There’s little hope for either the Detroit Lions or the Jacksonville Jaguars to turn around their respective seasons, but that hope will be absolutely gone for the team that loses on Sunday afternoon.
As it stands, the Lions are 3.5 point favorites in this game, likely because of the losses the Jaguars have incurred thus far. While the Lions have lost to somewhat respectful teams in the Packers, Bears and Saints, the Jaguars have dropped games to the Bengals, Dolphins and Texans over the past three weeks.
Will the Lions be the latest bottom-rung team to cash in a win over the Jaguars? Let’s take a closer look at the matchup... On Paper.
Lions pass offense (21st in DVOA) vs. Jaguars pass defense (32nd)
The Lions pass offense hasn’t been its reliable self through four games. At times, they’ve flashed some of the high-octane power they had last season, but there’s been far too much inconsistent play and no real reason for it.
Matthew Stafford has been off, and whether it’s his footwork, natural rust after missing the last eight games of 2019 or something else, the numbers are just drastically different from last season.
2019 Stafford: 64.3% completions, 8.6 Y/A, 19 TDs, 5 INTs, 74.7 QBR (not passer rating)
2020 Stafford: 60.6% completion, 7.4 Y/A, 8 TDs, 3 INTs, 59.0 QBR
The Lions aren’t testing teams downfield as much as they were last year with Stafford, as his average air yards has decreased from 10.7 last year to 9.2 this year. However, that is trending back up after Stafford averaged 11.0 air yards against the Saints in Week 4.
This week, the Lions have a fresh start coming out of the bye week. They’re mostly healthy—more on that later—and they’ve had a couple weeks to gameplan for the Jaguars. If the offense is going to explode again, this is probably the week.
And here’s the other reason why. The Jaguars have not faced any great quarterbacks this season, yet they’ve allowed just about every single one of them to post numbers better than their season average.
The raw numbers are even worse for Jacksonville: 31st in passer rating allowed (111.8), 32nd in completion percentage allowed (75.8), 32nd in yards per attempt allowed (8.8). If the Jaguars were to finish the season with those stats, it would be the worst statistical pass defense in the NFL since the 2015 New Orleans Saints.
They may get some relief this week with rookie cornerback CJ Henderson likely returning this week and newly-added Sidney Jones playing somewhat well. They could also potentially have some much-needed help with their anemic pass rush (five sacks) with Myles Jack and Josh Allen possibly playing. Still, there’s a lot of issues here, and I’m not sure the return of even three or four starters—who have already played on this poor pass defense—can right the ship.
Player to watch: Kenny Golladay. Whether it’s Chris Claybrooks, CJ Henderson, Tre Herndon or Sidney Jones, the Jaguars are just not capable of defending Golladay. With the hamstring issue now fully behind him, Kenny should go off on Sunday.
Advantage: Lions +2. This would be a bigger advantage if the Lions offense started out hot, but what would’ve been a +4 advantage is mitigated by Detroit’s iffy play thus far and some of the Jaguars defenders returning this week. Still, the extra week of planning should give Detroit a pretty significant advantage considering their already big talent advantage here.
Lions run offense (18th) vs. Jaguars run defense (20th)
The Lions running game has been... fine. Not very explosive, but not ineffective either. They’ve rushed for over 4.0 yards per carry in three of four games, but haven’t eclipsed 100 rushing yards as a team since the season opener.
Adrian Peterson has led the way with over half (54) of the team’s total rushing attempts (99). He’s turned those into a solid 4.5 yards per carry, while Kerryon Johnson (3.4) and D’Andre Swift (3.5) haven’t been quite as efficient.
There are some huge mitigating factors in this matchup this week, however. Peterson is dealing with an unknown illness that could threaten his availability this week. But the bigger story is that starting center Frank Ragnow injured his groin this week of practice and is looking more and more doubtful to play. At this point, it’s unclear who will step in his place if he can’t play, but Ragnow is arguably the team’s best offensive lineman. His absence could throw off a lot of things on offense.
