The Detroit Lions’ regular season is back and that means it’s time for “On Paper” again. If you aren’t familiar with On Paper, it’s our weekly preview column that statistically breaks down each matchup.
Unlike some other previews, which oddly compare each team’s offenses and awards an edge to one team or another, we make the logical comparison: offense vs. defense. But we take things one step further, comparing all four major components of a football team (pass offense, pass defense, run offense, run defense) vs. the corresponding unit.
We do this using statistics, and it gets a little confusing for newbies, so here is the introduction I give every year:
Each chart represents one unit of a team (e.g.: Bucs Pass Offense, Lions Run Defense, etc.). Therefore, there are eight total charts (four units, two teams). Each chart lists the opponents the team has played, their performance that week and season averages to compare their performance for that week.
The purpose of this is because stats can be very misleading without the proper context. If the Lions give up 250 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT through the air, that looks bad. But if it’s against the Packers, who are hypothetically averaging 290 yards and 3 TDs, that is actually a very good performance. So if the team performs better than average on a given week, the cell is highlighted green, a bad performance is red and a yellow cell means the team performed within 5 percent of the team average. The color-coding system is based on the team being analyzed, so green doesn’t necessarily mean good for the Lions. Confused? You can check out my past previews, but you’ll get used it.
After analyzing each chart, I give a matchup edge to one team on a 0-5 scale. The scale is based not only on which team looks better in this matchup, but how likely this edge will affect the final outcome of the game. A +5 advantage would predict that this matchup is key and likely to win the game for the team.
For the first three weeks of the season, I use data from the year before. Preseason data is worthless and non-predictive. And while last year’s data has plenty of drawbacks, it’s the best thing we’ve got through three weeks.
With all that aside, it’s time to preview Week 1 of the NFL: Detroit Lions vs. New York Jets.
Lions pass offense (11th in DVOA in 2017) vs. Jets pass defense (22nd)
If there’s one unit between both teams that hasn’t changed all that much from last year, it’s the Lions’ pass offense, and that’s a good thing for Detroit. They were obviously a very good unit last year, led by Matthew Stafford, who has looked like a changed man (for the better) ever since Jim Bob Cooter became offensive coordinator.
Stafford and the Lions pass offense failed to reach the defense’s passer rating average just three times all year in 2017, and things could look even better this year.
With a starting offensive line that is much better on paper, Stafford could have the time to pick defenses apart. That’s something he has never been afforded in his nine-year career. Last year alone, he was sacked 47 times—third most in the league.
Last year, the Jets’ pass defense was a mixed bag. Exactly half of their opponents were able to outgain their passer rating average against the Jets, but New York managed to hold four of their opponents below a 70 passer rating.
Overall, the Jets ranked 19th in passer rating allowed (90.1), t-16th in yards per attempt (7.0), eighth in completion percentage (59.0), but 28th in sack (28).
It’s that last stat that is likely most concerning for Jets fans this year. They didn’t really add a good pass rusher this offseason, and they also lost Muhammad Wilkerson, who admittedly wasn’t playing at the top of his game last year. As written by Justin Simon, the Jets will have to again rely on an aggressive defensive scheme to overcome their lack of edge rushing talent.
If there’s any good news for the Jets pass defense improving this year, it’s the additions they’ve made on the backend. New York went out and overspent on their secondary, adding Morris Claiborne and Trumaine Johnson.
Key matchup: Golden Tate vs. Buster Skrine. With Kenny Golladay likely assuming a starting role on the outside, expect to see a lot of Golden Tate in the slot. If that’s the case, he’ll likely be lined up against Skrine, a former fifth-round pick who has been a starter in New York for a couple years now. Skrine is a below-average nickel corner, so this should be a matchup the Lions can exploit.
Advantage: Lions +2. If the Lions’ offensive line is truly improved in pass protection, the Jets shouldn’t pose much of a threat, even with their aggressive blitz packages. That should leave plenty of time for Stafford to pick apart this top-heavy Jets secondary.
Lions run offense (30th) vs. Jets run defense (11th)
Hey, remember this? This wasn’t fun last year, and it hasn’t been fun for the past 10342 seasons since Barry Sanders left.
I’m not going to post all of the bad stats from 2017, because I’m still sick of doing it from last year’s previews. Just know that I’m surprised the Lions ranked 30th in DVOA. I have no idea how there were two worse running games.
But 2018 brings optimism (again) in the form of an improved offensive line, a highly-drafted rookie running back in Kerryon Johnson and a bruising short-yardage back in LeGarrette Blount.
As of right now, however, this is all theoretical improvement with little results to show for it.
The Jets run defense was more good than bad last year, despite their horrific start to the season—allowing 140 yards or more in four of the first five games. After that, they held nine the next 11 opponents at or below their yards per carry average.
New York debatably got a little worse in this department this offseason. Besides losing Wilkerson, the Jets also moved of from their leading tackler in 2017, Demario Davis (who had a respectable 73.7 PFF grade). Still, the interior of that defensive line could give Detroit’s young offensive linemen trouble.
