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NFL Week 4 preview: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys, On Paper

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Our statistical breakdown and preview tackles a big NFC showdown.

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Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys have a storied history of crazy finishes. With both teams entering Week 1-2, the stage is set for yet another classic game. The two teams are already feeling some desperation early in the season, and we’ve seen the Lions respond to some serious pressure with an unlikely win. Is it time for the Cowboys to rise to the occasion, or will the Lions continue to improve every week? It’s time for our On Paper preview!

This week, we’re throwing all 2017 data out the window. No 2017 DVOA numbers, no 2017 data charts. It’s all about 2018 now.

Note: DVOA numbers are not defense adjusted yet by Football Outsiders. They start adding defensive adjustments after Week 4.

Lions pass offense (23rd in 2018 DVOA) vs. Cowboys pass defense (15th)

The biggest question of this game may be whether the Detroit Lions have fixed their offensive woes. It was a rough start to the year for Matthew Stafford, and although he looked much better against the Patriots, he still made some questionable decisions. He’s still chucking the ball a ton, which is why the Lions are still racking up the passing yards, but Stafford has at least one turnover in every game and is tied for the lead in interceptions (five).

Still, with an improved offensive line, an arsenal of weapons at his disposal, and a cannon of an arm, there’s no reason to believe that Stafford won’t return to form—if he hasn’t already.

The Lions rank just 24th in passer rating (78.6), 22nd in yards per attempt (6.4), and 19th in completion percentage (63.8). However, I expect all of those numbers to steadily increase as Stafford’s disastrous season opener gets further and further in the rear-view mirror.

Though the Cowboys are 1-2, they haven’t really been beaten through the air. In their two losses, they didn’t even allow 200 yards passing, and they only allowed a combined two passing touchdowns in those losses.

That being said, this still looks like a pretty average pass defense, maybe slightly above average. They’re 18th in passer rating allowed (97.2), seventh in yards per attempt (6.6), and 23rd in completion percentage allowed (68.8).

At this point, they are just one of two teams to have yet to tally an interception, but their 11 sacks are tied for second most in the NFL. With that amount of disruption to the quarterback, it’s only a matter of time before the interceptions come.

Key matchup: Kenny Golladay vs. Byron Jones. Kenny Golladay is on his way to a breakout year. He’s had at least 50 yards in each game, and combined for 203 in the past two weeks. Jones, on the other hand, is Pro Football Focus’ No. 1 cornerback right now.

Advantage: Draw. Another key matchup when the Lions have the ball is pass protection. Right now, Stafford is the least-sacked starting quarterback in the league, but Dallas has the likes of DeMarcus Lawrence that will challenge Detroit’s tackles. At this point, I see this as a pretty evenly matched unit, but Detroit’s deep bench of passing options could turn the tide in their favor.

Lions run offense (20th) vs. Cowboys run defense (13th)

I’m scared to type these words, but the Detroit Lions may have an actual running game. This chart is on pace to being the best Lions Run Offense chart in On Paper history—and it isn’t even that impressive yet. Last week’s performance was Kerryon Johnson’s breakout night, and although they only barely outgained the Patriots’ defensive averages, that’s a huge step in the right direction for one of the Lions’ most consistently bad units over the past 20 years.

At this point, the Lions’ rushing stats aren’t just okay, they’re good. They’re averaging 4.5 yards per carry (t-eighth) and earning first downs on 22.7 percent of rushes (19th). However, they’ve yet to find the end zone in the running game, and they only have one rush of over 20 yards (t-18th).

The Cowboys run defense has been on point all year. Though they’ve only played one good run offense thus far, they managed to hold them (Panthers) well below their season averages.

Led by a strong defensive front and a revamped linebacking crew, the Cowboys rank fourth in yards per carry allowed (3.4) and 17th in percentage of runs earning first downs (23.9). Much like the Lions’ run offense, they’ve allowed just one rush of over 20 yards.

Key matchup: Frank Ragnow vs. Leighton Vander Esch. With Sean Lee fallen to yet another injury, it will be up to the Cowboys’ first-round rookie to fill his enormous shoes. So far, Vander Esch has been up to the task, racking up 10 total tackles last week and an impressive 79.2 PFF grade for the season thus far. Ragnow, the Lions’ first-round rookie, won’t be directly responsible for Vander Esch, but the Lions’ interior offensive line will need to account for him if they want to replicate last week’s impressive performance on the ground.

Advantage: Draw. I may regret this, but the numbers show this is a pretty average running game vs. a pretty average run defense. Johnson has given the Lions rushing attack a shot in the arm, and his role is only going to increase as the season goes on. And while the Cowboys are a little better statistically, the loss of Lee combined with the likely increase in carries for Johnson makes this a draw.

Cowboys pass offense (29th) vs. Lions pass defense (17th)

This has been the headlining story in Dallas for the past week. What’s wrong with Dak Prescott? The Cowboys pass offense hasn’t eclipsed 160 net passing yards in a single game yet, and Prescott’s passer rating of 74.9 ranks 27th among quarterbacks.

The problems have been widespread. The offensive line has allowed 11 sacks (sixth most), Prescott has been inaccurate (61.4 completion percentage, 23rd), and the Cowboys receivers have been struggling to find space without Jason Witten and Dez Bryant drawing coverage.

