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Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings preview: On Paper

How will the second matchup between the two division rivals play out? Check our our statistical preview.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions face a familiar foe on Thursday. Since the Lions last defeated the Minnesota Vikings, they have only played a single game: A nail-biting win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

As a result, not much has changed for the Lions. They are a little more healthy than they were last time the two teams met—most notably, they will have the services of their No. 1 cornerback and starting right tackle.

The Vikings, on the other hand, are a bit more banged up than they were in the Week 9 matchup. Minnesota’s lengthy injury report on Tuesday could result in a much different lineup this week. But before we get into more specifics, let’s get into this week’s charts.

Lions pass offense (9th) vs. Vikings pass defense (4th)

The Lions pass offense continues to roll along despite playing some of the tougher pass defenses in the league. Though Matthew Stafford hasn’t put up a passer rating above 100 in three consecutive games, he has still outgained the defense’s averages in each of those matchups.

The last time the Lions faced the Vikings, Stafford had a moderately successful game. He didn’t really get much going until late in the game and overtime. But in the end, his numbers were somewhat respectable, completing 64 percent of his passes for two touchdowns and an interception.

Overall, Detroit is sixth in passer rating (101.2), t-10th in yards per attempt (7.6) and fifth in completion percentage (67.8). For the first time this season, they have moved beyond No. 10 in Football Outsiders’ DVOA.

But the Vikings counter with one of the best pass defenses in the league. They have only given up a passer rating above 100 in two games this year, the only two games in which they’ve failed to hold their opponent below their season average. Those games also happen to be fairly recent, a sign that their defense could be starting to lose some of its magic.

However, last week, the Vikings seemed to turn things around. It was their best defensive performance in a month and it should have Lions fans worried. Overall, the Vikings still rank second in passer rating allowed (73.4), second in yards per attempt (6.2) and third in completion percentage allowed (57.9). They also have the seventh-most sacks and the second-most interceptions in the league.

Player to watch: Everson Griffen. The key to this matchup will be pass protection. If the Lions can keep Stafford relatively clean, he’s likely to not turn the ball over. Griffen is the main impediment for that. He had one sack in the last matchup, and Stafford’s one interception in that game—which should have been very costly—was caused by pressure from the Vikings defensive line.

Advantage: Draw. This is going to be another good matchup on Thursday. The two teams essentially played to a draw last time, with the Vikings holding the Lions defense down for most of the game. But when it mattered in overtime, Stafford was able to put together a perfect drive to win the game. I expect something similar this week. The Vikings will hold the Lions down for most of the game, but eventually Stafford will get his. They key will be for Detroit to not turn the ball over.

Lions run offense (29th) vs. Vikings run defense (12th)

The Lions running game hit a new low last week, totaling just 14 yards on the ground while averaging less than one yard per carry. They got two pieces of good news for the running game this week: the potential return of Ameer Abdullah in a few weeks and Brandon Pettigrew’s return to practice. However, neither will likely play this week, so they’ll have to duke it out with this lowly roster for now.

The raw numbers are starting to look like last year’s numbers. They are averaging just 3.6 yards per carry now (28th), while scoring just four touchdowns (29th) and earning first downs 20.5 percent of the time (t-24th). They did have a somewhat successful day running against the Vikings last time, but those numbers were bolstered by a huge 42-yard run from Theo Riddick.

The Vikings run defense has not been good as of late; each of their past four opponents have been able to meet or outgain their season running averages against the Vikings, and that includes Detroit. However, before that four week span, they were considered a top-10 unit.

Minnesota is allowing 4.2 yards per carry on the year (t-17th) and first downs on 21.6 percent of carries (t-11th). At this point, you have to consider Minnesota’s run defense more average than they are elite.

Player to watch: Larry Warford. The Lions right guard struggled mightily last week against the Jaguars and was even benched briefly for Laken Tomlinson. The Lions will need him at his very best to get the ground game going against the Vikings defense.

Advantage: Vikings +1. This is the same score I gave this matchup last time the two played, and while I think the Vikings’ run defense has gotten worse since the two have met, the Lions’ rushing attack certainly hasn’t gotten any better. Last week was a very concerning performance from the running backs and offensive line, so I don’t have much hope that Detroit will get anything going this week.

Vikings pass offense (14th) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)

Even during the Vikings’ four-game skid, Sam Bradford was putting up respectable numbers. He has only let his passer rating fall below 88 once all year—Shaun Hill was the quarterback in Week 1. He has been very safe with the ball and managed a good game. Last time he faced the Lions, he had a very productive day, completing 77.5 percent of his passes for 6.8 yards per attempt.

The Vikings rank 10th in passer rating (97.6), t-16th in yards per attempt (7.1) and third in completion percentage (68.3). They are the king the short passing game, which just so happens to be the Lions’ weakness.

