For many, Week 7 is the final intriguing matchup for the Detroit Lions on their schedule. With the team already at 0-6, there isn’t much to play for in terms of 2021 accomplishments (other than avoiding a winless season), so a Jared Goff reunion with Los Angeles and a Matthew Stafford reunion with the Lions is probably the most interesting storyline left in the season.
But just because there are interesting storylines doesn’t mean there will be an interesting game. The Los Angeles Rams are hosting the Lions as over two touchdown favorites, and you’d be hard pressed to find a single person that gives the Lions a legitimate shot this week for any other reason than “any given Sunday.”
Are there any weak points to this Rams team, though? Do the Lions at least have a chance to play their game of keep away? Let’s take a closer look at the matchup On Paper.
Lions pass offense (26th) vs. Rams pass defense (4th)
I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Jared Goff is struggling. I’ll spare you most of the details, but it’s fair to say that nothing about this passing offense is working right now, from quarterback to receivers to the offensive line.
The Lions rank 23rd in passer rating (86.5), 30th in yards per attempt (6.3), and 31st in average depth of target (6.3). They’ve been sacked 15 times (21st) for a sack percentage of 5.9% (17th). It doesn’t look like they’ll get Taylor Decker back this week at left tackle, and Detroit is continuing to shuffle up their wide receivers in an effort to find someone who can make a play. This week, it appears to be Geronimo Allison’s chance to make an impression.
Ruh-roh. Only the Cardinals and the Bears have exceeded their passer rating average against the Rams thus far this season, but both were extremely close to their season average. Everyone else was held significantly below their averages, and in some cases, it wasn’t even close.
With a pass rush led by Aaron Donald (3.5 sacks) and Leonard Floyd (4.5 sacks), the Rams are fourth in the NFL in sacks (18), seventh in sack percentage (6.8), and have the seventh-highest PFF team pass rush grade. They also rank seventh in yards per attempt allowed (6.9),
Jalen Ramsey leads a solid secondary that features the 11th best PFF coverage grade and third in passer rating allowed (81.6). And that’s with playing against the likes of Tom Brady, Kyler Murray, and Russell Wilson (for three quarters).
Player to watch: Aaron Donald. Donald will be lined up opposite Evan Brown, who will be starting his third career game, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai, who has improved in run blocking but still struggles to pass block. Donald, to put frankly, is the best to ever play the position, and his PFF grade of 91.7 shows he hasn’t lost a step in Season 8.
Advantage: Rams +4. This is just about as lopsided as it gets, folks. The Lions don’t have a receiver that can challenge this Rams secondary, even if their cornerback crew is a little thin beyond Ramsey. And given Goff’s propensity to hold onto the ball too long, this defensive front is going to eat him alive. The best hope is to get the running backs and tight ends involved, but the Rams held Evan Engram to three catches for 24 yards last week, Will Dissly to two and 29 in Week 5, but Cardinals tight end Maxx Williams did get five for 66 and a touchdown against them.
Lions run offense (26th) vs. Rams run defense (11th)
Reports of the Lions’ improved running game have been a bit exaggerated. I think they may be better than their DVOA ranking suggests, and they would probably be better with a healthy offensive line, but last week was a wake-up call that good defenses may be able to handle this rushing attack easily (especially if they don’t have to worry about the passing attack).
Part of the problem is just that. No one respects the Lions' passing game, so they load up against the run. Right now, Jamaal Williams is facing an eight-man box 38.8 percent of the time, which ranks 10th among running backs. But the backs aren’t doing themselves any favors, either. The Lions still rank third in yards before contact per rush (3.2), suggesting the offensive line is doing their part. But Detroit ranks dead last in yards after contact (0.9).
Overall, Detroit ranks 20th in yards per carry (4.0) and 13th in percentage of rushes earning first downs (26.3).
Earlier in the week, I suggested that the Rams' run defense may be their biggest weakness. If that’s true, this is a pretty damn good team, because their run defense is still pretty good. They’ve really only had one bad game against the Cardinals, and even in that game, they held Arizona’s primary running back, James Connor, to just 50 yards on 18 carries. In fact, the Rams actually rank first in PFF’s run defense grade, so I may have been off the mark by calling this unit their biggest weakness.
Still, as a team, they’re allowing 4.4 yards per carry (23rd) and they’re allowing first downs on 30.4 percent of rushes (29th), so they are beatable. If you can somehow get past Aaron Donald, the second level of that defense—in particular, the linebackers—are vulnerable.
Player to watch: The scoreboard. The Lions' run offense won’t matter if they can’t keep this one close. Detroit has trailed by double digits in every single game this season, and that certainly has something to do with their low rushing numbers. Can’t keep it close, can’t run the ball.
Advantage: Rams +2. I maintain the Rams run defense is only slightly above average, while the Lions rushing attack could be at least average if Detroit was able to have some sort of balance on offense. The offensive line is blocking their butts off. Unfortunately, with no threat of a passing game against this Rams pass offense, LA will likely load up against the run and stuff it.
