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Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings preview: On Paper

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Previewing Week 4’s big matchup between the Vikings and Lions.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

After last week’s letdown, it’s hard to move onto the next week, but the Detroit Lions don’t have any other choice. This week they kick off their divisional season, and head to Minnesota to take on the 2-1 Vikings.

Last year, the Lions managed to sweep the Vikings in two hotly-contested games. Both games ended with the Detroit Lions’ game-winning score: one as time expired in regulation, the other an overtime-ending touchdown.

This year, both teams look quite different from their 2016 selves, yet both remain clear contenders for the NFC North crown. Let’s take a look at the matchup On Paper:

Note: We are no longer using any 2016 data. All statistics below are from the 2017 season alone, unless otherwise stated. DVOA numbers are also from 2017, but Football Outsiders has yet to adjust these numbers based on opponents, since there is so little data out there yet.

Lions pass offense (13th in DVOA) vs. Vikings pass defense (27th)

The Lions’ passing offense took a bit of a nosedive last week, when the Falcons were able to hold Matthew Stafford in check for almost the entire game. Stafford is still doing a great job avoiding any game-changing mistakes (one interception in three games), but the passing offense has been quite inconsistent through three weeks.

Overall, Detroit ranks eighth in passer rating (100.1), 15th in completion percentage (64.5) and just t-26th in yards per attempt (6.3). Perhaps most concerning is the frequency of which they go three-and-out:

In a word, the Lions’ passing attack has been mediocre, which isn’t good enough when you have a top-tier quarterback like Stafford.

It hasn’t been his fault, as Detroit has struggled to pass protect and the running game hasn’t put him in positions to succeed, but, regardless, the Lions need to be better.

Okay, this is a shocker. The Vikings’ pass defense has been outright bad through three weeks and I don’t quite understand it. I watched all three games they’ve played this year and it certainly doesn’t seem like Minnesota has struggled. But not only are opposing quarterbacks averaging a passer rating of 95.9 (19th), but their 27th ranking in DVOA suggests this is more than just stat-padding.

So I dug a little deeper to see what’s going on here. Part of the problem is pressure. Minnesota has just five sacks on the year, and four of those have come from just one person: Everson Griffen.

But the Vikings’ secondary may not be as deep as it appears. Minnesota ranks 30th in DVOA against No. 2 wide receivers, suggesting that Trae Waynes may be the weak link to exploit on Sunday. I hope you’re reading this Golden Tate and/or Kenny Golladay.

Player to watch: Everson Griffen vs. Greg Robinson. How could it be anyone else? Griffen calls Robinson lazy. Robinson has given up a ton of pressures through three weeks. Griffen has 4.0 sacks on the year. This should not only be an entertaining matchup, but one that could be a key to success.

Advantage: Lions +1. Detroit has faced some very tough defenses at the top of their schedule and have mostly come out okay. I’d be surprised if Stafford comes out with a passer rating above 100 in Minnesota, but he’ll be good for at least one touchdown pass on Sunday. Just expect an up-and-down day from the Lions’ offense, yet again.

Lions run offense (23rd) vs. Vikings run defense (10th)

A month ago, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said that fixing the run game was “a big, big, big point of emphasis” this offseason. Unfortunately, that hasn’t turned into much of any production thus far. Detroit’s best performance on the ground came against the Giants, yet their stats were still below what New York has been giving up on average through three weeks.

This running game needs a kick in the pants, but it’s hard to see where it’ll come from. The Lions will likely get their center back this week, both improving their lineup at center and left guard, but now T.J. Lang’s availability is in doubt.

I have no answers for this Lions running game right now, but let’s hope Cooter does.

No team has rushed for more than 3.2 yards per carry against this Vikings defense thus far. Minnesota has made it a priority to stop the opposing team’s running game, and they have unequivocally succeeded in all three weeks.

Right now they rank third in YPC allowed (3.0) and third in yards per game allowed (62.7). But, perhaps, most impressively, the longest run they’ve ceded thus far is just 11 yards.

Player to watch: Linval Joseph. The veteran defensive tackle just eats up space in the middle of the Vikings’ line. Matthew Stafford pointed out Linval (No. 98) specifically when talking about the Minnesota’s talented line.

“This is another team that’s really difficult to run the ball against, they play enough single high and get guys down in the box, their safeties are really good tacklers, (No.) 98’s about as good a run player interior as we’ll see all year, too.”

Advantage: Vikings +2. There is no hope for the Lions’ running game this week. None. Detroit’s only success this year has come on long runs, and the Vikings haven’t given up a single one of those yet this year.

Vikings pass offense (2nd) vs. Lions pass defense (5th)

I don’t recognize this Vikings team at all. Has the signings of Riley Reiff and Mike Remmers really transformed this offense into a pass-first attack?

