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Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings preview, prediction: On Paper

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Our statistical breakdown, preview and prediction for Week 7.

Detroit Lions running back LeGarrette Blount (29) stiff armed Minnesota Vikings defensive back Anthony Harris (41) for a first down in the forth quarter at Ford Field Sunday December 23, 2018 in Detroit, MI.] The Minnesota Vikings beat the Detroit Lions

The Detroit Lions need to get the bad taste out of their mouth after Monday’s unfortunate loss. Lucky for them, they get to turn the page quickly with a short week. Unlucky for them, they’re facing a surging Minnesota Vikings team that is arguably even better than the Green Bay Packers.

In fact, the Vikings have the highest DVOA of any team remaining on their schedule. They’re currently ranked fourth overall, and the balance on the team is incredible. All four phases of the team rank in the top 10, and even more amazing is their offense (fifth) is actually ranked higher than their infamous defense (sixth).

But do the charts agree? Let’s take a closer look at the Vikings in our Week 7 On Paper preview.

Lions pass offense (4th) vs. Vikings pass defense (8th)

The Lions pass offense is humming along nicely. Though there was some worry that Detroit’s offense looked better than advertised due to facing weak passing defenses early in the schedule, they’ve maintained their efficiency against better defenses in the past two weeks. Even though the Lions slowed considerably in the second half on Monday, they still put up an above-average overall performance against a good Packers defense.

The Lions are clearly a top 10 passing offense. They’re t-seventh in passer rating (99.1), seventh in yards per attempt (8.0), but just 26th in completion percentage (61.3). It follows, then, that the Lions are very good at creating explosive plays through the air. They’re currently ninth in passing plays of 20+ yards (23).

Very important to this matchup, the Lions have been fairly good at protecting Matthew Stafford this year. He only has been sacked 10 times in five games, but in three of those games he’s been sacked three times or more. The sacks tend to come in clumps.

Still, with Stafford playing some of his best ball, and his receivers—Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladayboth ranked in PFF’s top 20, this is a passing offense to fear.

It’s business as usual for this Vikings defense. While not completely impenetrable, they’ve held all of their opponents below 300 net passing yards. The few times they’ve allowed a passer rating above 90, it has only been for a limited number of yards. Basically, you’ll never see this defense get burned for 300+ yards and a 100+ passer rating; it almost never happens.

While their back end has struggled a little, exceptional talent in the front seven more than makes up for the deficiencies. The Vikings are currently 17th in the league in sacks (17), but the duo of Everson Griffen (three sacks) and Danielle Hunter (six) is one of the best in the league.

The raw statistics, however, are a bit underwhelming considering the defense’s reputation. They rank just 14th in passer rating allowed (88.9), t-21st in completion percentage (67.7), but sixth in yards per attempt (6.4). As you can imagine, they don’t give up a ton of splash plays. They’ve only allowed 17 plays of 20+ yards (t-ninth) and a single play of 40+ yards (t-first).

Player to watch: Everson Griffen. If Matthew Stafford has a clean pocket, he’ll tear this defense apart. If he doesn’t... well, he’ll struggle.

Griffen has 14.0 career sacks against the Lions in 17 games, including 2.5 last year.

Advantage: Draw. Like last week, this is a strength vs. strength matchup and I can see it going either way. Last week’s performance could fairly be called a draw, because the Lions got off to a hot start but were ice cold in the second half. The Lions won’t be able to afford that kind of stalling this week against a better Vikings defense.

Lions run offense (28th) vs. Vikings run defense (4th)

The running game is dead in Detroit. No more proclamations like, “We’re just one block away” or “We’re so close to breaking that big one.” They’re bad.

It’s been five weeks, and Kerryon Johnson’s longest carry is 14 yards. This run offense is just not good right now, and last week was the perfect data point to prove it. Green Bay’s run defense had been atrocious all year, and the Lions couldn’t even average 3.0 yards per carry against them.

Yes, there is one promising performance against the Chiefs, but that is looking like an outlier. Overall, the Lions are averaging just 3.8 yards per carry (t-22nd) and they’re earning first downs on just 18.0 percent of carries (26th). It’s time to start wondering whether there’s some sort of Barry Sanders curse on this franchise.

This is not exactly the kind of defense you’d expect a rebound game against. While, again, they aren’t quite as dominant as their preceding reputation, they are still very much capable of shutting down a good run offense. They did it to the Raiders and Giants—though they faced a Saquon Barkley-less Giants team. Still, it’s a little surprising to see that four of their six opponents averaged 4.3 per carry or more against this defense.

But don’t be too fooled by that. This is still a very good run defense. They’re only ceding 3.8 yards per carry (t-seventh) and just 18.6 percent of rushes are earning first downs against Minnesota (sixth).

Player to watch: Eric Kendricks

Advantage: Vikings +2.5. While I think the Lions are going to try and air it out a ton, making this matchup less important to the entire outcome, we know the Lions will try to keep the Vikings defensive line honest by running the ball every now and then. Unfortunately for Detroit, I don’t see any scenario in which they will be able to successfully do so.

Vikings pass offense (7th) vs. Lions pass defense (10th)

This is probably not the chart nor the DVOA ranking you’d expect to see from an overly-criticized Kirk Cousins-led offense. However, media perception is very rarely reality. In truth, the Vikings pass offense really only had one bad game, and it was against an elite Bears defense.

Of course, that isn’t to say Cousins is perfect. He has certainly struggled in high-pressure moments throughout his career. But his statistics this year are undoubtedly fantastic. Minnesota currently ranks third in passer rating (108.4), t-second in yards per attempt (8.9) and t-sixth in completion percentage (69.7).

