove his worth to the Lions. Broyles' passion is easy to see both on and off the field, and I don't think that can be overlooked forever.
Advantage: Lions +0.5. I can't give the Lions a big advantage here due to injuries and inconsistent play. But if there was ever a chance for the Lions pass offense to turn the corner, it is in the next two weeks. The Lions should be able to get a little protection this week against an average (maybe slightly above average) defensive line. Look for the Lions to target slot receivers and running backs a lot this week against New Orleans' poor linebackers.
Lions run offense (29th) vs. Saints run defense (16th)
Continuing with the theme of terrible offensive line play, the Lions running game just can't get anything going this year. They've yet to average 4.0 yards per carry in a game, and they have only reached the 100-yard mark twice. The only time they surpassed a defense's averages was against the Buffalo Bills when they ran for a whopping total of 69 yards at 3.5 a carry.
Detroit is averaging just 3.2 a carry, which is second-worst in the league. They also have the fewest rushes of 20+ (1) and 40+ yards (0). On the bright-ish side, the Lions have five rushing touchdowns, the 12th-most in the league.
The Saints have done a pretty good job defending the run this year. In three of five games, they've held their opponents well below their yardage and YPC averages. However, in the other two games, they were gashed pretty badly.
New Orleans is allowing 4.2 YPC (t-15th) and giving up first downs on 22.6 percent of rushes (20th). Overall, they are slightly above average at stopping the run.
Player to watch: Curtis Lofton. Lofton not only leads the team in tackles, but he leads the team in tackles for loss. The veteran linebacker is on pace for the most tackles he's had since he came to New Orleans in 2012.
Advantage: Saints +0.5. I see no reason for the Lions to break out this week against the Saints. That hasn't stopped the Lions from winning, however, so the Saints' advantage is small. Expect the Lions to have somewhere around 75 rushing yards at 3.7 a carry or so.
Saints pass offense (2nd) vs. Lions pass defense (1st)
Now that we have both teams' weaknesses out of the way, let's talk about the premier matchup between the two teams: the Saints pass offense versus the Lions pass defense. Drew Brees and the Saints haven't quite been as dominant as they have been in the past, but they are still putting up a lot of yards. Only one team has managed to keep the Saints below the defense's season yardage average, but three of five managed to hold Brees below passer rating averages.
The Saints rank only 16th in passer rating (91.8) and 19th in yards per attempt (7.2), but they are second in completion percentage (68.8 percent). This supports my earlier theory that the Saints rely heavily on short, quick passes. The key to stopping the Saints is to limit their yards after the catch. According to Sporting Charts, the Saints rank seventh in YAC despite having played one fewer game than most teams.
Detroit has been excellent at defending the pass in 2014. No team has significantly outperformed their passer rating average against the Lions, and only two have managed to tally more yards than usual. Though the Lions haven't played any dominating passing offenses yet this season, they've held the mediocre and bad ones in check. That's what good defenses do.
The Lions rank third in passer rating allowed (72.4), fifth in yards per attempt allowed (6.3) and 11th in completion percentage allowed (60.9 percent). In addition to that, the Lions have the fifth-most interceptions (7), most sacks in the league (20) and fewest passing touchdowns allowed (5).
Player to watch: Brandin Cooks. If there's one weakness in the Lions defense, it's at the nickelback position, where the Lions have suffered a lot of injuries. Cooks is a speedy rookie receiver who is starting to blossom in the Saints offense. He hauled in nine receptions on 12 targets in his last game and is bound to see the ball a lot again this week, especially if Jimmy Graham is out again.
Advantage: Saints +0.5. Even with Graham likely out, Brees has a ton of weapons at his disposal. And although Detroit has a dominant defense and Brees hasn't quite been himself this season, I still see the Saints moving the ball quite well this week. New Orleans is averaging over 50 more passing yards than any team the Lions have faced this year. If the Lions can hold Brees in check, even the biggest doubters will have to believe in this Detroit defense.
Saints run offense (8th) vs. Lions run defense (2nd)
A bit overlooked by most people is the Saints rushing attack. New Orleans has had no problem outgaining defensive averages on the ground. Just one team has managed to hold the Saints below yardage and yards per carry averages, and the Saints managed to win that game anyway.
In typical Saints fashion, it hasn't been the work of just one back that has bolstered this unit. Khiry Robinson, Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas have all carried the ball over 20 times for 5.0 YPC or better. Each player also has at least two rushing touchdowns. Ingram has been held out for the past month with a hand injury, but it looks like he'll return this week.
The Saints are averaging an impressive 5.2 YPC (second) and earn first downs on 33.3 percent of their carries (first). They have played some pretty poor run defenses thus far (none ranked higher than 17th), but those are impressive numbers nonetheless.
Speaking of impressive, Detroit's run defense continues to leave opponents scratching their heads. New York Jets week aside, the Lions haven't allowed more than 80 yards or 3.8 a carry. They've held some pretty decent running games (Vikings, New York Giants) completely in check.
Teams are averaging just 3.3 YPC against the Lions (t-fourth) and are earning first downs on just 18.5 percent of rushes (eighth).
Player to watch: Ndamukong Suh vs. Jahri Evans. In his last game, Evans was dominated by Suh's draft buddy Gerald McCoy. If Suh can dominate that matchup in the same way, the Saints running game may be dead upon arrival.
Advantage: Lions +1. In another case of strength versus strength, I have to give the edge to the Lions. Aside from a few drives, Detroit's run defense has looked absolutely unstoppable. The Saints' trio of running backs provides a bunch of different looks and tools, but the Lions have faced the quick, the strong and the elusive and have come out on top each time. The Saints may very well reach 100 yards for a sixth straight game, but they won't gain much more than that.
Road Saints. New Orleans is just not the same away from the Superdome:
The Saints are 1-7 in their last eight road games, including three losses to dome teams (St. Louis, Dallas and Atlanta).— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) October 15, 2014
Kicker 3.5. Matt Prater finally answered the Lions' prayers and nailed a 52-yard field goal last week. Unfortunately, he also missed two kicks. Please don't let this game come down to Prater. Please don't let this game come down to Prater. Please don't let this game come down to Prater. Please don't let this game come down to Prater.
Last week's prediction:
On Paper moved to 5-1 on the season after predicting a 20-16 victory, which was somewhat close to the 17-3 final score. My prediction was bested by commenter DETBOSPIT with his 13-7 prediction. And despite being a Celtics and Penguins supporter, I will still award him with a weekly prize:
Please practice your paper football skills with this set. We may need you out there kicking real field goals come playoff time.
This week's prediction:
The Lions end up with a +0.5 advantage. This slight edge is pretty much negligible, and I can see this game going a lot of different ways. If this game was played out 100 times, I bet neither team wins more than 55 games. I could see this game being a shootout. I could see this being a defensive struggle. I can think of scenarios in which both the Lions and the Saints are blown out of the stadium. When the Lions have the ball, it is weakness vs. weakness, and I don't know who that favors. When the Saints have the ball, it is strength vs. strength, and I don't know who that favors. But since the whole point of this thing is to come to some sort of a conclusion, I will throw my mind-dart against the random number generator board. Lions 30, Saints 26.