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Detroit Lions vs. Indianapolis Colts preview, prediction: On Paper

Our statistical breakdown shows a close game is on the horizon this week.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Indianapolis Colts Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no denying it, the Detroit Lions have looked like a completely different team out of the bye week. Sure, playing two 1-6 teams (well, now one 2-6 team) helps the reflection in the mirror look a little better, but as you’ll see in this week’s preview, many of Detroit’s improvements come from within.

They’ll have a good chance to prove those changes are long-lasting this week as they face off against the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday. By DVOA metrics, the Colts are the best team the Lions have faced—and will face until Week 16’s game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

That seems like a potentially daunting task for the Lions, but do the charts agree? Let’s take a look at Lions vs. Colts: On Paper.

Lions pass offense (17th) vs. Colts pass defense (4th)

Matthew Stafford is coming off his best game of the season, and while he deserves all the credit for his performance, the charts suggest a lot of his play had to do with the defense he was up against. And when you consider his statistics were seriously boosted by a final drive the Lions were lucky to have, there’s still a level of overall disappointment from this passing offense.

Part of that simply has to do with lack of passing attempts. Right now, Detroit has thrown the ball just 204 times, fewer than just six other NFL teams through seven weeks. But the efficiency numbers aren’t all that great, either. The Lions are 19th in passer rating (94.4), 16th in yards per attempt (7.7), and just 28th in completion percentage (62.3).

The one big difference we’ve seen out of the bye week, however, is Detroit starting to air it out more. For the season, Matthew Stafford is averaging 6.9 completed air yards—meaning the ball is traveling nearly 7 yards when averaging all of his completions. That number has been skewed upwards after last week’s 9.8 mark, the highest of all Week 7 quarterbacks.

This Colts defense has been absolutely fantastic since the season opener. Not only has no quarterback reached their season passer rating against the Colts, but none have even managed passer rating above 80. Granted, there are a lot of bad quarterbacks on this list, but the Colts are stymying these passers below their already-low averages. The whole purpose of these charts is to adjust by strength of opponent, and it’s clear the Colts defense is still good by those standards. As a reminder from our Colts scouting report, Indianapolis ranks:

Passer rating allowed: 71.7 (first)
Passing TDs allowed: 7 (first)
Interceptions: 10 (first)
Yards per passing attempt: 6.6 (fourth)
Completion percentage: 61.9 (fifth)

The one place this Colts defense looks pretty ordinary is when it comes to pass rush. They only have 13 sacks on the season (t-18th) and rank 22nd in pass rush win rate (38%). By comparison, the Lions have a pass rush win rate of 37%.

Player to watch: Danny Amendola. The Colts run a ton of zone coverages, so expect the Lions to try and attack that over the middle to test their linebackers. Amendola is a veteran player who is solid at finding the soft spots in zone. So if Stafford has the time, he may be looking for Amendola more often than not.

Advantage: Colts +1.5. While I do believe the Lions passing attack may be improving, I also believe this Colts pass defense is more than just a product of poor opponents. Their secondary is playing out of its mind, and everything really seems to be clicking. Detroit, meanwhile, just can’t seem to find anything that consistently works, other than throwing jump balls to Kenny Golladay.

Lions run offense (18th) vs. Colts run defense (5th)

Detroit’s running game continues to look about average. D’Andre Swift is emerging as a significant weapons, but the Lions insist on making him more of a complement than a feature. His opportunities are increasing, but Detroit has made it clear they do not intend on making him a workhorse back anytime soon.

As a result, the Lions rushing attack continues to hum along at an average rate: 4.1 yards per carry (19th) and earning first downs 22.6 percent of the time (26th). Believe it or not, however, the Lions have been somewhat good in short-yardage situations. They’ve converted on 73 percent of “power” opportunities, ranking eighth best in the league.

This... is concerning. While the Colts have given up at least 80 rushing yards in five of six games this year, they’ve held all six opponents below their yards per carry average, and each by at least 0.5 yards per carry.

As a team, the Colts are allowing just 3.5 yards per carry (fourth) and first downs on just 19.2 percent of carries (third). Interestingly, though, they aren’t particularly good in short-yardage situations, allowing conversions on third and fourth-and-short on 71 percent of opportunities (t-22nd).

Player to watch: DeForest Buckner. While more known for his pass rushing skills (currently fourth in PFF’s pass rush grade among DTs), Buckner is also a force in the run. He’ll be a handful for Frank Ragnow, Jonah Jackson and Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Also look out for linebacker Darius Leonard, who appears to be returning from injury. Leonard is both a Pro Bowler and an All Pro and is currently the No. 4 graded off-ball linebacker per PFF.

Advantage: Colts +2. The Colts have a clear advantage here, and it may be even more important than their advantage in the passing game. Detroit loves to set the tone and control the clock on the ground, but this will be their toughest test yet. The last tough run defense the Lions faced was the New Orleans Saints, and Detroit actually managed to do quite well in that game (22 rushes, 90 yards, 1 TD), but I’m not seeing a repeat performance this week.

Colts pass offense (20th) vs. Lions pass defense (14th)

The Colts pass defense hasn’t really clicked yet this season. It hasn’t been bad, but Philip Rivers is certainly looking like he’s in the twilight of his career. Interestingly, they’ve underperformed against some bad pass defenses in the league, but overperformed against some good ones. In other words, they seem to play to the level of their opponent.

