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Detroit Lions at Philadelphia Eagles preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown of the Lions’ Week 3 matchup.

Philadelphia Eagles v Detroit Lions Photo by Dave Reginek/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions and the Philadelphia Eagles are as close to 2-0 as they are to 0-2. Both teams found themselves trailing in each of their first two games, and both have worked their way to even the score. For the Eagles, their heroic comeback on Sunday night was spoiled by a huge defensive gaffe in the final few minutes. Meanwhile, the Lions’ blew an 18-point lead against the Cardinals and could only muster a tie from there.

Both teams have work to do to eclipse the current undefeated teams atop their respective divisions, but both certainly hope to be in the playoff race come December. That means this game could certainly have some serious implications for tiebreakers—assuming, in the Lions case, that another playoff contender has a tie.

So who has the advantage on Sunday? Let’s look at the matchup... On Paper.

Lions pass offense (22nd in DVOA in 2018) vs. Eagles pass defense (15th)

This year’s DVOA: Lions (8th) vs. Eagles (23rd)

This will be our final week that we take 2018 data into account. Last year, the Lions passing offense started strong, but after the trade of Golden Tate and the injury to Marvin Jones, things quickly fell apart.

This year, things look to be brighter for Matthew Stafford and company, especially under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell. Stafford has been especially good at play action:

The Lions have been good at spreading the ball around, too. Six different players have at least four catches through two games and four different receivers have touchdowns. By comparison, zero Bears players have caught a touchdown (sorry, couldn’t help myself.)

Currently, the Lions rank 10th in passer rating (102.6), t-eighth in yards per attempt (8.4) and are 17th in completion percentage (65.3). They’ve been particularly good at getting chunk plays through the air, with 11 plays for 20+ yards (t-third) and have only allowed three sacks (t-eighth).

Last year, the Eagles pass defense was pretty average, though they recovered quite well in the second half of the season—a pattern that will emerge from this 2018 Eagles team.

This year, they’re off to another slow start. Though they created a few turnovers last week against the Falcons, the rest of the raw data should be somewhat unsettling for Eagles fans. They’re currently 20th passer rating allowed (98.8), t-21st in yards per attempt (8.0) and 16th in completion percentage (65.5).

Despite Jim Schwartz’s aggressive defense, the Eagles have only managed two sacks on the years, but they’re still very much capable of creating pressure.

Player to watch: Kenny Golladay vs. Ronald Darby.

Golladay had his breakout game of the year last week against a very talented cornerback in Casey Hayward Jr. An eight-catch, 117-yard performance is impressive, but doing it against a solid young corner is a whole different level. Ronald Darby, too, is an impressive corner, but he’s off to an awful start to 2019. Is it just a slow start or is Darby still feeling the effects of his torn ACL from 2018? Time will tell.

Advantage: Lions +1.5

Protection will be key here, as Brandon Graham is definitely another player that could affect this matchup heavily. We’re still not sure exactly who will be playing left tackle this week as Taylor Decker remains limited in practice. Last week, his replacement, Tyrell Crosby, did a fine job in protection, and the Lions offensive line, overall, rebounded in a big way.

Thus far, Bevell has looked the part as a great offensive coordinator, and the Lions’ passing game looks revitalized. Going against a beat-up, mediocre-at-best Philly secondary, I have medium confidence the Lions should win this matchup.

Lions run offense (25th) vs. Eagles run defense (9th)

This year’s DVOA: Lions (28th) vs. Eagles (2nd)

The Lions have been running the ball a lot, but they’ve been anything but efficient with those runs—and that matches exactly what we saw for the most of the 2018 season. As a result, the Lions are frantically shuffling their backfield. They’ve already cut veteran C.J. Anderson (16 carries, 43 yards) and added J.D. McKissic and Paul Perkins since the initial roster was set.

The Lions’ interior offensive linemen appear to be doing their job adequately, but Detroit has really struggled to block on the edges, and that includes rough play from their newly-transformed tight end room. If they can fall in line, we could finally see Kerryon Johnson perform at the levels he did last year, but so far it has been slim pickings.

Detroit is averaging just 3.5 yards per carry (t-25th) and is currently earning first downs on a measly 18.3 percent of carries (24th). The Lions are currently one of 12 teams without a rush of 20+ yards.

The Eagles run defense was a top-10 unit last year, and they may be even better this year. They’re currently fourth in yards per carry allowed (2.8), third in yards allowed (85) and first in first down percentage (10.0%).

The only reason to doubt this unit is the recent loss of defensive tackle Timmy Jernigan. Combined with the loss of Malik Jackson to IR, the Eagles are down to their fourth string defensive tackle.

But the Eagles still have...

Player to watch: Fletcher Cox.

While Cox is most known for his quickness and ability to rush the passer, he’s no slouch as a run defender, either. The same can really be said for Brandon Graham, too. That defensive front is still very good for Philly, even with the injuries.

Advantage: Eagles +2.5.

There is some minor hope that the Lions can get back on track this week. It really seems like on each run they’re just a few inches away from breaking out a big one. Additionally, the injury to Jernigan will certainly impact the game.

Still, the overwhelming amount of statistical evidence points to this being a matchup heavily in the favor of the Eagles. That won’t stop the Lions from trying to run the ball, but I wouldn’t expect this to be the week that Kerryon Johnson breaks out.

