The 2019 NFL season is underway, and that means the triumphant return of On Paper!
On Paper is our weekly preview in which we try to take as much of an objective look at the Detroit Lions’ matchup as possible. We rely heavily on stats, and try to come to an unbiased conclusion.
Here’s how it works:
Each chart represents one unit of a team (e.g.: Bucs Pass Offense, Lions Run Defense, etc.). Therefore, there are eight total charts (four units, two teams). Each chart lists the opponents the team has played, their performance that week and season averages to compare their performance for that week.
The purpose of this is because stats can be very misleading without the proper context. If the Lions give up 250 yards, 2 TDs and 1 INT through the air, that looks bad. But if it’s against the Packers, who are hypothetically averaging 290 yards and 3 TDs, that is actually a very good performance. So if the team performs better than average on a given week, the cell is highlighted green, a bad performance is red and a yellow cell means the team performed within 5 percent of the team average. The color-coding system is based on the team being analyzed, so green doesn’t necessarily mean good for the Lions. Confused? You can check out my past previews, but you’ll get used it.
After analyzing each chart, I give a matchup edge to one team on a 0-5 scale. The scale is based not only on which team looks better in this matchup, but how likely this edge will affect the final outcome of the game. A +5 advantage would predict that this matchup is key and likely to win the game for the team.
To put simply: We take every past performance of each team and put it in its proper context.
Unfortunately, On Paper’s usefulness is pretty limited until at least Week 4. At this point, the only data we have is preseason—which I refuse to use—and last year’s stats, which certainly has its limits... especially with a team like the Arizona Cardinals.
But this is the nature of Week 1 in the NFL. There are so many unknowns, so let’s try to get a grasp on what little we do know. Here is our Week 1 preview between the Arizona Cardinals and the Detroit Lions.
Lions pass offense (22nd in 2018 DVOA) vs. Cardinals pass defense (8th)
Last year, the Lions pass offense started pretty well. They were far from outstanding, but their only true underperformance in the first half of the season came in the opener against the Jets. You can very easily see when and why things went downhill from there. The Lions traded Golden Tate before the first Vikings game, Marvin Jones Jr. was lost for the season after the second Bears game, and Kerryon Johnson missed every contest after the Panthers game.
That isn’t to make excuses for Matthew Stafford. He struggled early in the season, despite putting up a 100 passer rating in five straight games.
But now the Lions have a brand new offensive coordinator in Darrell Bevell, a healthy group of receivers, including an adequate Golden Tate replacement in Danny Amendola, and— perhaps most importantly—a tight end group that will actually factor in the passing game.
The offensive line remains a concern, however. Last year, the team gave up 41 sacks (t-14th), and now without T.J. Lang, the team is putting a lot of faith that moving Frank Ragnow to center and Graham Glasgow to right guard will compensate for the loss.
Literally, the only good thing about the 2018 Arizona Cardinals was their pass defense. I wouldn’t read too much into their yardage totals being low—teams got early leads on Arizona and didn’t have to throw much—but their opposing passer rating numbers were very respectable.
The raw stats don’t seem to agree, however. Arizona was 23rd in passer rating allowed (96.1), t-ninth in yards per attempt (7.1) and 28th in completion percentage (67.6).
The Cardinals do have a change in defensive scheme, with defensive coordinator Vance Joseph now on board, meaning Arizona will be moving back to a 3-4 base defense.
However, the Cardinals have already lost two of their best defensive players for a significant amount of time. Their free agent splash signing, cornerback Robert Alford, is on IR, and Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson has been suspended for six games. That leaves rookie Byron Murphy and veteran Tramaine Brock to patrol the corner positions.
But that doesn’t mean the Cardinals are completely depleted on defense. They are particularly strong on the edge with Terrell Suggs (18.0 sacks in the past two years) and Chandler Jones (30.0 sacks in the past two years).
Player to watch: Chandler Jones vs. Taylor Decker
Overall, it seems this matchup favors Detroit, but the one thing that could throw everything off is pressure on Matthew Stafford. Taylor Decker, now a captain of the team, had a very solid preseason, but his career has been up and down after a promising rookie year.
