All week, we’ve joked about the Detroit Lions and the Atlanta Falcons being similar teams. Whether it be their disrespected franchise quarterback, the teams’ tendency to blow big leads, or the horrible defenses masking what could be a pretty solid offense, it is striking how these teams mirror each other at every level.
But what will that mean when they face off against each other on Sunday. Will the first team that jumps out to a double-digit lead seal their fate as the loser? Are we in for a big Matt Ryan vs. Matthew Stafford shootout? Or will one of these teams make a statement that these two teams aren’t nearly as close as they appears.
Let’s break down Sunday’s matchup: On Paper.
For whatever reason, the Lions’ pass offense remains stuck in neutral. It hasn’t been bad, but it certainly hasn’t risen up to the high expectations from the offseason.
Matthew Stafford has been one reason why. Though he looked better against the Jaguars, he has previously looked uncomfortable in the pocket and his decision making led to some brutal mistakes early in the season. His PFF grade is just 65.8, good for 26th—right between Nick Foles and Gardner Minshew. Yikes.
Overall, the passing offense rankings are not very promising: 21st in passer rating (91.4), 28th in completion percentage (60.7) and 18th in yards per attempt (7.4).
There is a feeling the Lions will eventually get this thing turned around, but we have yet to see a single performance from Stafford and the pass offense that matches the offseason hype.
But if there’s a week for it to happen, this is it.
The Falcons pass defense is right there with the worst in the league. Yes, they’ve played some of the best quarterbacks in the league in Russell Wilson, Dak Prescott and Aaron Rodgers, but all three of those quarterbacks managed to perform way better than their season averages. In fact, every single quarterback that has played Atlanta outperformed their season averages in both yardage and passer rating.
The raw statistics are just as bad for the Falcons: 32nd in passer rating allowed (114.1), 32nd in yards per attempt (8.6), 30th in completion percentage (71.7).
One interesting aspect of this pass defense is their pass rush. As a team, the Falcons rank fifth in pass rush win rate (51%), but they only have a total of eight sacks in six games, fewer than all but two teams that have played six games. One of their better pass rushers—Takkarist McKinley—appears unlikely to play this week after missing the first two days of practice.
Player to watch: A.J. Terrell vs. Kenny Golladay. Terrell has been the Falcons’ best cornerback, which may say more about the rest of their secondary. Still, the rookie has been among the best of his cornerback class. Meanwhile, Golladay returned from the bye week looking as healthy and deadly as ever.
Advantage: Lions +1.5. In a typical year, this would be a huge advantage for the Lions, but they just haven’t been themselves as of late. However, with a healthy team and a horrible Falcons secondary, this should be exactly what Detroit needs to get things going through the air.
Lions run offense (13th) vs. Falcons run defense (8th)
Part of the reason for the low passing numbers for Detroit is their commitment to the running game. And for the first time in a while, it may actually be worth it this year. They haven’t been explosive on the ground, but they’ve been quite efficient, running for at least 4.1 YPC in four of five games.
To give you a sense of just how rare this is for Detroit, the last time the Lions finished 13th or better in run offense DVOA was 2012.
The big story last week was D’Andre Swift’s breakout game. Against the Jaguars, for the first time in his career, he carried the ball more than 10 times—and he immediately broke the 100-yard barrier that had been so elusive for Lions backs. His 116-yard, two-touchdown performance was one of the best ever for a Lions rookie.
As a team, the Lions are a middle-of-the-road running them. They rank 15th in rushing yards per game (117.4), 17th in yards per carry (4.3) and 19th in percentage of rushing plays that earn first downs (23.9).
This run defense is confusing. Though they’ve never given up more than 130 rushing yards in a game, they allowed 5.2 yards per carry against the Bears and 4.6 against the Panthers—both well above the team’s average.
Still, last week’s phenomenal performance against the Vikings is hard to overlook, and they were respectable in the other three games. Are the low numbers a reflection of good run defense or simply team opting to air it out against Atlanta instead?
It’s hard to answer that question with such a small sample size, but there are signs this defense is actually quite good at stopping the run. They’re ceding just 4.1 yards per carry (10th), only 24.6 percent of rushes are earning first downs against them (t-12th), and they rank fifth in short-yardage situations, stopping 40 percent of power situations (third or fourth and 2 or fewer yards).
Player to watch: Grady Jarrett vs. Frank Ragnow. One big reason for the Falcons’ success in the trenches is Jarrett. He is currently PFF’s 12th best interior defender, as he excels at both run defending and the pass rush:
Ragnow has been just as impressive, ranking as PFF’s second best center in the league, and he’s been especially good at run blocking (83.8 grade). Ragnow is dealing with a lingering groin injury that could give Jarrett the edge on Sunday.
Advantage: Draw. The Lions run offense may be hitting their stride, but it still feels too early to tell. As for the Falcons defense, it could be decently good, but it’s far too inconsistent for me to feel confident in any sort of prediction here.
Falcons pass offense (16th) vs. Lions pass defense (12th)
Matt Ryan has had three superb performances and three poor performances. While that does reflect the strength of the defense he’s opposed, there is also one other big factor: the health of Julio Jones. Jones played in all three of those games that are highlighted green in the passer rating column, and just a half of game in the three red cells.
Let me quote esteemed sports journalist Jeremy Reisman to further this point:
With Julio Jones (3.5 games): 69.9% completion percentage, 8.2 Y/A, 10 TDs, 1 INT, 114.3 passer rating
Without Julio Jones (2.5 games): 58.2% completion percentage, 6.6 Y/A, 1 TD, 2 INTs, 73.1 passer rating
Julio Jones is expected to play this week.
