The Detroit Lions (5-9) host the San Francisco 49ers (4-10) for their final home game of their 2015 season. This year has not been kind to either team. Though expectations were likely higher for the Lions, the 49ers have gone through their fair share of sorrow. They essentially gave up on their quarterback of the future, they've struggled with a new coaching regime and, of course, losing is never very fun.
Things are so bad in San Francisco that the Lions actually come into Sunday's game as 9.5-point favorites, making the Lions the fourth-biggest favorite this week. But let's take a deeper look into this matchup.
Lions pass offense (17th in DVOA) vs. 49ers pass defense (25th)
One interesting thing I noticed making this week's chart is how the Lions' passing yards seem like they're on a downward trend, while Matthew Stafford's passer rating is shooting up. There has been a much bigger (or more successful) effort under Jim Bob Cooter to make the offense more balanced, and as a result, Stafford has been a very efficient quarterback over the past two months.
Detroit now ranks 15th in passer rating (91.7), t-21st in yards per attempt (6.9), and 10th in completion percentage (65.3 percent). Although they've improved drastically in those statistics, they are still struggling with pass proteciton, allowing the eighth-most sacks in the league (38).
Despite their low ranking, the 49ers have not been awful at defending the pass this year, especially as of late. Only one of their last four opponents were able to surpass their passer rating average against the Niners, while they've held each of those opponents at or below their yardage average.
That being said, the 49ers raw statistics are still pretty bad. They rank 25th in passer rating allowed (98.3), t-29th in yards per attempt allowed (8.1), and 31st in completion percentage allowed (68.4 percent). They aren't a good squad, but they aren't the huge liability that the Lions saw last week in New Orleans.
Advantage: Lions +1.5. Detroit is finally hitting their stride offensively, and San Francisco has played too inconsistent this year to match. Also going in the Lions' favor is the fact that the Niners only have 26 sacks on the year (t-27th). If Stafford has had time this season, he's been deadly.
Lions run offense (28th) vs. 49ers run defense (24th)
The Lions run offense has certainly improved over the last five weeks, reaching 100 yards in each of those games. But their improvement continues to be a bit overstated. While they are no longer rushing for 60 yards or less, they are still consistently performing below the defense's season-long averages. In other words, they're better, but they're still bad.
Detroit is now averaging a somewhat respectable 3.9 yards per carry (t-18th), but are still converting first downs on just 19.3 percent of rushes (t-26th).
Again, the 49ers look better than their ranking suggests. They've actually held eight of 14 opponents below their YPC average and seven of 14 below yardage average. However, their charts are plagued by several awful games, including five games in which they allowed over 150 yards.
San Francisco is allowing 4.1 yards per carry (t-15th), but 25.1 percent of rushes against the 49ers earn first downs, the highest percentage in the league.
Player to watch: NaVorro Bowman. One of the two 49ers to make the Pro Bowl this year, Bowman has been a tackling machine this season. He ranks second in the league with 135 tackles.
Advantage: 49ers +0.5. Don't let the Lions' last five games trick you, they are still struggling to run the ball consistently. While they are finally breaking off runs of 10+ yards occasionally, running backs are still being pestered in the backfield several times a game. And the 49ers have a deceptively average run defense. I don't expect the Lions to reach 100 rushing yards this week.
49ers pass offense (31st) vs. Lions pass defense (19th)
*The week where the 49ers switched from Colin Kaepernick to Blaine Gabbert
All season, the 49ers have struggled to do much of anything through the air. In nine of 14 games this season, San Francisco has failed to outgain the defense's passer rating allowed and yardage average.
Although the common perception is that Gabbert has given the 49ers offense a shot in the arm, the stats don't really bear out this conclusion. Gabbert is completing about three percent more of his passes, his QB rating is just 82.8 compared to Kaepernick's 78.5. Gabbert has actually thrown one more interception than Kaepernick in 39 fewer passing attempts.
Overall, San Francisco lives up to their 31st overall ranking. The 49ers are averaging a passer rating of 80.5 (27th), gaining 6.8 yards per attempt (t-25th) and completing 60.6 percent of their passes (25th). Worst of all, the 49ers have allowed 49 sacks, the most in the league.
The Lions pass defense hit a snag last week after a promising first half. Drew Brees lit up the secondary in the last two quarters, but was the first quarterback to do so since the bye week.
