Welcome back! Football is finally here and that means it's time again to pull out the charts. If you're new to the site this year, let me give you a quick tutorial on how our On Paper previews work:
Each chart represents one unit of a team (i.e.: 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, 2 TDs and 1 INT through the air, that looks bad. But if it's against the Packers, who are (hypothetically) averaging 290 yards and 3 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.
Confused? Probably. But you'll catch on. Basically, we're just comparing units and using a bunch of pretty colors to make our points.
NOTE: For the first few weeks of the season, I will use 2014 data since there is nothing else to use at this point (I refuse to acknowledge the preseason as a useful data point).
Lions pass offense (12th by yardage in 2014) vs. Chargers pass defense (4th)
Last year, the Lions pass offense was a pretty big disappointment. Matthew Stafford only managed a passer rating above 90 in five games in 2014, and while he racked up a good amount of yardage, he wasn't very efficient at scoring points. The Lions ranked 22nd in points, which was far below expectations for a team with so many offensive stars.
The big problem for the offense was the offensive line. The Lions were sacked 45 times in 2014 (11th-most) and would often find themselves in third-and-long situations. To aide this problem, the Lions will be sporting a new offensive line this year, with Travis Swanson as the new center and first round draft pick Laken Tomlinson as a guard. Unfortunately for the Lions, they are dealing with two significant injuries along the line to start the year. Right tackle LaAdrain Waddle is recovering from an elbow injury and has been limited in practice all week while guard Larry Warford has been dealing with an ankle injury for the past few weeks and hasn't been able to practice yet. Detroit's offensive line may be better this year, but it's likely to be shaky during the first few weeks of the season.
The Chargers pass defense was awful at the beginning of the year, but started to turn it around toward the end of the season. San Diego finished 20th in passer rating allowed (91.3), t-10th in yards per attempt allowed (6.9) and 11th in completion percentage allowed (61.1 percent).
The reason for their high yardage ranking was pretty simple: teams didn't throw it against the Chargers that often. In fact, San Diego saw the forth-fewest passing attempts in 2014.
That being said, they were still an above-average pass defense last season largely due to their ability to prevent big plays. The Chargers allowed just four pass plays of 40+ yards (t-2nd) and only gave up 24 passing touchdowns all year (t-12th).
But the Chargers were not very good at creating big plays in defending the pass. They only tallied 26 sacks on the year (29th) and seven interceptions (t-28th).
This year's defense won't look much different than last year's. The question is which defense will show up: the first half of the season or the last half?
Player to watch: Eric Ebron. The Chargers sport a talented secondary with Brandon Flowers and Jason Verrett manning the cornerback spots. That means the Lions may need to get some production from their tight end position to be successful through the air on Sunday. Insert: the newly professional, rebranded Eric Ebron. If Ebron wants to shed the premature bust label given to him last year, this week would be a good week to prove otherwise.
Advantage: Chargers + 0.5. Under healthy circumstance, I think this would be a very even matchup. The Lions obviously have threats at the wide receiver position with Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Seeing them match up against the Chargers' secondary will be an explosion of talent. However, I think the story for this matchup is pass protection. While the Chargers' pass rushers aren't all that skilled, the injuries on the Lions front could prove to be problematic.
Lions run offense (28th) vs. Chargers run defense (26th)
I was hoping I'd never have to see this chart again, but lo and behold, here it is as a stark reminder of just how bad the Lions running game was last year. It was bad. All bad. It was really bad. You should feel bad, Joe Lombardi. Bad, bad, bad.
The Lions hope that the offensive line replacements help fix the woes from last year, and by adding Ameer Abdullah, they've given the fan base hope. But, again, the injuries could prove to be too costly to overcome early in the season.
The Chargers run defense was formidable last year, but not great. They held eight of their opponents below their yards per carry average and seven below their yardage average. Overall, however, they allowed 4.5 YPC in 2014, which was tied for third-worst. Part of that is due to playing great run offenses like the Jets, Seahawks and 49ers, but that hardly excuses giving up 355 rushing yards to San Francisco or allowing the Raiders to rush for 5.7 a carry one week.
Again, there aren't many changes to the Chargers defense this year, so expect a pretty average run defense in 2015.
Player to watch: Corey Liuget. The one standout on the Chargers defensive line last year was Liuget, who led the team with 11 tackles for loss last year. Liuget is a great run stuffer, and could give the Lions' new interior line trouble.
Advantage: Chargers +0.5. While the Chargers' defensive line isn't hugely talented, there are too many questions surrounding the Lions' running game to expect a huge improvement from last year, especially in Week 1.
Chargers pass offense (10th) vs. Lions pass defense (13th)
The story of 2014 for San Diego was: as goes Philip Rivers, so go the Chargers. When Rivers threw for a passer rating of 90 or above, the Chargers were 7-1. When he was below 90, they were 2-6.
