The Detroit Lions (5-2) and Atlanta Falcons (2-5) face off this week in London at a time that is totally NOT inconvenient for me to watch. It's going to be unique! It's going to be exciting! And it should be fun to see what it's like to be that stressed out that early in the morning! But my personal comfort aside, this game looks like it could be a good one for our British friends to enjoy. Though the teams have opposite records, they are actually somewhat close in talent. Don't believe me? Let's take a look at your favourite Lions preview.
Lions pass offense (13th) vs. Falcons pass defense (29th)
Despite a solid fourth quarter, the Lions again failed to meet passer rating averages last week. Matthew Stafford and the pass offense continue to be the team's biggest disappointments. You can see the effect the absence of Calvin Johnson has had on the offense (he hasn't been 100 percent since the Green Bay Packers game), but the Lions' struggles go well beyond that.
The Lions rank 22nd in passer rating (87.9), t-11th in yards per attempt (7.5) and 19th in completion percentage (63.1 percent). Those rankings may be a little higher than you'd expect, but considering the explosive numbers they have put up in recent years, it's hard not to think of this offense as a big downgrade.
Johnson's availability is still unknown for the game, but he's getting closer to being ready. Regardless, the Lions are in desperation mode at tight end, as none of their top three players have practiced once this week.
Speaking of injuries, starting right tackle LaAdrian Waddle suffered a concussion on Sunday and may not be able to go this week. That is bad news for the Lions, which are already giving up the third-most sacks in the league (24).
The Falcons pass defense will probably be the worst the Lions have faced to date. Only one quarterback has failed to meet his passer rating average against Atlanta, and most threw for more yards than they typically average. Atlanta has allowed a passer rating of 90+ in every game but one this season.
The Falcons rank 23rd in passer rating allowed (97.5), 32nd in yards per attempt (8.8) and t-23rd in completion percentage (65.3 percent). Strangely, they have allowed the third-fewest passing touchdowns in the league (8).
However, the Falcons haven't made a lot of plays on defense, tallying just seven sacks (t-27th) and four interceptions (t-18th).
Player to watch: Jonathan Massaquoi. He may only have two sacks on the year, but Massaquoi looks like a player who's ready to break out. Last week he was all over the field causing havoc and creating pressure. Though Massaquoi is currently considered more of a rotational player, expect to see him get in the face of Stafford a couple of times this week.
Advantage: Draw. With a truckload of injuries and an already struggling passing attack, even one of the worst statistical defenses in the league cannot convince me that Stafford will finally right the offensive ship. Having Calvin back would give the team a big boost, but even with him, the offensive line will hold Detroit back yet again.
Lions run offense (31st) vs. Falcons run defense (27th)
There's no beating around the bush here (no pun intended). The Lions have one of the worst running games in the league. Maybe the worst. They have still yet to average more than 4.0 yards per carry in a game, and they haven't really come close since Week 2. Every opponent has held them at or below their defensive averages this season.
Detroit is averaging an embarrassing 3.1 yards per carry. And it doesn't seem to matter who is carrying the ball. Joique Bell is averaging just 3.3 a carry and Reggie Bush just 3.5. They are averaging a first down on just 16.8 percent of carries (30th) and have just one rush of 20+ yards (t-last). Stafford is getting a lot of negative attention for his play, but the Lions' running game is the real tragedy right now.
Though the Falcons rank very low at defending the run, their chart is actually somewhat positive. Only one opponent has significantly outgained their yards per carry average against the Falcons, but Atlanta has only held two opponents below rushing yard averages.
When a chart has two very different-looking columns, it typically means a team is being victimized by a high amount of attempts. Indeed, we see that Atlanta has faced the most rushing attempts in the league through seven weeks. This makes sense for a 2-5 team that is typically playing from behind.
I would mostly ignore Atlanta's poor ranking and their bad column. The truth is, the Falcons have only had one or two bad weeks defending the run. Overall, they are allowing just 4.1 yards per carry (t-15th) and giving up first downs on 23.5 percent of carries (24th). They are by no means a dominant run defense, but they are about average. Weirdly, they have allowed 13 rushing touchdowns, which is five more than any other team in the league.
Player to watch: Theo Riddick. Yes, the Theo Riddick Hype Train is back. With Reggie still battling an ankle injury, I expect to see the Lions try to utilize Riddick a little more this week. Theo was promising in his game against Minnesota, but a hamstring injury has sidelined him since.
Advantage: Falcons +0.5. There is literally no reason to be optimistic about this matchup for the Lions. The Falcons may just be average at stopping the run, but the Lions have faced some pretty poor run defenses already this season (see: Carolina Panthers) and it hasn't mattered. Hard to imagine they get things going this week.
