The Detroit Lions have a golden opportunity to put their slow, disappointing start behind them and reach a respectable 2-2 record before their early bye week. Imagine being able to say this team was a dropped pass away from a 3-1 start during one of their most difficult stretches of the schedule?
Okay, back to reality. In order for the Lions to do that, they’re going to need to pull out an upset even bigger than last week’s road victory over the Arizona Cardinals. The New Orleans Saints may be 1-2, but they have an extremely talented roster. They’ve lost to two respectable teams, and while they deserved both losses, they aren’t exactly playing bad football right now.
The Saints are pretty heavy favorites at -5.5, but can the Lions pull off another surprise this week? Let’s take a closer look, On Paper.
Note: DVOA rankings are not defense adjusted yet. That takes place in Week 5.
Lions pass offense (21st) vs. Saints pass defense (21st)
The return of Kenny Golladay appears to have been the shot in the arm the Lions pass offense needed. Of course, it didn’t hurt going against a suspect Cardinals defense, but overall, the Lions have actually done a fine job statistically passing the ball this year. Sure, Matthew Stafford hasn’t quite recaptured his 2019 form yet, but the Lions are able to move the ball through the air with a fair amount of consistency, and last week really showed the abundance of weapons Stafford has at his disposal. Nine different receivers caught a pass last week, and three had over 50 yards (Kenny Golladay, T.J. Hockenson, Marvin Jones Jr.).
Still, the overall numbers are a bit underwhelming. Detroit ranks 18th in passer rating (93.7), 14th in yards per attempt (7.7) and 24th in completion percentage. The Lions have yet to recapture that long-ball magic, as Stafford’s Average Intended Air Yards has dropped from 10.7 last year to 8.6 so far through three games.
Another complication is the offensive line. With Halapoulivaati Vaitai returning to the lineup but guard Joe Dahl on injured reserve, the Lions opted to shake things up last week. Vaitai played the somewhat unfamiliar role at right guard, rookie Jonah Jackson moved from right to left guard, and backup tackle Tyrell Crosby stayed at right tackle. As a result, the Lions allowed four sacks against the Cardinals, after allowing just five through the first two games.
The Saints defense has been average-to-below-average thus far in the season. Though they were able to nicely hold Tom Brady to a bad day, they provided little resistance the following weeks against Derek Carr and Aaron Rodgers. Giving up over a 120 passer rating in back-to-back games isn’t good no matter how you slice it, even if both opposing quarterbacks are averaging right around that amount. Both of those quarterbacks threw for three touchdowns, no interceptions and over 8.0 yards per attempt.
And the Saints could be hurting even more in the secondary this week. Marshon Lattimore missed Thursday practice after aggravating his hamstring, Janoris Jenkins has a shoulder injury, and pass rusher Marcus Davenport still hasn’t made his 2020 debut.
Overall, the Saints rank 25th in passer rating allowed (107.7), 19th in yards per attempt (7.6) and 22nd in completion percentage allowed (67.9).
Player to watch: T.J. Hockenson. You’ve probably heard it all week, but the Saints have struggled to stop tight ends all year:
Saints defense vs. tight ends— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) September 30, 2020
Week 1: 6 catches, 47 yards, 1 TD
Week 2: 13 catches, 136 yards, 1 TD
Week 3: 9 catches, 104 yards, 2 TDs
Meanwhile, Hockenson has at least four catches and 50 yards in each game this year.
Advantage: Lions +1. There isn’t a ton of data to go on here, but the teams appear to be heading in opposite directions. The Lions are getting healthier on offense, the Saints are dealing with multiple injuries on defense. The Lions offense got on the right track last week, while the Saints are looking for answers after getting gashed the past two weeks.
If I were going based completely on feeling, I would probably give Detroit a bigger advantage here, but since this is supposed to be based on data, I’ll give them just a modest +1.
