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Lions vs. Browns preview, prediction: On paper

A statistical breakdown and prediction for Sunday’s game between the Lions and Browns.

NFL: Preseason-Detroit Lions at Cleveland Browns Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions will try to continue their two-week non-losing streak—which is a real thing—this week against the Cleveland Browns. Detroit is still in search of their first win of the season, while the Browns are searching for answers after an embarrassing loss to the New England Patriots last week.

Both teams are currently dealing with some serious injuries, including ones to each team’s starting quarterback. And with potential rain in the forecast, we could be in for another sloppy game this Sunday.

Cleveland comes in as a heavy 10-point favorite (and rising), but is there any chance the Lions not only beat the spread but pull off an upset for their first win of the season? Let’s take a closer look On Paper.

Lions pass offense (32nd in DVOA) vs. Browns pass defense (26th)

Well, it finally happened. After last week’s ugly game in rainy Pittsburgh, the Lions' pass offense is officially the worst in the NFL. I’m not sure there’s anything I can tell you about the Lions' pass offense that you don’t already know. So let’s recap: they refuse to throw the ball downfield. They create little-to-no explosive plays. And when they get into a third-and-long situation, they’re embarrassingly cowardly.

You could try to convince yourself things could be different this week. Josh Reynolds is set to make his Lions debut on Sunday, and he gives the Lions a speedy deep threat that can also bring down contested catches.

But the bigger news is the injuries. Jared Goff is looking less and less likely to play this week, which means it could be Tim Boyle’s turn to man the offense. Boyle has never started an NFL game, but he’s got a live arm, and it’s possible he’s simply more willing to make challenging throws and test defenses downfield. However, his preseason performance this year provides little optimism.

Additionally, left tackle Taylor Decker is dealing with a new injury, and as we’re about to see, this is a very, very bad week for that.

The Browns' pass defense is their worst unit on the team. They’ve given up a passer rating of 95 or above in six of their 10 games thus far. They rank 21st in yards per attempt allowed (7.5) and 25th in passer rating allowed (101.6).

However, there is one thing they do at an elite level: rush the passer. Myles Garrett is an absolute game-wrecker. He leads the league in sacks (13), and he’s second in overall PFF grades (92.0) and pass rushing grade (92.6). And while he typically gets extra attention, opponents can’t lose sight of Jadeveon Clowney on the other side.

Player to watch: Penei Sewell vs. Myles Garrett. Sewell has held his own against some of the best pass rushers in this league, including Nick Bosa, T.J. Watt, and Aaron Donald, but this week he’ll be going up against the absolute best. It’s going to be a hell of a show to watch.

Advantage: Browns +1 The Lions will have the element of surprise on their side with a potential different quarterback behind center, and their running backs and tight ends could do some damage against a mediocre Browns linebacking corps. However, the Lions have gone into every week with an advantage at RB and TE, and it seems defenses have finally caught on.

Lions run offense (26th) vs. Browns run defense (12th)

Last week, the Lions were able to catch the Steelers off-guard with their three tight end looks (or 6 OL looks). It worked swimmingly for three quarters as D’Andre Swift and company tore up the Steelers for over 200 yards. But then Pittsburgh adjusted and the Lions had no answer.

Well, the cat is out of the bag for the Lions, and now you have to wonder if they can continue to have success on the ground with teams knowing they have this three-tackle look in their arsenal. Throw in the Decker injury, and it’s logical to expect a step back from this unit on Sunday.

Overall, the Lions are an okay rushing team. They’re averaging a respectable 4.4 yards per carry (12th) and earning first downs on 25.2 percent of their rushes (15th). And it’s worth pointing out that despite trailing almost all of the time, they’ve managed to still rush for 90 yards or more in seven of nine games. That shows both their commitment to the running game and their relatively solid efficiency.

Unfortunately for Detroit, they’re running into a behemoth of a run defense. They’ve only ceded 90 or more rushing yards in four of six games. Only two teams have managed to surpass 4.0 yards per carry against this defense.

The overall numbers really tell the true story for this Browns’ run defense. Cleveland ranks third in yards per carry allowed (3.8) and 10th in percentage of rushes earning first downs (23.2).

That all being said, the Patriots clearly figured something out last week, so maybe the Lions play a little copycat and exploit a perceived weakness.

Player to watch: Jamaal Williams. While the Lions were plenty successful without Williams last week, it appears he’ll make his return on Sunday. The Lions’ rushing attack becomes more physical with Williams in the lineup, which is evidenced by his team-leading 4.4 yards per carry (minimum 10 carries).

Advantage: Browns +2. This is a really good Browns defense, and unless the Lions have another trick up their sleeve, I’m not sure how they repeat last week’s performance. Given that this is the most important unit for Detroit, this matchup has the chance of flipping the entire outcome of the game, like it nearly did last week against the Steelers. Pittsburgh had a pretty good run defense, too, but without that element of surprise this week, I don’t think Detroit will be as effective.

Browns pass offense (18th) vs. Lions pass defense (28th)

*Game started by Case Keenum

If you want a source of the Browns’ inconsistency, look no further than here. It’s worth noting that the Browns have faced some of the tougher pass defenses in the league, with only four of 10 opponents allowing an average passer rating of 95 or above (the league median is 93.4).

