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NFL Week 9 preview, predictions: Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings On Paper

Our statistical breakdown and predictions for Lions-Vikes.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

After a week of histrionics, hot takes, and heated debates, it’s time to finally get back to football. Golden Tate is gone, and no amount of cursing the franchise will bring him back. Like the Detroit Lions locker room, we must all move on. While that may be harder for some of us, football is always a good distraction, and we should have a hell of game this week.

The Lions head to U.S. Bank Stadium—where they’ve never lost—to face off against the 4-3-1 Minnesota Vikings. Let’s see how the two teams match up.

Lions pass offense (20th in DVOA) vs. Vikings pass defense (16th)

Despite a down game last week, Matthew Stafford continues to make the Lions pass offense hum along. This chart tells a much different story than their DVOA suggests, but one interesting thing to note is those three red cells in the passing yards column. Those red boxes are all from Lions wins. In other words, when the Lions aren’t forced to air it out, they’re actually more successful this year.

That isn’t to say they aren’t a good team throwing the ball; they absolutely are. They’re 17th in passer rating (95.5), t-17th in yards per attempt (7.4) and 10th in completion percentage (66.8). While those numbers are far from outstanding, when you look at the defenses they’ve faced so far, that’s still pretty good. By passer rating allowed, the Lions have already faced three of the top six pass defenses.

They also remain extremely good at protecting Stafford this year:

But the elephant in the room is the loss of Tate. We have no idea how this will change the offense in the immediate. More two-WR sets? More TJ Jones? Both? Neither? They obviously are less talented, but it’s hard to know how it will affect the offense, and we obviously have no data on it, since Tate didn’t miss a single game from his 4.5 years in Detroit.

This is the biggest surprise of the matchup. The Minnesota Vikings defense has taken a huge step back this year and it’s not entirely clear why. They’ve had to deal with some injuries to guys like Xavier Rhodes and Anthony Barr and played without Everson Griffen for most of the year, but it seems like the issues go beyond that. They allowed a perfect passer rating to the Rams and Jared Goff this year! What team would do something like that? (*Hopes that Lions fans have a memory span of less than five days*)

The Vikings do seem like they’re improving, however, and last week’s performance against the Saints was truly a return-to-form. Drew Brees threw for just 120 passing yards—his lowest total in a full game since 2004, when he was with the Chargers.

Overall, they rank 13th in passer rating allowed (91.2), t-26th in yards per attempt (8.1) and t-12th in completion percentage (63.5). They can still be disruptive, as their 21 sacks rank 11th and their eight interceptions are also 11th most in the league.

Player to watch: Everson Griffen. Griffen has been a terror to the Lions his entire career. In 15 games, he has 11.5 sacks against Detroit—more than any other team. Griffen is just now coming back from his mental health break, so there’s still some rust there, but he played in 70 percent of the snaps last week, so he should be more than ready to go on Sunday.

Advantage: Lions +1. I hesitate to give Detroit much of an advantage at all, despite a clear edge in the charts. The Vikings are steadily improving and the Lions are adjusting to life without Golden Tate. That really makes this matchup a toss-up, but because I’m supposed to be following the statistical edge, all I truly know about this aspect of the game is that the Lions are consistently good here, while the Vikings have been average at best. The availability of Xavier Rhodes could be the determining factor, as the Vikings’ star cornerback is still fighting off a foot injury.

Lions run offense (13th) vs. Vikings run defense (10th)

After an extremely encouraging start to the season, Kerryon Johnson and the Lions rushing attack were fed a harsh dose of reality against the Seahawks—posting their worst rushing effort of the season. I don’t think there’s any reason to panic at this point, as it remains an outlier amongst the rest of the data, but it does feel a little foreboding considering the tough slate of defenses ahead.

Still, the raw statistics are mostly positive. They’re eighth in yards per carry (4.7) and earn first downs on 23.5 percent of rushes (17th). Along with the 13th ranking in DVOA, this rushing attack has gone a long way since last year. But can they keep it up?

If there’s one part of this Vikings defense that remains as feared as it has been over the past few years, it’s their run defense. They’ve only allowed over 100 yards three times and over 4.0 yards per carry thrice. They’ve held just about everyone under their average rushing numbers, and—aside from that baffling Bills games—no team has been able to control the game on the ground against Minnesota.

Overall, the Vikings are tied for fourth in yards per carry allowed (3.7) but just t-21st in rushes that earn first downs (24.9 percent). They are also just one of two teams that have yet to allow a rush of over 20 yards. Kerryon Johnson has a rush of over 20 yards in four of seven games this year. [thinking face emoji]

Player to watch: T.J. Lang. Call it a hunch or an educated guess, but I think there’s a chance Lang doesn’t play this week. He’s been limited in practice all week with a hip injury and based on what I saw Thursday, he wasn’t practicing much at all. That could just be a veteran day for a player that doesn’t need the practice all that much, but Lang has lost the benefit of the doubt with all the injuries he’s suffered throughout his career.

Advantage: Vikings +1. I do believe the Lions rushing attack is for real despite last week’s downer, but I have much more confidence in the Vikings run defense. I’d be pretty surprised to see the Lions have success on the ground this week.

