On Paper is back this week to break down the Detroit Lions’ Week 2 matchup against the San Francisco 49ers. This weekly preview is all about data, and early on in each season, there isn’t all that much to draw from. That makes these early games extremely unpredictable, which can lead to... let’s hypothetically say... a seven-point underdog winning by 31.
But we have a datapoint now! So for this week, we’ll take into heavy consideration last week’s data, but still use 2017 statistics as a reference. We don’t want to overreact to one week, if for no other reason than to protect our sanity. Let’s get into it.
Lions pass offense (11th in DVOA in 2017) vs. 49ers pass defense (28th)
Last week, I said the only thing we know for sure between the Lions and the Jets is that Matthew Stafford is pretty dang good. Stafford rewarded my faith by having his worst game in at least three years. His passer rating of 47.9 was the worst it’s been since December 2012.
But I’m going to go ahead and completely throw out that datapoint. There is just too much evidence that Stafford remains a borderline top-ten quarterback with Jim Bob Cooter by his side. In the past two years, Stafford ranks among the top 10 in passer rating (10th), completion percentage (ninth) and yards per attempt (10th). The Lions are fine there.
Where they may not be fine is in pass protection. While Detroit actually held up pretty well in Monday’s debut there, veteran right guard T.J. Lang has missed back-to-back practices this week and looks unlikely to play. Kenny Wiggins is a liability, so it could all collapse in an instant.
Last year, the 49ers’ defense was no good at stopping the pass. Only towards the end of the season were they able to really to limit opposing quarterbacks, and it’s not even fair to include Week 17’s game against Sean Mannion.
That being said, the Niners made moves this offseason to improve this unit, most notably adding veteran Richard Sherman. Sherman adds a ton of talent to an average secondary, but where this defense really stands out is on their front four.
Last year, San Francisco ranked just t-26th in sacks (30), but this year promises to be better. Their defensive line is littered with first-round picks: Solomon Thomas (2017), DeForest Buckner (2016) and Arik Armstead (2015). This resulted in 3.0 sacks in Week 1, 2.5 coming from Buckner alone.
Key matchup: DeForest Buckner vs. Frank Ragnow. Last week, Ragnow had a rough rookie debut, allowing several pressures from a decent Jets front. The Lions’ first-round pick had a good enough preseason and college career to expect a bounceback game, but Buckner isn’t exactly the kind of matchup that will make it easy.
Advantage: Lions +1. I’m not worried about Matthew Stafford, and you shouldn’t be either. Normally, I’d give the Lions a bigger advantage here, but because of the potential breakdown in pressure, it’s hard to give them anything more than a +1 here. Wiggins and Ragnow are key here, because the Lions’ skill players are talented enough to outplay the 49ers’ secondary.
Lions run offense (30th) vs. 49ers run defense (17th)
Optimism about the Lions’ “new-and-improved” running game lasted exactly one half into the 2018 season. What was arguably the worst rushing attack in 2017 looked exactly like that against the Jets. Granted, the game got out of hand fairly early and the Lions had to abandon ship by the third quarter.
That being said, the only thing that looked promising about Detroit’s running game was rookie Kerryon Johnson, who averaged 3.4 yards per carry on five rushes. Yes, that’s the optimistic side of the running game.
With Wiggins likely in for Lang, this running game could possibly look even worse.
The 49ers were pretty good at stopping the run last year, and they got off to a mediocre start against the Vikings. They held Dalvin Cook to just 2.5 YPC on 16 rushes and Latavius Murray at 3.8 YPC.
Part of their success is an excellent defensive front, but this defense is also quite vulnerable at the second level considering the suspension to Reuben Foster and the injury to Malcolm Smith. That being said, third-round rookie Fred Warner looked legit as a middle linebacker last week.
Key matchup: Lions coaches vs. playing Kerryon Johnson. I’m not expecting the Lions to dominate—or even really win—this matchup, but they don’t stand a chance if they only give Johnson five carries again. In his limited touches, Johnson proved what we already know: he’s the most instinctive, full-package back that the Lions have. TAKE OFF THE TRAINING WHEELS, DANGIT.
Advantage: 49ers +2. This defensive front is going to give the Lions fits, and that’s especially true if Lang can’t give it a go on Sunday. The only hope is that Lions backs can somehow get to the second level occasionally and take it to the the 49ers’ patchwork linebackers. Johnson gives them the best chance at that, but even if he starts, the ceiling seems like about 80 yards total rushing.
49ers pass offense (16th) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)
It’s not hard to see where Jimmy Garoppolo took over as the starter when looking at this chart—Week 13 against the Chicago Bears. While Garoppolo’s performance was 100 percent overstated, it’s also abundantly clear he helped turn around an offense that was primarily responsible for San Francisco’s 1-10 start.
But Sunday proved Garoppolo has not quite arrived yet. The Vikings defense will humble some of the best quarterbacks in the league, but Jimmy was more than humbled, he was tactically taken down. Garoppolo had the third-worst passer rating of Week 1, ahead of just Nathan Peterman and Marcus Mariota.
Part of the problem was with San Francisco’s pass protection. With a brand-new offensive line featuring three new starters, the 49ers allowed three sacks against Minny.
