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Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints preview: On Paper

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A statistical breakdown of the Week 13 matchup between the Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

In what will become a string of “the most important games of the season,” the Detroit Lions head down to New Orleans to face a team much like the Lions themselves. Both the Lions and the Saints sport quarterbacks who are having MVP-like seasons, while the defenses has kept their opponents in the game late.

The major difference between the squads has been their performance in close games. The Saints are just 2-4 in games decided by three points or less, while the Lions are 4-2 in those situations. Flips those records around and suddenly it’s the 7-4 Saints against the 5-6 Lions. But those aren’t the real records, and the Lions are the team that is currently sitting pretty. But will that change after this week? Let’s take a closer look at the matchup between the two teams.

Lions pass offense (10th) vs. Saints pass defense (25th)

Matthew Stafford and the Lions pass offense have met or surpassed a defense’s passer rating average in seven straight games. During that period, they have faced some pretty difficult defenses, but have come through in the end. Although they go through long periods of time with limited production, the Lions pass offense is still considered well above average and the chart clearly shows this.

The Lions pass offense also ranks high in raw statistics. They are eighth in passer rating (99.3), seventh in completion percentage (66.8) and t-11th in yards per attempt (7.4). As a team, they’ve thrown the sixth-fewest interceptions (5) and 14th-most touchdowns (19).

Pass protection remains a small but serious issue. They’ve allowed 25 sacks on the season (16th) but Stafford has been sacked at least once in every game and six times in the past three games.

There has been a lot of talk about how improved the Saints defense is and the numbers bear that out to a point. They’ve held three of their past five opponents below their passer rating average. However, there’s a good chance this improvement is at least a little overstated. The Broncos and Panthers offenses were once feared, but this year both have been subpar. Their last four opponents all have passer rating averages below 90 and two of them managed passer ratings above 100 against the Saints.

The Saints rank 21st in passer rating allowed (93.9), 17th in completion percentage allowed (63.0) and t-27th in yards per attempt (7.8). Don’t get it twisted, this is still a pretty poor defense. All you need to do is look at the opponents they’ve faced and you’ll see that even these poor raw numbers are likely inflated by the bad offenses they’ve faced.

That being said, their pass rush has been the reason for any recent improvement. They have 11 sacks in the past three games, including six against the Broncos. For the season, they only have 22 on the year, so this is no small improvement.

Player to watch: Golden Tate. As Ryan Mathews pointed out in our weekly fantasy football article, the Saints are particularly prone to giving up a lot of yards after the catch. And there may not be a better receiver in the league at getting YAC than Tate. Expect the short passing game to be a feature again this week.

Advantage: Lions +2.5. Detroit has a clear advantage here, but whether they truly take advantage will rely heavily on pass protection. The Lions haven’t been great at protection Stafford lately and the Saints defense has been on an absolute tear getting to the quarterback. Still, I think this “improvement” on the Saints defense is mostly due to the offenses they’ve been playing.

Lions run offense (31st) vs. Saints run defense (15th)

One of the most the most seldom talked about weaknesses of this Lions team has been their running game. It has been really, really, really bad. The heroics of the passing offense has done a good job masking the problem, but there’s a good chance they wouldn’t need those heroics if there was anything resembling a running game. They’ve been okay in the past five games, averaging 3.9 yards per carry or more in each game over that span, but they haven’t faced very good defenses.

Overall the Lions rank t-25th in yards per attempt (3.7) and 23rd in rushes earning first downs (20.9 percent).

The Saints run defense has been more than respectable this year. They had some really bad games to start the season, but they’ve since evened out and been around an average unit for the year. They’ve held six of 11 opponents at or below their yards per carry average and eight of 11 below their yardage total.

Overall the Saints rank t-ninth in yards per attempt allowed (3.9), but are allowing first downs on 23.2 percent of rushes (19th). Overall, I would consider this an average unit who is probably playing at a slightly above-average lever right now.

Who to watch: Craig Robertson. Not only does the Saints linebacker lead the defense in tackles by over 30, but he also has four additional tackles for loss and an interception to boot.

Advantage: Saints +1. The Saints have the clear advantage here, but I’m not sure how much of a difference it’s going to make. The Lions have been able to overcome poor rushing performances every week with a dynamic passing offense. Considering the Saints have a poor pass defense, I don’t expect the Lions to rely much on the running game this week. Therefore, the Saints only get a minor advantage here.

Saints pass offense (5th) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)

Remember when there was talk about the Saints getting rid of Drew Brees? That may have been more ridiculous than the same talk about Stafford and the Lions. Brees is currently completing a career high percentage of his passes (71.5) and has his third-highest passer rating of his career (109.1). Only once all season has he been held below a defense’s passer rating allowed average.