Overall, the Chargers' passing game was one of the best last season. They ranked 10th in passer rating (93.4), t-fifth in completion percentage (66.2 percent) and t-eighth in yards per attempt (7.5).
They were average at protecting the quarterback, allowing 37 sacks (16th). As a result, San Diego threw the fourth-most interceptions in the league last year (18).
In the offseason, the Chargers looked to repair their offensive line, adding one of the most sought-after guards in free agency, Orlando Franklin.
San Diego will be hurting at the tight end position, as Antonio Gates is serving a four-game suspension and their backup tight end may be dealing with a concussion.
The Lions pass defense was up-and-down last year. At the beginning of the year, Detroit was shutting down quarterbacks left and right. But, as the season wore on, Detroit became a little more vulnerable in defending the pass.
Statistically speaking, the Lions were an above average pass defense last year. They ranked ninth in passer rating allowed (83.0), t-eighth in yards per attempt allowed (6.8) and 24th in completion percentage allowed (64.7 percent).
Much of the Lions' success came from generating pressure from the defensive line. Detroit had the eighth most sacks in the league (42), with 34 of those coming from defensive linemen. Unfortunately, of those 34, 20 came from Lions who are no longer on the team. That being said, the Lions are hoping new additions Haloti Ngata and Tyrunn Walker can chip into that total this season.
Player to watch: Danny Woodhead. With the Chargers being down any real receiving threat at tight end, look out for Woodhead to come out of the backfield and pick up the slack at receiver. The Lions are a bit vulnerable when it comes to linebacker coverage, especially with DeAndre Levy likely out, so expect to see the Chargers attack the middle of the defense.
Advantage: Draw. This is going to be an extremely tight matchup on Sunday, perhaps the most important one, too. Rivers is one of the best in the league, but he's prone to make mistakes if under duress. It remains to be seen if the Lions can bring the heat the way they brought it last season, but if they can't, expect defensive coordinator Teryl Austin to dial up the blitzing.
Chargers run offense (30th) vs. Lions run defense (1st)
The Chargers really gave the Lions a run for their money when it came to having an awful running game. In only three games last year did San Diego outgain the defense's yards per game average.
Overall, the Chargers somehow out-awfulled the Lions in raw statistics. They averaged a putrid 3.4 yards per carry (31st) and 85.4 yards per game (30th).
However, much like the Lions, the Chargers devoted the offseason to fixing the offensive line and even added a shiny new running back, too. Melvin Gordon has yet to impress Chargers nation like Abdullah has, but the guy is one tough player to bring down. Detroit's tackling will have to be on point Sunday.
Detroit's run defense was absolutely dominant last year in every sense of the word. They only allowed 100 rushing yards twice all season, and only two teams managed more than four yards per carry against the Lions in 2014.
This run defense really shouldn't change all that much this season. While Suh is gone, Ngata is nearly as good at defending the run. The Lions sport a talented linebacking crew that should maintain Detroit's stoutness at the second level. Of course, with Levy's injury, this unit could struggle a little to start the season. Still, if the Lions are going to take a step back at defending the run this year, it won't be a major one.
Player to watch: Haloti Ngata. We've yet to see Ngata in a Lions jersey, but we've all seen him raise hell along the line in Baltimore. Let's see what he can do in Honolulu Blue.
Advantage: Lions +1. There's a lot of unknowns with both teams in this matchup. If this matchup happened last year, the Lions would have at least a +3 advantage. But there's reason to believe the Chargers will be better this year and the Lions run defense could take a step back. Still, I have a hard time imagining a scenario in which the Chargers dominate the game on the ground.
First game of the year, can't hold anything back. The first game of the year is not only our first look at our favorite teams, but it's a tone-setter for the teams themselves. It's a chance to strike fear in your upcoming opponents or a sign that all of the cheerful optimism in the offseason was just fool's gold.
Jeremy Reisman: the good luck charm or William H. Macy in "The Cooler"? I will be attending the game on Sunday, and I have lost track as to whether that's a good or bad thing. However, this will be the first time I've been in attendance as your supreme overlord, so maybe that newfound power will bring the Lions some luck.
After tallying up the advantages, we find ourselves at a draw. This isn't surprising, given that these teams are so evenly matched and even somewhat similar in structure. Both teams have talented defenses with some big question marks. While on offense, both franchises are hopeful for a dominant season, but they need some help along the offensive line.
I've been leaning Chargers all week, and since On Paper did nothing to sway me in the other direction, I'm going to have to... nah, screw it. First week of the season: Lions 24 Chargers 20.
Remember to leave your prediction in the comment section for a chance to win a fake prize next week!