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Detroit Lions vs. Carolina Panthers preview, prediction: On Paper

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A statistical breakdown of the Lions’ Week 11 game.

Carolina Panthers v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

The last time the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers met, it was not pretty. Both teams entered Week 5 of the 2017 season at 3-1, and the Lions were riding high after an impressive win over the Vikings. What followed was a Cam Newton beatdown that led to a 27-10 lead late in the game. Though Detroit clawed their way back and even came close to a comeback, it was clear Carolina was the better team that day.

This year, we may be in for the same—although the situation is much different. The Lions’ season is teetering on irrelevance at 3-6, while the Panthers are sitting pretty at 6-3, despite last week’s embarrassing loss to the Steelers.

Will the Lions have a chance at revenge this week? Let’s break down the matchup On Paper.

Lions pass offense (22nd in DVOA) vs. Panthers pass defense (24th)

As I mentioned last week, there may be a very clear break in this chart separating the pre-Golden Tate trade and post-Golden Tate trade eras. So far, that point stands true. Matthew Stafford’s five-game streak of beating the opponent’s passer rating average came to an end against the Vikings and he hasn’t recovered since.

Of course, a lot of that may have to do with a complete breakdown in pass protection. After allowing just 13 sacks through the first seven games of the season, the Lions have allowed 16 sacks in just the past two games. With T.J. Lang now on IR, the Lions offensive line is in trouble.

Overall, the pass offense has seen its efficiency drop to a below-average level: They’re just 20th in passer rating (91.6), 23rd in yards per attempt (7.1) and t-11th in completion percentage (66.2).

The Panthers, oddly, haven’t been that good at defending the pass this year. Their muddled secondary has struggled to find an identity due to injuries and young, inconsistent talent. They’ve still managed to hold four of nine teams below their passer rating average, but last week’s game against the Steelers—in which Ben Roethlisberger had a perfect passer rating—is a perfect example of how vulnerable this defense can be.

Carolina ranks 22nd in passer rating allowed (97.9), t-16th in yards per attempt (7.6) and t-24th in completion percentage (67.1). But don’t get it twisted, there are some ballhawks on this team. Their 11 interceptions trail only the Bears, Dolphins and Browns. Rookie corner Donte Jackson leads the team with four.

Still, this defense is overall vulnerable, and their pass rush isn’t nearly as bad as the teams the Lions have faced over the past couple weeks. They only have 22 sacks on the season (t-21st).

Player to watch: Mario Addison. While the Panthers struggle overall to create pressure, Addison hasn’t had much of a problem. Addison’s 7.5 sacks leads the team and is t-12th most in the league.

Advantage: Even. On a normal week, I would give the edge to the Lions, but not only is the team trending downwards offensively, but there’s a pretty good chance they’ll be without one of their best weapons in Marvin Jones Jr., who is battling a knee injury. Unless we get a surprise performance out of TJ Jones or Bruce Ellington, I’m not sure Kenny Golladay can single-handedly carry the passing attack.

Lions run offense (21st) vs. Panthers run defense (14th)

The Lions rushing attack appears to be dead. After an extremely promising start to the season, Detroit hasn’t been able to get the running game going against some of the better defenses in the league. Just look at the split of Kerryon Johnson:

First six games: 69 rushes, 444 yards (6.4 YPC)
Last three games: 34 rushes, 110 yards (3.2 YPC)

His efficiency has literally been cut in half in the past month and while injuries to Lang and Taylor Decker likely have something to do with it, it’s also just a matter of the Lions not being able to compete as well against better defenses.

Johnson is still an impressive back who will make the most of his chances, but it’s clear the Lions have a long ways to go before they’re considered anything more than an average running game right now. They’re now just t-15th in yards per carry as a team (4.3) and earn first downs on 23.3 percent of carries (19th).

The Panthers have been wildly inconsistent at stopping the run, trading good and bad performances nearly every week. While they’ve managed to hold five of nine opponents below 100 rushing yards, they’ve also allowed four different teams to not only hit that century mark, but do so at 4.6 yards per carry or better.

The safe bet is to simply call this an average run defense, and the raw statistics bear that out. They’re tied for 16th in yards per carry allowed (4.4) and allow first downs on 27.9 percent of runs (t-26th).

Player to watch: Luke Kuechly. You know, I wasn’t going to go the entire Panthers defensive section without mentioning the best middle linebacker in football, right? Kuechly may be having a quiet year by his standards, but he’s still a phenomenal player. Currently ranked as the sixth-best linebacker by PFF, Kuechly leads the Panthers in tackles (72) and tackles for loss (9). He’s pretty damn good.

Advantage: Panthers +0.5. This is certainly a winnable matchup for the Lions, and I think this will be the absolute key to the game. With Marvin likely out, the Lions are going to try and control the game on the ground, and if they catch the Panthers on an off-week, they could certainly take advantage.

However, I gave the slight nod to Carolina simply because of the downward trending Lions run game. Their offensive line is just not performing up to early-season standards, and with Kenny Wiggins set to start at right guard, I don’t have a lot of faith in them turning it around this week.

Panthers pass offense (10th) vs. Lions pass defense (31st)

Now comes the hard part.

