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Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown of Lions vs. Vikings, Week 5.

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

On Paper chugs along as we get to know the Detroit Lions a little more. Sadly, what we’re beginning to find out isn’t all that pleasant. Right now, there isn’t one particular thing that appears to be going right for Detroit. They’ve shown flashes in the run game. They’ve shown flashes in their short-yardage passing game. Hell, they’ve even put up a good defensive performance or two.

But as the data comes in, it’s clear many of these performances were flashes in the pan and not emblematic of who the Lions truly are. Of course, their identity isn’t set in stone. It can always change—they can get better or worse—but it’s clear this team is far too inconsistent to be “good” or even “average.”

Speaking of inconsistent, hello, Minnesota Vikings.

Yeah, that's the segue. Let get to it.

Lions pass offense (22nd) vs. Vikings pass defense (15th)

This chart would lead you to believe that Jared Goff has been okay, and while that’s probably closer to the truth than how bad some people are saying he’s played, he still has had a below-average year.

Detroit’s passing attack, put simply, is just not being used as a weapon. Goff is not testing defenses downfield (average catch is made 3.9 yards downfield, last in NFL), and he is relying almost exclusively on Detroit’s receivers to pick up yards after the catch (Lions 4th in YAC). At times, that strategy has worked, but lately, teams have bottled up guys like T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift, severely limiting what the Lions can do.

The other part of the equation is the offensive line. We know for certain the Lions will be missing their top two guys: left tackle Taylor Decker and center Frank Ragnow. Both remain on IR.

First-round pick Penei Sewell seems like he’s trending towards missing Sunday’s game, which means, the most likely scenario on Sunday is:

  • Center Evan Brown (fourth year, undrafted) will make his first career start
  • Right tackle Matt Nelson (third year, undrafted) will make his sixth career start
  • Left tackle Will Holen (fifth year, fifth-round pick) will make his 10th career start

Overall, the Lions rank 23rd in yards per attempt (6.8), 19th in passer rating (96.2), and 16th in sack rate allowed (5.8%).

After getting off to a slow start, the Vikings' defense of old is starting to emerge. They’ve allowed just a single touchdown in the last six quarters, and they completely shut down Baker Mayfield and the Browns’ passing attack last week.

There are plenty of questions about their secondary—specifically, cornerback Bashaud Breeland, who ranks dead last in PFF grade. In total, this is a beatable defense. they rank 29th in yards per attempt allowed (8.7) and 25th in passer rating (104.1).

Is that something the Lions can take advantage of, though? Pass protection is almost assuredly going to be an issue in this game. The Vikings rank fourth in sack percentage, fifth in overall sacks, but just 20th in PFF’s team pass rush grade. With Detroit’s beat up offensive line, though, look out.

Player to watch: Danielle Hunter. The Vikings’ edge defender already has five sacks (t-2nd in NFL) on the year, and he’s always been a huge thorn in Detroit’s side. Of his 59.5 career sacks, 11.0 have come against the Lions—over 18 percent.

Advantage: Vikings +2. The Lions' pass offense hasn’t been horrible this year, but it’s hard to see them taking advantage of the one place the Vikings are vulnerable: deep. For one, they don’t like to throw it deep. Secondly, even if they changed plans this week, I’m not sure Goff will have time to test the defense deep. Minny with the clear advantage here.

Lions run offense (23rd) vs. Vikings run defense (23rd)

Though the Lions' rushing attack has cooled off after a hot start, it still feels early to pass judgment on them. Due to falling behind by three scores in all four games, Detroit ranks in the bottom 10 in rushing attempts. They’re still averaging a respectable 4.3 yards per carry (13th) and their short-yardage game on the ground remains successful (10th in conversion rate).

The problems this week are two-fold. The aforementioned offensive line injuries, and the fact that Lions backs are not picking up a lot of yards after contact. The Lions’ offensive line was doing their job, as Detroit currently ranks third in yards before contact per rushing attempt (3.6), but they’re dead last in yards after contact per attempt (0.7). This is also reflected in PFF grades, as the Lions rank 10th in run blocking grades, but 23rd in rushing grades.

Simply put, they need more out of Jamaal Williams and they need a lot more out of D’Andre Swift, who is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry and his longest run is just 16 yards.

The Vikings have allowed over 100 rushing yards in every game this year, and all but three last year. They’re currently on an 11-game streak of 100-yard performances from their opponents.

This week, it looks like they’ll get Anthony Barr back, which could help, but they’re also likely without their best run defender on the line in Michael Pierce.

Overall, the Vikings are allowing 4.8 yards per carry (28th) and ceding first downs on 24.8 percent of rushes (19th). This, currently, is the weakest point of their game, and that does play well into the Lions’ hands—if their replacement offensive linemen can hold up.

Player to watch: Evan Brown. Last week, the Lions didn’t shy away from rushing behind their backup center, and they’ve spoken highly of him all week. But calling out protections and audibles with this aggressive Mike Zimmer defense is going to be no easy task for his first career start. He catches a break with Pierce out, but look out for Dalvin Tomlinson causing a mess.

Advantage: Lions +1. I’d probably give the Lions a bigger advantage if the line was healthy, but it’s a huge unknown right now, and it’s unfortunate. This matchup is the key to a Lions victory, as they’ll need to hold onto the ball for long periods of time and try to use the running game to help protect Jared Goff. But with so many moving pieces this week, it’s hard to give a distinct advantage here.

