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Lions vs. Broncos preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown and prediction for the Detroit Lions’ Week 14 matchup against the Denver Broncos.

Detroit Lions v Denver Broncos Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

One of the strangest weeks in recent memory is playing itself out for the Detroit Lions. In the aftermath of their first win of the season, the Lions had a pretty serious flu outbreak that has impacted nearly a dozen players, while the entire team has taken preventative measures to stop the spread. This has resulted in a canceled practice on Wednesday and an extremely stripped-down one on Thursday.

At this point, it’s hard to predict which Lions players will even play during Sunday’s contest against the 6-6 Denver Broncos, let alone predict what may actually happen on the field.

But the powers of convention force me to proceed with my preview and prediction for Week 14. So without further ado, here is a very unconfident version of On Paper.

Editor’s note: The saddest of trombone noises reverberates throughout this preview.

Lions pass offense (30th) vs. Broncos pass defense (16th)

THE LIONS PASS OFFENSE IS FIXED! THE LIONS PASS OFFENSE IS FIXED!

Okay, maybe that’s a bit of an overreaction, but the last two games have been a step in the right direction. After a six-game stretch in which the Lions passed for over 200 net yards just once and had a passer rating above 75 once, Jared Goff has put together back-to-back acceptable games.

There are plenty of explanations for this turnaround. The addition of Josh Reynolds has certainly helped (139 yards in the past two games). If you ask the coaching staff, TE coach Ben Johnson’s increased influence on the passing game has breathed life into the unit. A healthy Goff and indoor football certainly helped, too.

The real question is whether any of this is actually sustainable. While Goff looked great in the second quarter last week, and in the first quarter on Thanksgiving, he hasn’t looked all that different in the other six quarters. Take a look at these splits:

Q1 vs. Chicago + Q2 vs. Minnesota: 16-of-18, 231 yards (12.8 Y/A), 3 TDs, 0 INTs, 158.3 passer rating
Other 6 quarters: 30-of-48, 236 yards (4.9 Y/A), 2 TDs, 1 INT, 79.9 passer rating

If Goff is going to win over this fanbase, he needs to be more consistent for four quarters.

The Vikings' pass defense has been somewhat average all season, but they’re on a nice tear as of late. They’ve held four of their past five opponents to an 80 or below passer rating, and that includes guys like Justin Herbert, Dak Prescott, and Patrick Mahomes.

The Broncos’ pass defense, like all pass defenses, can be split into two parts: coverage and pass rush. Their coverage unit is pretty darn good. They’ve got All-Pro safety Justin Simmons and decent corners in rookie Patrick Surtain, Ronald Darby, and Kyle Fuller.

Their pass rush, however, is lacking. They rank 27th in PFF pass-rushing grade and 27th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate. Their leading sackers this year are Malik Reed (5.0) and Von Miller (4.5)—and Miller isn’t even on the team anymore. That should be an advantage for the Lions when it comes to line play, but it’s also unclear which Lions offensive linemen are going to be suiting up to play. Center Evan Brown is on reserve/COVID and Halapoulivaati Vaitai missed Thursday’s practice with an illness, so a lot can change between now and Sunday.

Player to watch: Surtain. The rookie is tied for the team lead in interceptions (4) and has the most pass breakups of anyone on the team (12).

Advantage: Broncos +1. I can’t find myself believing in the Lions' pass offense yet, and the Broncos have a pretty impressive secondary. However, if they can’t provide any pressure on Goff, the Lions quarterback can be dangerous when kept clean. So I think the Lions have a chance to win this matchup, but their good play this year has been relegated to outlier moments.

Lions run offense (22nd) vs. Broncos run defense (25th)

It appears the Lions will be without D’Andre Swift again this week, which isn’t a death sentence for their running game, but it certainly doesn’t help. Overall, the Lions running game has been good, but not very explosive save for one game against the Steelers. The good is that they’ve run for at least 90 yards in 10 of 12 games this year. The bad news is that they’ve only rushed for over 120 yards three times—although all three of those times have come in the last six games.

Overall, Detroit ranks 11th in yards per rushing attempt (4.5) and 14th in percentage of rushes earning first downs (25.4). But, again, the status of their offensive line—especially up the middle—makes this a tough unit to predict this week.

It’s tough to see why the Broncos' run defense is ranked so low according to Football Outsiders. They’ve allowed over 100 rushing yards just five times in 12 games, and they’ve held eight of 12 opponents at or below their average yards per carry, but there was a pretty clear stretch in the middle of the season where Denver struggled.

Overall, they’re allowing a modest 4.4 yards per carry (22nd) and ceding first downs on just 22.1 percent of rushes (fourth). They’ve also got the 12th-best run defense grade per PFF. So I’m just going to call this run defense average rather than their below-average DVOA ranking suggests.

Player to watch: Ryan McCollum. The Lions are likely to start a third-string center on Sunday. McCollum is an undrafted rookie who has made two game appearances on offense, filling in for a total of seven plays. Good luck, rook.

Advantage: Draw. I would’ve normally given the Lions a slight advantage here, but with key parts of the offensive line potentially missing and no Swift in the backfield, I have to slide this one back to even. Jamaal Williams and Godwin Igwebuike have been good and are fully capable of carrying the load, but I’m not sure they’re going to see the normal rushing lanes we’ve seen this year.

