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Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints preview: On Paper

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Can the Lions beat the Saints for the fourth straight year?

NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Crystal LoGiudice-USA TODAY Sports

For the third time already this season the Detroit Lions will face an NFC South opponent this Sunday. The first two didn’t go so well ,but the Lions are hoping to turn things around as they are set to face the 2-2 New Orleans Saints, a team they have now beaten three years in a row.

But the tides could be turning. The Saints are riding a two-game winning streak and are coming off a full week of rest after an early bye. They’re extremely healthy going into Week 6 and, as a result, are significant favorites in this game (between 4-5.5 points, depending on your source).

But are people just being reactionary after Detroit’s loss to the Panthers? Let’s take a look at the charts.

Lions pass offense (21st) vs. Saints pass defense (16th)

If you were to just look at this chart, you would think the Lions’ passing attack isn’t suffering all that much. After all, Matthew Stafford has put up a passer rating of 100+ in three of five games.

But that hardly tells the entire story. After all, before the Lions’ final two touchdown drives against the Panthers in the final five minutes, Stafford had a passer rating of just 67.2. Call it garbage time or late-game heroics, but either way, it wasn’t representative of how the majority of that game went.

The Lions pass offense hasn’t been nearly as explosive as it has been in the past few years. Detroit ranks ninth in passer rating (97.4), but just 24th in yards per attempt (6.5) and 12th in completion percentage. Stafford’s 6.5 yards per attempt average is the lowest he’s had in a season since 2010.

Pass protection is obviously the biggest issue right now, as Stafford has taken 12 sacks in the last two games alone.

Now comes the tricky part. The Saints pass defense has been notoriously horrific over the past few years, and the way 2017 started, it looked like that would continue this season. But over the next two games, the Saints experienced a bit of a revolution. They completely stifled the Panthers’ offense, then held Jay Cutler and the Dolphins somewhere around their season averages.

It’s possible they’ve turned a corner, but consider me a huge skeptic. They’re still 27th in passer rating allowed (101.2), 30th in completion percentage (72.7) and, most importantly, 31st in yards per attempt (8.6!). If this Saints defense is truly a lot better this season, they’re going to need a bigger sample size of success to convince me.

Player to watch: Cameron Jordan. The Saints aren’t a huge threat in rushing the passer, but the one guy who can consistently do it is Jordan. He typically lines up on the defense’s left side, which means he’ll face Detroit’s best tackle, Rick Wagner, most of the time. However, the Saints aren’t at all afraid to move him to the blind side. Every snap he takes opposite Greg Robinson is going to be a scare.

Advantage: Even. I really want to give the Lions an advantage here, because I really think this is the week they finally break out. But if we’re going based completely on the statistics thus far, both sides of this matchup have been well below average through Week 5. Matthew Stafford’s ankle injury is likely to keep him less mobile. That could be a huge factor considering how poor his protection has been and how good he has been at escaping pressure. My subjective brain thinks this is a good matchup for Detroit, but the objective charts say otherwise.

Lions run offense (24th) vs. Saints run defense (30th)

Yeah, Detroit’s running game remains very, very bad. The hopes that Ameer Abdullah would come in and sweep us all off our feet have been thoroughly dashed through five games. Abdullah himself is averaging an almost-respectable 3.8 yards per carry, but as a team, there is just no cohesiveness to the run game.

Detroit ranks t-25th in yards per carry (3.5) and is earning a first down on just 16.1 percent of carries (29th).

However, the Saints cannot stop the run. They have faced some pretty impressive running games thus far, and every single one has rushed for at least 3.8 yards per carry.

The Saints defense is undoubtedly hurting from the losses of Nick Fairley and rookie linebacker Alex Anzalone. That has made the Saints particularly vulnerable up the middle, which is exactly where the Lions have failed to run the ball consistently.

As for the raw statistics, the Saints rank t-22nd in YPC allowed (4.5), but are dead last in percentage of carries that result in first downs (27.6 percent).

Player to watch: T.J. Lang. The Lions right guard has quietly been one of the best in the league. In fact, Pro Football Focus ranked him as the No. 2 guard in the NFL. He’ll be up against a mediocre-at-best duo in Sheldon Rankins and Tyeler Davison. Lang could potentially open up some legitimate running lanes this week.

Advantage: Even. If there’s a week for the Lions running game to break out, this is the one. But if I were to give the Lions an advantage here, it would be based on pure hope. The Lions running game has yet to have a start-to-finish good performance, and so I can’t in good faith give them an advantage here.

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

Drew Brees is currently in his 17th season in the NFL, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from his statistical output. Brees is enjoying a highly productive year thus far, completing 69.1 percent of his passes (third), throwing for eight touchdowns (10th, with one less game than most) and zero interceptions (first) and averaging an impressive 7.5 yards per attempt (11th).

