You’d think Week 1 would provide some clarity in the NFL, but sometimes it does the exact opposite. When something happens in the first week of the season that goes against expectations—especially when it’s basically the complete opposite of what you were expecting—you don’t know whether to trust your eyes or not.
Right now, that is the 2021 Green Bay Packers. A shoo-in to win the NFC North a week ago, the Packers dropped the biggest of deuces in Week 1, losing 38-3 to the New Orleans Saints.
Every good team has a bad week every now and then, but this one was particularly bad for the Packers. Using my favorite statistic—Football Outsiders’ DVOA—the Packers had the worst passing offense, running offense and passing defense of Week 1. That’s three out of four main categories.
All week, we’ve been trying to parse through what’s real and what is just a bad week. But as much digging as we do, there will be no truth revealed until we’re months into the season.
That makes this week’s On Paper preview nearly impossible. Do I make predictions based on last year’s stats or this year’s? Obviously, the answer is in the middle, but how much weight do I give each side? There is no magic formula here. There is no hidden objectivity just waiting for me to find. There are no answers, so this one is just going to be a guessing game.
Here is my preview for the Detroit Lions’ Week 2 game against the Green Bay Packers.
Lions pass offense (15th in DVOA in 2020; 26th in 2021) vs. Packers pass defense (15th in 2020; 32nd in 2021 )
There seems to be a lot of confusion about last week’s performance from Jared Goff. On the surface, it looks like a pretty good job: 314 yards, 92.6 passer rating, 31 points.
But the more advanced statistics tell a very different story. His 5.9 yards per attempt ranked 27th in the NFL, his 33.4 QBR was also 27th. He also ranked 24th in DVOA.
The separation in perception here is simply context. When the game was close and competitive, Goff was not good. He checked down often, held onto the ball too long and was occasionally accurate. When the defense was playing softer coverage at the end of the game, and he had no choice but to throw the ball downfield, he was better.
Of course, it’s not fair to put everything on Goff. The Lions have an extremely inexperienced receiver group that Goff likely hasn’t developed chemistry with. Additionally, despite Penei Sewell’s heroic efforts on the left side, Detroit’s pass protection was poor against the 49ers. Detroit’s pass block win rate was just 48 percent (22nd). Of course, it’s not easy to pass block when the opponent knows you’re going to be throwing the entire game.
To summarize: Jared Goff was not good for the large majority of Sunday’s game, but some of the reasons were out of his control. Unfortunately for Detroit, those reasons remain. Top wideout Tyrell Williams is dealing with a concussion, and Detroit will still be without Taylor Decker at left tackle, meaning they have a huge weakness with Matt Nelson at right tackle.
Last year, the Packers’ pass defense was about average, but it certainly finished strong. Last week against the Saints, they weren’t tested a lot, but any time Jameis Winston did throw the ball, he seemed to find plenty of success. Winston completed 70 percent of his passes, averaged 7.4 yards per attempt, and had the second-highest QBR of any Week 1 quarterback (91.8).
Green Bay also struggled to pressure the quarterback, tallying only three QB hits and zero sacks. The team still has pass rushing threats in Preston Smith, Za’Darius Smith and Rashan Gary, but they all had relatively quiet days against the Saints.
Perhaps of more concern is their secondary. Jaire Alexander is obviously still a top-tier cornerback in this league, but there isn’t much else there. Kevin King continues to struggle massively, but is still playing ahead of first-round draft pick Eric Stokes. Darnell Savage and Adrian Amos are average safeties, at best.
In other words, there are plenty of reasons to believe Green Bay’s defense is bad—but probably not 32nd-in-the-league bad.
Player to watch: T.J. Hockenson. We all knew going into Week 1 that Hockenson was going to be the focus of the Lions’ passing offense, and the 49ers still had no answer for him. Last year, Hockenson wasn’t dominant against the Packers (10 catches, 105 yards, 1 TD in two combined games), but Green Bay hasn’t been great covering tight ends in its history.