Lions run offense (17th) vs. Saints run defense (6th)
While the Lions run game hasn’t been as horrible as it’s been in years past, it’s not quite as electric as many were hoping. Detroit has plugged a massive amount of resources into the running game, and they’ve managed to output a pretty average attack.
Surprisingly, it’s been Adrian Peterson who has led the attack for Detroit. The veteran running back has more carries (43) than Kerryon Johnson (18) and D’Andre Swift (8) combined. And he’s made the most of them, too, rushing for 209 yards and 4.9 yards per carry. He also already has three rushes of 20+ yards. Last year, no Lions running back had more than two for the entire season.
Overall, though, the Lions are averaging 4.1 yards per carry (t-18th) and are picking up first downs on 23.4 percent of rushes (20th). Again, this is a pretty average unit right now.
Normally, I would preach caution with such a small sample size, but I feel fairly comfortable declaring this Saints run defense as a legitimate unit. Why? Because last year, they were just as good—ranking fifth in run defense DVOA.
Additionally, they’ve held two teams that appear to have really good running games this year—the Raiders and Packers—below 4.0 yards per carry. They also rank sixth in power run situations, allowing a conversion on just 50 percent of third/fourth downs of two or fewer yards.
Player to watch: Malcolm Brown vs. Halapoulivaati Vaitai. It’s unclear if Vaitai will stay at guard this week, but it seems likely. Though he’ll have a full week of practice this time around, he has a tough assignment against defensive tackle Malcolm Brown, who is the highest-graded Saints defender through three games. If David Onyemata plays this week, he’s an underrated force, as well.
Advantage: Saints +2. This could be a critical matchup this week. We know the Lions like to play ball-control football, and that means running the ball a lot. Unfortunately, this doesn’t look like the week to do it. Detroit will undoubtedly try, and if they can’t figure out a way to crack this defense, it could be their undoing.
Saints pass offense (9th) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)
We’re all aware of the injury to Michael Thomas, but it hasn’t slowed the Saints offense too much. Sure, Drew Brees isn’t launching the ball downfield as much, but that’s never really been his gameplan. Take a look at his average intended yards over the past three seasons:
2018: 7.1 (32nd)
2019: 6.7 (36th)
2020: 4.8 (last)
Instead, Brees has been utilizing running back Alvin Kamara and tight end Jared Cook, who have combined for exactly half of the team’s receiving yards through three games. Thomas may be back this week, but even without him, this Saints passing offense remains potent.
The Saints are eighth in passer rating (107.6), t-15th in yards per attempt (7.6) and eighth in completion percentage (70.5). Due to his ability to get the ball out quick, Brees has only been sacked three times, and he’s thrown just one interception. In other words, he’s still incredibly good at avoiding negative plays.
This, perhaps, is the most surprising chart you’ll see today. The Lions pass defense has seemed awful through three weeks, but they are actually performing at, or better than, averages thus far. Obviously, these numbers may shift dramatically as the season goes on, but their performance against the Packers now looks a little more reasonable after Aaron Rodgers has embarrassed three defenses in a row.
Still, this secondary has a lot of work to do to get better. Jeff Okudah ranks 149th out of 150 qualifying cornerbacks in PFF grade. Tony McRae—who may have to fill in at nickel this week—is 147th. Desmond Trufant is 127th. At safety, it’s just as bad. Will Harris is 122nd out of 132. Tracy Walker is 108th.
In terms of basic statistics, the Lions are pretty average:
- 13th in passer rating allowed (94.2)
- t-15th in yards per attempt (7.4)
- Third in completion percentage (60.4)
The pass rush remains impotent, but it probably doesn’t matter much in a game where Brees is getting the ball out faster than almost everyone (2.59 seconds, fourth-quickest).
Player to watch: Michael Thomas. Right now the Lions secondary is just going through too much. If Thomas plays, he’ll be more than the Lions can handle, as evidenced by the day DeAndre Hopkins had last week (10 catches, 137 yards). But don’t be surprised if Thomas plays decoy and opens up the game for a guy like Emmanuel Sanders, especially if tight end Jared Cook is out.