Now it’s worth pointing out that the Saints haven’t exactly gone up against the toughest of pass defenses. Still, Brees’ “worst” performance this year was putting up 348 yards against the Patriots for “only” a 99.9 passer rating.

What’s potentially even scarier, though, is this week they could be getting back two key pieces to their offense that have been missing all year: left tackle Terron Armstead and receiver Willie Snead. Both have been limited in practice all week and are likely headed for a “questionable” designation, but considering their week of rest, it seems probable one or both will play, making this offense even more dangerous.

The realness of the Lions pass defense took a big hit last week when Cam Newton dropped 334 yards on them and three touchdowns. They sullied what was an otherwise very impressive-looking defensive chart. Not only where the Panthers the first team to outgain their passer rating average against Detroit, but they are the only team to have surpassed a 90+ rating or 300 net passing yards.

Confidence in this Lions defense is quickly waning, when you consider how easily the Falcons offense was able to move through Detroit’s defense for the majority of that game. Granted, those are two of the best passing offenses in the league, but the point is, this Lions defense has moments of looking very vulnerable.

Still, the overall stats look pretty good from Detroit’s standpoint. They rank 10th in passer rating (84.8), t-20th in completion percentage (64.6) but just 26th in yards per attempt allowed (7.7). Perhaps most impressively, however, the Lions rank second in passes defended, according to ESPN, with 30.

Player to watch: Willie Snead. There’s no guarantee Snead plays this week, as he continues to be limited with a hamstring injury, but if he goes, he could immediately take on a big role with the Saints. The Lions have been pretty solid against slot receivers this year, but Snead will be hungry to get involved early and often in his first game back.

Advantage: Saints +1. While the Lions held the Saints pass offense in check last year, and Detroit’s defense is clearly better this season, Drew Brees is playing out of control right now. The Lions pass defense has really struggled against the best pass defenses in the league in 2017, and the Saints have a top 5 passing attack. The key here is to get Brees to turn the ball over. The Lions had seven interceptions in the first three games, but haven’t had any in the past two.

Saints run offense (8th) vs. Lions run defense (5th)

The thunder and lightning duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara has produced some pretty good, but not great, results. They’ve only managed to outgain the opponent’s YPC allowed average in one game this year, and have only rushed for 100+ yards in a single game.

That being said, they’ve been a pretty efficient running team when they’ve needed to run the ball. They’re earning first downs on 22.6 percent of carries (11th) and averaging a respectable 4.0 yards per carry (t-17th).

The Lions run defense has held every opponent but one below their YPC average, and they’re coming off their best performance of the year, holding the Panthers to exactly 1.0 yards per carry.

As a result, the Lions run defense ranks near the top in every statistical category. They’re allowing just 74.6 yards per game (third), 3.3 yards per carry (t-fourth) and allowing 19.3 percent of rushes to earn first downs (t-ninth).

The Lions have been especially good with Jarrad Davis (2 TFLs) and Tavon Wilson (3 TFLs) in the lineup. Both are off the injury report and should be completely ready to go this week.

That being said, the Lions did lose one key component to their run defense this week when Haloti Ngata was placed on injured reserve with a torn bicep. Ngata’s stats were modest (7 tackles, 2.0 sacks), but his presence went much beyond the box score.

Player to watch: Akeem Spence. Spence is the most likely candidate to see an increase in playing time due to Ngata’s injury, and he has been just okay thus far. It’s essential that Spence helps create lanes for Davis and Tahir Whitehead to shoot into the backfield, as that aggressive style has been so successful for Detroit thus far.

Advantage: Lions +1. The only team to have anything resembling success on the ground against Detroit was the Falcons, and the Lions were without their two best run stoppers in that game (Davis and Wilson). The only question here is how the Lions will respond without Ngata, but otherwise, this looks to be one matchup in the Lions’ column.

Last week’s prediction:

On Paper moved to a disappointing 2-3 on the year after predicting a low-scoring win for the Lions. However, On Paper wasn’t alone. In the comment section, nearly everyone picked the Lions.

One of the few to go against the grain was Snow_Lion, whose 26-23 prediction was insanely close to the 27-24 final score. Enjoy your prize, you traitor:

Commemorate the most notable four-week span of Adrian Peterson’s illustrious career with this limited edition t-shirt. Better get some use of it now, while Peterson is still in the league.

This week’s prediction:

The matchups end up in a draw, and, really, you could make a solid argument for each team in every matchup. This is a classic strength vs. strength; weakness vs. weakness game, which leaves me completely baffled as to what is going to happen.

When this method spits out a draw, I usually go with my gut, and my gut is saying that this Saints defense isn’t for real, and the Lions offense is due for a breakout game. This will have to be the case, because I wouldn’t be surprised to see Drew Brees go off, either. So I think this one has the makings of a shootout, and even with a slightly hobbled Stafford, I feel like Detroit will edge out New Orleans, simply because they have more playmakers in the secondary and are more capable of making the Saints one-dimensional. Lions 31, Saints 27.