The Detroit Lions (4-8) face off against the St. Louis Rams (4-8) on Sunday in a game that will likely have only draft order implications. Though the teams have the same record, their trajectories could not be more different. The Lions are one, unfortunate play from a four-game winning streak, while the Rams have dropped each of their last five games by an average of 15.6 points. Strangely, the Rams opened as a slight favorite in the matchup, but since then the Lions have moved to a three-point favorite. Here's the breakdown of the matchup:
Lions pass offense (19th in DVOA) vs. Rams pass defense (6th)
Matthew Stafford and the Lions pass offense continued its mid-season turnaround with another above-average performance last week. Stafford has now been held below the defense's passer rating average just once in the past seven games.
Detroit now ranks 17th in passer rating (89.1), t-22nd in yards per attempt (6.9) and 14th in completion percentage (64.1). Pass protection continued to be a problem for the unit, as Stafford has been sacked 31 times on the year (ninth-most).
The Rams pass defense started the season lights out, but seems to have lightened up as of late. After holding six of their first eight opponents below their passer rating average, they've only held one of their past four foes below that mark.
Overall, the unit's statistics don't seem that impressive. St. Louis ranks 18th in passer rating allowed (92.3), t-17th in yards per attempt allowed (7.3) and, strangely, the Rams actually rank last in completion percentage allowed, letting opponents complete 69.0 percent of passes.
Allowing such a high percentage of completed passes while not allowing a ton of yards per attempt is a good sign that this is a bend-don't-break type of defense. There are a ton of statistics that support that claim. The Rams have allowed the fourth-fewest passing touchdowns (14), the fifth-fewest passing plays of 20+ yards (36) and the sixth-fewest plays of 40+ yards (6).
The Rams also possess a very disruptive pass rush, tallying 32 sacks on the season (t-ninth). However, defensive end Robert Quinn, who ranks second in the team in sacks (5.0), was placed on injured reserve earlier in the week.
Player to watch: Theo Riddick. As Christopher Tomke pointed out in his fabulous breakdown, one way to beat this aggressive Rams defense is utilizing running backs in the passing game. Enter: Theo Riddick, the leading receiver among all running backs.
Advantage: Even. This is all about trajectory. The Rams pass defense has been on the decline over the past four games, while the Lions seem to have found a modicum of success since Jim Bob Cooter has taken over the offense. Still, even with all of the injuries on the Rams' side, they still have an impressive defense.
Lions run offense (31st) vs. Rams run defense (8th)
The Lions no longer have the worst running game in the league. Thanks, Washington! Although Detroit has had over 100 yards and 3.5 a carry in each of the last three games, they still have only surpassed defense's averages in both rushing yards allowed and yards per carry allowed just once this season. The unit is improving, but it's still pretty bad.
Detroit ranks t-29th in yards per carry (3.5), but still rank last in percentage of rushes resulting in first downs (16.0 percent). They remain one of nine teams without a rush of 40+ yards.
The Rams run defense is much like their pass defense: once great, but starting to show cracks in the surface. In the first seven games of the season, they had only allowed over 140 rushing yards once. However, four of the past five opponents passed that mark against St. Louis.
The Rams are allowing 4.0 YPC (t-14th) and 20.8 percent of rushes earning first downs (t-seventh). They have allowed the second-most rushes of 20+ yards (12) but have not allowed a rush of 40+ yards.
Player to watch: Aaron Donald. As much as I tried to avoid talking about Donald in this column, he is way too big of a force to ignore. Aside from leading the team in sacks (8.0), Donald also is second in the league in tackles for loss (16).
Advantage: Rams +1.5. The Lions run defense is still not good enough to win this matchup in any way, but with the Rams' defense struggling over the past month, Detroit has a chance to at least put up respectable numbers on the ground. But don't expect the Lions to go off for anything over 100 yards.
Rams pass offense (32nd) vs. Lions pass defense (21st)
Oof. The Rams pass offense is worst in the league and this chart is proof. They have only thrown for over 250 net yards in two games this season, and had a passer rating over 90 in three. They haven't significantly outgained the defense's passer rating allowed average since Week 4 and during their five-game losing streak, they haven't even come within 10 points of that average.