Advantage: Draw. I have no idea what is going to happen with the Lions’ run game this year. Not even a clue. But I do think the Jets run defense may be a little worse, so let’s just call this a draw.
Jets pass offense (22nd) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)
When I started making this chart, I questioned the entire existence of On Paper. Josh McCown actually played pretty darn well last year if you just look at passer rating. I don’t know how I completely overlooked this, but the Jets quarterback actually finished just below Stafford in passer rating (99.3 vs. 94.5). Things obviously collapsed when Bryce Petty took over in the final four weeks, so let’s just throw those out completely.
In fact, I’m not sure if any of this data is worthwhile considering rookie quarterback Sam Darnold will be making his first career start on Monday. The former Trojan looked pretty solid in preseason—completing 29 of 45 passes (64.4 percent) for 244 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT—but I said we weren’t counting preseason stats, so pretend you didn’t see that.
YOUR HONOR, STRIKE THAT FROM THE RECORD.
Sustained, but watch yourself, counselor.
Anyways, the Jets have an undersold set of receivers, but their offensive line could be a real big mess this year. Last year, they gave up the seventh-most sacks (47) despite the fact that they attempted the seventh-fewest passes.
The Lions pass defense managed to keep their head above water last year, thanks to a large amount of turnovers forced by the secondary. Lions defensive backs were responsible for 16 interceptions and 10 forced fumbles in 2017 alone.
Unfortunately, turnovers are one of the least consistent stats from year to year, and the rest of the metrics for the Lions defense aren’t as pretty.
Detroit ranked 15th in passer rating allowed (84.1), but t-19th in yards per attempt (7.2) and 23rd in completion percentage (64.2).
There’s so much overturn in terms of both personnel and scheme on defense, that it’s hard to know if any of this information is worthwhile in 2018, but we all saw what starter and backup quarterbacks did to this Lions defense in the preseason.
Installing a new scheme is going to take some time, and the Lions’ personnel is shaky, so expect some early struggles.
Key matchup: Jets offensive line vs. Lions defensive line. It’s a battle of who can be less sucky. The Jets offensive line is ranked 31st by PFF, and the Lions defensive line had two total sacks in the preseason.
Sustained. This is your final warning.
Advantage: Draw. Rookie quarterback vs. rookie head coach’s new scheme? I have no idea, man. Anyone who tells you otherwise is selling you snake oil.
Jets run offense (26th) vs. Lions run defense (28th)
I had the 2017 Jets completely flipped on their head. I thought they were a team that stayed in games with a solid run game and mostly kept the ball out of their quarterback’s hands—a la the Mark Sanchez era.
Turns out they totally sucked at running the ball last year, and were pretty decent at throwing it.
Last year, New York rushed for 4.0 yards per carry on the year (t-19th), but only 18.0 percent of their rushes earned first downs (28th).
Bilal Powell was not all that good as a premier back in 2017, but the addition of Isaiah Crowell should be a small improvement from an aging Matt Forte.
The Lions run defense was confusing last year, but the Lions are again under a different scheme this year, and have a completely revamped front seven:
The Lions had 16 defensive linemen play a snap last year. 14 of them are now gone.— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) September 5, 2018
Nose tackle Sylvester Williams is an average run stopper at best, but Ricky Jean Francois has shown some promise in
pres training camp, while Jarrad Davis can be a force at the second level, provided he doesn’t run himself out of control.
This is a unit that promises to frustrate in 2018. Not because it’ll be horrible, but because it’s likely headed for another inconsistent year.
Key matchup: Jarrad Davis vs. himself. Davis has been a source of frustration since drafted in 2017. He’s able to get himself into positions to make plays, but either a mental mistake or an inability to hone in his superb athletic skills causes a big error. If Davis can clean up his game in 2018, he could truly live up to his draft status.
Advantage: Draw. The Jets run game is bad, and will likely continue to be bad—although they admittedly brought in a run-game coordinator to fix things up. Things don’t change overnight, however, and the Lions’ questionable front seven should have an easy bar to clear in Week 1. I’m just not confident they can even do that.
Overall: The Lions come out with a +2 advantage, and it’s for one, good reason. Matthew Stafford is really the one known commodity in this game. He’s good and the Jets defense has been mediocre at best. We can say both of those things with a fair amount of confidence, as the Lions’ pass offense remains nearly identical to last year, while the Jets aren’t going through any major overhauls on defense.
What’s interesting to me about this matchup is that both teams’ biggest weaknesses aren’t likely to be exploited by the other team. A rookie quarterback starting in Week 1 is likely going to have a pretty comfortable pocket, even though the Jets’ offensive line is pretty horrible on paper. But the Lions’ front seven is also unlikely to get gashed by New York’s running game, which was one of the worst in the league last year.
Either way, Matthew Stafford is the one who tips the scales, and I’d wager on that guy at home in Week 1. Lions 27, Jets 24.