The Detroit Lions are both playing for pride and for very, very slim playoff chances. Unfortunately for them, they’ll have to face some of the best teams in each conference to close out their 2020 season. That begins this week with a Tennessee Titans team who currently leads the AFC South with a 9-4 record and can clinch a playoff berth with a win and a Ravens loss, among other scenarios.
This is a game that will be impossibly hard to predict given the up-in-the-air status of two key Lions player: quarterback Matthew Stafford and center Frank Ragnow. However, we’ll do our best in this week’s On Paper preview.
Lions pass offense (18th) vs. Titans pass defense (28th)
The Lions pass offense clearly saw a boost under interim head coach Darrell Bevell. Matthew Stafford had his two best games by PFF rating over the past two weeks.
Matthew Stafford's PFF grade:— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) December 14, 2020
Weeks 1-12: 71.6 (22nd)
Week 13-14: 94.4 (2nd)
Wonder if anything has changed in that time.
But with Stafford’s status very much in doubt—and Kenny Golladay almost certainly out again—it’s hard to go into Week 15 with a lot of optimism about this unit. Backup Chase Daniel, for all of his years of experience, has only started five games in his career.
While I don’t want to count out Daniel completely, it’s hard to feel good about Detroit’s passing game this week if Stafford doesn’t go. Even though...
The Titans passing defense has not been very good this year. They’ve been better as of late—holding the Ravens, Colts and Jaguars well below their averages in the past four weeks—but the overall averages should still be concerning for Titans fans.
They’re allowing a passer rating of 94.0 (18th), 7.0 yards per attempt (10th) and a completion percentage of 65.7 (18th). They have allowed the most passing touchdowns of any team this year (28) and have the fewest sacks (14).
They’re also quite beat up at cornerback, with Adoree’ Jackson battling a knee injury and Breon Borders on IR. However, the return of second-round rookie CB Kristian Fulton could give the unit a boost.
Player to watch: T.J. Hockenson. Hockenson has seen at least seven targets in each of his last four games, and he could be a popular check-down option if Daniel is playing.
Advantage: Lions +1.5 if Stafford is playing, Titans +1 if it’s Chase Daniel. At this point, I have no real read on whether Stafford will play or not. It appears it’s just a management of pain thing, and we all know that guy is capable of playing through a lot of pain. If he plays, the Lions have a nice little matchup here, but it’s not a huge mismatch.
Lions run offense (22nd) vs. Titans run defense (16th)
The return of D’Andre Swift didn’t amount to much last week, as the Lions quickly found themselves in a shootout with the Packers. And so we’re left with yet another season in which the Lions’ running game was a big disappointment.
For the season, they’re averaging just 3.9 yards per carry (t-27th) and earning first downs on 23.8 percent of runs (t-21st). Swift should have a bigger role this week, which is good news considering he’s leading the backfield with a strong 4.6 YPC. But the status of center Frank Ragnow, who’s dealing with a vocal cord issue, looms large.
The Titans run defense for the season has been about average, but they are certainly trending in the right direction. While they’re still prone to giving up over 100 yards on the ground, they’ve only ceded more than 4.0 yards per carry twice in the last nine games.
Overall, they’re allowing 4.3 yards per carry (14th) but that average is clearly being weighed down by some early-season struggles in Weeks 2 and 3. Since then, they’ve been much better.
Player to watch: DT Jeffery Simmons. The Titans’ 2019 first-round pick is starting to live up to the hype. He currently holds the 14th best PFF grade among interior defenders and is 13th in run defense grade.
Advantage: Titans +1. The Lions rushing attack could be better with Swift, but I’m not so confident it will be great if Joe Dahl is forced to make his first career start at center in replacement of Ragnow. Either way, there shouldn’t be a ton of confidence in the Lions’ inconsistent running game this week.
