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NFL Week 11 preview, predictions: Lions vs. Panthers, On Paper

Our statistical breakdown of the Lions’ big matchup against the Panthers.

NFL: NOV 18 Panthers at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We’ve reached the point in the season in which our On Paper previews should start being a lot more accurate. Teams have revealed their identities, strengths and weaknesses. We know what kind of teams the Detroit Lions struggle against, and we know what kind of teams they can exploit.

Unfortunately, there’s still one big flaw in On Paper that is impossible to fix. One thing that could throw all the charts out of the window, and make Sunday’s far too unpredictable to give an accurate read on.

That big hurdle is injuries, and, unfortunately, Detroit Lions vs. Carolina Panthers is full of significant injuries. There’s a real chance both teams are missing their top quarterback, their starting running back, and Detroit could be missing their top wide receiver, too.

With all of these statuses up in the air, I’d stay far away from this one if you’re the betting kind, but let’s still try to break this one down by our statistical measures. It’s Week 11’s On Paper.

Lions pass offense (16th in DVOA) vs. Panthers pass defense (24th)

With the help of a new offensive identity, Matthew Stafford put up his best performance of the year last week against one of the best pass defenses in the league. Stafford was especially efficient targeting his running backs, but he was also able to hit on the type of downfield shots that he was so good at last year.

But unfortunately, three injuries in this matchup could swing Detroit’s fortune in the other direction. Stafford is dealing with a partial ligament tear in his thumb, and while it would surprise me if Stafford doesn’t play, it would not surprise me to see him significantly impacted by the injury.

And that change in offensive identity? Yeah, that was all D’Andre Swift, and he suddenly is dealing with a concussion and is highly unlikely to pass protocol by Sunday. Throw in a 50/50 shot with Kenny Golladay, and there’s a good chance this pass offense could be missing most of their top weapons.

For the season, the Lions rank 17th in passer rating (95.4), ninth in yards per attempt (7.7) and 27th in completion percentage (63.6). Prior to the injuries, I think would’ve been fair to call this an average passing defense with the trend arrow pointing up. With the injuries, who knows?

Despite the low DVOA ranking, this appears to be a pretty average pass defense, though it’s clearly trending in the wrong direction. One thing to note about the chart above is how good some of the quarterbacks the Panthers have gone up against. Patrick Mahomes, Tom Brady (twice), Matt Ryan (twice), Drew Brees, and even Derek Carr is having a fantastic year.

Still, there is reason to believe this defense is susceptible. They’re starting two rookies in the secondary—corner Troy Pride Jr. and safety Jeremy Chinn—and they’ve given up the 10th highest passer rating all season (97.8).

But don’t sleep on this pass rush. Sure, they only have 11 sacks in 10 games (fewest among all teams that have played 10 games), but their pressure rate is actually quite high. They rank eighth in ESPN’s pass rush win rate and seventh in PFF’s overall pass rush grade.

Player to watch: T.J. Hockenson. With no Swift and maybe no Golladay, Hockenson would be Detroit’s best mismatch. The Panthers defense gave up 51 yards and a touchdown to Rob Gronkowski last week, and 10 catches and 159 yards to Travis Kelce the week before.

Advantage: Draw. There are just far too many unknowns to give me any sort of confidence in this matchup. On a regular week, it feels like the Lions would have a small advantage. But no Swift and a beat-up throwing hand for Stafford evens this thing out pretty good.

Lions run offense (16th) vs. Panthers run defense (25th)

Overall, the Lions rushing attack has been fairly average all season, which is a significant improvement from years past. Unfortunately, that has mostly been at the hands of rookie running back D’Andre Swift, who, again, is likely out this week. Here’s how much better he’s been than everyone else in that running back room.

D’Andre Swift: 70 carries, 331 yards (4.7 YPC), 4 TDs
Adrian Peterson: 97 carries, 371 yards (3.8 YPC), 2 TDs
Kerryon Johnson: 30 carries, 112 yards, (3.7 YPC), 1 TD

It’s unclear who the Lions will go to in Swift’s absence, but you have to imagine the bulk of carries will go back to Peterson.

Detroit’s offensive line has played well enough to mitigate some of the damage from Swift’s absence, but it’s still a huge hit to the offense after last week’s revelation from the rookie’s first career start.

The Panthers have given up a lot of yards on the ground this year, which is to be expected when they’ve fallen behind in many games and played some of the better rushing attacks in the league. However, most concerning for Carolina is that they are giving up huge chunks per carry—far more than their opponents are averaging on a week-to-week basis.

In total, they’re giving up 4.8 yards per carry (28th) and allowing first downs on 28.4 percent of carries (26th). They also aren’t particularly good in short-yardage situations, allowing conversions on 73 percent of opportunities (25th). That would explain why they’ve allowed 14 rushing touchdowns on the season (t-fourth most).

It is worth noting, however, that they do appear to be getting better. They’ve held three of their last five opponents below 4.0 yards per carry, but it’s hard for that argument to carry a lot of weight when the just gave up 210 yards at 5.7 a clip to the Bucs last week, including a horribly-defended 98-yard run.

Player to watch: Derrick Brown. Lions fans certainly know who Brown is, as many feared Detroit would take the Auburn defensive tackle with the third overall pick. While Brown struggled early on like most rookies, he has started to play significantly better in recent weeks. I’d still give the edge to Detroit’s interior offensive line, but don’t be surprised to see Brown make a play or two.