Last year, Decker won the matchup handily, allowing no pressures from Jones, and the team, overall, allowed just one sack.
Advantage: Lions +1.
You’re not going to see me give out a lot of advantages more than 1 this week, as confidence levels are rightfully low. It’s hard to tell what to expect out of this new Lions offense in Week 1, but what we do know is that Stafford has a slew of offensive weapons at his disposal right now, and the Cardinals are missing two of their best defensive players.
Detroit struggled in last year’s matchup, though, passing for a total of just 96 yards. The personnel is much different this year, but there should still be some hesitancy for their Week 1 matchup.
Lions run offense (25th) vs. Cardinals run defense (29th)
The Lions’ first year of really trying to focus on the run did not get off to the kind of start they were hoping. Obviously, Kerryon Johnson had a fantastic start to the season, with the Lions outgaining or meeting the defense’s YPC average in four of the team’s first six games. But it was pretty bad from there on out—even including the four other games that Johnson would play before suffering an injury.
Personnel-wise, the Lions didn’t do a ton more to improve this unit. The additions of tight ends T.J. Hockenson and Jesse James should certainly help a little bit, but the loss of Lang looms large in this matchup.
That being said, with another year under new offensive line coach Jeff Davidson and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell—who has a history of successful running offenses—now running the show, there is hope that the Lions will finally have a true running game.
The Cardinals’ run defense was pretty atrocious last year, and it wasn’t just about teams piling on the running game with a big lead. They allowed a league-high 4.9 yards per carry and 25 rushing touchdowns last season. They allowed 21 rushes of over 20 yards (31st) and four of 40+ yards (t-27th).
If the preseason is any indication, things have not improved on that front. The Cardinals allowed 4.8 YPC in the preseason (t-30th) and six touchdowns (t-29th), including this one:
The Cardinals’ middle of the defense seems vulnerable here, but the return of Haason Reddick—if healthy—could help.
Player to watch: Frank Ragnow.
Assuming he’s ready to go, Ragnow’s NFL debut at center will be a telling one. Many believe this is the position he should have been playing since the beginning of his NFL career, so expectations are high for Detroit’s 2018 first-round pick. This is a solid matchup for him to start, but concerns about his preseason ankle injury loom large.
Advantage: Lions +1.
The Cardinals run defense looks pretty bad on paper, but there are a few mitigating factors here. Most notably, Reddick’s status for Week 1. If he can go, the Cardinals have a good chance at winning this matchup. If not, I don’t see it happening.
That being said, the Lions’ rushing attack is more theory than fact. Kerryon Johnson was a stud last year, but he’s only as good as his offensive line, and that may be Detroit’s most questionable unit on the team.
Cardinals pass offense (32nd) vs. Lions pass defense (31st)
The Cardinals easily had the worst passing offense in the league last year, but it seems like none of that is relevant anymore. Arizona obviously blew up last year’s game plan, swapping rookie Josh Rosen for rookie Kyler Murray. And Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense will look nothing like that of last year.
So while that red chart looks awfully appetizing for Lions fans, you can pretty much throw it in the trash.
Looking at the Cardinals’ offensive weapons, they don’t appear to be too menacing. Larry Fitzgerald is still a Hall of Fame receiver, but at 36 years old, his best years are certainly behind him. From there, Christian Kirk is hoping to build on a modest rookie season (590 yards in 12 games) and Michael Crabtree has been an average No. 2 receiver his entire career.
The big question, obviously, is how comfortable Murray will look in Week 1. Obviously, the Air Raid offense is right in his wheelhouse, but the NFL is a whole different ballgame, and we’ll see how quickly he adjusts to the speed of the pro game.
Also, the Cardinals’ offensive line was a train wreck last year. While Arizona added two new pieces in J.R. Sweezy and Marcus Gilbert, those two linemen have barely been above replacement level themselves.
The Lions pass defense was very, very bad last year. A combination of no pressure from their front seven and no depth in the secondary led to a rough year.
