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Week 3 preview: Detroit Lions vs. Atlanta Falcons: On Paper

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Breaking down the NFC game of the week.

Detroit Lions v Atlanta Falcons Photo by Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions and Atlanta Falcons face off this week in what may be the game of the week (unless you count Thursday night’s crazy finish). This is the only matchup this week between two undefeated teams, and if the team’s continue on their current trajectories, could be a future playoff matchup.

But I’m getting a little too ahead of myself now. Let’s focus on Week 3. Atlanta is facing their third straight NFC North team after eeking by the Bears and dominating the Packers. Can they make it three in a row against the North? TO THE CHARTS!

(Note: This is the last week we will use 2016 data. Starting Week 4, we will have mini-charts with only 2017 stats.)

Lions pass offense (13th in DVOA in 2016) vs. Falcons pass defense (18th)

Matthew Stafford only threw 21 passes on Monday, but he was his typical efficient self. He may have not finished 2016 strong, but Stafford is back in midseason form. In two weeks, he’s completed 71 percent of his passes and has an impressive 6-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. His passer rating of 114.6 ranks him fourth in the league.

If there’s an issue with this unit, it’s pass protection. Stafford has been sacked four times in two games, but if it weren’t for his own mobility, that number could be doubled. Now, with Travis Swanson’s availability in doubt, Detroit’s front five could be in big trouble this week.

The Falcons pass defense was all over the place last year. It started out undeniably bad, but in the last month of the season (and into the postseason), the Falcons seemed to get the hang of things.

That has continued into this year, with the Falcons currently ranking t-9th in yards per attempt allowed (6.2) and 17th in passer rating allowed (88.9). Considering one of their opponents was the Packers, those are pretty solid numbers.

But that Green Bay game comes with several asterisks. First and foremost, the Packers were without both of their starting offensive tackles. As a result, Aaron Rodgers was harassed all game, absorbing three sacks and several other quarterback hits. Additionally, the Falcons started the game with the Vic Beasley Jr. and Courtney Upshaw. Both players were injured in the game, and have already been declared out.

Player to watch: Greg Robinson vs. Takkarist McKinley. With Beasley and Upshaw out, McKinley is the most likely candidate to line up against the Lions’ left tackle. Robinson had an awful game on Monday against the Giants, but should have a slightly easier task than Olivier Vernon this week.

Advantage: Lions +1.5. I’ve yet to meet a defense that can stop this Lions pass offense, and that includes what should be decent defenses in the Cardinals and Giants. The Falcons have a better-than-advertised defense and a decent secondary, but their pass rush will not be as effective as normal. If Stafford has time, he has enough weapons to pick apart nearly any defense. Still, this is an opportunistic Atlanta D, so expect at least one turnover.

Lions run offense (25th) vs. Falcons run defense (28th)

Now here’s the part where I tell you the Lions running game from last week isn’t real. If you’re not in the reading mood, first, why are you reading this? Second, that article basically points out that Detroit’s running game was ineffective for nearly the entire game, but those stats are inflated by two long runs, one when the game had essentially been decided.

Regardless of whether you agree or not, Detroit’s running game does appear to be, at least a little better than it was last year. But it still has a long ways to go, and the injury to Travis Swanson doesn’t help.

The Falcons had one of the worst run defenses last year, and as you can see from the chart, it only got worse as the season went on.

However, the Falcons recognized this weakness and got themselve one Dontari Poe to help clog the middle of that line. So far, it’s hasn’t worked all that well. Poe only has one tackle on the year and Atlanta is allowing 5.4 yards per carry.

But the jury is still out on this unit. They’ve only faced 34 rushing attempts so far, the fewest among teams that have played two games, and 46 of their 184 rushing yards allowed came on one play.

If I’m being completely honest, I have no idea how this Falcons run defense will turn out in 2017.

Player to watch: Poe. If Swanson is a no-go, Graham Glasgow and Joe Dahl are going to have their hands full with the two-time Pro Bowler.

Advantage: Draw. It’s way too early to draw any conclusions about either of these units. Both teams are hoping that some early moderate success are signs of much-needed improvement, but there are also clear indication that there’s work to be done for both units.

Falcons pass offense (1st) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)

Last year, this would have been a nightmare matchup for the Lions. The best passing offense against the worst passing defense.

For the Falcons, not much has changed. In 2016, MVP Matt Ryan finished with a 100+ passer rating in all but four games. This year, he’s already done it two of two times.

Atlanta didn’t really lose any notable players on offense, and they’re returning everyone who contributed in a significant way last year. There’s no real reason to expect anything different this year, except...

