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Detroit Lions vs. Carolina Panthers preview: On Paper

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Our statistical breakdown, preview and prediction for Lions vs. Panthers.

Detroit Lions v Carolina Panthers Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

On Paper returns this week for a battle of one-loss teams for the second week in a row. Last week the 2-1 Detroit Lions faced off against the 2-1 Minnesota Vikings. This week, it will be a battle of 3-1 teams, as the Carolina Panthers come to town riding off a big road victory over the New England Patriots.

Both the Lions and the Panthers are clinging to the top of their division as the Packers and Falcons hold the same records in their respective divisions. That makes the stakes for Sunday extremely high, considering this game could very well determine tiebreakers down the road for playoff consideration.

So who has the advantage come Sunday? Let’s take a look at the stats.

Lions pass offense (21st in DVOA) vs. Panthers pass defense (12th)

The Lions pass offense has been disappointingly average through four weeks. After Matthew Stafford got off to a hot start, he’s cooled down at the hands of the Falcons and Vikings. Detroit has played solid defenses in three of four weeks this year, but even so, they’ve been performing under average when taking into consideration the strength of their opponent.

The raw numbers further drive the point home that this has been an average pass offense through four weeks. Detroit ranks ninth in passer rating (95.9), but just 16th in completion percentage (63.8) and 26th in yards per attempt. They have also allowed the 11th-most sacks in the league (12).

The one thing the passing offense deserves credit for, however, is taking care of the ball. The Lions have thrown just one interception this year. Only the Chiefs, Vikings, Patriots and Saints have thrown fewer.

I bet you’re a little surprised to see how green the Panthers’ pass defense chart is. I know I was. All week, we’ve heard how bad this Panthers secondary is and how vulnerable they’ll be against the Lions this week. And, sure, if you look at the raw statistics, it’s easy to understand how that narrative began.

The Panthers rank 21st in passer rating allowed (96.8), 29th in completion percentage allowed (70.9) and eighth in yards per attempt (6.3). However, when you take into account that Carolina has played three teams that are averaging a passer rating over 100, their performance actually turns out to be slightly better than average.

Their disruption numbers, however, are not all that impressive so far. They have managed 11 sacks so far (t-ninth), led by veteran Julius Peppers, but they only have one interception and one fumble recovery on the year.

Player to watch: Julius Peppers. The Panthers don’t have a standout performer in the secondary, especially now that safety Kurt Coleman is out for a month. So Carolina will be relying on Peppers to create a lot of pressure on Stafford. With left tackle Greg Robinson continuing to struggle, Peppers could very well tip the scales in Carolina’s favor.

Advantage: Draw. I came in expecting the Lions to have a significant advantage in this matchup, but the numbers through four weeks just don’t warrant it. In fact, if anything, the Panthers have played a little better in this matchup. But it’s close enough where I could see this going either way. Pass protection will be key for Detroit.

Lions run offense (23rd) vs. Panthers run defense (13th)

Last week’s performance was a step in the right direction for the Lions run offense, but it still has a long ways to go to be considered “good.” It has come a long way since last year’s paltry statistics, which may be all the offense really needs to be truly balanced, because the Lions are never going to be a “running team.”

Detroit is averaging 3.6 yards per carry (t-21st), but is only gaining a first down on 14.7 percent of carries (t-30th).

Their run game is led by Ameer Abdullah, who currently ranks t-10th in rushing yards (257) and is averaging a respectable 3.9 yards per carry.

The Panthers have only given up 100+ rushing yards once this season in a game they were oddly dominated by the New Orleans Saints. In that game, the Saints split carries between three backs (Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara and Adrian Peterson).

Outside of that game, however, the Panthers have been an above-average unit. In total, they rank 16th in yards per carry allowed (4.2) and 15th in percentage of rushes earning first downs allowed (21.4).

Player to watch: Luke Kuechly. Kuechly is a warrior and will be a force in this game whether the Lions try to avoid him or not. If Detroit continues to try stretch plays, Kuechly will meet them at the edge. If they try to run up the middle, Kuechly is quick and strong enough to shed blocks and get a hand on the ball carrier. Kuechly currently ranks ninth in the NFL in tackles.

Advantage: Panthers +1. This isn’t a complete lost cause for the Lions. Last week, Detroit faced a better run defense in the Vikings and managed to have something resembling a running game for the majority of the game. But if we’re talking statistically, Carolina still has the advantage here.

Panthers pass offense (23rd) vs. Lions pass defense (5th)

Though they experienced a bit of a renaissance last week against the Patriots, the Panthers have mostly struggled to air the ball out this year. Cam Newton has only thrown for a passer rating above 90 once this year, and he’s failed to meet the defense’s averages in half of the games. Their low output in yardage is not all that surprising, considering they’ve been a run-focused offense for several years now.

