The Detroit Lions and Seattle Seahawks face off for the first time ever in playoff history on Saturday. The teams have met just 13 times in the regular season, with the Seahawks holding a minor 8-5 lead in the series.
This year, the teams will meet with both franchises perceivably on the downswing. The Lions, losers of three straight, were knocked off their NFC North throne by the surging Green Bay Packers, and now most aren’t giving Detroit a chance to make any sort of noise in the playoffs. It’s hard to argue when the Lions are currently 0-5 against teams that made the postseason in 2016.
Everything is not okay in Seahawks land, either. Seattle is just 4-3 in their past seven games, and only one of those games was against an opponent who made the playoffs: the Packers—who proceeded to smack down the Seahawks, 38-10. Seattle has recently dropped games to the Cardinals and Buccaneers, while barely getting by against the 49ers last week.
With both fanbases feeling a little down on their respective teams, it’s a bit surprising to see Seattle as huge, eight-point favorites in this game, but let’s see if the charts agree.
Lions pass offense (13th in DVOA) vs. Seahawks pass defense (13th)
Matthew Stafford and the Lions offense are in a slump right now. The easy explanation is Stafford’s finger injury, which happened in the first half of the game against the Bears. That explanation lines up nicely with the turn in the chart above. However, as we discussed earlier in the week, the true explanation is likely a lot more complicated than that.
At that exact point in the season, the Lions also lost the services of their best pass-catching back, Theo Riddick, and their starting center Travis Swanson. Riddick is now out for the season, while Swanson could be returning this week, as he progresses through the concussion protocol.
Regardless of the cause, this slump appears to be more than just facing tougher defenses. The Lions now rank just 14th in passer rating (93.3), ninth in completion percentage (65.3) and t-13th in yards per attempt (7.3).
They’re still an above average offense, but the downward trend is worrisome.
Speaking of downward trends, there is major reason for concern in Seattle. After safety Earl Thomas was injured in the game against the Panthers, the Seahawks pass defense has suddenly fallen off the map. With the exception of the Rams game, Seattle has allowed three quarterbacks to reach a 100 passer rating in just four weeks. In the prior 12 games, they had allowed that to happen just three times.
No matter how you slice it, this pass defense has gone all the way from elite, to awful.
SEA w/ Earl Thomas on the field this year: Seven TDs, 10 picks, 77.8 passer rating— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 4, 2017
SEA w/o Earl Thomas: 9 TDs, 1 INT, 99.5 passer rating
Seahawks pass defense ranked 30th (DVOA) since Week 12, a span in which Earl Thomas played one quarter. https://t.co/BA07jYEyCk— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) January 4, 2017
Overall, Seattle’s statistics still measure up with some of the best. They rank ninth in passer rating allowed (85.0), t-16th in yards per attempt allowed (7.2) and 10th in completion percentage allowed (61.6).
Where the Seahawks remain suffocating is with their pass rush. In total, they have 42 sacks on the year, good for third-most in the league. Surprisingly, however, they have just 11 interceptions on the year, tied for 21st most in the league, and just one more than the Lions’ depleted secondary.
Player to watch: Michael Bennett. Bennett may only have 5.0 sacks on the year, but he still remains one of Seattle’s biggest pass rushing threats. When combined with Cliff Avril (11.5 sacks), this is one of the best defensive end duos in the league. Bennett may also have the benefit of going against the Lions’ third string right tackle if Riley Reiff can’t recover from his hip injury in time—second string RT Corey Robinson was placed on IR this week).
Advantage: Lions +1. Though both teams enjoyed early success in the year and are now struggling due to injuries, I believe the Seahawks have fallen lower than the Lions. Detroit has still proven, on occasions—like in the first halves of games—that their offense can drive against solid opponents. Still, Detroit could have a real pass protection issue against this front four, and the Seahawks still have talented players in their back seven, like Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. This will be a huge matchup in the game.
Lions run offense (25th) vs. Seahawks run defense (2nd)
This matchup isn’t quite as close and competitive. Though Zach Zenner has given the Lions running game a mild shot in the arm, it remains one of the worst units in the league. Since Ameer Abdullah’s injury in Week 2, the Lions have only reached 100 rushing yards as a team in one game.
Overall, they rank just 27th in YPC (3.7) and are earning first downs on just 21.7 percent of carries (23rd). Zenner does not offer any sort of big play potential, as his longest run of the season is just 20 yards.
While the Seahawks pass defense has clearly declined in the absence of Thomas, their run defense remains unchanged. Not one opponent has significantly outgained their season-long YPC average against this Seattle defense, and their last five opponents were all held under 100 rushing yards.
For the season, the Seahawks allowed a league-low 3.4 yards per carry, while holding opposing rushers to first downs on just 21.3 percent of carries (eighth). If you’re hoping for a big run or two, don’t hold your breath: Seattle has allowed just five rushes of 20+ yards on the season (third) and none of 40+ yards (one of four teams).
Player to watch: Bobby Wagner. When talking about the Seahawks defense, the defensive line and the secondary get most of the love, but Wagner is a solid tackler and a force in the running game. Wagner’s 167 tackles led the NFL during the regular season and his six tackles for loss placed him third among the rest of the Seahawks defense.
Advantage: Seahawks +2. There is no doubt in my mind that Seattle will make the Lions one-dimensional on offense. There is very little reason to be hopeful for Detroit in this matchup. The question then becomes how quickly will the Lions abandon their running game or try to replace it with something else: screen game, short/easy passing game, etc. Their ability to do both will really impact the game more than this matchup because I don’t suspect we’ll see more than 20 rushing attempts out of the Lions in this game.
