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Detroit Lions at Green Bay Packers preview, prediction: On Paper

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A statistical breakdown and preview of the Monday night showdown between the Lions and Packers.

Detroit Lions v Green Bay Packers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions open divisional play this week, and they kick things off with a doozy. The Green Bay Packers sit at 4-1 with two division wins already in their pocket. A win over Detroit would not only put them in the driver’s seat, but it would make them the heavy favorite to reclaim their throne back atop the NFC North and solidify their status as a contender in the NFC.

For the Lions, it’s an opportunity to show they belong in the conversation, too. 2-1-1 isn’t a bad record, but it isn’t exactly a statement, either, regardless of who they’ve played—or how they’ve played. Detroit already had their almost-win against the Chiefs. Now, they must go out and prove they can finish a game against a serious contender.

So, as underdogs for the fourth straight game, can the Detroit Lions pull off another upset? Let’s look at the matchup On Paper.

Lions pass offense (4th) vs. Packers pass defense (5th)

We start off with a strength vs. strength matchup. Matthew Stafford is enjoying the best start to a season, with career highs in passer rating (102.6), yards per attempt (8.0), touchdown percentage (6.4) and interception percentage (1.4).

While some of Detroit’s early success can be attributed to poor pass defenses in the Cardinals and Chargers, they’ve also held their own against the Eagles and Chiefs in the past two games.

The Darrell Bevell system is currently working, and there’s no sign of it slowing down for now. As a team, Detroit ranks seventh in passer rating, eighth in yards per attempt, but just 24th in completion percentage (62.4).

Although the Lions have only allowed seven sacks this season (t-27th), pass protection has been an issue at times. Stafford’s ability to maneuver in the pocket is one of his underrated abilities, but it can sometimes get himself into trouble, too (see: red zone fumble in Chiefs game).

There’s a running narrative that the Packers pass defense hasn’t faced many good quarterbacks thus far, and that really rings false thus far. That’s made abundantly clear with this chart. Four of five opposing QBs have had a passer rating above 90 this year, and they’ve held all but one below 85.

But let’s put this in very simple terms: Here is the combined passer rating of each of their opposing quarterbacks vs. their passer rating against the Packers

Overall opponent’s passer rating (not including Packers game): 101.3
Overall opponent’s passer rating vs. Packers: 75.9

Hope that gets the point across here. This Packers pass defense is for real.

Let’s use some more basic stats to support my case. They rank 13th in yards per attempt allowed (7.3), fifth in completion percentage (58.2), fourth in passer rating (75.9), fifth in passes defended (27), t-second in interception (7) and t-10th in sacks.

Need I go on?

Player to watch: Jaire Alexander. Alexander had a tough time against Cowboys No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper last week, but I’m not sure the Lions have a player of Cooper’s caliber. Alexander has an NFL-high nine passes defended, plus an interception and forced fumble to go along with it.

Advantage: Draw. How could I give this anything but a draw? These are two powerhouses in the league right now, and I could see this matchup going either way. Obviously, the Packers’ new-found pass rush with Za’Darius Smith and Preston Smith will be a key here, but given how inconsistent the Lions’ pass protection has been, it’s hard to project who will win there. I’m taking the coward’s route and just calling this one a wash.

Lions run offense (27th) vs. Packers run defense (28th)

The Lions’ run offense finally showed signs of life last game against the Chiefs, but Kansas City has one of the worst run defenses in the league. It’s juxtaposed with Week 3’s game against the Eagles—one of the league’s best run defenses. Have the Lions hit that point where they’ve turned things around or will they just be the inconsistent rushing attack we saw last year?

It’s way too early to know the truth there, but overall, the signs are fairly discouraging. Detroit is t-21st in yards per carry (3.9), they’re only gaining first downs on 19.5 percent of rushes (26th), and their short-yardage rushing game is abysmal. They’re only converting on 50 percent of “Power Rushing” attempts, which puts them 25th in the NFL (tied with Green Bay, oddly enough).