Cam Newton is currently on a tear and is probably a dark horse candidate in the MVP race this season. After a modest start to the season, Newton now ranks 12th in passer rating (101.2), sixth in completion percentage (68.5) and has thrown 17 touchdowns to just five interceptions.

He’s benefitted from a much-improved set of offensive weapons. With a healthy Greg Olsen, first-round rookie DJ Moore, trade acquisition Torrey Smith and free agent addition Jarius Wright, the Panthers now have multiple ways to beat you through the air. Oh, and don’t forget about their leading receiver: running back Christian McCaffrey.

They’re also not very prone to giving up negative plays. Their five interceptions rank seventh fewest, and they’ve only allowed 17 total sacks (sixth fewest).

Time to take the medicine.

The Lions pass defense has arguably been the worst in the NFL over the past six weeks. Just take a look at how opposing quarterbacks have torn apart this defense since the Cowboys games:

Opposing QBs vs. Detroit in past six games: 72.0 completion percentage, 9.5 Y/A, 14 TDs, 1 INT, 125.5 passer rating

That’s absolutely brutal, and it’s not like the quarterbacks the Lions have faced in that time are amazing. We’re talking about Dak Prescott, Brock Osweiler, and Mitchell Trubisky. Sure, there’s an Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson thrown in there, but those are still completely unacceptable numbers.

The one good news is that the Lions will likely get Darius Slay back this week, but his supporting cast remains awful.

Player to watch: Any receiver that isn’t covered by Darius Slay. Slay has been the only defensive back that has even been a little reliable in pass coverage. Since the Panthers suddenly have a deep set of receiving options, expect Newton to avoid Slay most of the day and pick on the likes of Nevin Lawson, Teez Tabor and DeShawn Shead, all of which have struggled defending the pass this season.

Advantage: Panthers +3. I don’t think I need to justify this.

Panthers run offense (3rd) vs. Lions run defense (25th)

This week, the Panthers cut C.J. Anderson, meaning their rushing attack is defined by just two people: Cam Newton and Christian McCaffrey. So far, that formula has been wildly successful. They’ve yet to rush for under 3.8 yards per carry in a game or fewer than 81 rushing yards. In all but one game they’ve outgained their opponent’s YPC average and they’ve eclipsed 4.5 yards per carry in seven of nine games.

Overall, this running offense is just as good as the DVOA ranking and On Paper chart suggest. They’re second in overall YPC (5.1), t-third in rushing touchdowns (12), ninth in percentage of runs earning first downs (26.6), and they’re capable of making some big plays. Their nine rushes of 20+ yards ties for fifth most in the NFL.

The Lions run defense is finally turning around thanks to the addition of Damon Harrison Sr. prior to the Seahawks game. We saw a dramatic turnaround last week against a good Bears rushing attack, holding Chicago to their season low in both rushing yards and yards per carry.

In just three weeks, “Snacks” has helped the 30th ranked run defense (by DVOA) climb up to 25th. But the one thing that has remained is the Lions’ vulnerability to big plays on the ground. The Lions have allowed a league-leading five rushing plays of 40+ yards, which is clearly hurting their overall YPC allowed (4.9, t-27th)

Player to watch: Ricky Jean Francois. While the Lions run defense has been much better as of late, there’s a good chance they’ll be missing a key piece on Sunday. A’Shawn Robinson has yet to practice this week, and he’s been almost as good as “Snacks” in defending the run. This could mean more Francois, who has seen his playing time take a nosedive since the Snacks trade. Francois is nowhere near the run defender that Robinson is, so that could be a game-changer this week.

Advantage: Panthers +1.5. If A’Shawn were healthy, this would be closer to a draw, but even then, the Lions’ propensity for giving up big plays would probably give Carolina the edge anyways. As it stand, the Panthers have one of the best rushing attacks in the league, and while the Lions have done a pretty good job preventing quarterbacks from racking up rushing yards, McCaffrey could have a big day on Sunday.

Last week’s prediction:

Finally, On Paper has strung together back-to-back correct predictions, as the identity of the Lions team finally appears to have revealed itself. My 24-10 prediction may not have been that close to the final score, but the game played out much like I had predicted, with the Lions having no clear advantage in any matchup (except for their run defense). Overall, On Paper is now 4-5 on the season.

In the comment section, we’re going to split the award between two impressive predictions. UndaDawg’s 38-23 score and BondJamesBond_’s 31-20 predictions were equidistant from the 34-22 final outcome. Here is your mash-up prize:

This week’s prediction:

The Panthers end up with a pretty significant +5 advantage, just below the advantage I gave the Bears last week (+5.5).

However, unlike last week, the Lions aren’t clearly outmatched in each facet of the game. The Lions’ offense really has a chance to rebound this week, even though they’re facing two massing injury losses in Lang (IR) and Marvin Jones. One of the main reasons the Lions have been blown out in the past three weeks is because of the stingy defenses they’ve faced. The Panthers are not that good on defense.

That being said, the other side of the equation heavily favors Carolina. The Panthers have arguably the best offense the Lions have faced thus far, and Detroit’s defense is embarrassingly bad right now. That’s a bad combination, and it’s one that will ultimately down the Lions for their fourth-straight loss. Panthers 34, Lions 20.