... right tackle Ryan Schraeder is battling through a concussion and may not play this week. Schraeder is one of the best right tackles in the league and the Falcons could be in big trouble without him. His replacement would likely be Ty Sambrailo, who the Broncos sent to the Falcons a few weeks ago for a fifth-round pick. Sambrailo was one of the worst graded tackles according to Pro Football Focus last season in four starts.

Have the Lions truly turned this unit around from one of the worst pass defenses in the history of the NFL to one that could even be described as... good? Only time will really tell, but the first two weeks have been extremely promising.

So far, the Lions rank second in passer rating allowed (67.0), 10th in yards per attempt allowed (6.3) and 10th in completion percentage allowed.

However, we’re talking about two passing offenses, the Giants and the Cardinals, who looked absolutely dreadful in both games they’ve played this year.

Still, this Lions defense is clearly better than it was last year. They’re already well ahead of their 2016 pace in interceptions (4 this year vs. 10 in all of 2016), sacks (6 vs. 26) and passes defended (16 vs. 62).

Player to watch: Tevin Coleman, Devonta Freeman vs. Lions linebackers. The elephant in the room I’ve tried to avoid talking about is the injury to Jarrad Davis. Assuming he’s not going to play, Detroit’s ability to cover tight ends and running backs will suffer from Davis’ absence. It will likely mean we see Paul Worrilow or Jalen Reeves-Maybin occasionally lined up against two of the best receiving backs in the league. That’s a nightmare matchup for Detroit.

Advantage: Falcons +2. I want to believe in this Detroit defense. I really do. But we’re talking about the best passing team in the league, and one with endless depth of weapons at Ryan’s disposal. While Schraeder’s absence would give the Lions an opportunity to harass Ryan in the pocket, Davis’ injury is the bigger loss in this matchup.

Falcons run offense (6th) vs. Lion run defense (19th)

The Falcons’ running game really turned it on towards the end of the 2016 season, and should be, at least average again this year. They struggled in the season opener at Soldier Field—where nothing good has ever really happened—but they were more like themselves against the Packers on Sunday night.

As a team, they’ve been underwhelming in 2017, averaging just 4.1 yards per carry (t-9th) with only one rush of 20+ yards (t-12th).

The Lions run defense was average last year, but has been much better than average through two games this year. They’re only allowing 3.0 yards per carry (sixth), 53.5 yards per game (fourth) and first downs on 16.7 percent of carries (eighth). Also, the longest run they’ve allowed all season? 12 yards (t-third).

Of course, with Jarrad Davis possibly out on Sunday, the second level of this defense could look (and play) a lot differently against the Falcons.

Player to watch: Tahir Whitehead. Whether he’s playing in his more comfortable role at weakside linebacker or if Davis’ injury slides him back to the middle, Whitehead may be the most important player on the field for the Lions defense. Stopping the Falcons’ running game is absolutely critical for Detroit’s chances on Sunday, and Whitehead currently has 13 tackles and one for loss.

Advantage: Draw. This is just another matchup I am too unsure on. Davis’ injury plays a huge role in whether Detroit can win this matchup or not, but it certainly seems unlikely he’ll play at this point. Still, the Lions defensive line has played much better than expected and young players like Miles Killebrew and Jalen Reeves-Maybin could step up.

Last week’s prediction:

I pretty much nailed last week’s game, predicting it to both be pretty low scoring and offering a somewhat accurate 20-16 prediction. Throw in an unaccounted for special teams touchdown and it was near-perfect.

But speaking of perfection, our own Mike Payton hit the nail on the head with the his prediction of 24-10. In the comment section, Mdunn9868 also scored a perfect prediction, giving us co-winners for Week 2.

I don’t know anything about Mdunn9868, as he only has five comments in four years, so I am catering this week’s prize to Mike. Mr. Payton, I know it has been your life’s mission to convince the world that Quarterback Wins is not a real statistic. I’ve got good news for you, buddy:

This week’s prediction:

The Falcons come out with the skinniest of +0.5 advantage. This is a really tough game to predict. I don’t have any confidence in know who the Lions’ run offense or pass defense is. Similarly, I don’t know how the Falcons will run the ball or defend the run this year.

But there is one thing I know: these are two of the best quarterbacks in the league, both of whom have a ton of weapons. That being said, the team that establishes a running threat to go along with that quarterback may be the team that wins. It could really be either team, but I think Jarrad Davis’ injury is the final weight that tips the scale. This should still be a good one: Lions 24, Falcons 29.