Vikings pass offense (7th) vs. Lions pass defense (30th)

Prior to last week, the Minnesota Vikings had one of the most lethal passing offenses in the league. The Bengals and Cardinals rank 11th and third in pass defense DVOA respectively, and the Vikings carved both of them up pretty good this year.

It’s easy to see why. Kirk Cousins is playing some of his best football right now, and Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson make an easy argument for the best wide receiver duo in the league. Those two are responsible for almost exactly half of the Vikings’ receiving yards. But don’t sleep on 2020 fifth-round pick K.J. Osborn, who has emerged as a legitimate third option, and is currently just 8 yards behind Theilen.

The passing offense’s Achilles heel (oof, I’ve got to find a different analogy) is the offensive line. Last week, the Browns made them look silly with 32 (YES, 32) total pressures. Because Cousins gets the ball out fast, that only resulted in two sacks, but it clearly disrupted the passing offense significantly.

As the Lions try to figure out what the heck they’re going to do in their young, beaten-up secondary, the results on game day have been ugly. The Lions have provided little resistance to any quarterback this season, be it Jimmy Garoppolo, Aaron Rodgers, or Justin Fields. There have been far too many communication breakdowns and wide-open receivers.

Overall, the Lions are:

  • 32nd in yards per attempt allowed (10.6)
  • 30th in passer rating allowed (116.4)
  • 31st in percentage of passing plays earning first downs (43.6)
  • t-31st in passing plays of 20+ yards allowed (19)

But here’s the thing: they can rush the passer pretty well when given the chance. Their pass rush PFF grade is 12th in the NFL. Their sack rate is seventh. Of course, that unit got hit hard with the loss of Romeo Okwara—their best pass rusher—for the season. He led the defense with 16 pressures. Charles Harris is next with 11. The next closest defender has just five.

Player to watch: Jerry Jacobs. After Bobby Price’s struggles at cornerback over the past two weeks, it sounds like the Lions are planning on trotting undrafted rookie Jerry Jacobs out there to start this week. Expect Cousins to pick on him early and often with this dangerous receiving corps.

Advantage: Vikings +3.5 I have no idea how the Lions win this matchup. I suppose they’ll try to bring the heat—and they’ve seen a lot of success through blitzing—but considering Cousins gets the ball out quick (2.6 seconds on average, eighth quickest), I’m not sure it will matter. I don’t know if you’ll see a bigger mismatch when it comes to Lions cornerbacks vs. Vikings wide receivers, either. So this could get ugly.

Vikings run offense (28th) vs. Lions run defense (30th)

The Vikings have been uncharacteristically bad at running the football this year, and it’s hard to pinpoint one reason for it. The offensive line hasn’t been great (Vikings rank 17th in yards before contact), and Dalvin Cook hasn’t been fully healthy. But even a less-than-100-percent Cook and an average offensive line should be producing better results than this.

And let’s be clear, this is still a rushing attack that is capable of taking over a game, they just haven’t done it consistently yet. They rank 16th in yards per carry (4.2) but have strangely scored just one rushing touchdown all season.

It sounds like Cook will play, but given that he hasn’t practiced through Thursday, it’s safe to say he won’t be 100 percent. That said Alexander Mattison is more than capable despite his 3.6 yards per carry on the season.

To put in one word, the Lions’ run defense is unreliable. After what appeared to be a promising performance against the Ravens, the Lions' defense got trucked by the Bears’ struggling offense last week. While the Lions’ defensive front is starting to get their footing, they are still very much figuring things out at the linebacker and secondary levels, and their struggles to tackle have really hurt this unit.

Overall, the Lions are allowing 4.4 yards per carry (19th).

Player to watch: Derrick Barnes. Though Barnes didn’t play much last week against the Bears, I think there may be a bigger focus on stopping the run this week and a lesser need of containing the opposing quarterback. Barnes has been quiet since Detroit moved on from Jamie Collins, as he’s struggled to get off blocks. This should be a good week to get more opportunities and shine some of that magic we saw in the preseason.

Advantage: Vikings +1. This is a little more based on track record than anything. The Vikings have run the ball consistently in the past, and there have been flashes of it this year. There have been little signs of life from Detroit’s run defense thus far.

Last week’s prediction:

I don’t blame myself for last week’s loss. I had it as an even game, and I let my homerism take over to pick the Lions. How was I supposed to know that Detroit would come up empty-handed in four trips inside the Bears’ 10-yard line. To be fair, though, I gave a little too much credit to Detroit’s pass rush (but, again, Romeo Okwara’s injury couldn’t have been predicted). Overall, I don’t think there are too many adjustments I need to make despite my 20-17 Lions prediction looking a little too far off from the 24-14 Bears reality.

In the comment section, we had a tie between AlanTrammell1977’s 27-14 Bears prediction and JayBDet 24-17 Bears prediction. Here is your prize, fellas:

Chastity belts are out of style these days, so companies are changing their strategy, and they may be of use here in Detroit. New: Chastity Belts for Achilles!

This week’s prediction:

The Vikings have a +5.5 advantage and the edge in three of the four matchups. Truth be told, this Vikings team is likely a lot better than their 1-3 record suggests. They’ve had a really tough schedule and if it weren’t for some really bad luck, this team could easily be 3-1.

And when it comes to this week, they’re just clearly the better team on paper. The Lions’ best chance to beat them is to win the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. Unfortunately, the Lions’ offensive line could be missing its three best players. While the one player that could disrupt the Vikings’ offense—Romeo Okwara—tore his Achilles last week.

This is just a bad matchup this week. Lions 17, Vikings 31