Week 1 is supposed to be the week in which fans finally figure everything out. All of the uncertainty and surprise from the offseason finally manifests itself on the field and we finally know the true identity of the team.
But in reality, Week 1 can be just as difficult to decipher as any preseason result. Just take the Detroit Lions. Are they the team that dominated the Arizona Cardinals for the first three quarters or are they the team that rookie quarterback Kyler Murray picked apart in the final drives of the game? And who are the Cardinals and Kyler Murray? Are they going to be as bad as we all thought or will they surprise people in 2019?
The Los Angeles Chargers went through a similar identity crisis on Sunday but managed to pull out a win in their overtime period. However, there were some very uncharacteristic things about the Chargers’ Week 1 performance that rise questions to whether this is the team that went 12-4 last year.
So, as always with On Paper for the first three weeks of the season, we’ll still be relying heavily on the previous season’s data, but take note of any drastic changes thus far this year.
Lions pass offense (22nd in DVOA in 2018) vs. Chargers pass defense (10th)
This year’s DVOA: Lions (11th) vs. Chargers (21st)
The Lions’ pass offense is off to a promising start in 2019. Matthew Stafford’s 361 passing yards were more than the Lions had in any single game in 2018, and his 110.0 passer rating would’ve been his fourth-best performance last year. Of course, this all comes with the caveat that the Cardinals pass defense was missing its top two corners. Still, Arizona has some talented safeties and its pass rush is stellar.
Two of the Lions’ newest offensive weapons—first-round pick T.J. Hockenson and veteran receiver Danny Amendola—were Stafford’s favorite targets, with both pass catchers pulling in at least nine targets and surpassing 100 yards on Sunday.
Still, there are reasons to hold back the excitement. The Lions’ pass protection had serious issues, and despite going against backup cornerbacks, the Lions’ No. 1 and 2 receivers (Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr.) had somewhat quiet days.
Overall, however, this unit looks promising with new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell leading the way.
Last year, the Chargers’ pass defense was a mixed bag. There were a few phenomenal games here and there mixed with some really awful ones. Los Angeles was very hard to predict on a week-to-week basis, and that makes Week 1’s data point extremely hard to analyze.
Jacoby Brissett looked fairly comfortable against this Chargers defense, completing 77.8 percent of his passes for a modest 7.0 yards per attempt. The low yards per attempt is a staple of this Chargers defense, as their scheme is focused on preventing chunk plays through the air. Last season, the Chargers were tied for ninth in yards per attempt (7.1). Still, though, they gave up 52 plays of 20+ yards (t-15th) and nine of 40+ (t-17th), so they aren’t completely infallible with the deep ball.
Unfortunately for Los Angeles, they’ve already suffered a ton of injuries on their back end. Safety Derwin James and cornerback Trevor Williams are both on IR. Starting cornerback Michael Davis hasn’t practiced this week and is unlikely to go. They’re beat up on the back end, and it could make them vulnerable this week.
Player to watch: Taylor Decker. Last week, the Lions left tackle had a nightmare debut, and unfortunately for him, his job doesn’t get any easier this week. With Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram III teeing off on the Chargers’ edges, Decker will have to show massive improvements to avoid getting Stafford killed again. And he’ll have to do it with a back injury.
Advantage: Lions +1. With all the injuries on the Chargers side and the success that Detroit had last week despite the Decker performance, I feel minorly confident the Lions could win this matchup. Detroit won’t hit on as many big plays as they did last week, but they have the personnel to dink and dunk, if need be.
Lions run offense (25th) vs. Chargers run defense (10th)
This year’s DVOA: Lions (24th) vs. Chargers (31st)
As promising as the pass game was in Week 1, the Lions’ running attack was just as disappointing. With a supposed focus on establishing the running game, Kerryon Johnson and C.J. Anderson looked pretty impotent against a (presumably) mediocre Cardinals defense. Only late in the game were the Lions finally able to create some rushing lanes, but it was far too infrequent to establish any confidence in this group.
Here’s where it gets hard to parse through the data. The Chargers were one of the best running defenses in the entire league last year. They held nearly half of their opponents below 90 rushing yards, and half below 4.0 yards per carry.
But last week against the Colts, they put up the second-worst run defense performance by DVOA metrics (remember, these don’t adjust for strength of opponent yet). Marlon Mack is the league’s leading rusher by 48 yards because of the Chargers run defense.
Player to watch: Kerryon Johnson. After a stunning rookie season, Johnson got off to a disappointing start in Week 1. The young running back has big play potential any time he touches the ball, but couldn’t manage a run over 9 yards last week. It’s only a matter of time.
There are just too many conflicting variables here for me to give an advantage here with any sort of confidence. I have no idea if the Chargers just had a one-off bad performance, but they didn’t have one that bad all year in 2018. I have no idea if Detroit’s offensive line is truly that bad, but last year’s data suggests it may be.
There’s not an outcome in this matchup that would surprise me.
Chargers pass offense (2nd) vs. Lions pass defense (31st)
This year’s DVOA: Chargers (14th) vs. Lions (7th)
Philip Rivers continues to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league without any of the accolades. He’s never made it to a Super Bowl, he’s never won an MVP award, and while he’s gone to eight Pro Bowls, it still seems like people underrate him.
