The Detroit Lions head down to Miami this week to play their third AFC East team already this season. Oddly, they’ve only played on divisional game thus far, but in their AFC East front-loaded schedule, they’re a cool 1-1, including a big win over the Patriots and an awful loss to the Jets.
So will the Dolphins find some cozy place in the middle of those extremes? Here is our Week 7 On Paper preview!
Matthew Stafford has recovered nicely from his god awful start to the season. Despite that four-interception 2018 debut, Stafford has worked his way back up to 15th in passer rating (93.8) thanks to four straight games above a 100 rating.
I wouldn’t say the Lions’ passing offense is firing on all cylinders quite yet, but it has certainly shown improvement week-by-week. Overall, Detroit ranks 20th in passer rating (90.0), 21st in yards per attempt (7.1) and 16th in completion percentage (65.0). As you can see, the Lions pass offense still has a long way to go, but it’s trending in the right direction.
One aspect that doesn’t need much improvement is pass protection. Detroit has only allowed nine sacks through five games, good for sixth-best in the NFL.
Alright, this is going to get a little confusing here. The Dolphins give up a ton of yards, but their passer rating allowed column looks pretty good, right? Well, that’s a little misleading. Check this out:
Miami is 27th in yards per attempt allowed (8.1), 15th in completion percentage (64.0), and they’ve given up eighth-most plays of 20+ yards through the air (22) and the most plays of 40+ yards (seven).
However, one stat makes their overall passer rating allowed look good: interceptions. The Dolphins lead the league with 11 interceptions despite the fact that they only have 27 passes defended (t-14th). This defense has just been extremely opportunistic, despite the fact that they don’t create a ton of pressure and only have 10 sacks (t-26th).
In my opinion, the Dolphins are intercepting passes at an unsustainable rate, and that is statistically masking some serious deficiencies. They’re due for regression here.
Key matchup: Taylor Decker vs. Cameron Wake. Though the Dolphins haven’t been able to generate much pressure lately, they’ve also recently been without Cameron Wake. He may still be out for another week, but his return to practice this week suggests he may be ready. Wake is their best pass rusher, while Decker has been inconsistent, but good overall at left tackle. If Stafford’s pocket is kept clean, he should have a solid day on Sunday.
Advantage: Lions +1. I’m just going to go ahead and say it: I think the Dolphins pass defense is a fraud. They aren’t bad—and they’ve got a couple of talented defensive back—but look at the slate of quarterbacks they’ve faced so far. The only ones who have established themselves as good—Tom Brady and Andy Dalton—had no problem against Miami and eventually got wins.
Lions run offense (20th) vs. Dolphins run defense (10th)
We’re entering foreign territory here, because these charts have almost always been completely red throughout On Paper history. Perhaps the best thing about the Lions’ improved running game is that they’ve performed quite well against good run defenses, like the 49ers and Cowboys. They still aren't’ relying on the running game all that much—their 114 rushing attempts are second fewest in the NFL—but they’ve been efficient when they do, especially in short-yardage situations:
The #Lions are the No. 1 power running team in the NFL, according to Football Outsiders -- 100% success in power situations. They were dead last for most of last season.— Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_) October 15, 2018
Detroit ranks 16th in yards per carry (4.3), and is earning first downs on 21.9 percent of rushes (t-17th).
With starting right guard T.J. Lang expected to return this week, the Lions will have their five starting offensive linemen again.
This is a curious chart for several reasons. First of all, it’s not very common for a team with a 4-2 record to allow so many rushing yards. Typically, if you’re winning a game, the other team isn’t running as much, so you’re rushing yards allowed artificially look good. This isn’t the case for the Dolphins. They’ve actually allowed the 12th-most rushing yards in the NFL.
That being said, their yards per carry numbers actually look pretty good. They’ve held three of six opposing rush offenses below their YPC average, and their 4.0 YPC allowed mark on the season ranks them t-10th in the league. They’re a little prone to allowing the big play (six rushes of 20+ yards, t-fifth most), but overall this is an above average until.
Player to watch: Kiko Alonso. Alonso doesn’t just lead the Dolphins in tackles, he’s second in the NFL. Miami’s weak-side linebacker is especially tough in run defense and will cause problems for Lions backs when trying to escape gaps in the offensive line.
Advantage: Draw. This will be a pretty big matchup between the two teams. Although the Lions don’t run the ball all that often, they do like to use the running game to control the clock and give their defense a rest. Miami is a bit vulnerable here, allowing 100 yards in every game but one this season, but don’t expect to be consistently efficient against this team. I’d expect somewhere around 85 yards and 4.0 YPC for this Lions run offense on Sunday.
Dolphins pass offense (12th) vs. Lions pass defense (28th)
It’s hard to know what to make of this Dolphins passing offense. Their 12th DVOA ranking seems awfully generous for a team quarterbacked by Ryan Tannehill and Brock Osweiler, especially when you see how inconsistent they’ve been all year.