Overall, the first half of the season is still plaguing the Lions' raw statistics. They rank 28th in passer rating allowed (101.4), 23rd in yards per attempt allowed (23rd) and 30th in completion percentage (68.0 percent).
Player to watch: Ezekiel Ansah. The 49ers struggle in pass protection. The Lions have a player with the second-most sacks in the league. Ziggy isn't listed on the injury report this week, so the illness that held him out for much of the second half in New Orleans does not appear to be an issue.
Advantage: Lions +1.5. Detroit would have a bigger advantage in this matchup if it weren't for the injury to Glover Quin. Quin was the leader of the secondary, and the Lions struggled with James Ihedigbo playing in his place last week. Still, the 49ers will not tear apart the Lions' cornerbacks. San Francisco doesn't spread their offense out too much, meaning they'll have to test Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs, both of which are playing out of their minds right now.
49ers run offense (19th) vs. Lions run defense (15th)
The running game continues to be the identity of the 49ers offense, despite the fact that their backfield has gone through the ringer this season. With Frank Gore off to Indianapolis in the offseason, the 49ers planned on relying on the services of Carlos Hyde and Reggie Bush, both of which currently reside on the injured reserve list. Pierre Thomas had a brief stint in San Francisco, then the Niners gave the reigns to Shaun Draughn. Draughn suffered an knee injury against the Bengals last week and is unlikely to play against Detroit. Now, the 49ers have two healthy running backs on the roster: Kendall Gaskins and DuJuan Harris. The two backs have combined for 26 rushing yards on the year.
Despite the turmoil, the 49ers have somehow managed to keep their head above water. They rank t-18th in YPC (3.9) and earn first downs on 21.6 percent of rushes (t-18th). Those aren't outstanding statistics, but considering the circumstances, they're pretty impressive.
Detroit answers with a more-than-respectable run defense. The Lions have held five of their last six opponents below 70 rushing yards and 4.0 yards a carry. However, like the San Francisco defense, there have been a handful of awful games that are just frequent enough to not consider outliers.
The Lions are holding opponents to 4.1 YPC (t-15th) and allowing first downs on 22.0 percent of rushes (15th).
Player to watch: Ihedigbo. Presuming that Quin isn't able to go, Ihedigbo does potentially bring a "strong safety" look to the secondary. However, the Lions utilized Ihedigbo to load the box against the Rams and the results were disastrous. The 49ers don't have anyone resembling Todd Gurley, but Ihedigbo's play has been disappointing outside of the Rams game.
Advantage: Lions +1. This would be a decent matchup had the Football Gods not forsaken the entire 49ers backfield. But since the 49ers don't have an experienced, healthy back on the roster, it's hard to imagine them going off against a defense that his been one of the best over the past two months.
Off paper: Home field advantage. Normally, Ford Field wouldn't be too loud in the midst of a 5-9 season, but considering the Lions have gone 4-2 down the stretch, there's at least a little to be excited about the team. On the other hand, the 49ers are 1-6 on the road this season, with their only win coming in overtime against a Bears team that probably should have won the game in regulation.
Last week's prediction:
Last week, I was one of few who picked the Lions over the Saints. Since it's been a rocky season for On Paper, I'm going to take the moment to congratulate myself on an accurate score, as well. My 30-24 prediction was pretty impressive, considering the 35-27 final score.
However, I was bested my fellow Pride of Detroit colleague, Christopher Tomke. Chris was just one of two other staffers who chose the Lions to win on Monday night, and his score prediction of 37-28 barely bested mine. Here is your prize, Mr. Tomke:
I'm not sure if you've ever made the connection, Chris, but Christmas starts with "Chris!" That's your name! So I pronounce this edition of "On Paper" as the "Chris"mas edition. Enjoy the worldwide fame for day!
This week's prediction:
The Detroit Lions have a +3.5 advantage, which is fairly significant by On Paper standards. However, I expected the advantage to be even bigger. I believe the 49ers defense is a bit underrated, but their offense is in a lot of trouble with no back to rely on. The only question I have on the Lions side of the sidelines is how much they'll be affected by Quin's injury. Luckily, they don't have to face a dynamic pass offense this week, so the damage should be mitigated. Lions 24, 49ers 13.