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Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings preview, prediction: On Paper

Our statistical breakdown of the Lions’ Week 9 matchup.

Detroit Lions v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

If the Minnesota Vikings or the Detroit Lions plan on making any sort of miraculous run at the division title or even a playoff spot, Sunday’s game is probably as close to a must-win game this early in the season. The Green Bay Packers, again, look dominant, and with both teams struggling to even get (and stay) at .500, it’s an uphill climb to say the least.

Earlier in the week, I made the argument that the Vikings are better than their record suggests. In fact, Minnesota’s overall DVOA ranking is just above Detroit, with them ranking 15th to the Lions’ 17th.

But what do the charts say? Let’s take a closer look at this Week 9 matchup: On Paper.

Lions pass offense (18th in DVOA) vs. Vikings pass defense (18th)

The chart here matches the Lions pass offense DVOA ranking. This passing attack has been average, at best, in 2020. In recent weeks, the Lions have allowed Matthew Stafford to air it out a little more than earlier in the season, and SURPRISE the numbers look at little better.

Still, the results are just average overall. Detroit ranks 15th in passer rating (94.8), 28th in completion percentage (61.4) and 12th in yards per attempt (7.8). Stafford has jumped to third in intended air yards (9.4) after averaging 9.7 out of the bye week.

However, there are major questions abound about who will actually be playing this week. Matthew Stafford has a small window to make it off the Reserve/COVID list, but top receiver Kenny Golladay is almost certainly out. The offensive line is also in turmoil, but it looks like only rotational guard Joe Dahl is trending towards missing the game. If all things bounce the right way for Detroit, Golladay’s injury should be the only significant one.

Another average unit here. We’re going to look at some raw statistics here in a second, but one thing you’re going to have to keep in mind is the quarterbacks this team has faced already this year: Aaron Rodgers twice, Ryan Tannehill, Deshaun Watson, and Russell Wilson. That’s five of seven games against top six quarterbacks in the NFL (by passer rating). And as you can see by the chart, they’ve mostly held those quarterbacks right around their season averages. The other two quarterbacks that weren’t included are Matt Ryan and Philip Rivers—not exactly scrubs, either.

So here’s the ugly part. The Vikings are

  • 31st in passer rating allowed (110.5)
  • 29th in yards per attempt (8.2)
  • 24th in completion percentage (67.9)
  • 30th in pass rush win rate (33%)

Even with the caveat that they’ve been playing great quarterbacks, this is a defense that doesn’t do anything in particular well. Their defensive line is a shell of its former self, and their secondary has been completely depleted from both the offseason and a tsunami of injuries.

Player to watch: Marvin Jones Jr. Last week, the Vikings were so short on cornerbacks that they had to have a safety drop down and play nickel corner—a position he had quite literally never played. This week, they only get one player back, so this is the perfect opportunity for a Marvin Jones breakout game.

Advantage: Lions +0.5 if Stafford plays. Vikings +2 if Chase Daniel plays. We all saw what happened last year when Stafford was out, and I don’t expect much of any difference this year, even if Daniel managed to dissect this Vikings defense last year as a member of the Bears. Overall, this is a pretty even matchup, but with all the injuries on Minnesota’s side, I’ll give the slight advantage to Detroit.

Lions run offense (19th) vs. Vikings run defense (19th)

As much as the Lions want to believe that they have a run game, they do not. Their early, mild success appears to have more to do with the strength of their opponent than anything else. Going against two solid run defenses in the last two weeks, we’ve seen Detroit for who they really are: another underperforming rushing team.

The biggest frustration has to be how well the offensive line had been playing prior to last week. Frank Ragnow is having the kind of year that will eventually earn him one of the highest contracts among NFL centers. Jonah Jackson has had a very promising start to his career, while Taylor Decker is a top five left tackle right now.

The failures come from the constant shuffling of the offensive line, the weak links (Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Joe Dahl/Tyrell Crosby), the poor play of the running backs, and predictable formations.

That all results in a team that is rushing for just 4.0 yards per carry (25th) and earning first downs on just 22.1 percent of rushes (28th).

Again, we’re looking at a defense that’s average in every way. Granted, that’s a hell of an accomplishment from head coach Mike Zimmer given the talent exodus this offseason, but it’s still not something we’re accustomed to seeing out of Minnesota. The Vikings’ defensive line is downright bad, and even if we pull the linebackers into the equation, Eric Kendricks is the only players playing above replacement level right now.

Still, Minnesota is holding opponents to 4.2 yards per carry (11th) and allowing first downs on 25.4 percent of carries (17th).

Player to watch: D’Andre Swift. The Lions are finally giving their second-round rookie more playing time. And with frustration over Adrian Peterson’s lack of efficiency, this could be a potential big game for Swift.

Advantage: Draw. The Lions offensive line should have a pretty significant advantage over the Vikings defensive line on Sunday, but Detroit hasn’t been able to take mismatches like that and turn it into a big results. Predictability and poor scheming level out this matchup to a point where I expect something in the 90 rushing yards at 3.9 yards per carry range for Detroit.

Vikings pass offense (22nd) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)

This is becoming a running theme with the Vikings teams, but again, we’re faced with a very average unit here. Much like the Lions’ running game, it’s hard to really know why this unit is underperforming right now, because they have a good quarterback and two of the best receivers in the game right now. Justin Jefferson is PFF’s No. 2 receiver while Adam Thielen is No. 5.

Part of the issue is the offensive line. Starting right guard Dru Samia has allowed 14 pressures this year, and the Vikings rank 23rd in pass block win rate, despite only allowing 15 sacks on the year (t-15th).