Detroit did take steps to improve their pass defense, however. They added two fantastic pass rushers in Trey Flowers and Mike Daniels. They scooped up the top nickel corner on the market in Justin Coleman, and they swapped No. 2 cornerback Nevin Lawson for Rashaan Melvin.
The jury is still very much out on this new Lions defense, as we didn’t really get to see all of them together, healthy, in the preseason.
Player to watch: Whoever the Lions’ No. 2 corner is. Melvin has not been practicing much this week, meaning it could be up to fifth-round rookie Amani Oruwariye to start. Other potential options are moving Coleman to the outside and having Jamal Agnew as the nickel corner, or using Mike Ford as the No. 2 guy.
While Crabtree doesn’t exactly pose a huge mismatch for any of these guys, the Lions’ depth at outside corner looks like it could be vulnerable.
Advantage: Lions +0.5
I can’t give a prediction with any sort of confidence considering just how unknown the Cardinals offense will be. It’s not so much that the Air Raid offense is a secret, it’s just unclear how successful it will be out of the gate in the NFL.
The biggest mismatch here is the Lions’ defensive line vs. the Cardinals’ offensive line, but with the Air Raid’s quick passing attack, it’s unclear if Detroit will have any time to get to Murray anyways.
Despite Detroit’s troubled history with rookie quarterbacks in Week 1, this is also a brand-new offense for Arizona, and as we saw with Green Bay on Thursday night, that doesn’t just come together right away.
Cardinals run offense (31st) vs. Lions run defense (13th)
Despite having one of the most talented running backs in the league in David Johnson, the Cardinals were awful running the ball last year—eclipsing 100 total rushing yards just three times all season.
The aforementioned additions along the offensive line may help this unit a bit, and the spread-out nature of the Air Raid offense could theoretically give Johnson some room to run, but I’m not buying it quite yet.
Obviously, the mobility of Kyler Murray throws a big unknown factor into the offense—the rookie had 1,001 rushing yards in his final season at Oklahoma. But we’ll see how effective he is at the next level.
Detroit quickly became a run defense powerhouse after the midseason addition of Damon Harrison Sr. Just look at this pre and post Snacks split (PFF run defense grades):
Everyone already knows that @snacks has made a huge difference in the #Lions run defense, but the statistics are STAGGERING:— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) December 20, 2018
Week 1-9: 142.5 rushing yards/game (29th), 5.14 YPC (31st)
Week 10-15: 79.2 rushing yards/game (2nd), 3.4 YPC (2nd)
The Lions’ run defense looks even better on paper now with the additions of second-round pick Jahlani Tavai, Flowers, and Daniels on the defensive front. Obviously, the injury to Jarrad Davis will hurt a little, but Davis’ play was inconsistent in the running game, too.
As it pertains to this matchup, it’s important to note just how stout the Lions were against mobile quarterbacks last year. Here’s a look at their notable performances:
Josh Allen vs. Lions: 9 rushes, 16 yards
Cam Newton vs. Lions: 2 rushes, 2 yards
Mitchell Trubisky vs. Lions: 3 rushes, 18 yards
Russell Wilson vs. Lions: 2 rushes, 15 yards
Aaron Rodgers vs. Lions: 3 rushes 10 yards
Player to watch: Snacks. It will probably be Snacks every week.
Advantage: Lions +1.5
If there’s any matchup I have a fair amount of confidence in, it’s this one. While I respect the hell out of David Johnson, this Lions defense is 100 percent built to stop the run. Even with the injury to Davis, this defense is extremely well-equipped to dominate the ground game, even against a mobile quarterback.
The Lions come away with a +4 advantage, but my confidence level remains pretty low. Detroit is clearly the better team on paper, but Week 1 is goofy. With a new head coach, a rookie quarterback and a brand-new offensive system in the NFL, there are just way too many unknown variables for me to pretend like I know what will happen on Sunday.
All that being said, these are the type of teams that the Lions should beat handily this year if they want to contend. The Cardinals roster isn’t good, and if any team should struggle out of the gate, it should be this one. Give me the Lions by a couple scores. Lions 27, Cardinals 13.