Well, this is off to a terrible start. Maybe it will be better if we look at the Rams offens...OH NO.
Rams pass offense (2nd) vs. Lions pass defense (25th)
Turns out Matthew Stafford is pretty good with a team around him and a coaching staff willing to play to his strengths. We don’t need to get too far into it, let’s just look at some quick Matthew Stafford stats:
- 9.2 yards per attempt (2nd)
- 116.6 passer rating (2nd)
- 74.9 QBR (1st)
- 7 pass plays of 40+ yards (1st)
- 26 pass plays of 20+ yards (3rd)
- 36.0% DVOA (1st)
- 77.5 PFF grade (17th!!!!!)
Yeah, so they’re pretty good.
Despite undeniable improvement from Detroit’s secondary, they still aren’t there yet. All the injuries and youth in their defensive backfield have led to some growing pains, and while the progress is hope for the future, the inconsistencies of the Lions' back end still make them vulnerable to the big play. They’ve allowed six plays of 40+ yards (tied for third-most) and 27 of 20+ yards (tied for fourth-most).
Overall, they rank 32nd in passer rating allowed (113.8) and 32nd in yards per attempt (10.2).
If there’s anywhere the Lions may have an advantage, it’s with their pass rush. Detroit does rank seventh in sack percentage this year (7.3%) and they hold a respectable 13th ranking in PFF’s pass rushing grade. The problem here is that the Rams are doing an excellent job in pass protection. They rank second in PFF’s pass blocking grade, and their sacks allowed percentage of 2.9 percent is best in the NFL.
Player to watch: Cooper Kupp. Kupp is tied for first in catches, second in receiving yards, and first in touchdowns. ‘Nuff said.
Advantage: Rams +4. An aggressive passing offense that loves to push the ball downfield vs. a team that can’t seem to stop allowing big plays in the air. Yeah, ouch. Even Detroit’s ability to rush the passer seems unlikely this week. Lions fans just need to hope and pray they get Bad Stafford this week.
Rams run offense (14th) vs. Lions run defense (26th)
This is the first time the charts have really disagreed with the DVOA numbers drastically. While the Rams have rushed for over 100 yards in four of six games, part of the reason is they’ve faced some really poor run defenses thus far. Five of six opponents have allowed more than 4.0 yards per carry for this season, yet the Rams have surpassed that figure just twice on the year.
That being said, the Rams may have found the answer to their run game woes. Running back Darrell Henderson has taken the bulk of carries away from Sony Michel and done well for himself, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and reaching the end zone four times.
Overall, let’s call this an average rushing attack, maybe a little below average.
The Lions' run defense has been frustratingly inconsistent this year, and last week was a perfect example of that. In the first half against the Bengals, Detroit held Cincy to 46 rushing yards on 12 carries (3.8 YPC). In the second half, Joe Mixon alone rushed for 63 yards on 10 carries (6.3 YPC).
But the difference between a good and a bad unit is consistency. The Lions don’t have it, so they are a bad run defense right now. They’re allowing 4.3 yards per carry (15th) and ceding first downs on 22.8 percent of rushes (11th). That shows the potential of this unit, but until they can do it consistently this should be considered a below-average unit, as evidenced by the team PFF run defense grade of 51.7 (24th).
Player to watch: Alim McNeill. The Lions’ third-round rookie has done a good job plugging the middle of the defense this year. Unfortunately for Detroit, the Rams do most of their rushing damage on the edges. So Trey Flowers and Charles Harris will have to stay disciplined on the outside.
Advantage: Rams +1. This is easily the closest matchup between the two teams, but unfortunately for the Lions, it also may be the least important. In neutral situations, the Rams are one of the most pass-heavy teams in the league. So yeah, maybe the Lions stop the run this week, but I find it hard to believe it will matter much.
Last week’s prediction
Last week, I was far too generous to the Lions with my 26-20 Bengals prediction, which was obviously nowhere close to the 34-11 final score. I mistakenly only gave the Bengals a +1 advantage against the Lions run game, and that has been promptly adjusted this week.
The On Paper challenge was a tie this week. In the comment section, JayBDet came close with a 28-13 prediction, but that was matched by our own Mike Payton with an identical prediction. As per tradition, whenever a staff member wins (or ties) the On Paper challenge, they get to pick a photoshop of their choosing. Take it away, Mike:
Be careful what you wish for.
This week’s prediction
The Rams come out with a +11 advantage. If I weren’t under the gun here due to internet issues, I’d check where that ranks in terms of On Paper advantages, but if I had to guess, that’s among the top five lopsided matchups in On Paper history, and I’ve been doing this for a long, long time.
It’s extremely tough for me to see a path to a Lions win this week. Unfortunately for them, what little strengths the Lions have (pass rush, run blocking) seem to match up perfectly for the Rams (pass protection, Aaron Donald).
Or, to put much simpler, the Rams are the best overall team the Lions will face all season, and Detroit is currently playing some bad football. If you’re a Lions and Matthew Stafford fan, this may be the week to focus on the latter. 35-10 Rams.