Things started off promising for the Jaguars run defense this season, but the last three weeks have been just terrible. They’ve allowed over 120 yards in four straight weeks, and in the past two games, they’ve allowed an average of 167 yards per game and 5.9 yards per carry—against two of the worst rushing attacks in the league.
The Jaguars aren’t very impressive up the middle, with 2018 first-round rookie Taven Bryan seriously struggling this season. In fact, their issues up the middle have gotten so bad that they signed former Lions DT Caraun Reid up from the practice squad this week.
Overall, the Jaguars are ceding 4.6 yards per carry (21st) and allowing 27.7 percent of rushes to earn first downs (20th).
Player to watch: Beau Benzschawel/Kenny Wiggins/Joe Dahl/Jonah Jackson or whoever is playing center. I literally have no idea who the Lions are going to put at center if Ragnow can’t go Sunday, but the drop down in talent is so severe that it has a chance of messing this whole thing up.
Advantage: Lions +1. Again, I feel like this matchup could’ve swung heavier in Detroit’s direction, but with the statuses of Peterson and Ragnow in doubt, there’s too much variance to give a confident prediction here. Either way, I didn’t expect a 150-yard performance from Detroit here, but the difference between Ragnow and whoever steps in could mean the difference between a 100-yard, 4.4 YPC game and a 60-yard, 3.5 YPC game.
Jaguars pass offense (15th) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)
The Gardner Minshew era is off and running, and so far it looks... alright. His overall numbers—69.9 completion percentage, 7.3 yards per attempt, 10 TDs, 4 INTs and a 99.4 passer rating—are perfectly fine. The three fumbles aren’t ideal, but that’s not a killer, either.
The Jaguars aren’t a team that will beat you deep, though. Minshew’s average air yards is just 7.5 (22nd among qualifying quarterbacks). And while he can create some time with his feet, that has also likely caused a fair amount of unnecessary sacks, too (16 in five games already).
Key in this matchup will be the availability of Minshew’s receivers. As of Friday morning, No. 1 option DJ Chark had not practiced this week and is looking unlikely to play. Second-round rookie Laviska Shenault Jr. returned to practice on Thursday but was only limited.
Keenan Cole and Chris Conley have seen a fair amount of playing time and are certainly capable players, but if Jacksonville is without their top two receivers, it could impact the effectiveness of both.
Statistically, the Lions pass defense hasn’t been nearly as bad as it has looked with the naked eye. They still haven’t given up 300 passing yards in a game—though much of that is likely due to what we’ll see in the next matchup. Still, they’ve held two quarterbacks below their season averages, which suggests... maybe they’re average?
But I’m not buying it. As noted by PFF, this pass defense has the sixth-lowest pressure rate and has the fifth-lowest coverage grade in the NFL. They’ll likely be without their top cornerback in Desmond Trufant, but he’s been downright bad this year, and I’m not sure the starting lineup of Amani Oruwariye and rookie Jeff Okudah is any worse.
Here are the overall numbers for the Lions pass defense: 20th in passer rating allowed (98.6), 25th in yards per attempt (7.9) and eighth in completion percentage allowed (63.5).
Though it’s strange the raw numbers aren’t too bad, when it comes down to it, this Lions pass defense doesn’t do anything in particular well—except prevent big plays, and the Jaguars aren’t really capable of that anyways.
Player to watch: Shenault. The rookie receiver is trending towards playing, and if he does, he’ll be a big threat to Detroit. The Jaguars use him in a ton of different ways—whether it be in the backfield, slot, outside or even as a wildcat quarterback. Detroit has been killed by multifaceted weapons like that in the past, so if Shenault is on the field, the Lions better be focused on stopping him.