Falcons pass offense (5th) vs. Lions pass defense (7th)
Matt Ryan and the Falcons offense have been racking up the yards this season, outgaining defense's averages in five of seven games. However, in terms of passer rating, the Falcons have been much less impressive. Ryan has only reached a rating of 100 twice, and those two games were the only times the offense outperformed the defensive averages.
Atlanta ranks 19th in passer rating (90.8), t-eighth in yards per attempt (7.6) and 14th in completion percentage (64.2 percent). And for all of the talk about the Falcons' terrible offensive line, they have only allowed 15 sacks on the season (t-18th). Granted, nine of those 15 sacks have come in the past two weeks.
This may come as a bit of a surprise, but the Lions' pass defense has been somewhat average all year. Three of seven opponents met their passer rating average, and three of seven outgained yardage averages. The Lions remain a highly ranked pass defense based on yardage, but this is likely because they have played four games against bottom-13 pass offenses this year, including the two bottom-ranked passing attacks in the league.
Still, the defense deserves a lot of credit. They rank second in passer rating allowed (76.4), t-fourth in yards per attempt (6.6) and t-ninth in completion percentage (61.1). Strength of opponent is a big factor in these numbers, but it's not the only one. The Detroit defense is for real, and their 21 sacks (t-third) is just one example of that.
Player to watch: Julio Jones. Though Jones is currently battling through an ankle injury, he will almost certainly play on Sunday. Jones is an elite talent and quite possibly the best receiver the Lions have faced this year.
Advantage: Draw. I see this matchup going a lot like it did against the New Orleans Saints. The Falcons haven't been quite as good as Drew Brees and the Saints, but they've been close. The Falcons will probably tally a lot of yards, but the Lions will likely make a few big plays on defense while limiting big plays on offense. The Lions have allowed the fewest passing touchdowns in the league, so they tend to play well with their backs against the wall.
Falcons run offense (23rd) vs. Lions run defense (2nd)
Again, the Falcons' ranking is a little misleading. In terms of yards per carry, Atlanta has performed right around average in every game this season. They just haven't been gaining many yards. Again, this is an attempts issue more than anything. The Falcons are averaging 21.7 rushes a game, the third-fewest in the league.
Overall, they are actually averaging an impressive 4.5 yards per carry (t-eighth) while converting first downs on 23.7 percent of carries (ninth).
I wouldn't consider the Falcons a top-10 rushing attack -- especially now that they are on their third-string center -- but they are not as bad as you'd think.
Finally, some good news! The Lions run defense remains absolutely dominant in every way imaginable. No team has surpassed yardage or yards per carry averages against the Lions, and only one team has even managed 80 yards in a game.
The Lions are allowing just 3.3 yards per carry (t-fourth) and ceding first downs on just 19.2 percent of carries (ninth).
Player to watch: James Stone. Stone is the Falcons' aforementioned third-string center. He is an undrafted rookie who has the unenviable task of facing the likes of Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley in his first career start. Good luck, youngin'.
Advantage: Lions +1. Again, I see this matchup going a lot like it did last week. The Saints came in with an underrated rushing attack, but it was completely shut down by Detroit. Unless the Falcons break out one big run (look out for Antone Smith), Atlanta won't do much in the running game.
London. This game is being played in England, in case you haven't heard. That's bound to have some sort of effect on one or both teams. Who will it benefit? Will either team endear themselves to the British crowd? No one knows, but for the Lions, it is a much better situation than playing in the Georgia Dome.
Kicking. Matt Prater didn't miss a field goal last week, but he did bounce a 21-yard kick off the inside of the left upright. So... consider me still in butt-clenching mode every time the Lions line up for a field goal. Please don't let the game come down to Prater. Please don't let the game come down to Prater. Please don't let the game come down to Prater.
Last week's prediction:
On Paper barely edged its way to a 6-1 record after the Lions shocked the Saints 24-23. My (admittedly random) prediction of 30-26 turned out to be somewhat close, but, again, I was bested by one of our talented commenters. This week, deadheadhoodie reigns supreme, as his 24-21 prediction was the best of Week 7. Here is your prize, deadhead:
Your prize is a map of Earth created by the Atlanta Falcons, which notoriously had trouble identifying England earlier in the week.
This week's prediction:
Despite only having the edge in one of the four matchups, the Lions come out on top with a +0.5 advantage. I think many people are looking at the Falcons' 2-5 record and already putting this one in the win column for Detroit. All I can say is that I hope the Lions don't view this game the same way. The Falcons are a talented team, and they have been in every game they've played this season.
I would be very surprised by a blowout in this game. The Lions defense is too good to let Atlanta pull away, and Detroit's offense is struggling too much. This game will very likely go down to the wire and will provide an entertaining three hours for those across the pond. Lions 24, Falcons 23.