Eagles pass offense (11th) vs. Lions pass defense (31st)

This year’s DVOA: Eagles (10th) vs. Lions (10th)

Whether it was Carson Wentz or Nick Foles, the Eagles had no problem throwing on fools last year. This year, it appears to be more of the same, although last week was certainly an interesting data point.

On one hand, the Eagles had to deal with sudden injuries to DeSean Jackson, Dallas Goedert and Alshon Jeffery, severely altering their game plan against the Falcons. They clearly played much better in the second half than the first.

On the other hand, Wentz made some horrible mistakes early in that game, and the Eagles’ pass protection looked very shaky against an admittedly impressive Atlanta front.

The Eagles will certainly be shorthanded with their offensive weapons this week—with their top two receivers likely out—but they will have had a full week to prepare for it this time.

Detroit’s offseason plan to turn around their pass defense appears to have worked thus far. Though at times the Cardinals and Chargers seemed to be able to pick apart the secondary, for the most part, the Lions have won those matchups.

Thanks to solid play from No. 2 cornerback Rashaan Melvin (he leads the league with five pass breakups) and a few spectacular plays from the Lions’ playmakers (Darius Slay, Tracy Walker), the Lions pass defense currently ranks eighth in passer rating allowed (74.4), 13th in yards per attempt (6.7) and t-fourth in completion percentage allowed (55.6).

Player to watch: Zach Ertz.

The Eagles may be missing most of their passing targets, but their most lethal one is still plenty healthy. No tight end has been targeted more in the red zone than Ertz:

That being said, Ertz doesn’t have a touchdown yet. However, he’s still very dangerous, as he has 13 catches (t-fourth among TEs) for 126 yards (eighth) and five first downs (t-eighth)

Advantage: Draw.

Wentz is too good for the Lions to completely shut him down. He’s got an incredible talent to extend plays and make some ballsy throws. His second-half performance against the Falcons was a perfect example of the kind of game-changing plays he can make. And if it weren’t for a late drop by Nelson Agholor—another guy to watch this week—the Eagles would likely be 2-0 thanks to Wentz’s heroics.

That being said, this offense is running very short on weapons, and the Lions are pretty well-equipped to deal with that right now. The key for Detroit will be to force Wentz into some bad decision with pressure. Unfortunately, the Lions haven’t show the ability to do that consistently, so I don’t have a strong feeling either way on this matchup.

Eagles run offense (27th) vs. Lions run defense (13th)

This year’s DVOA: Eagles (16th) vs. Lions (12th)

The Eagles running game has been a bit of an enigma for some time now. Despite their late-season surge in 2018, their running game actually somehow got worse. They couldn’t really decide on a lead back, so they went out and got Jordan Howard this year, and the results pretty much seem the same.

Howard is splitting time with second-round rookie Miles Sanders, and together they have just 115 yards on 35 carries (3.3 YPC).

Overall, Philly ranks 28th in yards per carry (3.3), but they are earning first downs on 26.9 percent of rushes (ninth) suggesting they are fairly good in short yardage situations. Indeed, they have converted 88 percent of power running situations (defined as third or fourth and 2 or less).

This one is tough to figure out. The Lions’ run defense became elite last year after the addition of Damon Harrison Sr. via trade. That much makes plenty of sense.

But this year has been a different story. The Lions are currently t-25th in yards per carry (5.2), but Football Outsiders still has them 12 in DVOA? Again, it has to do with situational football. Detroit is only allowing first downs on 18.8 percent of rushes, tied for seventh best in the league. They’re also pretty good in power running situations, allowing conversions just 60 percent of the time (14th).

Player to watch: Damon Harrison Sr.

Snacks is off to a pretty slow start, but that won’t last forever. He’s one of the best run defenders to ever play the game, and with the potential return of Jarrad Davis this week, his ability to eat up offensive linemen may finally produce better results this week.

Advantage: Lions +1.

Admittedly, this is based more on faith than it is results from 2019. I find no reason to believe the Lions’ regression in 2019 is nothing more than an outlier at this point. The personnel is better, the players have acclimated to the scheme, and everything on paper makes sense.

This is not a great Philly rushing team, which should provide a great opportunity for Detroit to rebound this week. They aren’t facing as talented of a running back as Austin Ekeler or an offense mired in mystery like the Cardinals. The Eagles are soft on the interior of their offensive line and Snacks should eat.


Last week’s prediction:

Last week, On Paper predicted a modest 24-20 win for the Lions. That was both on the lower end of the score predictions and obviously very close to the point differential of the 13-10 actual score. I get a nice little pat on the back.

In the comment section, you won’t believe who won. Here’s a hint: It’s the same person who boldly predicted that Tyrell Crosby would allow no more than two pressures and zero sacks against Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram III.

His score prediction of 17-14 nailed the score margin and was just a few points off from the actual score.

So here it is, Hamza. Here is your raise:

This week’s prediction:

Put it all together, and you’re left with a big, fat Draw.

In these cases, I’m forced to go with my gut. I really think the Lions have a better chance in this matchup than the Vegas line suggests or what national analysts are already picking. But there are a couple other factors in this game that are not reflected in On Paper: home-field advantage and special teams.

Unfortunately for Detroit, both of those factors heavily favor the Eagles. Philadelphia is a notoriously tough place to play, and the Lions have been god-awful at special teams through two weeks (31st according to Football Outsiders, the Eagles are seventh).

I really, really want to go with the Lions this week, and another upset wouldn’t surprise me, but the conventions of the charts means I have to pick the Eagles this week. 24-21 Eagles.

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