Overall the stats show an above average passing unit. Miami is eighth in yards per attempt (8.0), 12th in completion percentage (65.9) and 10th in passer rating (98.4).
Most impressively, despite the massive amount of injuries on the offensive line, the Dolphins have allowed just 11 sacks in six games. However, Miami’s strategy of getting the ball out quick likely has something to do with that.
Alright, we need to talk. The Lions run defense has gotten all of the negative attention thus far, but the Lions have not been defending the pass very well all season. With the exception of some quarterback named Tom Brady, Detroit hasn’t been able to consistently stop a single quarterback for an entire game.
The raw stats paint just as ugly of a picture. They’re allowing 8.1 yards per attempt (t-27th), a completion percentage of 63.8 (14th) and a passer rating of 105.5 (29th).
The biggest complaint of the Lions’ pass defense is their inability to rush the passer. While they do certainly struggle to generate pressure, they oddly rank 10th in sacks, despite playing one fewer game than most of the league.
Player to watch: Ezekiel Ansah vs. the injury report. The one player that can consistently rush the passer is the one guy that consistently can’t get on the field. Ansah has now had a full month to recover from his shoulder injury, and it seems logical this would be the week he returns. However, he remains limited in practice, so who knows?
Advantage: Dolphins +1. While I think this Dolphins offense will be worse with Brock Osweiler in the game (and there now being a week’s worth of film on him under the Dolphins offense), I need more evidence that the Lions secondary can hold up for an entire game. This isn’t about the Lions defense vs. Brock Osweiler. It’s about the Lions DBs vs. the Dolphins receivers, and I think Miami has the slight advantage here.
Dolphins run offense (19th) vs. Lions run defense (27th)
Miami’s run game has been the definition of average through six games: two weeks they’ve outgained their opponent’s YPC allowed average, two games they’ve met those averages, and two games they’ve fallen short.
If you’re a believer in game-to-game momentum (I’m not), the Dolphins are trending in the right direction, rushing for an average of 144.5 yards and 5.5 YPC over the past two games.
Over the entire season, Miami is averaging 4.4 YPC (t-11th), but only earning first downs on 18.6 percent of first downs (26th). Their high YPC numbers are slightly inflated by their amount of big plays. They currently have five rushes of 20+ yards, tied for the 10th most. They could use a little more consistency in their running game, but they’re still an average unit.
The Lions run game chart poses a chicken or the egg dilemma. The Lions have been giving up a ton of yards and a ton of yards per carry. However, the chart suggest this is due, at least in part, to facing some pretty good rushing attacks. But are these running offenses good because of the Lions’ poor run defense or is the Lions run defense poor because of these good running games? At this point, there isn’t really enough data to make clear conclusions.
What we do know, however, is that even if these are really good run offenses the Lions have faced so far, the Lions aren’t capable of stopping them. They’re allowing an inexcusable 5.3 yards per carry (30th) and ceding first downs on 26.1 percent of rushes (25th).
Struggles with their interior defensive line and linebackers are to blame, but we’ve seen minor improvement in the Lions’ last few games—not including Dallas, of course.
Player to watch: Frank Gore. I’ll be honest, I just needed to mention Frank Gore in this preview because I respect the man so damn much. Gore has had over 850 rushing yards in 12 straight seasons, and he’s well on his way to doing it for a 13th. Best of all, his current 4.9 YPC mark this season is his highest since 2009, and he’s doing it as a 35 year old. I’ve got nothing but respect for Frank Gore.
Advantage: Dolphins +1. I don’t think Miami is particularly dangerous at running the ball, but they’re going to try like hell on Sunday, and until the Lions can actually hold a team below 4.7 YPC, I won’t give them an advantage in this matchup.
Last game’s prediction:
Week 5’s On Paper preview saw an extremely close game by the numbers, and gave Green Bay the slight edge. Overall, I chose the Packers to win a tight one, 27-26. Though I even said in the closing paragraph that an upset wouldn’t surprise me, but a loss is a loss. On Paper is now off to a rough 2-3 start.
In the comment section we had our first exact guess of the season. Kudos to commenter Linkocracy, who nailed their 31-23 prediction exactly. I have no idea how to pronounce your name (like a government ruled by Link from Zelda? “Linko” like Plinko without the P?), but here is your weekly prize:
That’s right. Albert Wilson is not YACKing. Golden Tate is.
This week’s prediction:
The Dolphins come out with a slight +1 advantage, which is a bummer, because I went into this article thinking I would come out picking the Lions. Even worse, I haven’t even mentioned the potential nightmare matchup on special teams. The Dolphins have Jakeem Grant, who has already recorded a punt and kick return touchdown, while the Lions’ coverage units have looked vulnerable all year.
Still, I can’t shake this feeling that the Dolphins are frauds, and the Lions will come out of the bye week ready for them. Brock Osweiler shouldn’t scare Detroit’s defense, even with the Dolphins’ talented receivers.
Unfortunately, the Lions just haven’t put enough good performances on the board to objectively claim they’re the better team right now. 26-20 Dolphins.