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Detroit Lions at Indianapolis Colts preview: On Paper

Previewing the matchup between the Detroit Lions and the Indianapolis Colts.

Indianapolis Colts v Detroit Lions Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

Welcome back to On Paper: the weekly preview that is too confusing for some and too long for most. Some of you crazies actually like this thing, and I’m not going to stop doing them regardless, so nestle back into that groove in your couch because Detroit Lions football is coming.

If you’re new to On Paper, it is a method of previewing games I have been doing for eight straight years now. The main focus is surrounded around eight charts I make for the matchup. Here’s the breakdown.

Each chart represents one unit of a team (e.g.: 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 and a yellow cell means the team performed within 5 percent of the team average. 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.

Unfortunately, for the first few weeks of the season, there isn’t any data to work with, so I can’t truly have a chart for the 2016 Lions or the 2016 Indianapolis Colts. So, instead, I work with last year’s numbers. Obviously this has plenty of drawbacks to it, but I’ll use year old data of football that mattered over using even more flawed preseason data.

Anyways, it’s chart time.

Lions pass offense (15th in DVOA in 2015) vs. Colts pass defense (12th)

This is your reminder that the Detroit Lions offense looked very different in the first half than it did in the second. Part of that is due to the schedule, when the Lions played some of the best defenses right out of the gate: Denver, Minnesota, Seattle and Arizona. But notice in the far right column, which takes into consideration strength of opponent, how green it is towards the bottom. Matthew Stafford finished the 2015 season absolutely on fire, and he’s hoping to carry that into 2016.

So what changed in the second half of the season? As mentioned, strength of schedule had a part in it, but so did, too, the changing of the guards at offensive coordinator. Jim Bob Cooter took over for Joe Lombardi in Week 8 against the Chiefs, and although things didn’t magically turn around immediately, after three or four weeks, the Lions offense looked completely different. Detroit morphed into a short-yardage passing game, removing the risk of interceptions and increasing their reliance on the talent of players like Golden Tate and Theo Riddick to rack up the YAC. And it worked. After throwing 11 interceptions through eight weeks, Stafford finished with just two in the final eight games.

But I would be dishonest to go through this entire section without mentioning Calvin Johnson—I promise I won’t do it all year, though. Without him on the roster, the Lions will be looking to find that reliable option to hit the defense over the top when they start closing in on the short-yardage game. That man could be newcomer Marvin Jones or it could be tight end Eric Ebron. Time will tell.

You may be surprised to see the Colts actually had a somewhat formidable pass defense last year. Only five opponents all year hit the 100 passer rating mark while 10 were held below 90, and seven below 80. All year just four quarterbacks were able to outgain their average passer rating when playing the Colts, and while they managed to rack up the yards, they didn’t do so efficiently.

The Colts held opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 88.0 (14th) while allowing them to complete 60.5 percent of passes (ninth). Additionally, the Colts secondary was filled with playmakers, pulling down 17 interceptions in 2015, good for seventh-most in the league.

That squad was led by safety Mike Adams and cornerback Vontae Davis, who had five and four interceptions respectively. It’s a good news/bad news situation for the Colts this year. Adams is back with the team, while Davis is suffering from an ankle sprain and will likely miss a few weeks of the regular season. Additionally, the starting safety opposite Adams, Clayton Geathers, has yet to practice with a foot injury and veteran corner Darius Butler has missed practice, too. The addition of Antonio Cromartie a few weeks back hopes to mitigate the damage, but Cromartie is coming off an awful year.

Player to watch: Marvin Jones. With a banged up secondary, including the Colts’ best free safety, expect the Lions to try and take a few shots deep. Jones has clearly developed a chemistry with Stafford in the preseason, and I expect that to continue to build on Sunday.

Advantage: Lions +3. The one thing I failed to mention in this matchup is pass protection. The Lions will be trotting out a rookie left tackle in Taylor Decker and Robert Mathis could give him fits all day. But with the Lions transitioning to a more quick-release offense, I don’t think this will have a huge effect on the game.

Lions run offense (27th) vs. Colts run defense (16th)

Detroit’s running game was awful in 2015, there’s really no other way to put it. Though Cooter managed to turn it from a worst-in-the-league rushing attack to just a plain bad running game, it still didn’t matter. The Lions couldn’t run the ball in almost every game last year.

This year, with the line revamped on the outsides, the Lions are hoping for more improvement under their new offensive coordinator. However, just as many questions exist as last year. Can guard Laken Tomlinson turn things around after a shaky rookie season? How long will center Travis Swanson play with rookie Graham Glasgow nipping at his heels? Who will be the Lions’ secondary rusher with Joique Bell no longer on the team?

There are a lot of questions, and based on their play in the preseason, there aren’t many answers yet.

After a decent showing in the first half of the season, the Colts run defense really fell apart down the stretch. Throughout the entire season, the Colts held just four teams under 100 yards rushing, but to be fair, they were playing from behind in a lot of games last season. What’s more troubling is their yards per carry allowed average, which plummeted all the way to 4.3 (t-21st) by the end of the year.

Again, the injury bug looks to hinder this unit on Sunday. Starting defensive tackle Henry Anderson has been ruled out for the game against the Lions, while defensive end Kendall Langford returned to practice this week after missing a month. Langford’s availability is still unknown, as he has been listed as limited all week, but head coach Chuck Pagano said he’d be shocked if he missed the game.

Player to watch: Laken Tomlinson. I believe Tomlinson to be the weak link on the offensive line and if Langford can go, that could be a big mismatch in the Colts’ favor.