The Packers have been just as bad defending the run. Outside of the season opener, the Packers have ceded at least 120 rushing yards in each game, and a YPC average of over 5.0 in three of their past four games.

Overall, the stats are pretty ugly. They’re allowing 5.2 yards per carry (t-29th), they’ve ceded first downs on 28.4 percent of carries (t-27th), and they’ve done so without allowing a high amount of long runs (just two of 20+ yards and one of 40+ yards). That means, instead, they’re consistently giving up good chunks of yards on every play, and their stats aren’t being skewed by outliers.

In other words, this run defense is just as bad as the Chiefs run defense the Lions saw success against in Week 4.

Player to watch: Blake Martinez. I won’t try to sell you on how good Blake Martinez is. Here’s Kerryon Johnson doing it, instead:

“Martinez, it seems like he’s never out of place. It seems like everytime you look up, he’s either at the ball or he’s around it.”

He’s not joking. Martinez is second in the NFL in tackles right now and is especially stout when it comes to run defense:

Advantage: Lions +1. The Lions will likely try to play keep away from Aaron Rodgers, and the stats suggest they should be able to do so. Detroit has been better on the ground in the past two weeks, and the last time they faced a defense with similar rushing stats, they were quite successful on the ground. This running game is still very much a work in progress, but they should find success this week.

Packers pass offense (9th) vs. Lions pass defense (12th)

Aaron Rodgers’ 2019 stats are far below the ones we’re used to seeing. Just look at 2019 compared to his career numbers:

2019: 62.8% completions, 7.3 Y/A, 3.3 TD%, 93.4 passer rating
Career: 64.8% completions, 7.8 Y/A, 6.1 TD%, 102.8 passer rating

All that being said, the Packers pass offense is still very efficient in what it does. Rodgers isn’t throwing the ball for 300 yards every game, but he’s still getting a pretty good chunk out of every play and is still just as capable of making the eye-popping play. The biggest discrepancy between this year’s Aaron Rodgers and ones of the past is simply low touchdown numbers, which could partially be attributed to Green Bay’s eight rushing touchdowns on the year (tied for second most in the NFL).

Anyway, back to the passing game. Green Bay ranks 19th in passer rating (93.4), 19th in yards per attempt (7.3) and 22nd in completion percentage (62.8). Those are far cries from where this team normally ranks, but they’re still very safe with the football (only one interception on the year) and don’t turn in a lot of negative plays (just 10 sacks allowed, t-11th fewest).

The biggest issue for this team has been their lack of quality receivers. With Davante Adams questionable at best for this week, Green Bay may have to rely on the likes of Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Geronimo Allison. However, the Packers are getting their running backs and tight ends more involved this year. Jimmy Graham has already matched his touchdown total from last year (two), while Aaron Jones is already nearing his career highs in receptions (26) and receiving yards (206) with 19 catches for 150 yards through five games.

But the Lions defense has faced some pretty darn good quarterbacks thus far, and have really made them struggle. Philip Rivers and Patrick Mahomes have had two of their worst games of the season against Detroit, and the Lions have prevented everyone from hitting that 100 passer rating mark in a game this year.

Overall, Detroit’s pass defense numbers are phenomenal. They’re allowing a passer rating of just 80.3 (fifth), 7.0 yards per attempt (10th) and a completion percentage of just 55.4 (third). Despite playing one fewer game than most teams, Detroit still ranks t-fifth in passes defended (27) and forced fumbles (seven).

Player to watch: Justin Coleman. Coleman has received a ton of attention after his masterful game against the Chiefs, but he has really been solid all year. Fast, shifty receivers in Green Bay have notoriously killed the Lions defense over the years, but they finally appear to have a secondary capable of defending that after spending a ton of money on Coleman.

Advantage: Lions +1. I’m fairly certain this is the first time in On Paper history that I’ve given Detroit the advantage in this matchup against Aaron Rodgers, but it’s hard not to. The Packers receiving corps leaves plenty to be desired, while Detroit’s defense has shut down some of the best quarterbacks in the league.