Seahawks pass offense (16th) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)
This has been an odd year for Russell Wilson. With no running game to speak of—more on that later—Seattle has had to rely on Wilson more than ever. This year, he set career highs in passing attempts, throwing the ball 63 more times than last year—or almost four more times per game. As a result, his completion percentage dipped 3.4 percent from last year, his yards per attempt dropped to the lowest of his career (7.7) and, oddly, his touchdown numbers dropped 13 from 2015.
It hasn’t all been bad for Wilson, however. As you can see from the charts, he still managed to outperform defensive averages more often than not. As a team, Seattle still ranks 13th in passer rating (93.4), t-fifth in yards per attempt (7.8) and 11th in completion percentage (64.9).
So although it’s clear Wilson is best when he has a running game and an offensive line to work with, he’s also proven to be well above average when he’s had to carry the offense on his own. Keep in mind that Wilson has done this with a bum knee and ankle for a good portion of the season.
Whatever magic the Lions had going from Week 11 to Week 13 is no longer visible in the rear-view mirror. The Lions pass defense is back to being horrible and there’s no sign of it making an improvement at this point.
The loss of nickel cornerback Quandre Diggs, who was injured in the Saints game, seems especially impactful on this defense. The Lions have trotted out the likes of Asa Jackson, Adairius Barnes, Crezdon Butler and Don Carey in his place, but none of them have found any sort of success.
Overall, Detroit has earned their 32nd ranking in DVOA. They rank last in passer rating allowed (106.5), t-22nd in yards per attempt allowed, and 32nd in completion percentage allowed (72.7).
Player to watch: Jimmy Graham. Graham was third among tight end in receiving yards during the regular season and seventh in touchdowns. The Lions have struggled with covering tight ends all year, and although the problem has decreased as their linebackers have gotten healthier, it’s still a big issue, and Graham may be the best tight end they’ve faced all year.
Advantage: Seahawks +2.5. There aren’t a lot of specific matchup problems that hurt the Lions here, especially with Seattle missing Tyler Lockett for the rest of the year. Darius Slay vs. Doug Baldwin should be a relative push. However, individual matchups don’t seem to matter against this Lions defense. Almost every single opponent has found a way to move the ball against this defense and it’s hard to imagine Russell Wilson being the first to really struggle. Wilson is typically very careful with the ball and very efficient with his throws. He’ll get his against Detroit this week. The one hope for Detroit is getting to Wilson before he throws the ball. Seattle has allowed the sixth-most sacks in the league, but we saw how Detroit handled Aaron Rodgers’ mobility last week, so it’s hard to imagine them reigning in Wilson on Saturday.
Seahawks run offense (23rd) vs. Lions run defense (23rd)
Despite the temporary resurgence toward the end of the year, the Seahawks had one of the worst running games in the league in 2016. Thomas Rawls has not been the Marshawn Lynch replacement Seahawks fans were hoping for. Of course, Rawls hasn’t been helped out by an extremely poor offensive line, either. In all, the Seahawks were held below YPC averages in 11 of 16 games, and failed to even reach 3.0 YPC in seven contests.
Seattle averaged just 3.9 YPC on the year (t-24th) and earned first downs on only 21.1 percent of rushes (25th). Interestingly enough, however, Seattle remains a mild threat to break out a long run. They have four rushes of 40+ yards on the season (tied for fourth most), though it’s worth pointing out that Rawls, the projected starter for Saturday, has only one rush of 20+ yards.
The Lions’ up-and-down run defense has been mostly down as of late. They haven’t held an opponent significantly below their YPC average since their first game out of the bye week. Their last three opponents have all reached over 100 yards and met their YPC average.
Overall, Detroit’s numbers are below average. They rank t-20th in YPC allowed but 27th in percentage of rushes allowed that earned first downs (25.4 percent).
Player to watch: Tahir Whitehead. The Lions run defense has typically been good at stopping runs at the second level, but Whitehead and DeAndre Levy really struggled with tackling last week against the Packers. Whitehead’s play has been inconsistent all year, likely making him a target for misdirection plays this week.
Advantage: Draw. The Seahawks would love it if they could establish the run and take some heat off of Wilson this week. Recent trends make that look like a possibility against this Lions defense, but Seattle’s offensive line has been so horrible at times, so it’s hard to have any confidence in them right now. This matchup could truly go either way.
Last week’s prediction:
Sadly, On Paper has gotten on a roll as of late. If there’s anything we’ve learned this year, it’s that the Lions aren’t a very good team statistically. For a while, it looked like it didn’t matter, but it finally may be catching up with them. On Paper is now 9-7 on the year and 5-9-2 against the spread, after a somewhat accurate 27-20 Packers prediction.
RoaringInSD missed it by that much, with his 31-23 prediction being a single point off of the 31-24 final score on Sunday night. In honor of the Lions “backing up” into the playoffs, here is your prize, Sir Roar:
This week’s prediction:
The Seahawks end up with a +3.5 advantage. To put that in perspective, On Paper gave the Packers a +2.5 advantage last week and the Cowboys a +5 advantage the week prior.
I’ll be honest, I was more confident in the Lions’ chances before I started this preview. While the Lions have a few matchups that line up well (pass offense vs. Seattle’s pass defense; run defense vs. Seattle’s run offense), the two other matchups could be lethal. Seattle is vulnerable in pass protection but the Lions lack any sort of pass rush. Russell Wilson isn’t at his best without a running game, but Detroit can’t stop any passer in the league right now.
If the Lions are going to win this game, they’re going to have to do it the way they’ve won so many games this year: On the arm of Matthew Stafford. Detroit will need one more heroic effort from their quarterback if they hope to win their first playoff game in 25 years.
It’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but I just don’t see it happening at CenturyLink Field this weekend. Seahawks 23, Lions 17.