We’ve come to the sad portion of the On Paper season. With not much at stake for the Detroit Lions, and just about everything at stake for their opponents, not many are going to be interested in the nuances of this week’s matchup.
But I stand in defiance of the masses. Football is a beautiful game full of intricacies that many never pick up on. Even in a lopsided matchup where one team is playing for the playoffs and another is playing for pride, there is hidden beauty. We only get 16 of these a year, so there’s no way in hell I’m taking one off. This week’s On Paper may be shorter, but I WILL NOT let you die-hards down.
Lions pass offense (23rd in DVOA) vs. Vikings pass defense (5th)
The Lions passing offense had a slight resurgence last week, and it’s pretty much entirely due to Kenny Golladay wrestling 50/50 balls away from Tre’Davious White. Matthew Stafford deserves credit for giving Golladay catchable balls and avoiding any negative plays, but, of course, it wasn’t good enough for a win.
Overall, that one data point shouldn’t be enough to give you much confidence in this unit. They’ve still been absolutely awful since the Golden Tate trade and the Marvin Jones Jr. injury.
For the season, the Lions rank 23rd in passer rating (88.7), t-24th in yards per attempt (6.8) and 13th in completion percentage (66.5).
After a rough start to the season, the Vikings pass defense has rebounded nicely and is currently playing at the level their reputation suggests. Over the last eight games, only Tom Brady has surpassed his passer rating average against the Vikings defense—and he only did it by just over four points. And look at those last two games: 97 total net passing yards allowed (subtracts sack yardages). Yikes.
As a team, the Vikings rank fifth in passer rating allowed (85.2), 12th in yards per attempt (7.3) and ninth in completion percentage (63.1). They also lead the NFL in sacks (47).
Speaking of which, in this last matchup, the Vikings held Detroit to just 143 net passing yards thanks to 10 sacks. Just in case you were wondering if the Vikings were still capable of a dominant pass-rushing performance like that, they sacked Ryan Tannehill nine times last week.
Player to watch: Danielle Hunter. Hunter is the only Vikings player with more than 5.0 sacks. He’s currently tied for second in the league with 14.5 sacks, and he absolutely tore apart the Lions last time the two played—nine tackles, 3.5 sacks.
Advantage: Vikings +3. The Vikings hold the advantage in every part of this matchup. Their secondary is a ton better than the Lions’ current set of receivers. Their defensive line should dominate Detroit’s beat-up front. And the Lions’ tight ends are no match for the Vikings’ linebackers. Kenny Golladay will need to double his efforts from last week to stand a chance against this impressive Vikes defense.
Lions run offense (19th) vs. Vikings run defense (15th)
On the surface, this Lions rushing attack looks nearly as bad as it has over the past decade or two, but a closer look at the numbers reveals a team that is just below average in every single week. They’ve only truly had three very bad performances this year, and have typically stuck right around 90-100 yards rushing at 3.7-3.9 yards per carry. Even with Kerryon Johnson out since the second half of the Panthers game, the Lions rushing attack has, at least, hung very near the opponent’s run defense averages.
Still, there is work to be done. The Lions rank just t-20th in yards per carry (4.2) and earn first downs on 23.6 percent of rushes.
Even without Johnson and T.J. Lang, I think it’s fair to categorize this run offense as just below average, as the DVOA ranking suggests.
The Viking run defense has been dominant all year, but it seems teams may have figured something out over the past three weeks. The Patriots, Seahawks and Dolphins—all, admittedly, good running teams—have rushed for over 150 yards and 4.1 yards per carry. It’s not exactly clear what the cause of the drop is—there hasn’t been a particularly devastating injury—but three games in a row is enough to be a significant disruption.
Additionally, the Vikings could be short two of their top run defenders. Both defensive tackle Linval Joseph and linebacker Eric Kendricks did not practice on Thursday.
Overall, you still can’t underestimate this unit. They’re t-eighth in yards per carry allowed (4.1), but allow first downs on 25.3 percent of rushes (21st).
Player to watch: Sheldon Richardson. The Lions’ guard play has been very up-and-down all season, and while Kenny Wiggins is coming off one of his best performances of the year, I don’t trust him much against the veteran Pro Bowler. Richardson has 7.5 tackles for loss this year.
Advantage: Vikings +0.5. The Lions continue to rush the ball pretty well, and the Vikings’ current struggles actually gives me a little bit of optimism that Detroit could rush the ball somewhat effectively this week. But when I get down to personnel, the Vikings are just so much better, and while Zach Zenner has been running well as of late, history suggests that won’t last for long.
Vikings pass offense (15th) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)
The Kirk Cousins era has obviously had its ups and down in Minnesota. He’s had six games with a passer rating above 100, but five below 90. Some have argued it’s been his inconsistent play that got offensive coordinator John DeFilippo fired, while other think his offensive line is more to blame.