The Rams made a starting quarterback change this week, going with Case Keenum over Nick Foles. Keenum doesn't exactly instill confidence, completing just 46.2 of his passes this season with a passer rating of 75.2.
Overall, the Rams have a passer rating of 69.8 (32nd), are throwing for 6.0 yards per attempt (32nd) and are completing 56.0 percent of passes (32nd). The only saving grace for this offense is they have only allowed 15 sacks on the year, which is actually the fewest in the league.
The Lions pass defense continued its turnaround last week. Even though they didn't earn a green cell last week, if I were to take away one very specific play that shall not be fully acknowledged, the Packers' passer rating shoots down to 79.7. Since the bye, the Lions pass defense has been much better, allowing just one opponent to outgain their passer rating average. That team was the Eagles, who lost by 31.
Despite their impressive recent play, the Lions' cumulative stats remain unimpressive. Detroit is allowing a passer rating of 103.5 (31st), 7.9 yards per attempt (t-26th) and 68.6 completion percentage (31st). However, they have the seventh-most sacks in the league (33).
Player to watch: Darius Slay. You may not actually see much of Slay on Sunday, as most quarterbacks have just been completely avoiding him. But Slay has only allowed 11 total receptions since Week 5.
Advantage: Lions +2. Although the Lions defense doesn't look impressive on the surface, they have actually been one of the better defenses over the past four weeks. The one unknown factor in the matchup is the Rams' change in offensive coordinators this week. Still, there's little reason for St. Louis fans to feel optimistic about Keenum and the pass offense. They haven't shown any signs of life all season.
Rams run offense (17th) vs. Lion run defense (13th)
Where the Rams can feel optimistic when on offense is with Todd Gurley and the running game. St. Louis has outgained the defense's YPC allowed average in seven of 12 games and surpassed yardage averages in five of 12.
Individually, Gurley ranks fourth in rushing yards per game (83.5) and eighth in yards per carry (4.8). As a team, the Rams rank t-fourth in YPC (4.7) and 21.4 percent of their rushes go for first downs (t-18th).
The Rams are a huge threat to break out long runs. They have the fourth-most rushes of 20+ yards (13) and the most rushes of 40+ yards (5). They also have the 12th-most rushing touchdowns (10).
The Lions' run defense has finally hit its stride. Over the past four weeks, Detroit has put up even better numbers than their league-leading run defense from 2014. That year, the Lions allowed 69.3 yards per game and 3.2 a carry. Over the last four weeks, Detroit is allowing 58.0 yards per game and 2.66 YPC.
For the year, the Lions rank t-ninth in YPC allowed (3.9) and 16th in percentage of rushes allowed earning first downs (21.9 percent).
Player to watch: Gurley. For all of the Lions' success this year, they have struggled against rushers that have a tendency to break for long runs.
Advantage: Lions +0.5. The Lions have had arguably the best run defense for the past month, but Gurley's impressive rookie season is enough to mitigate the damage in this matchup. The Rams have been criticized over the past few weeks for not feeding Gurley enough (18 carries over the last two games), so expect him to see an unusually high amount of carries against the Lions, especially with Keenum as the starting quarterback.
Offensive coordinator change. As Lions fans know, a change in offensive coordinator can really boost the unit. Although it has been less than a week since the Rams made the change, there's reason to expect St. Louis to come out and look at least a little better on offense this week. It's hard to imagine them looking worse.
Last week's prediction:
Not only did "On Paper" move up to 7-5 on the year, but it also won the weekly On Paper Challenge. My prediction of 26-23 Packers was all too close to the 27-23 final score. That means we are prizeless for a second-straight week, unless one of you wants to make me a prize. *sad puppy face*
This week's prediction:
The Lions end up with a minor +1 advantage. Like last week, this is really a story of two teams with opposite trajectories. Despite the Lions' heartbreaking loss last week, they have continued to play good football over the past four games. The Rams, on the other hand, have looked awful during their five game losing streak. I think the trend continues for both teams. Lions 24, Rams 13.