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Detroit Lions vs. Los Angeles Rams preview: On Paper

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Breaking down the matchup between the 2-3 Lions and the 3-2 Rams.

NFL: Detroit Lions at St. Louis Rams Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions face off against the Los Angeles Rams this week, a team that is very much their inverse. Instead of boasting a strong offense, they pride themselves on their defense. While the Lions have picked up wins in Week 1 and Week 5, those were the only weeks the Rams lost. Some say the Rams are just a quarterback away from competing for a title, while some would argue that quarterback is the only position the Lions have nailed down.

The two teams face off this week with one team hurting on offense while the other is ailing on defense. Let’s take a deeper look into Lions-Rams.

Lions pass offense (11th) vs. Rams pass defense (10th)

The Lions pass offense bounced back in a big way after their huge disappointment in Chicago. We can now see that the Bears game seems to have been a bit of an aberration, as Matthew Stafford has met or surpassed the defense’s passer rating allowed average in every other game this season. Interestingly enough, however, is that in the past two games, the Detroit hasn’t thrown for a ton of yards. That’s usually their MO.

Overall, Detroit ranks 10th in passer rating (99.6), 12th in yards per attempt (7.6) and fourth in completion percentage (68.0).

The big question this week, however, is how will the Lions do without some of their primary weapons. Against the Eagles, Detroit fared well without Eric Ebron. The tight end is likely out another week, but it looks like running back Theo Riddick may join him on the sideline this week, as Riddick hasn’t practiced as of Thursday. If both players can’t go, the Lions will be missing their second and third leading receivers in Ebron and Riddick, who have combined for 57 targets through five games. That’s a lot of passes to replace.

The Rams defense has been one of the bigger strengths for of their team over five games. However, they’ve played a bit inconsistently. They allowed Jameis Winston to throw for over 400 yards (net yards is listed above) and three touchdowns, but also picked off the Cardinals three times in one game—granted, two of those interceptions came against Drew Stanton.

These inconsistencies don’t seem to have affected their overall raw statistics. Their passer rating allowed (82.4) ranks tenth, their yards per attempt (6.5) is tied for seventh, and their completion percentage (60.1) is also tied for seventh.

This is still an above average pass defense, though they may not be as good as once feared.

Player to watch: E.J. Gaines. The Rams lost Trumaine Johnson to an ankle injury last week, so it will be Gaines who assumes the No. 1 cornerback duties. Gaines is a former sixth-round pick from 2014 who had an impressive 15 passes defended in his rookie year, but missed his sophomore season due to a lisfranc injury. Gaines missed the first three weeks of this season with a thigh injury.

Advantage: Lions +1.5. The Lions proved last week they could move the ball against a good Philly defense. This week they face another challenge. Stafford may be shorthanded one of his favorite weapons, but the Rams may also be down a few key players on defense. In addition to Johnson, three starters on the defensive line have yet to practice through Thursday. If Stafford has the time, he’ll likely find someone.

Lions run offense (18th) vs. Rams run defense (14th)

The Lions running game needs help. They have struggled mightily over the past three weeks, and even though two of those performances were against great defenses, they still are mostly underwhelming.

Unfortunately, the Lions may be even more shorthanded in the running game. Ameer Abdullah is still on the injured reserve list, Riddick continues to sit practice with an ankle injury and third-stringer Dwayne Washington could miss his second consecutive game with an ankle injury.

Enter Justin Forsett. Forsett joined the team on Tuesday, and if both Riddick and Washington are out against the Rams, he very well may assume the starting position. It’s a bit of a dire situation for a team that is averaging just 3.9 yards per carry (t-19th), but that’s what the situation calls for.

The Rams defense, again, doesn’t look too threatening, especially as of late. The Bills ran all over the injury-depleted defensive line, but even before that, the Rams’ prior two opponents ran for well over their season YPC average. This defense has truly only held one opponent significantly below that YPC all year, so there is an opportunity to win the matchup for the Lions.

Overall, the Rams are allowing 4.4 yards per carry (t-23rd), and ceding 25.0 percent of rushes that earn first downs (24th). Additionally, they seem particularly prone to giving up bigger plays. They’ve allowed five rushes of over 20 yards, the most in the league.

Player to watch: Aaron Donald. Man, I almost went through an entire overview of the Rams defense without mentioning Donald. Both of the Lions’ starting guards have a single practice this week and that could be bad news facing the best defensive tackle in the game. Donald is still a beast and he’s good for at least two tackles for loss in this game, and probably even more.

Advantage: Draw. This sounds crazy, but both units here are extremely banged up and this matchup could really go any way. The Rams run defense isn’t what it was last year, and with the injuries now piling up, this could even be a pretty big weakness. That being said, with the Lions potentially missing their top three backs, don’t expect anything magical out of Forsett this week. Chances are this matchup has very little impact on the outcome of the game anyways.

Rams pass offense (28th) vs. Lions pass defense (31st)

The Rams passing offense doesn’t look that bad when taking a peek at their chart. Case Keenum managed to actually outperform two of the most feared defenses from 2015 in the Seahawks and the Cardinals. However, against the 49ers, Bucs and Bills, Keenum hardly looked like an NFL quarterback.

Overall, LA ranks 28th in passer rating (75.4), t-16th in yards per attempt (7.2) but just 29th in completion percentage (57.9). The Rams have the fewest touchdown passes in the league (4) and have been sacked 12 times (t-11th most).