But he isn’t the only receiving threat this team has. Calvin Ridley is currently fourth in the NFL in receiving yards and eighth in overall PFF grade. Don’t sleep on slot receiver Russell Gage or tight end Hayden Hurst, either.
In other words, the Falcons have a deep bench of weapons and love to throw the ball a ton (fourth in passing attempts)—sound familiar?
I can’t figure this one out. By looking at this chart—and the DVOA ranking—you’d think this was an above average pass defense. But if you’ve sat and watched every Lions game this season, you’d know it doesn’t pass the eye test.
How can the Lions rank 16th in passer rating allowed (91.3), 15th in yards per attempt (7.3), sixth in completion percentage (61.8) and 12th in DVOA, but have a team coverage PFF grade of 54.8 (19th) and 31st in pass rush win rate (32%)?
This is me legitimately asking because I can’t figure out a reason why. This team does not cover particularly well, and it does not rush the passer well, yet nearly every statistical output puts them around average in the league.
Player to watch: Julio Jones vs. whoever. The big receivers that have played against the Lions have mostly had themselves a day. Allen Robinson caught five catches for 74 yards. DeAndre Hopkins had 10 for 137. Detroit avoided Michael Thomas and Davante Adams left in the second half with an injury. But with Detroit’s young secondary, Jones could put together another big game after tallying a huge statline last week—eight catches, 137 yards, 2 TDs.
Advantage: Falcons +2. I have to honor the Lions’ solid statistical output, even if my eyes don’t believe it. But even taking that into consideration, this looks like a lopsided matchup. The Falcons’ passing attack is downright deadly when at full health, and it appears they will be at full health this Sunday.
And while Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye may finally be settling in, they are still a far ways from “good.” It’s a huge mismatch in the secondary, and Detroit’s only hope would be to pressure the quarterback. Last week’s performance against the Jaguars provides some hope there (21 total pressures), but until I see consistency from Detroit’s front seven, I’m going to view that as an outlier.
Falcons run offense (26th) vs. Lions run defense (30th)
Looking at the Falcons’ raw statistics, you’d never guess that this is one of the worst rushing attacks in the league. Todd Gurley is rushing for 4.3 yards per carry, and his backup, Brian Hill, is rushing for 4.6 yards per carry. But as a team, that number is just 4.0 YPC, and they are only earning first downs on 22.9 percent of rushes (23rd).
Part of the issue is their short-yardage success... or lack thereof. They rank 31st in power situations, converting just 44 percent of the time.
Again, I’m not sure what to do with this information. The Lions have had two great games defending the run against the Cardinals and Jaguars. But the other three games have been downright embarrassing. Obviously, it’s good things are trending in the right direction, but I can’t confidently say all of the team’s run defense issues are in the past.
Overall, Detroit ranks 26th in yards per attempt allowed (4.9) and they are giving up first downs on 28.4 percent of rushing opportunities (23rd). In short yardage situations, they’ve been absolutely awful—allowing a 90 percent conversion rate on power downs (32nd).
Player to watch: Alex Mack vs. John Penisini/Danny Shelton. Mack is six-time Pro Bowler, and while his best football is likely behind him, he’s still playing at a consistently good level. Meanwhile, the Lions have been getting surprisingly good play out of Penisini, a sixth-round rookie, and Shelton, who both split time at the nose.
Advantage: Falcons +0.5. I’m not ready to believe in the Lions’ run defense yet, but they have a good opportunity here to string together a couple of good performances. Tackling has been somewhat of an issue for the Lions, so Todd Gurley is not exactly the ideal running back to face this week, so I’m giving the slight edge to Atlanta here.
Last week’s prediction:
Last week, I was all sorts of wrong. Most of my issues simply stemmed from undervaluing the Lions’ run defense—which no one would’ve faulted me for at the time. There were no positive signs from that unit, and their performance on Sunday against the Jaguars was downright shocking. Considering that’s where the majority of Jacksonville’s advantage came from in my preview, I don’t feel too bad about the rest of my predictions.
However, in the comment section, we had our first ever three-way tie for On Paper Champion of the Week. Check it out:
Actual score: 34-16 Lions
rd270 prediction: 35-14 Lions
makrop prediction: 33-18 Lions
I_Say_Im_Winnin_I’D_Be_Lion prediction: 36-17 Lions
All just three points off the final score. To honor this momentous occasion, you all three get the most valuable prize in the history of On Paper. Please enjoy this Guard Rotation Veto card that you may present to Matt Patricia at any time you see Jonah Jackson coming out of the game:
This week’s prediction:
The Falcons come out with a +1 advantage, and I think that properly reflects my lack of confidence in an outcome Sunday. Is the Lions run defense actually improved? I have no idea. Can the Lions passing game finally get it going against one of the worst pass defenses in the league? I don’t know. Is there any truth in Detroit’s somewhat good pass defense statistics? I really don’t thinks so, but maybe?
The optimist inside me wants to believe that Detroit got rid of some of their ugly football in September and some of that was simply caused by a shortened offseason. The pessimist inside me looks at that Jaguars team and doesn’t want to give Detroit even a little credit there.
But in either scenario, I still view Matt Ryan vs. this Lions defense as the biggest tipping point in this matchup, so I have to give them the slight edge this Sunday. Lions 24, Falcons 27.