Advantage: Packers +1. While the Saints were very efficient against the Packers last week, it wasn’t like they tore them up. For the Lions perspective, I’m concerned that they won’t have an answer for the Packers’ pass rush from the right side, and they don’t have weapons that can take advantage of a weak secondary.
Lions run offense (21st in 2020; 8th in 2021) vs. Packers run defense (18th in 2020; 21st in 2021)
Last year, the Lions showed signs of life in the running game, but couldn’t do it on a consistent basis. Like last year, the Lions kicked off 2021 with one of those promising early performances. Now can they keep it going?
I’ve already gone over plenty of statistics on why Detroit’s ground game against the 49ers was extremely promising. Given how good this offensive line can be in run blocking, there’s reason to believe it will continue. Here’s one more stat to leave you with: 33.3 percent of the Lions’ rushes against the 49ers earned first downs—the third-best mark of any team in Week 1.
The Packers’ run defense has been below average for years, and it’s looking like that trend will continue under new defensive coordinator Joe Barry. Green Bay allowed 4.4 yards per carry (20th) and 28.2 percent of rushes earned first downs against this defense (24th).
Player to watch: Frank Ragnow vs. Kenny Clark. In Week 1, Ragnow was PFF’s highest graded center. Kenny Clark was 31st among defensive tackles, but his reputation precedes him. Clark has always been underappreciated and will keep Ragnow’s hands full.
Advantage: Lions +2. Call me a fool, but I actually believe the Lions may be able to run the ball this year. They have the necessary pieces and pulled off an admirable performance against a good 49ers defense last week. Detroit is going to want to run the ball a lot on Monday night, so if they can keep it going, they really do have a shot to keep this one close.
Well, the Lions come out with a +1 advantage, so I guess that means I’m picking them this week.
Oh... right... the defense...
Packers pass offense (1st in 2020; 32nd in 2021) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd in 2020; 30th in 2021)
Sorry, but I’m just not buying Aaron Rodgers’ horrible Week 1 performance. But before I get into why, let’s just enjoy how bad it was. His 36.8 passer rating was worst in the league and the fourth worst of his career. His 17.2 QBR was also worst in the league, and his 4.8 yards per attempt was only better than Matt Ryan’s 4.7.
How could I possibly put anything into that performance after the MVP season Rodgers just had? Just look at that chart. He had a passer rating below 90 just once in the games from last season. He’s going to bounce back and be fine, because that’s just how the universe works with him.
Still, there are concerns with this group. Outside of Davante Adams, there still isn’t a clear No. 2 receiving option. Additionally, Green Bay’s offensive line went through some serious shuffling this offseason, though they seemed to hold up pretty well against the Saints last week.
Regardless, I expect this to continue to be a top-10 passing offense.
The Lions pass defense was god awful last year, and last week’s performance against the 49ers did nothing to convince me that will change in the near future. Detroit’s secondary was already a huge question mark with its youth and inexperience, but with Jeff Okudah now out for the season, the Lions look like they have some serious issues at cornerback.
Their pass rush was a bit underwhelming in Week 1, but it’s hard to fully judge that when Detroit failed to get into favorable down and distance situations.
Player to watch: Whoever is on Davante Adams. Whether it’s Amani Oruwariye—who was PFF’s fourth-worst cornerback of Week 1—or rookie Ifeatu Melifonwu in his first career start, they’re going to have their hands full.
Advantage: Packers +3. I don’t think I need to explain myself here. This could get ugly.
Packers run offense (5th in 2020; 32nd in 2021 ) vs. Lions run defense (27th in 2020; 30th in 2021)
According to Football Outsiders, this Green Bay rushing attack was a top-five unit last year. I’d probably say it was a little lower than that, but still very good.
