The Detroit Lions, still in search of their first win of the season, will have their chance at revenge this week, as the Minnesota Vikings are in town. The Vikes escaped the team’s previous Week 5 matchup with the narrowest of wins. Despite taking the lead with 37 seconds left, the Lions gave up three big plays to Kirk Cousins, opening the door of a 54-yard game-winning kick.
So now on the Lions’ home turf, can Detroit finally tally a win? Both teams will be missing key players, so it’ll be on each team’s depth to pull out a Week 13 victory. Who does that favor? Let’s take a closer look with our On Paper preview.
Lions pass offense (32nd) vs. Vikings pass defense (10th)
The Lions' pass offense continues to be really, really, really bad, but there was at least a glimmer of hope last week for the first time since Dan Campbell took over play-calling duties. Jared Goff completed four passes 10+ yards downfield, which may not sound like a lot (because it isn’t), but it’s a drastic increase for this offense.
Still, I’m not going to sit here and convince you this is a changed offense. They still rank 31st in yards per attempt (6.2), 25th in passer rating, t-29th in passing touchdowns (10) and 32nd in air yards per attempt (5.9).
After a rough start to the season, the Vikings' pass defense has leveled out nicely. But it’s almost impossible to figure out how they’re doing it. Their coverage grades are average by PFF standards (16th) and their secondary is playing poorly. Their pass rush has been depleted by roster losses—Everson Griffen, Danielle Hunter are out—and they rank 24th in pass rush win rate and 17th in pressure grade by PFF.
What appears to be keeping the Vikings’ pass defense together is their knack for turnovers. They have nine interceptions on the season, four of which have come from their very solid linebacking corps. Unfortunately for them, Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks both missed Thursday’s practice.
Player to watch: Bashaud Breeland. All season, Breeland has been the weak link in Minnesota’s secondary, and with Patrick Peterson still on the reserve/COVID list, it looks like Breeland could be on the field for most of the game on Sunday. Could a guy like Josh Reynolds take advantage?
Advantage: Vikings +2. While I’m not very high on the Vikings’ pass defense—certainly not as the 10th best unit in the NFL—I have absolutely no faith in the Lions’ passing attack.
Lions run offense (22nd) vs. Vikings run defense (29th)
The Lions’ rushing attack is creeping towards average, and they’ve really leaned into it over the past month. Obviously, the emergence of D’Andre Swift—who had 266 rushing yards in two games—has helped. But Swift is not expected to play this week, leaving the Lions to rely on the likes of Jamaal Williams, Godwin Igwebuike, and Jermar Jefferson to pick up the slack.
That may not be a bad thing for Detroit when it comes to the running game. Williams is averaging a solid 4.2 yards per carry, while Igwebuike (six rushes, 85 yards) and Jefferson (five rushes, 47 yards) have made the most of their limited opportunities.
The real star of the Lions rushing game has been their offensive line. They rank 13th in run block win rate and 17th in PFF’s run-blocking grade. Not outstanding, but certainly good enough to be an average-to-above-average rushing attack when it all comes together.
The Vikings have held just a single opponent below 4.0 yards per carry all season and only three opponents below their season average at yards per carry. The last time the two teams met, Detroit was able to somewhat successfully run the ball—split almost evenly between Williams and Swift.
But with the Vikings' defense more beat up by injury, they could have an opportunity to have more success this time around. That being said, the statuses of Michael Pierce—who returned to practice from IR this week—-and Dalvin Tomlinson—who was removed from reserve/COVID—are still unknown. If both can play, it’ll be a big boost to the Vikings’ struggling running defense.
Overall, the Vikings rank 31st in yards per carry allowed (4.8) and 25th in percentage of rushes allowed that earn first downs (26.8).
Player to watch: Igwebuike. Lions coaches have raved about Igwebuike since they converted him from safety to running back. He’s been fantastic as a rusher so far this year, but he only has six carries. Don’t be surprised if he gets at least that many on Sunday.
Advantage: Lions +1. This is clearly the Lions’ path to victory, and on a normal week, it could be a big advantage in their favor. But with Swift out, the Lions lose a dynamic runner capable of hitting the home run. Maybe Jefferson and Igwebuike could do it, too, but their sample sizes are too low to draw big conclusions. And with the Vikings potentially getting two run-stuffing defensive tackles back this week, it’s hard to have a lot of confidence in predicting the Vikings’ side of this matchup. So I’m giving just a modest advantage to Detroit.
Vikings pass offense (2nd) vs. Lions pass defense (28th)
The Vikings' passing attack is among the most lethal in the league and it’s easy to see why. Kirk Cousins is a good quarterback, and the wide receiver tandem of Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen is among the best in the NFL.
They rank 10th in yards per attempt (7.5), second in passer rating (105.3), t-ninth in touchdowns (23), and first in interceptions (3).