The Lions had everything set up for them to turn around the perception of their defense. A rookie quarterback, a home opener in primetime, and a perceived weak offense on the other side of the field.
The Lions defense responded by laying a complete egg. Outside of Quandre Diggs’ pick-six on the opening drive, there was nothing good about Detroit’s performance. Their pass rush failed, as expected, and especially so when Ezekiel Ansah left with a shoulder injury. Their secondary was exploited when Sam Darnold started targeting anybody but Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs. And the linebackers were predictably nowhere to be found.
This is concerning.
Key matchup: Ezekiel Ansah vs. his paper mache body. I don’t like to make fun of players and injuries, because it’s mostly out of their control and these dudes work like hell to get on the field, but this is getting ridiculous. Ansah is the team’s best pass rusher and the Lions defense didn’t look all that bad when he was in the game. He’s been limited in practice all week, making him questionable to play this week, but the Lions absolutely need him Sunday, even if it’s only at 80 percent.
Advantage: 49ers +1. The Niners don’t have a ton of weapons on offense, especially if starting receiver Marquise Goodwin can’t play. However, George Kittle scares the hell out of me, and the Lions defense looks like just about anyone can throw on them right now. I don’t have a ton of confidence in this matchup—especially taking into consideration the 49ers’ problems on the offensive line—but I just don’t see a strength among the Lions’ pass defense right now, so they’ll have to prove me wrong before I give them an advantage in this matchup.
49ers run offense (13th) vs. Lions run defense (28th)
The 49ers’ run offense was a mixed bag last year. While Football Outsiders considered them a top-half unit, the charts say otherwise. Over the past couple months of the 2017 season, the only time they surpassed 4.0 yards per carry was the final week of the season against a Rams team that was playing their backups.
The outlook for 2018 looks even worse. With the patchwork offensive line, and Jerick McKinnon already out for the season, this shouldn’t be a particularly big strength for the Niners offense.
All things considered, they weren’t that bad last week. 90 yards at 3.6 yards per carry is actually acceptable against a Vikings defense that allowed just 83.6 rushing yards per game last year and 3.7 YPC.
The 49ers will likely split the load between youngster Matt Breida and veteran Alfred Morris again, but that backfield hardly inspires confidence in the Bay area.
Also uninspiring: the Lions’ Week 1 run defense. Detroit got zero push from their defensive front on Monday night, and their tackling from the second level left a lot to be desired.
This unit has potential to be one of the worst in the league if they can’t get it together. After subpar performances from nose tackle Sylvester Williams and Ricky Jean Francois, it will be interesting to see if the team activates A’Shawn Robinson this week to help bolster the unit.
Key matchup: Williams vs. whoever the 49ers start at right guard. The 49ers will be extremely vulnerable on the right side, as they’re starting rookie Mike McGlinchey at tackle and their guard could be a third-stringer. Both starter Mike Person and his backup Joshua Garnett were injured in Week 1 and haven’t practiced this week. They could be starting undrafted rookie Najee Toran there, who was recently promoted from the practice squad. Toran reportedly took first-team reps and is expected to start barring an unexpected injury update.
Advantage: Push. I’ll probably regret this, but the Lions’ leaky defense should be able to hold up okay against a subpar 49ers’ rushing attack. With Breida, San Francisco will try to stretch the field horizontally, and it will be up to guys like Devon Kennard to set the edge—something he actually did fairly well last week. However, Detroit was vulnerable to that on Kerry Hyder’s side when Ansah was out. So don’t be surprised if the 49ers really try to attack that right side of the Lions defense.
Last week’s prediction:
Listen, I’m pretty upfront with how terrible the data is early in the year, rendering much of these previews useless in the first month of the season. The Lions unfortunately proved that to be true last week, and my 27-24 Lions prediction was downright embarrassing.
The good news is that everyone else was embarrassed too. The closest prediction we had in the comment section came from alantrammell1977, who picked the Jets simply to be “that guy.” His prediction of 28-17 was a mere 20 points off, but it was still close enough to come away with this week’s honors.
Here is your prize, AT ’77:
It’s a surprise it took this long, but Lions head coach Matt Patricia finally has his own brand of pencils. However, these aren’t any old No. 2 pencils; they’re special. When you’ve got a job like Patricia’s, and things don’t always go as planned, sometimes the butt-end of a pencil is more important than the sharp end.
So here is your first look at the Matt Patricia Oopsie-Daisy Pencil:
This week’s prediction
The 49ers come out with a +2 advantage, and that feels about right after what we saw in Week 1. The Lions are injured exactly where they can’t afford to be injured, and the 49ers are the kind of team that can take advantage, especially with their defensive front.
All that being said, assuming Stafford doesn’t have another meltdown, and Detroit’s special teams doesn’t implode, this game should stay close the entire way. The 49ers are not nearly as good of a team as the offseason hype suggests, but they proved even last week they’ll be able to hang with some good teams this year.
The Lions don’t look like a good team this year, but they’ll almost certainly be better this week than last. If Stafford can stay on his feet, and the Lions defense can show any signs of life, Detroit has a chance here, but that’s way too many if’s for me to rely upon. 49ers 27, Lions 20.