Advantage: Saints +2. I don’t know what to make of last week, but I’m not ready to believe the Lions are trending in the right direction when it comes to their pass defense. They are, however, getting healthier while the Saints are taking their injury lumps. Of course, Detroit will also have to have an answer for Alvin Kamara in a way they didn’t have for Aaron Jones in Week 2 (4 catches, 68 yards, 1 TD). The Saints will get theirs.
Saints run offense (16th) vs. Lions run defense (29th)
Speaking of Kamara, he’s been the entirety of the Saints offense through three weeks. Though he’s splitting carries with Latavius Murray almost evenly (31 carries to 30), he’s been the much more efficient back (4.9 YPC to 4.0).
New Orleans’ bread and butter certainly isn’t in the ground game, but it’s a nice complement to their aerial assault. They rank 15th in yards per carry (4.3) and earn first downs on 24.7 percent of rushes (18th).
One thing to keep in mind is that guard Andrus Peat almost certainly won’t play this week, shaking up the Saints’ interior offensive line in this game.
After displaying the worst run defense in the league through two weeks, the Lions dramatically shifted their strategy—especially with their linebackers—and the results speak for themselves. While the Lions weren’t a shut-down defense against Kyler Murray and the Cardinals, they were very effective in limiting one of that offense’s strengths.
The question, simply, is where do they go from here? Do they fall back on the likes of Jarrad Davis and Jahlani Tavai in the middle or do they keep Davis mostly off the field and plug in Jamie Collins Sr. as the mike? Coaches seemed to indicate the drastic shift was to keep Murray in the pocket, but with Brees in town, the strategy could very well change.
So I have no idea what’s going to happen here. At this point, I still have a lot of questions about this front seven, but I’m not willing to count them out entirely.
Player to watch: Da’Shawn Hand. Hand has been sneaky good the last couple of game, and with a beat-up Saints interior, don’t be surprised to see him make an impact in the run game. He’s improved that part of his game this season.
Advantage: Saints +1. I still have to give New Orleans the advantage—especially with a weapon like Kamara in the backfield. But after Detroit successfully limited Murray in the running game, perhaps they can focus their efforts in taking away the Saints’ biggest offensive threat.
Last week’s prediction:
On Paper dropped to 1-2 on the season last week after predicting a fairly convincing Cardinals win. Where I miscalculated the most was Detroit’s run defense and their defensive playmaking ability—both of which were invisible through the first two weeks. Can’t beat myself up over that.
In the comment section, there were only a few brave ones who took the Lions straight up over the Cardinals. Commenter rames was the closest to the final score with their 27-24 prediction.
To honor rames, we’re going to commemorate his optimism. He knew that Matt Patricia has a weird tendency to give Lions fans an unearned sense of positivity in Week 3. Just go back to 2018. One blowout vs. the Jets. A close loss to the 49ers. No one gives the Lions a chance in Week 3 vs. the Patriots: BOOM. Win. Last year, the Lions disappointed with a Week 1 tie, came back and strung two wins together to build optimism.
Patricia has a hold of this franchise’s fans in Week 3, where he is now 3-0 after his first three seasons. And now we know why:
This week’s prediction:
Sadly the Saints come out with a +4 advantage, winning three of the four matchups. I would have a lot more confidence in the Lions this week if it weren’t for New Orleans’ run defense. Stafford and Brees will get all the attention this week, but the Saints’ ability to stop the run prevents Detroit from doing the one thing they want to do: hold the ball for a long period of time and keep it away from Brees.
They won’t be able to do that, and I’m not sure Matt Patricia will be willing to get aggressive on both sides of the ball. Actually, I am sure. He won’t. And that will eventually cost Detroit the game. Saints 34, Lions 27.