As a result, not only is Dak under fire, but so is offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. Check out this excerpt from a fantastic article via The Ringer.

Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan and head coach Jason Garrett have failed to keep pace with the rest of the league creatively, but what’s even stranger is their refusal to incorporate the concepts that allowed Prescott to take the league by storm his rookie year. On 40 dropbacks against Seattle (Prescott was sacked five times against a mediocre Seahawks front, but we’ll get to that later), Dallas used play-action on five passes.

Can the Cowboys turn everything around in a single week? I’m not banking on it.

Interestingly enough, the Lions defense has also allowed under 200 net passing yards in each and every game this season. However, don’t let the “Lions have the No. 1 ranked pass defense” statements fool you: this is an average pass defense, at best.

The Lions may have allowed the fewest passing yards in the league, but their efficiency numbers are poor. They’re allowing 7.4 yards per attempt (t-16th), a passer rating of 98.9 (21st) and completion percentage of 65.8 (18th).

Don’t get me wrong, last week was a very big step in the right direction. Any time you can hold Tom Brady to 5.0 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 65.1, it’s a phenomenal accomplishment, regardless of his supporting cast. Still, it’s impossible to ignore those first two weeks against Sam Darnold and Jimmy Garoppolo.

Key matchup: Quandre Diggs vs. Cole Beasley. For as good as Diggs has been in the past, he has really struggled thus far against some decent slot receivers/tight ends. Beasley is the Cowboys’ biggest passing threat, and Diggs (63.3 PFF grade) will likely draw coverage on him often.

Advantage: Lions + 1. While I’m not ready to believe in the Lions pass defense yet, this matchup looks a lot like last week’s. The Patriots didn’t have many weapons, and the one they did have in Gronk was thoroughly neutralized by Detroit. I believe the Lions could do the exact same thing with the Cowboys and their weak arsenal of weapons. And while Brady wasn’t at his best last week, Prescott is not even as good as Brady at his worst.

Cowboys run offense (1st) vs. Lions run defense (27th)

Okay, now it’s time for the Lions to take their medicine. Ezekiel Elliott is very good, and probably the best running back in the league. He is fast and, more importantly, physically imposing.

The Cowboys offensive line may not be playing up to their lofty standards, but they’re still doing enough to get the job done, even without starting center Travis Frederick. Dallas is first in yards per carry (6.0) and fourth in percentage of runs that earn first downs (30.3). Surprisingly, this run offense has yet to really break out the big runs yet, either. They only have two rushes of 20+ yards (t-eighth) and zero of 40.

Gulp.

While I don’t give much credence to last week’s statline (32 of the Patriots’ rushing yards came on a meaningless final drive—without those three rushes, the Patriots had 3.6 YPC), this run defense is still very flimsy. They’ve really been hurt by the amount of big plays—they’ve allowed the most 20+ rushes (4) and 40+ yards rushes (2).

The other rate statistics are slightly better, but still bad. They’re allowing first downs on 24.1 percent of rushes (21st) and are dead last in yards per carry (5.4). Obviously that last statistic is highly skewed by the long runs, but it’s still very worrisome.

But let me end this with some positive news: The Lions’ short-yard run defense is actually stellar. They’re allowing just a 44 percent conversion rate on power running scenarios (third or fourth-and-2 or less). That’s good for third best in the league and well below the league average of 70 percent.

Key matchup: Ezekiel Elliott vs. Lions tackling. One reason the Lions have been susceptible to the long running plays is the poor tackling from the Lions’ second level. If there’s a running back that can take advantage of that, it’s Zeke. That should scare the crap out of you.

Advantage: Cowboys +2. Part of me thinks that once (if?) the Lions get the long rushes under control, this will be an average run defense, but I currently don’t have the data to support that claim, other than the mediocre third-down percentage and the great short-yardage stats. That’s not nearly enough for me to believe the Lions can slow down arguably the best rushing attack in the league.

Last week’s prediction:

On Paper fell to 1-2 last week after the shocking win over the Patriots. While I thought the matchup was more even than most, I really blew it when it came to predicting how Brady would do vs. the Lions defense, as I really underestimated just how poor New England’s receiving corps was, and I perhaps didn’t give the Lions’ secondary enough credit. My 31-27 Patriots prediction nearly nailed the Lions’ score, but whiffed badly on New England.

In the comment section, credit TomFoolery27 with a near-perfect prediction. His 27-10 score was just one off the final score, making him some sort of wizard. Here is your prize, Tom:

Sorry, I’m No. 1.

This week’s prediction:

If I’m being totally honest, my heart is telling me the Lions win this game handily. However, this post is supposed to come from the brain, not the heart. And the truth is, the Cowboys have a fairly talented team. They may actually be the best team the Lions have faced so far. Their defense is formidable, and while their passing attack still has a lot to find out, Ezekiel Elliott is still good enough to carry that entire offense, especially against a suspect Lions run defense.

So with their small +1 advantage, I have to take the Cowboys. However, I expect this to be a low-scoring affair, with both teams stretching out long possession on offense. That means the margin for error will be incredible small, and the team that makes one too many mistakes will probably lose. Ball security will be key on Sunday, and unfortunately that favors Dallas, who has turned the ball over just four times to the Lions’ seven. Cowboys 19, Lions 16.