Last year, Rivers finished fifth in passer rating (105.5), third in yards per attempt (8.5) and eighth in completion percentage (68.3).
Last week against the Colts, he picked up right where he left off. However, among his 34 passes for 333 yards and three touchdowns was a red-zone interception that helped the Colts tie the game before regulation. Still, Rivers looked as lethal as ever and showed no signs of slipping out of the top 10 quarterbacks in the NFL right now.
That being said, there are a few areas of weakness right now. Tight end Hunter Henry fractured his knee in the season opener and shouldn’t play. Wide receiver Mike Williams may be out this week, too. And while Russell Okung still deals with an illness, left tackle Trent Scott had an awful debut as his replacement (his PFF grade was worse than Decker’s).
This offseason, the Lions strove to improve their pass defense more than anything. They signed two new starting corners in Rashaan Melvin and nickel corner Justin Coleman. They added two big pass rushers in Mike Daniels and Trey Flowers. And they’re expecting a lot of growth from second-year safety Tracy Walker.
The initial results are inconclusive. The pass rush is still not where this team wants it to be, but the play of their secondary was promising in Week 1... until it wasn’t. The Lions gave up several big plays at the end of the game, and it cost them a chance at victory.
Still, I would have to think the overall performance of the pass defense was a significant sign of improvement from last year’s troubled squad.
Player to watch: Keenan Allen. The Chargers may be down a few key weapons this week, but Keenan Allen is a top-10 receiver in this league. Lions fans probably don’t need a reminder of how he single-handed took over the season opener against the Lions in 2015, when he pulled in 15 catches for 166 yards. Since then, Allen has put together back-to-back season of at least 1,110 yards and he had 123 yards last week. He’s a mismatch no matter who is on him.
This is a really tough one for me. I was ready to give the Chargers the edge here, but I think the key injuries in this matchup may swing the pendulum to a draw. The Lions showed promise last week, but it was against a rookie quarterback. It will be close to impossible to throw something at Rivers that he hasn’t seen before.
That being said, pass protection should be an issue for Los Angeles, and with two big receiving options out, the Lions’ man-coverage defense should be significantly easier this week.
Chargers run offense (7th) vs. Lions run defense (13th)
This year’s DVOA: Chargers (4th) vs. Lions (15th)
The Chargers didn’t run the ball a ton last week (21 attempts), but they were efficient pretty much every time either Austin Ekeler or Justin Jackson touched the ball.
Oddly enough, my charts put them at simply an average running team, while DVOA rankings suggests they were elite last year. Either way, Sunday was a promising start to the Melvin Gordon-less era in Los Angeles, and Matt Patricia certainly came away impressed with Ekeler.
“I think what really stands out to everybody that saw the game this past weekend is that he is actually an outstanding runner,” Patricia said this week. “He’s really strong and powerful. He may not be overly big in size, but his lower body strength is incredible when he breaks and drives through some of those tackles.”
Here’s another data point I have no idea what to do with. The Lions run defense looked porous against the Cardinals, but all the data from last year suggests that’s not who this defense is. Additionally, going against a rare Air Raid offense could certainly justify what may be an outlier performance by the end of the season.
One important piece of information to keep in mind is Damon Harrison Sr. While the Lions’ run-stuffing nose tackle blamed himself for Sunday’s tie, the truth his “Snacks” barely played at all. He was only in on 27 of 89 defensive snaps, likely due to the Cardinals’ over-reliance on the passing game in the second half.
In the first half, the Lions managed to hold Arizona to just 36 yards on 10 carries.
Player to watch: Austin Ekeler. I probably should have mentioned Ekeler in the passing game section, but he’s just as dangerous carrying the rock. The Lions’ tackling had some issues last week, so they’ll have to be better on Sunday.
This is a much more favorable matchup to Detroit than last week, simply in terms of scheme. Harrison will likely be out there a lot more than last week, meaning Detroit’s run defense should improve drastically.
That being said, the Chargers have been so historically good at running the ball, this should be a battle of titans in the trenches.
Last week’s prediction:
Last week, On Paper was looking mighty fine after three quarters. I don’t typically predict more than a one-score win, but my 27-13 prediction was not far from the 24-6 score one minute into the fourth quarter. Of course, all hell broke loose after that, and On Paper starts the season off 0-1.
But I wasn’t alone. Of course, no one in the comment section predicted a tie, because the only kind of people that predict ties are the kind of people that have 50 bumper stickers on their car, desperately screaming “NOTICE ME!” at all times.
However, pizizzle was the closest to the final score, predicting a 27-24 Lions win. So he, is our Week 1 Winner. Enjoy your prize:
That’s former hockey player Tie Domi, wearing a tie, eating some Thai food. Do you get the joke? Am I being too subtle? Should I have him tying a knot, too?
This week’s prediction:
Just so you know, I’m aware of just how unsatisfying this On Paper will be. I gave “draws” in three different matchups, but when looking at such a limited data set and trying to draw objective conclusions from them, this all seems like a big waste of time until we’re at least three weeks deep.
Of course, that is not how being a football analyst works. You must make predictions and you must be shamed if you’re wrong.
Overall, I have the Lions with a +1.0 advantage, and I have almost no confidence in that assessment. But what the hell: Lions 24, Chargers 20.