It’s time for the Detroit Lions’ biggest challenge of the year. The best teams they’ve played currently (by record) are the 8-3 Patriots (win) and the 8-3 Bears (loss x2).
However, the Los Angeles Rams present an entirely different challenge than anyone they’ve faced thus far has provided. Their offense is the most potent they’ve faced this year, and it isn’t particularly close. Detroit is beat up offensively, and their defense hasn’t played all that well this entire year.
So is there any hope for one of those unexpected upsets this week? Let’s take a look at the game... On Paper.
Lions pass offense (22nd in DVOA) vs. Rams pass defense (7th)
Matthew Stafford has been under fire all week after his fourth-quarter performance wasted a good effort from the rest of the team against a solid Bears squad. Stafford’s performance in November was just an absolute disaster.
It’s unfair to put it all on Stafford, as there are a ton of factors working against him right now. Marvin Jones Jr. is now out for the season, as is his best offensive lineman in T.J. Lang. Kerryon Johnson isn’t helping on the ground, and, of course, there’s the Golden Tate trade:
Stafford pre-trade: 7.6 Y/A, 67.6% completions, 14 TDs, 6 INTs, 98.5 passer rating
Stafford post-trade: 6.1 Y/A, 66.0% completions, 3 TDs, 4 INTs, 78.0 passer rating
It’s a bit reductive to put this all on the Tate trade, especially considering the difficult defenses the Lions have faced since, but as the chart above illustrates, the Lions aren’t meeting the opponent’s averages, even though they’re quite low.
This team is really struggling to find an offensive identity without Tate, and it doesn’t appear his temporary replacement—Bruce Ellington—is up for the task.
The Rams’ pass defense has been mostly bad, especially over the past four weeks. However, look at some of the passing offenses they’ve had to play this year: two games against the Seahawks (112.0 average passer rating), one game against the Chargers (114.7), Chiefs (117.9), Saints (126.3), and Packers (100.1).
Another important factor in the charts above is the injury to Aqib Talib. Talib was injured in Week 3, and it’s clear the defense was playing much better when he was in the game. Talib is expected to return this week, but it’s unclear in what capacity. He only started practicing this week.
Overall the Rams rank 27th in passer rating allowed (101.6), 27th in yards per attempt (8.1), and 18th in completion percentage (65.8). They’ve allowed the second-most passing touchdowns (25) and have the 13th-most interceptions (10). Despite having the dynamic duo of Ndamukong Suh and Aaron Donald, the team ranks just t-14th in sacks (29).
Who to watch: Aaron Donald. The man is a beast. He’s sacked Stafford four times in two career meetings with the Lions, and the thought of him lined up opposite Kenny Wiggins should scare the ever-living crap out of you. Detroit will probably try to get the ball out quick, but Donald is going to get his.
Advantage: Rams +1. The Rams’ pass defense isn’t good, but the Lions’ pass offense is worse right now. With Talib returning, Los Angeles will finally have a playmaker back in their secondary, and while the Rams lack any good edge rushers, Donald should be enough to make Stafford’s life uncomfortable. The key for Detroit will be getting the ball out quick and hoping that Ellington and Theo Riddick can create some YAC. That gameplan has yet to work in Detroit.
Lions run offense (18th) vs. Rams run defense (29th)
Without Kerryon Johnson, the Lions’ rushing attack was presumed to be dead. LeGarrette Blount did his best Frankenstein impression against a fantastic Bears defense and rose from the dead. You have to wonder if Blount’s performance was a sign of things to come when he gets a full load of carries, or if it was one last flash in the pan. His average yards per carry remain a paltry 2.8, suggesting Thursday’s game was just an outlier, but it’s something to consider.
Detroit’s running game is officially average right now. They’re t-16th in yards per carry (4.3) and they’re earning first downs on 23.8 percent of runs (19th).
Without Johnson, they aren’t much of a threat to break out a big run, as Blount only has one run of over 20 yards—last week’s impressive 27-yard scamper late in the game. His second-longest run is just 13 yards.
Much like their pass defense, the Rams’ run defense has been inconsistent, at best, and their overall statistics are skewed because of their opponent’s impressive offenses. Each of their past seven opponents are averaging at least 4.3 yards per carry, with six of those averaging at least 4.6.
The end results have been mixed. They’ve held just three opponents below their YPC average, but only four have managed to significantly outgain that average. I think it’s fair to call this a slightly below average run defense that’s been victimized by some of the best rushing attacks in the league.
It should come as no surprise, then, that their raw statistics look a little worse than they should. Los Angeles is allowing an average of 5.2 yards per carry (31st) and first downs on 27.1 percent of carries (25th).
Player to watch: Ndamukong Suh vs. LeGarrette Blount. These two have a history.
Blount once called a Suh a “dirty player,” saying that he’ll always be one, and Thursday Blount said that nothing has changed in Suh. We could be in for some fireworks when the two face off on Sunday.
Advantage: Draw. I have no idea what to make of Blount’s performance last week. I’m fairly convinced it’s not something he’ll be able to replicate again, but I don’t have the tangible evidence to say that decisively. The one thing I will say is that it took some time for Blount to get going against the Bears, but he likely won’t be afforded that same time this week. The Rams could put Detroit in a hole hurry if Blount and the Lions offense don’t start the game fast this week.
Rams pass offense (4th) vs. Lions pass defense (31st)
VIEWER DISCRETION IS ADVISED.