Advantage: Lions +1. It’s so long ago that you all probably completely forgot that early in the season when Peterson was the starter, things weren’t all that bad. He opened the season with 93 yards against the Bears and 75 yards two weeks later against the Cardinals. While this would have been a much bigger advantage if Swift was in the game, I still think the numbers favor Detroit here, and we know they will try to run the ball a lot, even without their new starter.

Panthers pass offense (10th) vs. Lions pass defense (23rd)

Head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady seems to have found something that works in Carolina, and both have done a great job improving the offense from last year’s disaster.

Of course, you have to give major props to Teddy Bridgewater for the success, as he’s been arguably the most accurate passer in football through 10 weeks. HIs 72.1 completion percentage is second only to Drew Brees, though it’s worth noting his average intended yard average (6.6) ranks in the bottom six of the league.

But it looks like Bridgewater isn’t going to play this week. That leaves us with either XFL star P.J. Walker or 2019 third-round pick Will Grier. We have very little information about both, as Walker has never started in the NFL, and Grier was pretty horrible in his rookie season but hasn’t played since. Walker seems like the more likely starter since he’s filled in as the backup on gamedays, and he had a past relationship with Rhule from his years at Temple.

Regardless of who is playing at quarterback, the Panthers have a talented trio in receivers with Robby Anderson (fifth in receiving yards), DJ Moore (11th) and Curtis Samuel (64th).

The Lions’ pass defense continues their downslide, allowing five of the past six opposing quarterbacks to significantly outgain their season passer rating average. While the Lions’ pass rush is still lacking (27th in pass rush win rate), it’s really been their secondary that has struggled to make any plays. Exhibit A:

Overall, the unit ranks 25th in passer rating allowed (99.6), 24th in yards per attempt (7.6) and 15th in completion percentage (65.4).

Player to watch: Romeo Okwara. With Trey Flowers still out, expect Okwara to get most of the snaps coming off the Panthers’ left side, where it just so happens Russell Okung will likely miss his fourth straight game. Okwara has been pass rushing like a top-five edge defender as of late, and that could be enough to rattle whatever quarterback is in there on Sunday.

Advantage: Panthers +1. This Lions pass defense allowed Mitchell Trubisky to throw all over them. Last week, Alex Smith and the worst passing offense torched them. Until I see them actually stop someone they should stop, I have no trust in them—especially when the Panthers’ receivers clearly outmatch Detroit’s struggling secondary.

Panthers run offense (8th) vs. Lions run defense (27th)

Christian McCaffrey has only played in three of 10 games this season (Weeks 1, 2 and 9), and the Panthers have still managed to keep their head above water and then some. While I don’t see their rushing offense quite as efficient as their DVOA metrics, it’s clear this unit is —at the very least—above average.

Mike Davis has taken over in the backfield, and while he’s not flashy (his longest run is 25 yards), he’s been quite efficient. His 4.2 yards per carry is just fine, and as a team, Carolina is averaging 4.4 YPC (14th). They’re also earning first downs on a healthy 25.2 percent of rushes (14th). Again, above average.

The Lions run defense rebounded nicely after the disaster against Minnesota, and I still think this unit is underrated overall. Their DVOA ranking is being significantly hindered by their performances prior to the bye week. As a reminder of how different they’ve looked out of the bye week, here are the splits from before and after.

Before the bye week (4 games): 132 rushes, 681 yards, 5.16 YPC
After the bye week (5 games): 141 rushes, 593 yards, 4.21 YPC

That being said, the loss of Trey Flowers will continue to impact this defensive front, even with players like Everson Griffen and Romeo Okwara stepping up. Detroit’s linebacking corps is too inconsistent and the Lions’ tackling issues are becoming a real problem, too.

Overall, the team is allowing 4.7 yards per carry (26th) and first downs on 27.1 percent of rushes (21st).

Player to watch: Curtis Samuel. The Panthers receiver will occasionally line up in the backfield and has been pretty efficient there (25 rushes, 108 yards). He’s exactly the kind of player the Lions seem to struggle with, so look for him to be a primary target both in the run and pass game.

Advantage: Draw. Call me an optimist, but I truly do believe that Detroit’s run defense has turned a corner. That chart alone makes a pretty convincing case. And I’m not really seeing what makes this Panthers rushing attack all that special without McCaffrey. Even when the Panthers have been successful, they’ve only rushed for over 150 yards once this season. This shouldn’t be a huge swing in the game either way.

Last week’s prediction:

On Paper’s winning streak ended after the Lions squeaked out a 30-27 win over Washington. This was much higher scoring than I was expecting, as the Lions pass defense was somehow worse than I imagined, but Detroit’s passing offense was much, much better.

I’m not going to make too many adjustments this week, however, with the injuries to the Lions’ offense. But last week is why I don’t care who’s at quarterback for Carolina, I’m giving them the advantage in that matchup.

In the comment section, we had a near perfect prediction with RW19 missing by a single point. Seeing your username, your On Paper prize is personalized to you and represents a dream many Detroit sports fans have probably had recently.

This week’s prediction:

We come out with a dead EVEN matchup, and that feels pretty right. Even if these teams were at full strength, they’d be deadlocked. There are so many unknowns in this matchup with the injuries that I can’t give out a single prediction with much confidence in any of these matchups. Can the Lions succeed on the ground without Swift? Can they take advantage of a young secondary potentially without Kenny Golladay and with an injured Stafford?

How about the defense? Can they stop a McCaffrey-less running game? And what quarterback does it take for this secondary to actually look good? There’s a pretty good chance they’ll be facing one in their first career start, and I still don’t feel good about that matchup.

And that last point is why I’m leaning Panthers in this game. I have absolutely no idea where this game is going, but give me Panthers 24, Lions 20.

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