Rodgers is still an elite quarterback, and he’ll get his eventually in this game, but I like the Lions to keep him frustrated similarly to what they did last year in Detroit.

Packers run offense (9th) vs. Lions run defense (14th)

Aaron Jones has been one of the most two-faced players in the league thus far. Take a look:

vs. Vikings and Cowboys: 42 carries, 223 yards (5.3 YPC), 5 TDs
vs. Bears, Broncos, Eagles: 36 carries, 79 yards (2.2), 3 TDs

While some of that disparity is due to some truly impressive run defenses in the Bears and Eagles, the Packers were also able to run the ball against a pretty darn good Vikings defense.

But even if you watched just a little of that Packers-Cowboys game last week, you know how lethal Jones can be. He made All-Pro Leighton Vander Esch look silly.

Overall, the Packers rank just 25th in yards per carry (3.7), but are earning first downs on 23.6 percent of carries (15th). Also of note: Green Bay is one of just four teams without a rush of 20 yards or longer. On one hand, that means they aren’t too much of a big-play threat on the ground. On the other hand, it means their rushing stats aren’t being skewed by outliers as much as other teams, and that could be the reason why their DVOA is much higher than the general stats suggest. In other words, they aren’t gaining a ton of yards, but they are gaining the yards they need to convert.

Still, their short-yardage rushing is actually quite terrible. They’re converting just 12.5 percent of rushes on third-and-short, good for 31st in the league.

Jones is undoubtedly one of the best backs in the league, but it’s hard for me to look at these overall stats and call this rushing attack anything more than average.

Consider me flummoxed by both DVOA rankings in this matchup. Both units look terribly overrated to me. I can’t quite put my finger on what’s going wrong with the Lions’ run defense, but at least part of it can be explained by Detroit’s commitment to stopping the pass with five or six defensive backs on the field often.

Still, it’s shocking to see Damon Harrison Sr. be a shell of the player he was just 10 months ago. With A’Shawn Robinson and Mike Daniels nursing injuries, the middle of this defense may be the most vulnerable they’ve been all year—even if Da’Shawn Hand makes his 2019 debut this week.

Detroit is ceding 4.8 yards per carry (t-23rd) and allowing first downs on 22.3 percent of carries (13th).

Player to watch: Damon Harrison Sr. He may be the biggest key to the game this week. The Lions apparently know this, as they rested Harrison on Wednesday, hoping to have his body in optimal shape for the prolonged week. If he can return to form, the Lions run defense could stop the Packers this week. If not, it could be a long day on the ground.

Advantage: Packers +1.5. Unfortunately, I’ve given an oath to throw away 2018 data, so the fact that Detroit’s run defense was among the league’s best last year holds no sway.

While I think most statistics suggest this Packers rushing attack is a little overrated, they are certainly capable, too. If they can run on the Vikings one random week, they can certainly run the ball against this Lions defense.

Last game’s prediction:

Last game, On Paper pretty much nailed the Lions-Chiefs game. My 31-24 prediction was fairly close to the 34-30 reality, moving On Paper to 2-2 this year.

In the comment section, we had two people who were pretty close, but not quite there with their guess. Both the_hook and Devil Barrel predicted 34-27 Chiefs. And while I normally give the prize to the person who picked the score first—in this case the_hook—I love the name Devil Barrel too much not to give it the photoshop treatment. Enjoy:

This week’s prediction:

It’s not very often you’ll see On Paper predict an upset, but this happens to be the week. The Lions come out with a slight +0.5 advantage.

This is a strange week in which I think the Packers are probably the better overall team, but I think they present a great matchup for Detroit. The Lions’ biggest weaknesses—running game and stopping the run—match up fairly well against Green Bay’s weaknesses. And with both teams sporting impressive passing attacks, ultimately the edge lies in Matthew Stafford vs. Aaron Rodgers. And while in a vacuum I take Rodgers 10 times out of 10, given the supporting cast and one month’s worth of data, Stafford gets the edge this year.

I didn’t come into this week thinking the Lions would win this game, but here we are. Lions 28, Packers 27.