Yes, the Rams passing offense is as good as you think. Jared Goff has eclipsed a 100-point passer rating in eight of 11 games, and has reached 110 in five straight. They’re not only throwing for a ton of yards, but they’re doing it at an unprecedented efficiency level. Their 9.3 yards per attempt not only lead the league, but is on pace to be the most efficient passing offense since Kurt Warner’s Greatest Show on Turf back in 2000 (9.9 Y/A).
Perhaps the most terrifying part of this pass offense is its versatility. Four different players already have at least 40 catches, and seven different players have at least two receiving touchdowns (the Lions, by comparison, have just four). However, it’s worth noting that Cooper Kupp—their leading touchdown receiver—is out for the year.
Overall, the Rams rank fourth in passer rating (113.3), first in yards per attempt (9.3), and 11th in completion percentage (67.6). They may not be the best in the NFL, but they’re pretty darn close.
VIEWER DISCRETION IS STILL VERY MUCH ADVISED.
It doesn’t seem to matter what quarterback you throw at this Lions defense, they’ll have themselves a day. Last week, it was bench-riding superstar Chase Daniel who managed to put up a 100 passer rating against Detroit, as the Lions failed to get their hand on more than one of Daniel’s 37 passes.
Darius Slay isn’t himself. Glover Quin has lost a step, and the only player in the secondary who seems to be improving right now is undrafted rookie Mike Ford, who has been promoted to a starter position after everyone else dropped out of the No. 2 cornerback race.
The numbers are just as ugly as the chart suggests. Detroit is 30th in yards per attempt allowed (8.6), 31st in passer rating (115.1) and 28th in completion percentage allowed (69.2). They also have the third-fewest interceptions (4) and are tied for the fewest pass breakups (28).
Player to watch: Ezekiel Ansah. If there’s one hope for the Lions’ defense, it’s their pass rush. Ansah has looked good in his limited playing time after returning to the lineup from a shoulder injury, however, he has yet to take on a full slate of defensive snaps. This week, he’s finally off the injury report, suggesting he may make his first start since Week 1 and give Detroit’s pass rush a much-needed shot in the arm.
Advantage: Rams +4. I’m tempted to give out a rare +5 in this category, but I’m being a little cautious here considering the Lions defense has improved—ever so slightly—in the past few weeks. I still think there’s no chance they stop the Rams’ offense on Sunday, and that’s a prediction I can be confident in, but the return of Ansah (plus an improved run defense) could give Detroit a fighting chance for a quarter or two... but don’t bet on it.
Rams run offense (1st) vs. Lions run defense (22nd)
For as good as the Rams’ pass offense has been, I feel like many forget about how good Todd Gurley is. The Rams running back is second in the league in rushing yards (only behind Ezekiel Elliott, who has played an additional game), and his 5.0 yards per carry rank ninth.
In total, the Rams have outgained the defense’s YPC average in six of 11 games, and they’ve rushed for at least 130 yards in seven different games, as well.
As a team, their 4.8 YPC is tied for fifth-best in the league, and their 26.9 percent of carries that earn first downs is ninth best. Their 15 rushing touchdowns are second most in the NFL, but oddly enough, they only have nine rushes of over 20 yards (t-11th).
I’m not sure I agree with Football Outsiders’ assessment that this is the most efficient rushing game in the league, but they’re definitely top 10 and arguably top five.
What else is there to say about the impact of Damon Harrison Sr. The Lions traded for “Snacks” after the Dolphins game, and they’ve held their last four of five opponents below their yards per carry average after doing it exactly zero times in the first six games. They aren’t just doing it to crappy running teams, either. The Bears and Panthers have solid rushing attacks, and the Lions rendered both of them completely useless in their matchups.
The Lions’ overall stats still look bad because of earlier games, but they’re getting better. They’re t-21st in yards per carry allowed (4.7) and ninth in percentage of rushes earning first downs (22.2). They’re still being weighed down by the big plays allowed—they’ve allowed the second most rushes of 40+ yards (5)—but they haven’t allowed a run over 10 yards in the past three weeks.
Player to watch: Gurley. It’s an obvious choice, but the former Georgia running back is a threat any time he touches the ball. He’s the most talented back the Lions will face this season, and he may just be the best in the league.
Advantage: Draw. The Lions defense has not just been good in the past month, it’s been great. It’s a shame all of the other statistics from earlier in the year continue to bog them down, but the current trend of the run defense is incredibly promising for years to come. If there’s any team that can challenge it right now, though, it may be the Rams. So I can’t say with any confidence who will win this matchup on Sunday.
Last week’s prediction:
On Paper moved to 5-6 on this unpredictable season after pretty much nailing the Bears game. My 20-13 prediction was fairly close to the 23-16 final score, and the only matchup I really missed out on was the Lions rushing attack having their way with the Bears defense.
Last week’s On Paper champ comes from the Pride of Detroit staff. Our own Mansur Shaheen nearly hit the nail on the head with his 23-17 Bears prediction.
You may not know this about Mansur, but he’s a big Jared Goff fan, so it’s only appropriate that he wins On Paper during Rams week. Here’s your prize, you traitor.
This week’s prediction:
The Rams come out with a +5 advantage, which isn’t even the highest I’ve awarded this season. And oddly enough, the Rams only have the advantage in two of the four matchups above.
Does that mean I’m any less confident in a Rams win? Absolutely not. The entire Rams identity revolves around the success of their passing game, and I have little doubt they’ll be able to move the ball against a Lions defense that hasn’t stopped an opposing passer in two months.
I know we like to say that the Lions have been winning the unexpected games this season—and there’s some truth to that—but we’d have to see an entirely different group of players out there for me to have any confidence in a Lions win this week. Rams 38, Lions 17.