As far as receiving threats go, their go-to guy has surprisingly been Kenny Britt, not former first-round pick Tavon Austin. As a tandem, these two aren’t awful, but most teams could do better.

Unfortunately for the Lions, they haven’t been able to keep any team’s receiving corps in check. Every quarterback has thrown for a passer rating above 100 against the Lions and it hasn’t mattered if the quarterback was a rookie, a backup or Marcus Mariota; they’ve all made easy work of the Lions defense.

The overall numbers are frightening. Detroit is allowing a passer rating of 116.9 (31st), 7.9 yards per attempt (t-23rd) and a completion percentage of 71.7 (t-last). Along with the Atlanta Falcons, they’ve given up the most passing touchdowns in the league (14) while only notching two interceptions (t-25th).

Their pass rush has been lackluster, but there is a chance they get their premier defensive end Ezekiel Ansah back this week. Ansah has been sidelined with an ankle injury since the first drive in Week 2, and he’s back to practice—in a limited fashion—for the first time this week. If I had to guess, I think he’s still a week away, but his addition would be huge for this struggling unit.

Player to watch: Darius Slay. Slay is coming off of a performance that earned him NFC defensive player of the week honors. If Keenum tries to test whether that talent is for real, he could be very sorry .

Advantage: Draw. This is a truly awful matchup. The Lions appear to be getting a little better on defense here, but they are still playing at an extremely low level. The Rams haven’t been able to move the ball much through the air all year and fans are pining for Jared Goff at quarterback, despite a disastrous preseason from the rookie. Between a defense that has allowed every quarterback to play at a Pro Bowl level and an offense that is averaging less than a single passing touchdown per game, something has to give. But I have no idea which will.

Rams run offense (29th) vs. Lions run defense (28th)

The biggest shock of this Rams team is their complete inability to run the ball. After a record-setting rookie season, Todd Gurley has been completely shut down through the first five weeks of the 2016 season. Gurley is averaging just 2.7 yards per carry and has been held below 55 yards rushing in three of five games this year. He has yet to rush for 100 yards or even above 3.1 yards per carry in a single game this year. And it’s not like the Rams have been playing amazing defenses along the way. The 49ers and Cardinals have below average defenses when it comes to stopping the run.

The Rams are averaging just 3.1 yards per carry as a team (31st) and are earning first downs on just 18.8 percent of rushes (28th). They only have one rush over 20 yards, an attempt that went for just 22 yards.

Again, the Rams offense may have the perfect opportunity to break out here, because the Lions defense has been awful against the run in 2016. Every opponent has averaged 3.9 yards per carry or better, while three averaged over 5.0 per attempt against Detroit.

Overall, the Lions are 31st in YPC allowed (4.9) and 29th in percentage of rushes earning first downs (26.5). Oddly, however, the Lions are the only team in the NFL yet to allow a rushing touchdown on the year.

Player to watch: A’Shawn Robinson. With run-stuffer Haloti Ngata likely out for a few weeks, the rookie from Alabama will almost assuredly see more playing time against the Rams. Robinson has had a very quiet rookie season as the Lions have eased him into a rotational role. But with an expanded role this week, he’s a player that could potentially breakout and will likely need to in order to stop the Rams.

Advantage: Rams +1. This is another case where each team has a chance to finally break out of their slump. And while there is no clear advantage taken from the charts, Todd Gurley alone gives LA the edge. I just don’t believe this talented back can be held down for too much longer. He’s too good.

Last week’s prediction

We don’t need to go into a lot of detail on last week’s prediction. It was horrible. The only opening I left for a Lions offense was that the Eagles were fool’s gold. I’m not sure if that’s what ended up happening, but I was way off base with just about everything. On Paper is now just 2-3 on the year and 2-2-1 against the spread.

In the comment section, it was Humboldt Lions who came closest to the final score. His 26-23 prediction was just two points away from the final score of 24-23. This was only Humboldt’s sixth comment at Pride Of Detroit and he’s already an On Paper Champion. Well done, sir. Here is your prize:

The Detroit Lions are commemorating the 25 year anniversary of their 1991 team that went all the way to the NFC Championship game. So we’re taking it back to the old school, because I’m an old fool. Your prize is this real Vanilla Ice board game. I can’t possibly describe it better than BoardGameGeek does here:

Players play rhyming cards to complete rap lines on the game board. Each card played scores points. Every time a rap line is completed, the player raps it out loud to the rhythm of the electronic beat box mike. When all the rap lines on the board have been filled, players count their points. The player with the most points wins, and raps the entire board, using the "beat box mike."

Enjoy.

This week’s prediction:

The Lions come out with just a +0.5 advantage. This is one of the odder matchups in On Paper history. Both teams have a clear strength, and they happen to be going against each other when Detroit passes the ball. However, both units will be plagued by injuries this week, so it will be a matter of who can make up for it with their depth. The Lions may have to rely on Justin Forsett, a guy who was added this week, while the Rams may need help from a defensive lineup that allowed 7.1 yards per carry last week.

On the other side of the ball, we have one of the worst offenses going against one of the worst defenses. Each team is looking at the other thinking this is the week they break out of their slump, but for one team, that likely isn’t true.

The end result of this game appears to be an extremely ugly one that could go just about any way imaginable. Since these two teams are very mistake prone, I’m going to assume that barring any defensive touchdowns, this is going to be a slow, low-scoring affair. Get your kickers ready. Lions 13, Rams 9.