But there could be a major difference from the last time the two teams met. Stefon Diggs tore apart the Lions’ secondary in Week 9 to the tune of 13 receptions for 80 yards. This week, the Lions will have Darius Slay back, while Diggs may not go at all. He did not practice on Tuesday because of a knee injury.

However, the Vikings may still not have much of an issue throwing the ball against this defense. Against the Jaguars, the Lions finally held an opposing quarterback below their season passer rating for the first time all year. And if it weren’t for the fluky interception that ended that game, they still wouldn’t have done it.

This is the worst pass defense in the league and just about every statistic proves it. They’re last in passer rating allowed (108.5), last in completion percentage allowed (73.0), and t-23rd in yards per attempt (7.6). Their best quality is their ability to prevent big plays. They’ve only allowed 29 plays of 20+ yards (t-eighth fewest) and five plays of 40+ yards (t-11th). Although, the Vikings themselves don’t have a lot of big plays on offense, so that may not matter too much on Thursday.

Player to watch: Miles Killebrew. As pointed out by our own Andrew Kato, the Lions were using the rookie safety on key downs against the Jaguars and he absolutely rose to the challenge. If he can help get the Lions get off the field on third down again this week, we may see more of Killebrew as the season comes to a close.

Advantage: Vikings +1. I expect another efficient day from the Vikings pass offense, but if they’re without Diggs this week, it’ll obviously be a little tougher on them. There’s also some hope that Detroit’s widespread three-safety look may finally solve some of the linebacking woes facing this unit. Still, this defense needs to drastically improve to ever gain the advantage in this matchup.

Vikings run offense (31st) vs. Lions run defense (24th)

This is probably the worst run offense in the league, regardless of what Football Outsiders says. They have never averaged over 3.4 yards per carry in a game and have only reached 90 yards rushing in three of 10 games this year.

Overall, the Vikings rank last in yards per attempt (2.7) and last in percentage of rushes earning first downs (16.2). They have the fewest rushes of 20+ (2) and 40+ yards (0). They’re very bad.

The Lions run defense hasn’t been nearly as bad as their pass defense, but it hasn’t been very good either. Lately, though, only the Vikings were able to outgain their averages against Detroit in the past five games. Of course, that performance was just 78 yards at 3.1 yards per carry, so not much damage done there.

There’s a small chance the Lions could get more help this week as DeAndre Levy nears a return, but it looks like the star linebacker may be another week away from returning.

Player to watch: A’Shawn Robinson. Part of the Lions’ mini-resurgence in defending the run has been because of Robinson’s increased role in the defense. With Tyrunn Walker’s surprise benching last week, the Lions are relying more and more on the rookie defensive tackle and Robinson has met the challenge. Robinson is tied for second on the team with three tackles-for-loss on the year.

Advantage: Lions +1. This is the same advantage I gave Detroit in last matchup and it feels like very little has changed since the two last played. The Vikings are still very bad, and the Lions defense is still below average. I wouldn’t expect Minnesota to reach 100 yards again this week, and they almost assuredly won’t break out a big play. As long as the defense doesn’t stay on the field too long, the Lions should be fine at stopping the run.

Last week’s prediction:

Week 11’s On Paper preview nearly took down the weekly On Paper challenge. If it weren’t for a late field goal, the 23-20 prediction would have been a single point off from the actual score. Instead, I got the pick right, but missed out on the spread, as Detroit beat the spread by just a half a point. On Paper is now 5-5 overall and 2-6-2 against the spread. Don’t gamble, kids.

In the comment section, it was our own Chris Lemieux who won the closest prediction contest. His off-the-wall 25-19 prediction ended up missing the mark by a single point. Here is your prize, Chris:

Chris is a big fan of the Pokemon franchise and won’t stop talking about the sun or something. As a bonafide Italian, he is also a fan of the most authentic Italian food product known to man: Ragu pasta sauce. So here’s a picture of Pikachu gorging on his favorite food in a festive cornucopia. Enjoy it Chris, you earned it.

This week’s prediction:

This week the Vikings have just a +1 advantage, which is a point lower than they had in the previous matchup. The main difference between the two games is the increased vulnerability of the Vikings pass defense and injuries. I didn’t even mention earlier that the Vikings’ two starting safeties didn’t practice on Tuesday, meaning the Lions could even have the advantage in the passing game.

Still, if we’re talking On Paper, the Vikings are still absolutely the better team. The two teams may be starting to head in different directions, but the changing of the guard hasn’t happened yet. Of course, the Lions have been defying the statistical odds all year, so nothing would surprise me in this game. But because I’m supposed to stay objective and compliant to what the statistics say, I have to pick the Vikings in another close one. Vikings 26, Lions 21.

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