Titans pass offense (3rd) vs. Lions pass defense (30th)
Sure Ryan Tannehill has been aided by a good running game, but give the man credit for yet another fantastic season. Just look at where he ranks among other NFL quarterbacks right now:
- 8.0 yards per attempt (6th)
- 108.0 passer rating (6th)
- 28 passing touchdowns (6th)
- 5 INTs (t-third fewest among QBs with 50% of team snaps)
- 90.2 PFF grade (fifth)
This isn’t just a fluke year, either. Tannehill’s statistics were actually even better last year, so he seems to have found a groove with offensive coordinator Arthur Smith.
The Lions pass defense continues to be very bad, and their cornerback situation is beyond disastrous. Desmond Trufant and Jeff Okudah are on injured reserve. Darryl Roberts hasn’t practiced yet this week. That leaves Amani Oruwariye, Justin Coleman and Mike Ford as the only three healthy corners currently on the 53-man roster, and you can see from all the red above how that’s been going.
Player to watch: Corey Davis and A.J. Brown. Pick your poison, the Titans have one of the best 1-2 punches at wide receiver in the league, and they seem to rotate in who takes over the offense each week. Last week, Brown had 112 yards and a TD. The week before, Davis had 182 and a TD. The week before, Brown with 98 and a TD. The week before, Davis with 113.
Advantage: Titans +4. No hope.
Titans run offense (3rd) vs. Lions run defense (26th)
After some early season “struggles,” you can see Derrick Henry hitting his typical December stride right now. For the season, Henry is averaging 117.8 yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry. In the past five weeks, he’s been even better: 137.8 yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry. Unsurprisingly, Henry is near unstoppable in short-yardage situations, as the Titans have the fifth-best conversion rate in power situations, per Football Outsiders.
The Lions run defense has actually been surprisingly good this year, despite the extremely low DVOA numbers. That being said, they’ve shown serious signs of trouble since Danny Shelton went on IR two weeks ago. The Bears’ god-awful running game succeeded against Detroit, and Packer running back Aaron Jones averaged 4.6 yards per carry on 15 rushes last week.
Player to watch: Derrick Henry. He’s PFF’s No. 1 back. He’s got a 180-yard lead on the rest of the NFL running backs, and he’s tied for the lead in rushing TDs. He’s pretty good.
Advantage: Titans +2. The Lions run defense has been underrated this year, but they’ve also been beat up a couple times this season. That performance against Dalvin Cook and the Vikings earlier in the year sticks out.
Last week’s prediction:
On Paper did a pretty darn good job, if I do say so myself. Though my final prediction of 38-21 was a tad too pessimistic, I don’t feel like I really got anything about the matchup wrong. No adjustments needed this week from last week.
In the comment section, we had something magical happen. Again, it was our staff that bested the comments, but we had a THREE-WAY TIE between people on staff. Check it out:
Actual score: 31-24
Jerry Mallory’s prediction: 34-24
Kellie Rowe’s prediction: 31-21
Hamza Baccouche: 31-27
Somehow, all three of them were just three points away, yet none of them were able to tackle the score exactly. Per tradition, I offered all three the ability to request my photoshop prize for them, with the caveat that I would spend no more than 10 minutes on it.
Jerry took charge with this request:
Photoshop Spielman in uniform with our current LB core. Title it “Spielman’s new role becomes clear.” The worse it looks the better.
Here is “Spielman’s New Role Becomes Clear”:
This week’s prediction:
If Stafford doesn’t play, the Titans come out with an advantage in all four aspects of the game, totalling a tremendous +8 advantage. If Stafford plays, he only takes that down to a +5.5 advantage.
In other words, it’s hard to see this Lions team pulling off an upset, with or without Stafford. This Titans offense is extremely well balanced, and that is going to spell disaster for a Lions defense that is missing some of its best players and hasn’t been playing well when healthy.
Who knows what Detroit’s offense is going to look like, but even if Stafford and Ragnow play, they’ll have to be flawless on Sunday to even give Detroit a chance. I’m not seeing it.
Lions 20, Titans 35.