Vikings pass offense (17th) vs. Lions pass defense (30th)

The Vikings offense is scoring nearly nine fewer points per game than last year, but it doesn’t appear the problem is with their quarterback change this offseason. Kirk Cousins has been fine, ranking ninth in the NFL in passer rating (102.5, highest in NFC North) and t-sixth in passing touchdowns.

It’s no secret that his favorite target is Adam Thielen, who leads the league in receiving yards by over 100. He’s also caught 13 more passes than any other receiver in the league.

The issues are, however, on the offensive line. Though Minnesota has only allowed 23 sacks (ninth most), those have been particularly costly, as Cousins has a league-leading seven fumbles and five lost.

Still, the Vikings are pretty dang good at throwing the ball. They’re seventh in passer rating (102.5), fourth in completion percentage (70.7) and t-17th in yards per attempt (7.4).

The Lions... are not good at defending the pass. There’s no way around it. All but one passer—a scrub named Tom Brady—has been able to hit a 100 passer rating against Detroit. In fact, five of the seven hit 110.

The raw statistics are just as ugly. They’re 31st in passer rating allowed (114.2), 29th in yards per attempt (8.6) and t-24th in completion percentage (66.5). The only thing they seem to do alright is sack the quarterback (23 sacks, seventh-most), which is odd because they don’t generate a ton of pressure.

Player to watch: Adam Thielen. If Stefon Diggs plays—and he insists that he will despite the fact that he hasn’t practiced yet this week—he’ll likely occupy Darius Slay for much of the day. That means that Thielen will face off against either Teez Tabor or Nevin Lawson, and I fear for those men’s self esteem this week. Goodbye, Calvin Johnson record for most consecutive 100-yard games.

Advantage: Vikings +2. It’s a shame that the Vikings’ poor pass protection is the one thing this Lions team cannot exploit. Unless a miracle healer visited Ezekiel Ansah this week, I just don’t see how the Lions win this matchup.

Vikings run offense (28th) vs. Lions run defense (30th)

Ouch. If you didn’t notice how much the Vikings offensive line is holding them back in the pass offense, you’ll surely notice it here. The Vikes have crossed over 100 rushing yards just twice this season and averaged over 4.0 yards per carry just once.

Though Minnesota has dealt with some injuries to the offensive line and the backfield, it hasn’t really mattered who was back there. In fact, last year the Vikings ran for just 3.9 yards per carry, so they’ve really struggled to run the ball for a while now.

This year, they’re averaging just 4.0 YPC (25th) and are earning first downs on 17.2 percent of rushes (32nd). Though they could possibly get Dalvin Cook back this week, the young running back is averaging just 2.7 YPC on 36 rushes this year.

Again, it doesn’t look like the Lions can take advantage of the Vikings’ offensive limitations here. They’ve been absolutely awful at stopping the run all year, with their only reprieve being against the Patriots and Packers—two of their three wins this year.

However, the addition of Damon Harrison Sr. does provide a significant amount of hope on the horizon. “Snacks” was dominant in his Lions debut last week, and we should only expect his influence to increase this week. Against the Seahawks, the Lions eased him in... and paid for it:

But his influence is painfully obvious with those stats.

For the entire season, though, it’s just been a mess of a defense. Detroit is allowing 5.1 YPC (t-30th), and first downs on 24.1 percent of carries (19th). Only the Raiders have allowed more 40+ yard rushes.

Player to watch: Snacks vs. Pat Elflein. We know how good Snacks is, but Vikings center Pat Elflein is currently the lowest-graded offensive lineman on their team. His 50.3 grade is 33rd among NFL centers, which is pretty bad when you consider that there are only 32 teams in the NFL. EAT, SNACKS.

Advantage: Even. I don’t dare give Detroit the advantage in this matchup, because they’re a bottom-three run defense. But if there’s a week they can actually win, it’s this. Minnesota can’t run the ball, and Snacks has had a full week of practice.

Last week’s prediction:

Wrong, wrong again. This team’s identity continues to be elusive, and as a result, On Paper is a horrible 2-5 on the year. In happier news, commenter dcredd won our t-shirt contest with his 24-16 prediction last week. Also, I need to give a shoutout to MgoLions, whose prediction I overlooked in Week 7. As a consolation prize for what should’ve been a rightful win, I will name my firstborn Mgo.

This week’s prediction:

The Vikings come out with a +2 advantage, and if I’m being completely honest, I just don’t see how the Lions win this game. The Vikings are a flawed team, for sure, but the Lions are fully incapable of taking advantage of said weaknesses. They can’t protect Cousins? Bummer, the Lions can’t rush the passer. They can’t run the ball? Bummer, the Lions can’t stop the run. They can be beat in the passing game? Bummer, the Lions just traded their biggest receiving asset.

The only way the Lions win this game is if Matthew Stafford wins a shootout with Kirk Cousins, and no team has been better at bottling up Stafford than the Vikings. Oh, and Golden Tate is gone. Vikings 31, Lions 13.

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