Advantage: Jaguars +0.5. The Jaguars passing offense is pretty mild overall, and with the potential of Chark and Shenault missing the game, that could be huge for Detroit. Of course, the Saints without Michael Thomas didn’t seem to slow down much, but Gardner Minshew is no Drew Brees.
Still, I have little confidence in this Lions pass defense and feel most of their positive statistical outlook comes from that one Cardinals game in which Kyler Murray simply made a bunch of mistakes.
Jaguars run offense (10th) vs. Lions run defense (31st)
The Jaguars offense is headlined by their rushing attack. Undrafted rookie James Robinson is off to a phenomenal start for his NFL career with 333 rushing yards at 4.6 yards per attempt plus three touchdowns in his first five games.
Jacksonville’s run game really starts up front, though. As I mentioned in this week’s scouting report, all three interior linemen rank in the top 13 of their position, with PFF grades of 71.8 and higher.
Overall, Jacksonville is rushing for 4.6 yards per carry as a team (ninth), earning first downs on 25.2 percent of rushes (15th) and are converting on 86 percent of power rushing situations (fourth).
The Lions run defense is just bad. Aside from the Cardinals game, Detroit hasn’t held a single opponent significantly below their season average—and in the cases of the Bears and Packers, it wasn’t even close.
According to PFF, the Lions are dead last in the NFL in expected point added per rushing play, and that’s not the only stat Detroit is last in. They are currently allowing the most rushing yards per game (170.3), the third highest yards per attempt (5.2) and the highest percentage of rushes earning first downs (46.8). They’re also 30th in power situations (allowing success on 89 percent of situations), stuffing runs at the second-lowest rate (9 percent) and allowing the second most yards at the second level (source: Football Outsiders).
Player to watch: Danny Shelton vs. Brandon Linder. Linder, the Jaguars center, is the highest ranked player on Jacksonville’s offense in 2020, and he’s quietly been one of the best centers in the league for the past few years. Shelton, as I mentioned last week, has also been quietly really good over the past couple weeks. I’m not sure Shelton can single-handedly save this unit, but this will be a fun matchup to watch all game.
Advantage: Jaguars +3. This is an absolute killer of a matchup vs. Detroit. Neither of these teams do anything particularly well, but if there’s one unit that is actually good among these two teams, it’s Jacksonville’s running game. Unfortunately, that happens to match up with the worst unit in this game: the Lions’ run defense.
Expect Jacksonville to push the run game hard this week, control the clock, and keep Matthew Stafford off the field. If there’s any hope for Detroit in this matchup, I haven’t seen it yet.
Last week’s prediction:
On Paper finally got on track last week with a near-perfect prediction. My 34-27 score was just a couple points off the 35-29 reality of Lions vs. Saints. On Paper is now 2-2 on the season, as we continue to get more data that will likely make this preview more and more accurate as we go on.... at least theoretically.
In the comment section, Mr. Zebra pulled off a prediction just slightly better than mine. A score of 35-31 was just two points off the actual score, making Mr. Zebra our On Paper Champion of the World.
Here is your prize:
Normally, we’d see lions—the king of the jungle—feast upon the mild-mannered zebra. But this year, lions clearly cannot defend themselves. So you, Mr. Zebra, may feast upon these once-fearless animals this week. Also, I had to do this since Ed Hochuli’s son, Shawn Hochuli, will be officiating this week’s game. Son of Muscles needs to feed on mammal flesh.
This week’s prediction:
Unfortunately, the Jaguars come out with a +0.5 advantage. I honestly came into this preview expecting to pick the Lions this week, but the numbers just aren’t working out that way. Obviously, I can see a route that Detroit comes out on top, and it start with their passing offense. This is the week they absolutely have to get it going, and it starts by being a little more aggressive against this poor Jaguars secondary.
But we all know this team would rather pound the rock and control the tempo of the game. If they try that, there’s a really good chance Jacksonville beats them at their own game and walks away with their second win of the season. Jaguars 24, Lions 21.