There isn’t a ton of data out there, but the outlook is very good. If the Vikings can air out the ball with both Sam Bradford and Case Keenum, maybe there really is something special going on in Minnesota.

The stats sure do represent that. The Vikings rank fourth in passer rating (115.4), fifth in yards per attempt (8.6) and fifth in completion percentage (69.9). They’re led by the No. 2 and 3 receivers in the league right now in Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen.

As for Reiff and Remmers? They have certainly held up their part of the bargain.

It’s early, but those two look like extremely good investments for Minnesota.

But this improvement may be even more shocking. The Lions, whose pass defense ranked last in 2016 by a mile, has suddenly transformed into the team’s biggest strength.

While some of these numbers are bolstered by an unusually high amount of interceptions (7, second-most in NFL), they are also simply just contesting more passes this year. Their 29 pass breakups is the most in the entire league.

But it isn’t just the secondary. The Lions are actually getting some pass rush from their ragtag team of little-known edge rushers. Take this paragraph from Geoff Schwartz’s article this week:

Last season, the Lions had zero pass rush. They were near the bottom of the league in hits, which is considered sacks plus all the times the QB gets knocked down by a defender. This season, they have seen an uptick early in the season. They have 20 hits through three games (6.7 per game) after generating 68 hits all season last year (4.3 per game).

If we’re going to assume the Vikings’ pass offense is for real, we have to do the same with Detroit’s pass defense.

Player to watch: Adam Thielen. While I don’t expect Darius Slay to follow around Stefon Diggs all game, he will probably be lined up opposite him more often than not. That leaves an opportunity for Thielen to continue this breakout year. Last year, he nearly had 1,000 receiving yards, but in 2017, he’s already on pace for nearly 1,600.

Advantage: Even. With Sam Bradford declared out for Sunday, Case Keenum starting is a huge win for the Lions, as Bradford is clearly the better quarterback. I’m not buying into the Keenum hype after last week’s impressive performance.

Regardless, both teams are drastically improved in this unit, and it should be an epic face-off on Sunday.

Vikings run offense (18th) vs. Lions run defense (16th)

Dalvin Cook has looked like an excellent fit for this Vikings offense through three weeks. He has already rushed for 288 yards and 4.7 yards per carry in three games, while breaking more tackles than any other back in the NFL.

And he’s managed to do so with just an okay offensive line. Per Football Outsiders, the Vikings’ offensive line ranks just 19th in adjusted line yards in the running game.

Put it all together and you have a slightly above-average running game with big-play potential. The Vikings already have four rushes of 20+ yards, the second most in the NFL.

What looked like a great run defense through two weeks may have actually been a mirage. The Cardinals and Giants have two of the worst running games in the league, while the Lions defense looked porous against a good Falcons running game.

But last week, the Lions were without their defensive centerpiece: linebacker Jarrad Davis, who is on track to play this Sunday. Could Davis really make all of the difference on defense? It’s really too hard to tell.

Player to watch: Dalvin Cook. It’s an obvious choice, but a good one. Cook has looked electric at times and impossible to tackle at others. Detroit will get this opportunities to take him down at or before the line of scrimmage. They’ll have to seize those opportunities.

Advantage: Vikings +1. The Lions are 0-for-1 against good running teams thus far, but they were also without one of their best run defenders. Minnesota looks good on the ground, but not yet great. The Vikings have the edge on paper, but there isn’t enough evidence on either side for me to have a lot of confidence one way or the other.

Last week’s prediction

I was all ready to crown myself the winner of Week 3 with my incredibly close prediction of 29-24 (the score was 30-26). However, I was bested by POD veteran Justan Oldfart, who amazingly predicted 29-26 Falcons.

But before I present you with this week’s prize, one other prediction deserves a shoutout. Mic2000 predicted the Lions to win 33-30. Had Golden Tate’s knee not skimmed the turf for a brief second, that would have exactly been the score of the game. Mic2000, you win this week’s Golden Tate “Oooh, so close” Award. Unfortunately, there’s no actual reward for coming close, just ask the Week 3 Detroit Lions.

Anyways, here’s your prize, Justan:

This week’s prediction:

The Vikings come out with a +2 advantage, and with home-field advantage as well, you’d think this could be lined up for a potential blowout. But I don’t quite see it that way. Outside of the Lions’ run offense vs. the Vikings’ run defense, I see every other matchup as incredibly close. Matthew Stafford could exploit Trae Waynes as the penalty machine he is. Jarrad Davis could be Dalvin Cook’s Kryptonite.

There’s just not a ton of information on these two teams yet, so I can’t really predict a huge win either way. That being said, the Vikings have simply been the better team so far this year, even though both teams look like real contenders.

Give me Vikings 23, Lions 19.