Overall, the stats aren’t as bad as the drama in Minnesota suggests. They’re still seventh in passer rating (99.0), t-21st in yards per attempt (7.2) and second in completion percentage (70.5). As those stats suggest, the Vikings love to throw some short passes:
Frustrated by tons of short passes from your team's offense? (Hi, angry #Vikings fans...)— NFL Matchup on ESPN (@NFLMatchup) December 18, 2018
Here are the teams with the most/fewest SHORT PASSES this year.#Skol #HereWeGo #OnePride #Colts #RaiderNation #BroncosCountry #GiantsPride #DUUUVAL #GoPackGo #GoPats pic.twitter.com/xxEWqjhcAU
Last time the two teams met, Adam Thielen was on pace to set the single-season receiving yards record. Now, Thielen is just eighth in the league in yards (1,255). Still, him and Stefon Diggs are arguably the best one-two punch in the league.
The Lions pass defense: still very bad. Last week was a perfect example. Josh Allen was having one of the worst seasons in the league, and he made Lions rookie cornerback Mike Ford look silly at times.
Detroit’s been better as of late; they haven’t allowed a passer rating above 90 in three weeks, but that has a little more to do with their opponents.
That being said, they did a pretty good job against the Vikings last time, holding Cousins to just 155 net passing yards, picking him off once, and allowing no receiver to get over 40 yards receiving. That being said, Diggs did not play that week due to an injury.
Player to watch: Stefon Diggs. The Lions proved they could hold the Vikings in check with only Theilen to really worry about. But Diggs will spread the Lions’ secondary thin, and Detroit’s cornerback depth just isn’t very good right now.
Advantage: Vikings +1.5. Until the Lions show they can consistently defend the pass, they aren’t going to have the advantage here. The Vikings aren’t a great passing team, but they’re more than capable of defeating one of the worst pass defenses in the league.
Vikings run offense (29th) vs. Lions run defense (17th)
Here comes the toughest matchup to predict.
After the Seahawks game, the Vikings fired DeFilippo largely because of his lack of commitment to the run game. In the very next game, Dalvin Cook had a career day as the Vikings rushed 40 times for a season-high 220 rushing yards. Is this because of the coaching (and philosophy) change, or a mirage based on a beneficial matchup against a horrible Dolphins run defense?
The entire season’s worth of data suggests we should be very skeptical of last week’s performance. They’ve rushed for over 4.0 yards per carry in just four of 14 games this year, and they’ve been held below 80 rushing yards in six games. As a team the Vikings are rushing for just 4.2 yards per carry (t-20th) and are earning first downs on just 18.8 percent of rushes—an NFL low.
Though it probably didn’t feel like, the Lions continued their dominant reign of run defense last week against a sneaky good Bills rushing attack. Though they were aided by Buffalo suffering approximately 300 injuries in their backfield, their gameplan of limiting Josh Allen’s effectiveness on the ground clearly worked. Here’s all you need to know about the Lions’ run defense over the past six weeks:
Everyone already knows that @snacks has made a huge difference in the #Lions run defense, but the statistics are STAGGERING:— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) December 20, 2018
Week 1-9: 142.5 rushing yards/game (29th), 5.14 YPC (31st)
Week 10-15: 79.2 rushing yards/game (2nd), 3.4 YPC (2nd)
But there is one large BUT in this matchup. And that big fat BUT belongs to Damon Harrison Sr. “Snacks” has not yet practiced this week, and could very well be out. He’s been the heart and soul of this defense since the Lions traded for him midseason, and while his supporting cast has improved, I’m not sure A’Shawn Robinson can compensate for losing both Snacks and Da’Shawn Hand (on IR).
Player to watch: Ricky Jean Francois. If Snacks is out, Jean Francois is likely to get a lot of playing time. The veteran defensive tackle is still capable of having an impressive game, but he’s been inconsistent this year. I get the feeling he will be the key to the matchup this week.
Advantage: Lions +1. I’m going off of track record here, and one good performance is not enough to convince me the Vikings rushing attack is good yet. This matchup would’ve swung more heavily in Detroit’s favor, but the potential loss of Snacks is massive.
Last week’s prediction:
On Paper has now correctly predicted four Lions game in a row and is now 8-6 on the season. Last week’s score prediction of 13-6 was pretty darn close to the 14-13 final score, but, again, I was humbled by the comment section.
POD veteran critical perspective nearly bingo’d the final score with their 16-13 prediction, accurately saying the game would be “the day that hope dies.”
It sounds like critical perspective is already in the holiday spirit, so here’s your prize to keep that going!
(hat tip to create.uglychristmassweater.com for their Create a Sweater feature)
This week’s prediction:
The Vikings come out with a +4 advantage, which is honestly a little lower than I expected. It feels like this team really has the Lions’ number, especially against Detroit’s offense. However, the Vikings have been a little vulnerable on the ground, and that’s almost certainly where the Lions will try to attack.
Still, it’s hard to see this Lions team even reaching double digits against Minnesota, considering their offense is in even worse shape than it was the last time the two teams met (nine points scored).
The Vikings are clearly the better team on paper, they’re coming into the game much healthier, and they have plenty more motivation than the Lions. It’s hard to see how Detroit pulls this one out. 24-6 Vikings.