One of the most interesting developments about this passing offense is that they’ve gotten quite a bit more conservative than in past years. Whereas Cousins would normally push the ball downfield early and often, the Vikings actually rank 27th in intended air yards. This passing attack, while dangerous, is more about dinking and dunking than deep shots. Here are Cousins’ intended air yards average over the past four years.
This could be a response to a poor offensive line when it comes to pass blocking. Minnesota ranks 29th in PFF pass-blocking grade and 27th in ESPN’s pass block win rate.
On the surface, it may look like the Lions' pass defense has drastically improved over the last month. They’ve held the last four opponents under a 90 passer rating, but context matters. Those quarterbacks were Jalen Hurts, Mason Rudolph, Baker Mayfield, and Andy Dalton.
Detroit’s pass defense simply isn’t very good at anything other than making a handful of interceptions against bad quarterbacks. Detroit can’t rush the passer (31st in pass rush win rate; 28th in PFF). They can’t cover (32nd in PFF coverage grade). So it should come as little surprise that the Lions still rank 32nd in yards per attempt allowed and 26th in passer rating despite the recent “improvement.”
Of course, most of this is understandable when an already-thin roster loses its top two edge defenders, and three potential starters in the secondary.
Player to watch: Whoever the slot WR is on any given play. As revealed to us in our preview podcast, the Vikings rotate players through the slot. Jefferson plays there about 26 percent of the time. Thielen is there about 23 percent of the time.
Meanwhile, the Lions are having an identity crisis at nickelback after starter AJ Parker landed on IR. Despite having a perfectly fine Nickell Robey-Coleman on the practice squad, Detroit is using safety Will Harris as the nickel, and it’s not going well.
Advantage: Vikings +2. Detroit actually did a somewhat good job in this matchup the last time these two teams met, and that may bring some optimism to this matchup. But when Andy Dalton racks up 310 yards against you the previous week, it’s hard to truly have any optimism about this matchup.
Vikings run offense (29th) vs. Lions run defense (21st)
The Vikings are among the least efficient rushing attacks in the league, but they still really do like to run it a lot. They’ve eclipsed 100 rushing yards in seven of 11 games this year despite only rushing for an average of 4.2 yards per carry on the season (17th).
The big news this week is Dalvin Cook is expected to miss Sunday's game (and maybe more). Alexander Mattison didn’t have a problem running against the Lions last time around, but on the season, he’s clearly not as efficient (3.6 YPC) as Cook (4.5).
Again, the Vikings’ offensive line is an issue for them. The interior offensive line is a problem—which matches up fairly nicely with a Detroit defensive front that is clearly stronger on the inside than outside.
Detroit’s run defense jumped eight spots in DVOA after stifling the Bears on Thanksgiving. It may not look like it based on the previous three performances, but Detroit’s run defense has looked much better as of late, especially up the middle, where they were gashed earlier in the season. The edges remain a problem, and with Trey Flowers likely out again this week, that problem won’t go away.
The Lions have been wildly inconsistent in stopping the run week-to-week, which makes this matchup tough to predict.
Player to watch: Derrick Barnes. With Jalen Reeves-Maybin likely out this week due to injury, the rookie linebacker looks primed to get the most playing time in his career. He’s never played more than 48 percent of defensive snaps, but given Detroit’s lack of depth at linebacker, he could be pushing 100 this week. It’s a big opportunity for the rookie.
Advantage: Lions +1. I have very little confidence in either direction here, as Mattison did well last time the two teams met, but the Lions have improved a bit since. Unfortunately, the Lions have just been far too inconsistent to show any sort of true belief in their run defense, and Barnes’ increased role throws yet another unknown into the equation.
Last week’s prediction
My final prediction of 20-17 Bears turned out to be fairly accurate, but I made some errors in judgment along the way. I had the Bears with a big advantage in the running game, but the Lions’ run defense—in their infinite randomness—stood on their head. Meanwhile, despite the Bears holding the worst passing offense in the league, Andy Dalton hung over 300 yards on them. That all ended up evening out, though.
In the comment section, the closest to the 16-14 final score was Lions Fan in SoCal, who missed it by a single point with their 16-13 prediction.
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This week’s prediction
The Vikings come out with a mere +2 advantage. It’s a bit of a rarity to see the Lions have the advantage in two of the four matchups, but it shows a clear path of how the Lions could win this thing. If they can get the run game going despite Swift’s injury—a clear possibility—they can limit possessions, keep the score low, and hope, for once, the Lions pull it out with some late-game heroics. If they stop the Vikings’ run game on defense, they can force Minnesota to have to earn every yard and every point and hope Cousins does something stupid along the way—something he’s more than capable of doing.
So I expect this one to be close and this one to be low scoring. But I have to give the edge to Minny. 23-17 Vikings.