The receiving duo of Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs certainly helps. Those two have combined for four of Minnesota’s five plays of 40+ yards (t-fourth), and the two are responsible for all nine of the Vikings’ receiving touchdowns.

This could be the matchup of the game. The Lions pass defense gives up some yardage, but they really make opponents work for it. Detroit’s secondary is undoubtedly the strength of this entire team and it shows up in a wide variety of statistics.

They’re third in completion percentage allowed (56.5), t-sixth in passes defended (despite playing one fewer game than most teams), seventh in passer rating (82.2) and 11th in yards per attempt (7.0).

All of those stats are pretty impressive. Now look back at that chart and consider the quarterbacks they’ve faced: Philip Rivers, Carson Wentz, Patrick Mahomes and Aaron Rodgers. That’s just about as impressive of a lineup as you’ll see in the NFL short of Tom Brady.

Player to watch: Adam Thielen vs. Justin Coleman. While you can never be too sure which players will match up against who, this would be the most logical defense for Detroit. This is a massive matchup between two players playing at elite levels. Both are ranked in PFF’s top 10 at their respective position and both have been making outstanding plays this year.

Advantage: Push. I am very close to pushing the advantage to the Lions’ side because of my own biases against Kirk Cousins. It’s clear to me that he is one of the worst quarterbacks Detroit has faced so far this year. But this is supposed to be more objective, and objectively speaking, this is actually one of the most efficient passing offenses Detroit will face all year. Maybe it’s fool’s gold—I certainly don’t put too much stock into the past two weeks because the Giants and Eagles pass defenses suck. But they’ve really been better than most give them credit for all year.

Vikings run offense (9th) vs. Lions run defense (17th)

Okay, here comes the tough part. Dalvin Cook is back and is looking as incredible as he did his rookie year before the injury. In fact, he’s currently averaging 5.4 yards per carry, which is over a half yard better than his career average entering this year. He’s currently on pace for over 1,500 rushing yards and, truthfully, only one team has been able to stop him thus far: the aforementioned elite Bears defense.

The overall statistics are just devastating. The Vikings are averaging 5.1 yards per carry as a team (t-third), they already have nine rushing touchdowns (t-second), they have nine rushes of 20+ yards (first) and two of 40+ yards (t-third).

If there is anything that is in Detroit’s favor, it’s that Minnesota is only gaining first downs on 23.9 percent of rushes (12th) and has six total fumbles (t-first)—though most of those have come from Cousins (three). Detroit leads the league in forced fumbles (eight).

2018 seems like a distant past with the way the Lions are currently (not) defending the run. I keep expecting this defense to turn the corner, but it’s just not happening. Damon Harrison Sr. isn’t playing his best football, the Lions linebackers are struggling, and there is no end in sight. Adding to the confusion is that their DVOA numbers remain... not horrible.

But Detroit is giving up 5.1 yards per carry, third-worst in the NFL. Adding some clarity to the DVOA numbers, however, is the fact that they’re only giving up first downs on 20.5 percent of carries (10th). You’d think that means they’re giving up a ton of big plays, but they’ve only allowed four rushes of 20+ yards (t-15th), but two of 40+ yards (t-25th).

If you’ve watched Lions football this year, you know that the Lions run defense mirrors the charts more than the DVOA ranking.

Player to watch: Jarrad Davis. Davis is off to another rough season. If he is going to rebound and instill some faith in this fanbase, this is the week he needs to turn it around. The Vikings’ offensive line is not that good, so it will be on the defense’s second level to make sure they’re staying disciplined and, more importantly, tackling with good fundamentals. Those aren’t exactly Davis’ strengths.

Advantage: Vikings +3. If the Vikings are smart, they’re going to hammer the running game this week to try and force Detroit to take some of their talented defensive backs off the field to load the box. Detroit has proven they can’t stop the run without adding more defenders to their front line, so they may have to change strategy this week.

Even if they do, though, I have lost all confidence in this team’s ability to stop the run, and with one of the best running backs coming to town, I don’t see how Detroit turns it around this week.

Last week’s prediction:

On Paper moved to 2-3 after predicting the narrowest of Lions victories against the Packers. It ended up being just the opposite—a narrow loss* to the Packers. My biggest miscalculation was giving the Lions an advantage in run offense. Detroit couldn’t get anything going against a bad Packers run defense, which is obviously not promising going forward.

In the comment section, our own John Whiticar was the closest to the final score with his 24-21 Packers prediction (final score was 23-22, in case you erased that game from memory). It has become Pride of Detroit tradition when a staffer wins On Paper, they get to choose what to photoshop. Here’s that conversation with John in our Slack room:

I am not one to back out of their word. So here you go, John.

This week’s prediction:

The Vikings come out with a pretty definitive +5.5 advantage. The good news for Detroit is that the advantage comes from just two of the four matchups. If they prove me wrong in one or both of those, they could certainly make a case to win this week.

However, I just think this team matches up very poorly with the Vikings. All of the Lions’ perceived strengths are neutralized by the Vikings who are just as good or better in the same phase.

Just look at this Vikings team right now. They are quite literally firing on all cylinders. They’re good at every phase of the game, and while Detroit is really good at passing the ball and defending the pass, they’re really bad at the other two phases of the game. Objectively speaking, it’s impossible to deny that the Vikings are the better team On Paper. I’m sorry to say I think this one could get ugly. Vikings 27, Lions 13.