By all accounts, this is a top five passing offense in the league. They rank third in passer rating (110.2), fifth in yards per attempt (8.0), first in completion percentage (71.6), first in passing touchdowns (31) and first in passing plays of 20+ (49) and 40+ yards (14).

The Lions defense has been getting a lot of credit this week for a recent improvement—much like the Saints. As you can see, the numbers also bear that out to a degree. Since the bye week, the Lions managed to hold both the Jaguars and the Vikings well below averages. However, it’s important to remember that those are the Jaguars and the Vikings.

It’s been awhile since I’ve brought you any good news in this section, so here it goes. The Lions are actually above average in defending teams’ No. 1 and 2 receivers. According to Football Outsiders, they rank 14th against No. 1 receivers and 13th against 2s. Of course the bad news is everything else. They rank 32nd against all other receivers (see: slot), 28th against tight ends and 31st against running backs.

Who to watch: Willie Snead. The Lions have been really bad against slot receivers all year because they do the bulk of their work over the middle, which has been a dumpster fire all year for the Lions defense. Snead runs that part of the field and is third on the team with 593 receiving yards.

Advantage: Saints +3.5. Though the Lions cornerbacks may fare okay against the likes of Michael Thomas and Brandin Cooks, the Saints have options all over the place. In addition to Snead, Coby Fleener has a good chunk of production and they like to get running backs involved, too. Even if the Lions improvement on defense is for real, they’re facing a near impossible challenge this week trying to slow down a red-hot Drew Brees.

Saints run offense (6th) vs. Lions run defense (28th)

Perhaps an underrated part of this Saints offense is their running game. Though these charts don’t necessarily agree with Football Outsiders’ sixth ranking, they are clearly an above average unit. They are averaging 153 rushing yards per game over their past five, including two 200+ yard performances.

The big question here is the availability of the Saints premier rusher Mark Ingram. As of Thursday night, Ingram had not practiced all week as he nurses a toe injury. Ingram is averaging an impressive 5.3 yards per carry this year, while no other running back is averaging more than 4.0. That next highest producer is Tim Hightower, who is no stranger to taking the bulk of carries. In the past five games alone, Hightower is averaging 16.8 carries per game for 66 yards per game at 3.9 yards per carry.

The Lions run defense has been all over the place this year. Lately they’ve been playing a little better, but I would still consider this a below average unit. I don’t think this unit is quite as bad as the DVOA rating suggests, as the Lions have actually held three of their last six opponents below or at their yardage and YPC average.

Still, the raw statistics paint an ugly picture for this defense. Although they’re only allowing 4.2 yards per carry (t-16th), 26.6 percent of rushes against this defense end up earning first downs, which is the second-highest percentage in the league.

Player to watch: A’Shawn Robinson. Last week, Robinson made a name for himself with yet another pass batted down (he is now third in the league among defensive linemen in passes defended), but an underrated part of his game is his ability to clog up lanes in the running game. As he continues to get more playing time, look for the Lions running defense to slowly improve.

Advantage: Saints +1.5. This is assuming Ingram can’t go, which looks more and more likely. You can go ahead and add another point to this matchup if Ingram is active. While the Saints won’t hesitate to trot Hightower out there in a workhorse back role, he clearly doesn’t bring as much efficiency as Ingram.

Last week’s prediction:

On Paper sucks. The Lions have consistently beat teams who are better than them on paper and it has made me look like an idiot week after week. That trend continued last week as my 26-21 Vikings prediction was nowhere near close to the 16-13 Lions final score. On Paper is now a pathetic 5-6 with a 2-7-2 record against the spread. I would question all of my methods if it weren’t for how improbable this season has been.

In the weekly On Paper challenge, it was again a staff member who came away victorious. Ryan Mathews’ 17-14 prediction was just a single point away from both team’s final score. As an extra perk given only to staff members, I gave Ryan the opportunity to choose his prize. Here are his words verbatim: “I want a picture of Shawn Michaels giving a Sweet Chin Music to Fred Durst.”

Done.

durst chin music

This week’s prediction:

If this season has taught you anything this year, it’s that you should ignore this section completely, but if you still believe in me, the Saints come out with a significant +2.5 advantage. By On Paper standards, that’s a pretty big total.

That all makes sense, though, because the Saints are a better version of this Lions team. They both have a good offense and a bad defense, but the Saints offense is better and their defense isn’t quite as bad.

A few important Lions narratives will be put to the test this week. Is the defense actually improved? Has the passing offense been held down by decent defenses as of late? If we’re truly supposed to believe both of those things, the Lions will have to prove it on the road against the Saints. I don’t buy it yet. Saints 34, Lions 24.