The Detroit Lions are back at home this week after back-to-back weeks on the road. Their road trip could have gone a little better, as they dropped consecutive games to the Raiders and Bears, and in the process, they lost their star quarterback for at least a couple games.
Beat up and with little hope of playoffs, the Lions are hosting a Dallas Cowboys team hoping they are in the opposite boat. Though they just lost a heartbreaker to the Vikings, they still hold first place in the division at 5-4 and have a roster competitive as anyone’s in the NFL.
So do the Lions have a chance to right the ship after losing five of their last six? Let’s check out this Week 11 matchup On Paper.
Lions pass offense (7th) vs. Cowboys pass defense (18th)
You can pretty much throw this chart in the trash if Matthew Stafford isn’t playing—which looks like a high probability at this point. Stafford has missed the first two practices of the week, and it looks like backup Jeff Driskel is being prepped as this week’s starter.
It’s not that Driskel is horribly bad—he’s not—but he isn’t exactly Stafford and he doesn’t have the same skillset. He does have a big enough arm, but it’s clear the Lions don’t quite trust it yet. This passing offense has been reliant on the deep ball for success all year, and now look at Driskel’s passing chart from last week.
He missed some open receivers, threw an awful pick and ended the game with a "reverse Orlovsky" (h/t @basic_zr1), but considering he didn't find out he was starting until Sunday morning, Jeff Driskel turned in a decent effort. pic.twitter.com/LEjtGNlpIi— Chris Burke (@ChrisBurkeNFL) November 11, 2019
19 of his 27 completions came within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Of course, with a full week to gameplan for Driskel, that strategy may change this week, but this is all the data I can go on, and it makes this unit’s performance incredibly unpredictable.
Speaking of unpredictable, the Cowboys passing offense has had an up-and-down year. After a rough start to the season, they’ve rebounded nicely, holding six of their last seven opponents at or below their passer rating averages. They also don’t give up many yards through the air. In just two contests, they’ve allowed more than 250 net passing yards—though it’s worth noting they’ve played a lot of bad passing offenses this year in both New York teams, Washington and Miami.
As a team, they rank 14th in passer rating allowed (89.3), sixth in yards per attempt (6.7) and 24th in completion percentage (66.0). They don’t have a lot of playmakers in the secondary, as they only have four interceptions (t-27th) and 37 passes defended (18th). However, their pass rush is still elite. Though they have just 23 sacks, their pass rush win rate is the best in the NFL.
Player to watch: DeMarcus Lawrence. Though Lawrence only has 4.5 sacks this season (Robert Quinn, his teammate, has 7.5), he’s still the most dangerous player on the Cowboys defense. Lions left tackle Taylor Decker has been playing well as of late, but Lawrence is an elite pass rusher with a win rate in the top 10 (25%, ninth).
Advantage: Cowboys +0.5. This is a solid pass defense, and I just don’t know what to expect from Driskel this week. Logically speaking, he should be better than last week, and he wasn’t all that bad against an even-better Bears defense. But this offense still feels like it’s going to be hamstrung quite noticeably without Stafford.
Lions run offense (27th) vs. Cowboys run defense (15th)
The Lions running game has actually been closer to average than horrible over the past few weeks. They’ve crossed over 80 yards in three of their last four games and have met the defense’s average in yards per carry in three of those contests, as well. Mind you, this was against some very good run defenses in the Raiders, Bears and Vikings.
All that being said, this is still a beat-up, below-average unit. This season, the Lions have lost Kerryon Johnson (IR), C.J. Anderson (cut), and Tra Carson (IR)—their three top backs. Ty Johnson is working his way back from a concussion and may not play this week. That means their ragtag group of J.D. McKissic and Paul Perkins may have to carry them this week.
Overall, Detroit is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry (26th) and earn first downs on just 18.4 percent of runs (29th). Their short-yardage rushing attack remains a disaster, as they only have two rushing touchdowns on the entire season (t-30th).
The one x-factor this week, however, is Jeff Driskel. His mobility gives the Lions an extra dimension in the running game, and we saw the tip of the iceberg last week. Driskel had 37 rushing yards, which ties the most Matthew Stafford has ever had in a single game. The read option could be back this week, which could be the shot in the arm this rushing attack needs.
Only once all season have the Cowboys allowed an opposing rushing attack significantly outearn their season YPC average. That being said, they’ve only held an opponent below those totals three times. In essence, this run defense couldn’t be anymore average than they currently are.
All the statistics back that up. They’re t-15th in yards per carry allowed (4.2), t-15th in rushing touchdowns allowed (eight), but oddly 30th in percentage of rushes earning first downs (26.8). They don’t give up a ton of big plays—just two rushes of 20+ yards and one of 40+ yards—meaning they tend to give up consistent little chunks throughout the game.
Player to watch: Jeff Driskel. The Lions embraced Driskel’s mobility a little last week, but with a full week of preparation, I’m interested to see how much they unleash him against the Cowboys.
Advantage: Cowboys +1. This isn’t a lopsided matchup by any means, but the Lions rushing attack just hasn’t been a game-changer once this season. And with Driskel adding a new dimension, it makes this aspect of the game a little more difficult to predict. Still, I feel pretty confident Detroit won’t rush 150 yards or anything like that.
Cowboys pass offense (3rd) vs. Lions pass defense (23rd)
Though this chart isn’t exactly phenomenal, Dak Prescott is certainly having himself a year in 2018. He’s on pace to set career-highs in several statistical categories, including yards per attempt (8.7), completion percentage (68.3%) and touchdown percentage (5.6%). He’s still a little prone to mistakes, as his nine interceptions is fourth most in the league, but overall, this offense is humming.