Broncos pass offense (13th) vs. Lions pass defense (28th)

The Broncos’ passing offense is far from electric. They’re averaging just 225.9 passing yards per game (18th) and have thrown just 16 passing touchdowns (23rd). However, their efficiency numbers are at least somewhat respectable. They’re averaging 7.2 yards per attempt (16th) with a passer rating of 91.3 (17th).

Part of the problem with their passing game is protection. The Broncos have allowed 32 sacks on the season (ninth most) despite ranking 16th in PFF pass-blocking grade, suggesting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is at least a little culpable in some of the sacks.

Denver does boast an impressive set of receivers; however, that should give the Lions young secondary some issues. Tim Patrick, Courtland Sutton, and Jerry Jeudy all rank in PFF’s top 50 wide receivers.

The Lions' pass defense has been pretty inconsistent, but mostly bad, and it’s been a mixture of poor pressure and lapses in coverage.

Detroit’s pass rush could be worse than ever this week. With Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara already on IR, Detroit is dealing with two additional injuries at the edge position: Julian Okwara missed Thursday’s practice with an ankle injury and Austin Bryant was out with a shoulder injury. If those two can’t go, it’ll be down to Charles Harris—who is having a very good season—and two guys who have barely played in the NFL: Rashod Berry, who made his NFL debut last week, and Jessie Lemonier who made his NFL debut on Thanksgiving.

Player to watch: Jeudy vs. Will Harris. Another place the Lions are hurting is at nickel corner, where the Lions have been playing safety Will Harris as a replacement. The Broncos play a lot of 11-personnel meaning Jeudy is going to be in the slot all day. That’s a big mismatch in Denver’s favor.

Advantage: Broncos +3. Denver isn’t the most dangerous of passing teams, but they’re catching the Lions at the perfect time. With no pass rush expected from this unit, Bridgewater should have all day to pass, and with that set of receivers, it’s hard to see him failing.

Broncos run offense (14th) vs. Lions run defense (23rd)

Denver has a formidable, two-headed rushing attack in Melvin Gordon and rookie Javonte Williams. Gordon is expected back this week, and while that’s certainly a boost to the offense, Williams is having an extremely successful debut season in his own right, averaging 4.8 yards per carry.

Denver has only been held below 90 rushing yards twice this season, and they’ve rushed at least 4.5 yards per carry in seven of their past nine games. Their offensive line is hit or miss, but they’ve got a decent run-blocking tight end in Albert Okwuegbunam.

They run a lot of misdirection, which should challenge the Lions’ young linebacking corps that will likely be missing starter Jalen Reeves-Maybin.

The Lions' run defense has been slowly getting better, but they’re still susceptible to some rough performances. They were particularly bad in a three-game stretch against the Eagles, Steelers, and Browns.

They’ve been very good over the past two weeks, but here’s again where I come with the caveat. The Lions’ flu has swept through the defensive line, with rookies Levi Onwuzurike and Alim McNeill both sitting out of Thursday’s practice with flu symptoms. Nose tackle John Penisi missed last week’s game with the same flu and Nick Williams experienced symptoms at some point this week, too. While Williams and Penisini are more likely to play this week, it’s unclear where McNeill and Onwuzurike stand.

Player to watch: Derrick Barnes. Barnes didn’t get as much playing time last week as expected with Reeves-Maybin out, but defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn dropped something interesting about the rookie linebacker this week when it comes to his role with reserve Josh Woods.

“You’ll see Woods and Barnes in a rotation this week, with them two guys playing with Alex (Anzalone) out.”

Sounds like the Lions plan on expanding his role with sub-packages of him replacing Alex Anzalone.

Advantage: Broncos +1.5. I don’t know, man. The Broncos have a pretty good run game and while the Lions' run defense is improving, it’s hard for me to make a prediction here when I have no idea who is playing. Denver would probably still have the advantage with a full-strength Detroit defense (given their inconsistencies), so I guess I have slightly more confidence in Denver with all the flu stuff.

Last week’s prediction

I only gave the Vikings a +2 advantage in my preview last week and even admitted I could see “the Lions pull it out with some late-game heroics.” A nice little pat on the back for me there. I, obviously, didn’t see the Lions’ passing attack seeing as much success as they did last week, but who did? I don’t feel horrible about my 23-17 Vikings prediction, even if it was far from the 29-27 Lions final score.

In the comment section, 1951LION won the prediction challenge with a solid guess of 27-24 Lions. Here is your prize, 1951LION.

All over the internet this week were predictable HOT TAKES about how the Lions’ celebration of their first win was over the top, or bush league, or minor league. I won’t bother linking to any of them, because it’s an old, tired, ignorant take. For many, this was the marking of a first. Brad Holmes’ first win as a GM—a moment he’d been waiting for his entire life. Countless rookies notching their first NFL win. Jared Goff getting the insufferable “hasn’t won without Sean McVay” stat off his back.

Plus they did it on a walk-off pass, which is pretty rare. Eff the haters. Celebrate.

This week’s prediction:

The Broncos come out with a +5.5 advantage. They’re a strange team in that they don’t do anything at an elite level, but they also don’t have any clear weaknesses. Unfortunately for Detroit, they’re a horrible matchup with all of the issues facing the Lions right now. Denver is vulnerable to a pass rush, but Detroit won’t have one this week. Their defensive front is lacking, so Detroit could run the ball, theoretically. However, with the flu running through the offensive line and no D’Andre Swift, the Lions aren’t in a position to take advantage.

Ultimately, this is just bad timing for Detroit. 30-13 Broncos.