Overall, the Colts rank 22nd in passer rating (92.3), eighth in yards per attempt (8.0), and sixth in completion percentage. Part of the reason for those high numbers is that Rivers is simply not testing defenses downfield much. His 7.6 average intended air yards is 25th in the league, and he’s been helped by the eighth highest yards after the catch average (5.2).

One thing the Colts deserve a ton of credit for is keeping Philip Rivers upright. He’s taken just six sacks all season, two fewer than any other team.

I’m still finding it hard to justify these charts based on what I’m seeing on the field, but the hard statistics show this pass defense has been average, at worst. They rank 17th in passer rating allowed (94.0), 17th in yards per attempt (7.4) and 12th in completion percentage (64.2).

Part of their reason for success is that they don’t give up too many big plays. They’ve allowed just 18 completions of 20+ yards (11th) and two of 40+ yards (t-sixth with six other teams).

Now for some of the bad stuff. Their PFF coverage grade is 22nd in the league, and they are allowing first downs on 42.0 percent of passing plays (31st).

Still, even the pass rushing metrics are starting to turn in Detroit’s favor. Their PFF pass rushing grade has jumped to 20th in the league, their pass rush win rate has doubled in the past three games. The only number that remains low is their sack total. Only three teams have fewer sacks than the Lions (eight).

Player to watch: Michael Pittman Jr. Presuming that Pittman is activated from IR this week, he could be a huge factor in Sunday’s game. Prior to his injury, Pittman’s role on this offense had been growing week-by-week. He’s still a rookie and to expect 100+ yards out of him in his game back from injury is a bit much, but considering no other Colts receivers have stepped up in his absence, expect Rivers to look his way.

Advantage: Lions +0.5. If I’m being completely honest, I’m not entirely sure what the Lions pass defense does well. Literally, I’m having a hard time come up with a single thing. That isn’t to say they haven’t improved. Their pass rush is getting there thanks to more aggressive play calls and solid play from Romeo Okwara. Their secondary is improving a bit, too, but Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye are still not played well yet.

But the stats are the stats, and they show a slight advantage to Detroit this week.

Colts run offense (21st) vs. Lions run defense (23rd)

This may be one of the more surprising charts I’ve come across. The Colts interior offensive line is nothing short of fantastic, yet their run offense looks like absolute garbage on paper. They’ve yet to run for more than 4.0 yards per carry in a single game, and in the past two weeks they’ve averaged just 63.5 rushing yards per game.

Some of that surely has to do with having no Marlon Mack and making rookie Jonathan Taylor become the workhorse back. However, there’s more going on than that. The Colts offensive line ranks 28th in adjusted line yards and 25th in short-yardage conversion rates (57%). It almost feels like something is systematically wrong right now.

That being said, Taylor has shown significant improvement as of late:

Weeks 1-3: 48 rushes, 182 yards, 3.8 YPC
Weeks 4-7: 41 rushes, 185 yards, 4.5 YPC

Speaking of significant improvement as of late, the Lions run defense has been completely revitalized out of the bye week—and we even some some improvement before that. Just two weeks ago, the Lions run defense was ranked 31st in DVOA after four games, and that number has jumped all the way to 23rd after two standout performances. And it’s worth noting these weren’t horrible run offenses they’ve gone up against in the past two weeks.

The overall numbers are certainly much more tolerable now. As a team, they’re allowing 4.5 yards per carry (19th)—but they haven’t given up a figure that high since Week 2. They’re also allowing 27.0 percent of rushes to earn first downs, which sits right around league average at 17th.

Short yardage situations remain a problem, however, as they’ve allowed conversions 79 percent of the time (31st).

Player to watch: Quenton Nelson. You didn’t think I was going to go this whole preview without mentioning him, right? He’s still one of the best guards in the game. However, keep an eye on the availability of center Ryan Kelly. He’s been nearly as good as Nelson, but he did not practice on Thursday with a knee injury. If he can’t go, the Colts may be forced to play fifth-round rookie Danny Pinter at center.

Advantage: Lions +1.5. While the Lions still have a lot to prove this run defense turnaround is permanent, things are certainly trending in an overwhelmingly positive direction. Meanwhile, the Colts are also improving, but still very bad. It’s a good matchup for the Lions, but given how good that interior offensive line is for Indianapolis, I’m still a bit hesitant to give Detroit a huge advantage.

Last week’s prediction:

I don’t feel too bad about dropping last week’s game, both because the Lion won and they probably didn’t deserve to. My 27-24 Falcons predictions was not too far off the 23-22 Lions score, but I will say I whiffed on the Lions’ run defense. I have made the appropriate adjustments this week.

In the comment section, Hungry Lion—who also made the very first prediction last week—nailed it with a 24-21 Lions prediction. As a gift this week, I have started production on a new line of frozen foods in your honor. And here’s the best part: We’ve already got a Lions spokesman signed up to endorse. Take a look:

This week’s prediction:

The Colts come out with a +1.5 advantage. This is another week in which I’m just not feeling very confident about either team. Is the Colts run game really as bad as it looks? Is the Lions pass defense this... okay, too?

The biggest story of this game is deciding whether this Colts defense is for real. The Lions offense has been far from electric this season, but they have all the necessary parts, and they’re coming off as close to a good performance as they’ve had all year. If the Lions decide to air it out and Let Stafford Cook, I think there’s a chance they could pull an upset this week. But we know this coaching staff would rather establish the run, and I just don’t think that happens this week. Colts 23, Lions 17.