That being said, this is far from an explosive passing offense. They’re modestly efficient (7.7 yards per attempt, 10th in NFL), but they only rank 26th in yards per game (209.7). In other words, they’re an average passing offense, but would rather move the ball down the field through other methods.

One problem has been pass protection. The Browns have given up 30 sacks on the year, second only to the Chicago Bears. Oddly, though, the Browns ranks first in team pass block win rate, suggesting Baker Mayfield is holding onto the ball too long.

Speaking of Mayfield, while it looks like he’ll play this week, he’ll be far from 100 percent, as he deals with injuries to his shoulder, foot, and knee. His receiving corps is also hurting, as top receivers Donovan Peoples-Jones missed Thursday’s practice with a new groin injury and Jarvis Landry continues to deal with a knee issue.

The best compliment I can give the Lions' pass defense is it's surviving. Seems like every week, they’re forced to play some other undrafted rookie in the secondary, and while the Lions haven’t been good defending the pass, they’ve certainly performed above expectations. Last week’s performance against the Steelers should probably not be taken much into account, however, as Mason Rudolph played awfully, and weather conditions certainly impacted each team’s passing game.

Overall, the Lions rank 32nd in yards per attempt allowed (8.5) and 30th in passer rating allowed (104.9).

While the secondary has been riddled with injuries, the defensive front has been the more disappointing unit. Detroit has created just 27 quarterback hits (32nd), 14 sacks (t-last), and a pressure rate of 18.9 percent (30th)

Players to watch: David Njoku and Austin Hooper. While the Browns are beat up at receiver, they have pair of dangerous tight ends. Given Detroit’s inexperienced linebacking unit, this could be a mismatch this week. Although, the Lions did a good job with Pat Freiermuth/Eric Ebron last week.

Advantage: Browns +1. I don’t expect the Browns to throw all over the Lions. They just don’t really do that against any team. It’s not their game plan. In fact, I don’t really expect this matchup to matter all that much in the grand scheme of the entire game. That said, with the Lions’ lack of pass rush plus a young, mistake-prone secondary, if the Browns need a pickup on a third down, I suspect they could get it through the air.

Browns run offense (1st) vs. Lions run defense (29th)

The Browns have the best rushing attack in the league. This is not up for debate. It is fact.

They’ve been held below 4.2 yards per carry just once, and they’ve finished with more than 5.0 yards per carry six times. They’ve rushed for over 150 yards in all but three games this season, and they lead the league in rushing yards, yards per carry, and rushing touchdowns.

The big question here, however, is the status of Nick Chubb, arguably the best running back in the NFL. Chubb was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list over a week ago, and as a vaccinated player, he is eligible to come off whenever he tests negative in back-to-back games. That hasn’t happened yet, though, so time is running short.

Even if Chubb can’t go, the Browns should be okay. Their backup—well, besides Kareem Hunt, who is still on IR—D’Ernest Johnson has done a pretty good job in Chubb’s absence. Johnson is averaging 5.3 yards per carry in two starts this year.

UPDATE: Chubb has been activated on Friday morning. He’ll almost certainly play.

The Lions' run defense has been wildly inconsistent this year. They’ve done okay jobs against teams like the Ravens and Packers—two pretty decent rushing attacks. But they’ve also been blown out of the water by the Bears and Eagles.

Overall, Detroit has been mostly poor in defending the run. They rank 18th in yards per carry allowed (4.4) and have given up first downs on 25 percent of rushes (19th).

Player to watch: Chubb. He was officially activated on Friday, so look out.

Advantage: Browns +3. Expect Cleveland to run the ball early and often on Sunday. Detroit has only held one opponent below 95 rushing yards, and this doesn’t seem like the week they’ll do it again. It certainly doesn’t help that Trey Flowers—their best run defending outside linebacker, is continuing to fight a knee injury.

Last week’s prediction

Last week, I think I fared pretty well, predicting a 20-10 Steelers victory, when it was a 16-16 tie. My prediction was made with the assumption Ben Roethlisberger was going to play, and I think most can agree that if he had, Pittsburgh would have won. What I didn’t predict, was the Lions putting on a clinic in the run game, but I still question whether Detroit can keep that up, so I haven’t really altered my opinion of Detroit from Sunday’s game.

In the comment section, obviously, no one predicted a tie, but Devil Barrel came as close as possible to the right prediction, picking the Lions to win 17-16. They even said Lions win on a last-second field goal, which nearly came true in overtime. RandyTheLionheart came in on the other side of the prediction, selecting the Steelers to win 17-16.

You both get to split the prize this week. It’s the Lions 2021 offense Jugs machine simulator!

This isn’t your ordinary Jugs machine! With speeds all the way up to 0.7 miles per hour, the Detroit Lions 2021 offense simulator offers three unique settings: screen pass, check down, and fourth down (pass goes three rows into the stands). Enjoy your prize!

This week’s prediction

The Browns not only come out with a decisive +7 advantage, but they also hold the advantage in every single matchup. Unfortunately for Detroit, their biggest strengths happen to match up with the Browns’ bigger strength in the same matchup. Detroit is doing an okay job running the ball, but the Browns have one of the best run defenses in the league. Detroit can occasionally stop the run, but Cleveland has the best rushing attack in the NFL.

This just has poor matchup written all over it, and with the Browns coming off an embarrassing loss and in desperate need of a win, I don’t think this one is particularly close no matter who is quarterbacking Detroit. Lions 13, Browns 31.