Their raw statistics are a little more promising for Carolina. They rank 23rd in passer rating (82.6), 19th in completion percentage (63.0) and eighth in yards per attempt (7.6).

With tight end Greg Olsen likely out for the rest of the year, the Panthers have relied more upon receiver Devin Funchess, who has 11 catches, 128 yards and two touchdowns in his past two weeks.

The biggest surprise for the Lions this year is just how dominant they’ve been against the pass this season. Every single opponent has been held below their passer rating average when lined up against this Lions secondary. Detroit is single-handedly responsible for ending the Case Keenum Hype Train after just one week on the rails.

Overall, the Lions rank fifth in passer rating allowed (71.6), 11th in completion percentage allowed (61.4) and 13th in yards per attempt.

Some may think that their statistics are a little inflated by the second-most interceptions in the league (7), but Detroit also has the most passes defended in the league (27), suggesting that they are just consistently around the ball. Those interceptions are well-earned, not the product of luck.

Player to watch: Ezekiel Ansah. The Lions haven’t been great at producing pressure on opposing quarterbacks, but they’ll get the chance this week. Left tackle Matt Kalil has not played well this year, and he’s also dealing with a groin injury. The last time Ansah faced a struggling left tackle (Ereck Flowers), he finished the game with three sacks.

Advantage: Lions +2. There’s part of me that still wants to be skeptical about this Lions pass defense, but this column is all about the objective stats, and objectively speaking, this pass defense has been a top five unit through the first month of the season. Cam Newton already has five interceptions this year. I’d be shocked if he doesn’t leave Ford Field with at least his sixth.

Panthers run offense (17th) vs. Lions run defense (14th)

Rookie Christian McCaffrey (89 rushing yards, 2.9 YPC) hasn’t enjoyed high-profile success like his draft-mates Kareem Hunt, Dalvin Cook or even Tarik Cohen, but he has had an impact on the Panthers offense both as a distraction and through the passing game.

When running the ball, however, the Panthers have relied heavily upon Jonathan Stewart and Cam Newton. After some early struggles against good defenses, the Panthers appear to be figuring it out, rushing for an average of 136.0 yards and 5.3 YPC in the past two weeks. Those numbers seem crazy good, but they haven’t exactly faced the best of defenses in their past two games.

Despite their recent success they’re only averaging 4.0 yards per carry on the year (16th), but they’re earning first downs on a whopping 28.2 percent of carries (2nd).

Detroit’s run defense hasn’t quite been as good as they looked in the first two weeks. There are two different explanations for that. The more pessimistic look is that the Cardinals and Giants appear to have two of the worst rushing attacks in the league, so the fact that Detroit stopped them isn’t much of an accomplishment. The glass-half-full explanation is that middle linebacker Jarrad Davis has missed the past two weeks, explaining their slight setback over the past two games.

Davis’ status for Sunday’s game is still up in the air, but he has cleared concussion protocol, suggesting he’ll be back soon.

Overall, Detroit is allowing 4.0 yards per carry (t-14th) and first downs on 22.1 percent of carries (20th).

Player to watch: Cam Newton. The Panthers have finally seemed to figure out that they’re much better off when Newton is part of the rushing attack again. After running the ball for three yards on six carries opening weekend, Newton has rushed the ball 16 times for 87 yards since.

Advantage: Even. I’m not confident in either of these units so far. The Panthers certainly seem to be headed in the right direction, but they aren’t anywhere near the level they were at back in 2015. The Lions, on the other hand, appear to be an average unit that is likely a lot better with Davis in the lineup. Because Davis’ availability is up in the air, I can’t say I have any confidence in either direction here.

Last week’s prediction:

I was on the right track last week, suggesting that both teams were going to struggle to score much of anything. However, I vastly underrated just how stubborn the Lions defense could be. So while my prediction of the Lions scoring 19 points wasn’t far off, the Vikings’ 23 points was way overblown. On Paper is now 2-2 on the year.

In the comment section, we didn’t have any perfect guesses, as mostly everyone had one of the teams scoring 20 points. However, one brave soul picked the Lions to notch a modest win 14-10, which was by far the closest to the 14-7 final.

That man is a new POD commenter named duck-lion. I noticed from their profile that this name stems from their love of the Lions and the Oregon Ducks. Since you don’t have an avatar yet, duck-lion, I made one for you:

This week’s prediction:

The Lions come out with a minor +1 advantage, which feels about right for this matchup. The key for Detroit couldn’t be clearer from this preview: Stop the run. The Lions match up a lot better when Carolina is passing the ball, so the more opportunities they have to pick off Newton, the better.

When the Lions have the ball, it’s hard to know what will happen. The Panthers haven’t been great at stopping the pass, but they’ve been better than most give them credit for. I think it’s likely that Detroit’s offense will struggle yet again this week, but the Lions proved against the Vikings they can win without a strong offensive performance. Lions 20, Panthers 16.