The other part is just inconsistent play from Kirk Cousins. Put it all together and you’ve got a set of confounding statistics.

Minnesota is 23rd in passer rating (91.9), second in yards per attempt (8.7), and 20th in completion percentage. In other words, they can still absolutely launch the ball downfield, but everything else is pretty meh.

The Lions pass defense looks average by some basic stats, but you can see a clear downward trajectory over the past few weeks. My overly simplistic interpretations of the data: the Lions stiffened up their run defense lately, so teams have just dissected them in the passing game, instead. The truth of the matter is the Lions have yet to stop a good quarterback this year.

The raw statistics don’t look as bad, though. Detroit ranks 22nd in passer rating allowed (97.6), 20th in yards per attempt (7.5) and 13th in completion percentage (64.6). They’re slowly rising in pass rush win rate (37%, 26th), but their PFF coverage grades remain absolutely horrible (43.5, 29th).

Detroit could be getting Desmond Trufant back this week, though he hasn’t played particularly well. The bigger news is the loss of defensive end Trey Flowers. Everson Griffen’s arrival comes at a fortunate time, but he’s not capable of doing everything Flowers can.

Player to watch: Justin Jefferson. Only seven games into his career, and Jefferson may already be WR1 for the Vikings. He’s averaging 80.4 yards per game and is tied for fourth in 20+ yard receptions this year (10). Both he and Adam Thielen are huge mismatches for Detroit.

Advantage: Vikings +1. If I were to just base this matchup on feel or what I’m actually seeing on the field, I’d probably bump it up to +2 or +3, but statistically speaking, the Lions don’t look like huge underdogs in this aspect of the game. But they haven’t been playing particularly well recently, and there’s just no denying that the cornerbacks are going to be way overmatched this week.

Vikings run offense (3rd) vs. Lions run defense (21st)

The only thing the Vikings have been able to do decisively well in 2020 is run the ball, which is all they’ve ever really aspired to do on offense. Dalvin Cook is again the face of the franchise, and it’s working out pretty well for him. He’s second in rushing yards per game (108.7)—which is quite remarkable for a 2-5 team—and he’s seventh in the NFL in yards per carry (5.3— first among RBs with more than 75 carries).

That being said, they’ve faced some pretty awful run defense thus far. Over half of their games have been against defenses allowing 4.7 yards per carry or more. And when they’ve had to go up against good run defenses (Colts, Falcons), they’ve been held in check pretty well.

The Detroit Lions run defense has been nothing short of great out of their bye week (post-Saints game). They completely shut down a good Jaguars rushing attack, and stymied both the Falcons and the Colts the following weeks.

Detroit’s defensive tackles have been doing most of the dirty work, but Jamie Collins Sr. has also been one of the best run stuffing linebackers in the NFL:

The raw statistics don’t look great for Detroit, but they’re all trending in the right direction. They currently rank 13th in yards per carry allowed (4.3), but that number has been just 2.97 over the past three weeks.

Short yardage situations, however, continue to be a problem. Detroit is allowing a conversion rate of 75 percent in power run situations (third or fourth down with 2 yards or less to go), which ranks 28th in the NFL. They’ve also allowed 11 rushing touchdowns, which is more than just two other teams.

Player to watch: Dalvin Cook. There are really only a handful of running backs in this league that are true game changers, and Cook certainly falls into that category. Cook ranks second in PFF”s elusive rating among running backs with 50 percent of their team’s rushing attempts. And given his propensity to break tackles, that’s not exactly good news for a Lions defense that currently ranks 20th in PFF’s tackling grade (55.0).

Advantage: Vikings +1. This is absolutely the most important matchup of the game. The Vikings will try to run the ball, and the Lions have done a pretty good job focusing their efforts on taking away the run game. But because the Vikings have been more successful and consistent for the entire season, I have to give them the slight edge here. But this is a golden opportunity for the Lions to prove their defensive adjustments have truly worked.

Last week’s prediction:

I feel pretty good about last week’s On Paper. The one mistake I made was overestimating Detroit’s pass defense, but I knew at the time I was relying a bit too much on the statistics when my eyes were telling me something else. I knew the Colts defense was going to be a problem and it was. My overall prediction of 23-17 was nowhere near the final score of 41-21, but I don’t feel that score was representative of how the game actually played out.

In the comment section, Week 8’s winner was Singledigit. He was one of only a couple of people to predict a blowout in the Colts’ favor, picking them to win 34-17.

I have a bunch of leftover candy from Halloween, because no one showed up this year. Given the recent stress surrounding the Lions with injuries and Matthew Stafford’s situation, as well as the biggest spike in COVID cases in the country, plus other perhaps significant things going on in the United States, I wanted to hand out candy that was both delicious and good for mental health. Enjoy!

This week’s prediction:

The Vikings come out with a +1.5 advantage, and that feels about right to me. Neither team has a huge mismatch in any of the four matchups, as the Vikings’ only significant strength happens to go against the one thing Detroit has consistently done well at since the bye week. Every other unit for each team is either bad or average.

Where I really see the Vikings potentially pulling away is if they decide to air the ball out. Unless Everson Griffen comes out and plays the game of his life—and given his recent comments, I’m not completely discounting that possibility—Detroit will lack in a strong pass rush, and that will give Cousins plenty of time to find huge mismatches in the secondary.

Oh, and if Stafford doesn’t play, we may as well start talking about Washington right now.

Vikings 31, Lions 20.