Advantage: Colts +2. I just won’t believe the Lions have a running game until I see it. They were awful in the preseason, and although the Colts don’t have a particularly scary set of defenders, they were better than you think last year.

Colts pass offense (28th) vs. Lions pass defense (19th)

*Games in which Andrew Luck did not play

It’s hard to take anything truly meaningful from the Colts’ passing offense in 2015. Andrew Luck got off to a horrible start, got injured, played okay when he came back, and then he got injured again, leaving the Colts passing offense in shambles down the stretch.

While much of Luck’s struggles in 2015 can be rightfully attributed to his health, that slow start sticks out like a sore thumb in the Luck-is-the-next-elite-quarterback narrative. He hasn’t had much help around him though, as he was sacked 15 times in just seven game appearance last year.

Around him, however, Luck is starting to see some viable options in the passing game. T.Y. Hilton has emerged as a legitimate No. 1 receiver, hauling in over 1000 yards for three consecutive years now. In addition to Hilton, Donte Moncrief, who pulled in 64 catches for 733 yards and six touchdowns last year, helps make up not the flashiest receiving duo, but they’re certainly underrated.

The Lions’ pass defense, like most of the team, saw a dramatic improvement in the second half of the season after an abysmal start. There is no real rhyme or reason as to why the Lions suddenly fared better defensively over the second half of the season, though the timing does—coincidentally—match up with Nevin Lawson taking over for the injured Robert Mathis.

Detroit comes into 2016 with the same secondary group, with one notable exception: strong safety. James Ihedigbo was benched and is now without a team, while his 2015 replacement Isa Abdul-Quddus is playing in Miami. Tavon Wilson has been recently named the starter, though Jim Caldwell promised that there would be packages for both backup Rafael Bush and rookie Miles Killebrew.

Where the pass defense will truly make its impact is through their pass rush. Ezekiel Ansah returns after an NFC-high 14.5 sacks in 2014. This year, Ansah could do even better, as he has better, healthier linemen aside him at defensive tackle.

Player to watch: Tyrunn Walker. Again, injuries could have a devastating impact on this matchup. The Colts’ best offensive lineman, guard Jack Mewhort, could miss Sunday’s game. Colts owner Jim Irsay declared Mewhort would be out in Week 1, however the guard has been seen taking some serious contact during practice, even though he has been listed as limited. If he can’t go, expect the Lions to get a lot of push up the middle and force Luck into some uncomfortable throws.

Advantage: Colts +1. The Lions’ young secondary is still developing and still learning. They’ve played well together as a unit in the second half of 2015, but it takes a lot of faith to believe that will still continue. If Detroit can bring the pressure from all sides, they’ll win this matchup, but Luck is still a pretty good quarterback.

Colts run offense (30th) vs. Lions run defense (14th)

The Colts rushing offense was somehow statistically worse than the Lions’ last year. Though they rushed for more yards per game (89.9 vs. 83.4), they were much less efficient, running for 3.6 yards per carry (31st), compared to the Lions’ 3.8.

If there’s reason for optimism in the Colts running game this year, I’m overlooking it. The team brings back 45 33-year-old, Frank Gore as their primary rusher. Gore rushed for a career-low 3.7 yards per carry. Robert Turbin will likely be the secondary back in Indianapolis this year, at least to begin with. Turbin’s best year was actually his rookie season, lined up behind a stellar Seahawks offensive line. Then he ran for 354 yards on 4.4 a carry. So, not a big threat there.

For the past several years, the Lions’ defensive identity has been to stop the run. Though they took a small step back last year after putting together a dominant defense in 2014, they still managed to stop the run more often than not. After all was said and done last year, the Lions held 11 of 16 opponents at or below their season YPC average.

This year, the unit could be even better. The Lions are extremely deep at defensive tackle, having to cut last year’s fourth-round pick Gabe Wright just to make room for guys like Stefan Charles and rookie A’Shawn Robinson. With a healthy Ngata and Walker, the interior of that line looks deadly.

Oh, and the Lions will have their most sure-tackler back in DeAndre Levy, after he only played in 17 snaps in 2015.

Player to watch: Levy. Will Levy return to his All Pro season in 2014, or will there be some rust to shake off? He certainly has all of the complementary parts to have an outstanding season, we just need to see that he’s healthy and ready.

Lions +2. This is a clear advantage for the Lions, but the only reason I kept it low is because I don’t expect the Colts to run the ball very much on Sunday for two reasons. First, I think they’ll find out pretty quickly they won’t have much success running the ball. Secondly, this game could be a shootout; to keep up, Luck may have to throw the ball well over 40 times on Sunday.

Off Paper

Home field opener.

There’s nothing like the excitement of a season opener at home. The Indy crowd is going to be raucous and loud. The last time the Colts opened the season at home, they downed the Raiders 21-17 in 2013.

Caldwell coming home

Though Caldwell shook off the significance of returning back to Colts—where he was previously the head coach—in Wednesday’s press conference, it has to mean something to him. He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that seeks vengeance against a team that fired him—or against anything else, for that matter—but if the man is capable of any emotions, he’ll probably be feeling some on Sunday.


The Lions come out with a modest +2 advantage. Surprisingly, the Lions enter the game as four-point underdogs. Though considering home field advantage is typically worth three points in Vegas odds-making, it isn’t that offensive. However, I do think the Lions are clearly the better team here, especially when considering the health of the two teams.

The Colts have had terrible luck this offseason and unfortunately for them, it has made them vulnerable in the worst places against this hungry Lions team. 27-20, Lions.

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