That’s due, in large part, to Prescott’s phenomenal receiving corps. Even Darius Slay had to give props to No. 1 receiver Amari Cooper, who he said may be even better than guys like Keenan Allen and Davante Adams.
“I might give nods to (Cooper as the best) just cause he’s a lot more explosive than all of them, just cause of the fact that he can run,” Slay said, per the Detroit Free press. “He came out as a 4.3 guy.”
Cooper is currently third in the NFL with 848 receiving yards, second in receiving touchdowns and second in 20+ yard plays.
But don’t sleep on Randall Cobb—a lethal slot option—or Michael Gallup, who has 530 receiving yards of his own (by comparison, Marvin Jones Jr. has 612).
Much like the Lions, the Cowboys rely heavily on pushing the ball vertically. Dallas is third in the NFL in passing plays of 20+ yards (40) and third in 40+ yard plays (nine). However, they’re able to do so while keeping Dak Prescott clean. Dallas has surrendered just 11 sacks all year, which is the fewest in the NFL.
The Lions’ slide continues in the passing game. There is no apparent rhyme or reason why Detroit has struggled so badly in these past four games, but it hasn’t shown signs of stopping.
Last week, the Lions didn’t exactly get torched by the passing game—and they were able to general five sacks—but on three consecutive drives, they let Mitchell Trubisky hit a wide open receiver for touchdowns. That just can’t happen.
Detroit now ranks 23rd in passer rating allowed (100.0), t-22nd in yards per attempt (7.7), but still fifth in completion percentage (61.0). Those big plays are what continue to kill this passing defense, as they’ve allowed 40 20-yard plays (t-fourth most).
Player to watch: Michael Gallup. Slay vs. Cooper will draw all the highlights and replays, and I certainly expect Cooper to get his own. But with Prescott likely to have plenty of time to throw the ball, I think he’ll be more inclined to target Michael Gallup’s matchup with Rashaan Melvin. Gallup already has two games of 100+ yards this season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a third this week.
Advantage: Cowboys +3. This is a seriously lopsided matchup, especially the way the Lions are currently trending. The one potential saving grace here for Detroit is that Trey Flowers is finally starting to play well and Mike Daniels is healthy(ish). And with the Cowboys’ offensive line currently beat up, there’s a chance Detroit can get some pressure on Prescott... but I’m not banking on it.
Cowboys run offense (2nd) vs. Lions run defense (20th)
Aside from a couple games against really good run defenses, the Dallas Cowboys rushing attack has been as good as they always seem to be. They’ve hung over 170 rushing yards on their opponent in four of nine games and rushed for well over 5.0 yards per carry in five.
As a team, they rank sixth in yards per carry (4.8) and second in rushes that earn a first down (27.2%). Interestingly enough, they haven’t broken a lot of big runs this season, with only four rushes for 20+ yards (t-20th) and one of 40+ yards (t-12th). In a way, however, that makes them even more scary. To rank sixth in YPC without the benefit of big runs means this Dallas offense is consistently picking up solid gains on almost every rushing play—hence the second ranking in DVOA.
The Lions run defense hasn’t quite been as disastrous as advertised—really trending more towards average than anything. However, when you account for preseason expectations, this is nothing short of a big disappointment from this unit. They have held two opponents below 3.5 yards per carry in the past four games, so there is a small amount of hope on the horizon.
Still, Detroit ranks just t-23rd in yards per carry (4.6) and 14th in percentage of rushes earning first downs (22.1).
Player to watch: Damon Harrison Sr. It’s probably boring putting Snacks in this section every week, but he’s starting to turn things around this season, and this week he’ll get to occasionally face backup left guard Xavier Su’a-Filo, who got plenty of experience last year, but wasn’t very good.
Advantage: Cowboys +2. All the injuries on the Cowboys side mitigate some of the damage here, but even shorthanded, this Cowboys offensive line is seriously impressive. When Detroit has had to go up against physically dominating offensive lines (see: Oakland), the results weren’t pretty.
Last week’s prediction:
You can pretty much throw last week’s On Paper in the trash, as it was written at a point in the week in which everything was “fine” with Matthew Stafford. Even the team wasn’t really aware that his status would be in doubt. I predicted 23-20 Lions, and I think it’s fair to say that Stafford is worth at least 10 points per game. So in a way, I nailed my prediction. Go me.
In the comment section, we had a bunch of predictions come in after the Stafford news dropped, but it was Big.Al’s 25-13 prediction that ended up being closest to the final score, even though his prediction came on Friday. It feels like he should get punished for guessing that score while thinking Stafford was in, so we’ll recognize your prediction, but we won’t celebrate you.
In case you missed it, Mike Daniels did this after getting his sack last week.
At least it wasn’t Myles Garrett swinging it at his head.
This week’s prediction:
The Cowboys come out with a significant +6.5 advantage. Even worse, I’m giving them the advantage in all four matchups this week. That’s how big of a difference in talent there is in these two teams right now. Of course, the absence of Matthew Stafford is at least a two or three-point swing in this game.
Unfortunately for Detroit, the only few holes this Cowboys team has (run defense) match up perfectly with the worst aspects of this Lions team (run offense). Even worse, this Cowboys offense is arguably the best the Lions will face all year, and they happen to be catching them as Detroit’s defense is falling apart.
The only way the Lions come out victorious this week is if Driskel takes a big step from last week and Detroit’s defensive line takes advantage of a beat-up Cowboys offensive line. I just don’t see those both happening. 31-17 Cowboys.