Early returns on that running game were horrible in Week 1. Aaron Jones was completely bottled up, and while A.J. Dillion showed a little more grit, it was still a horrible day from the Packers rushing game.
I’m sure Green Bay fans will be quick to point out that they had to abandon the run fairly quickly in that game and could never develop a proper rhythm. There is some truth to that, but this was also just a two-score game deep into the third quarter.
So what went wrong exactly? Well, surprisingly, it doesn’t look like the offensive line was much at fault. PFF actually had their run blocking as fourth-best in Week 1, although ESPN had their run block win rate at 20th in the league. PFF clearly put the blame on the backs, with Green Bay getting the fifth-worst team rushing grade of Week 1, and Aaron Jones’ 53.2 PFF grade didn’t help.
Last year’s chart for the Lions’ run defense was a damn lie. I don’t care how much green is there, the Lions never seemed to get stop when they needed to and were prone to the big play. Well, it was more of the same last week against the 49ers. However, I’m not ready to declare this unit dead upon arrival quite yet.
The 49ers rushing attack has always been very good, and giving up 131 rushing yards on 4.7 yards per carry may not turn out to be all that bad when all is said and done. With a fully healthy roster back in 2019, this rushing offense averaged 144 rushing yards and 4.6 yards per carry. If they’re that good again—and there’s plenty of reason to believe they will be—then Detroit’s performance will be closer to average than bad.
That being said, the play of Detroit’s defensive front and linebacking crew were extremely concerning, and when it comes to the linebackers, that wasn’t completely unexpected. Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone aren’t exactly an above-average duo, and it showed.
Players to watch: Dillon. He only had four carries in Week 1, but his physical running style could be trouble for Detroit. Here’s Lions defensive tackle Alim McNeill talking about Dillion this week:
“I know A.J. Dillon all too well, because we played him in college. He did have a game versus us, so, yeah, he’s a very physical back who can really move. That’s very slept on for him. He can move.”
Last week, the Lions defense missed five tackles. I expect that number to jump again this week.
Advantage: Packers +1. I’m willing to believe both of these units are better than they were in Week 1. However, I only have the statistical evidence for the Packers unit being much better. With all of the changes the Lions made on the defensive front, I do think they will eventually get it together, and maybe even this week—especially if rookie Levi Onwuzurike plays. But if I’m being fair, there’s just more statistical support for Green Bay having the edge here.
Last week’s prediction:
My score prediction of 23-13 49ers was pretty far off, as I underestimated just how poorly the Lions defense would come out. I ended up giving the 49ers just a +1 advantage over the Lions defense, when, in reality, it was total domination. On the other side of the ball, I underestimated the Lions rushing attack. Of course, inaccuracies should be expected early in the year, given that there is no relevant data.
In the On Paper challenge, a Pride of Detroit staffer beat the comment section. Chris Perfett’s half-joking 49 (get it?) to 22 prediction was the closest to the wild 41-33 final score.
Per tradition, if a staffer wins the On Paper challenge, they get to request the photoshop award. Here’s Chris’ request:
I know you won’t get the reference but I want a mashup of Jamaal Williams and the Saitama “OK” meme from One Punch Man
If you are unaware of the meme—as I was—here’s what it normally looks like:
And here is the Jamaal Williams version:
This week’s prediction
The Packers come out with a modest +3 advantage, all of it really coming from that passing offense. I think this game could be a lot closer than the 11.5-point line suggests, though. It’s not a terribly bad matchup for Detroit in the other three phases of the game, and there’s a pretty good chance Detroit will able to do what they want on the ground. If so, they’ll be able to stretch out possessions and keep Rodgers off the field for a long period of time. If the Lions are able to stick to that gameplan, we could be in for a 24-20 type of game that could go either way.
But in order for that to happen, the Lions need to avoid what happened last week. They can’t give up big plays on defense, they can’t turn the ball over on offense, and they can’t let drops and penalties kill drives. In other words, they need near perfection from their offense and a bend-don’t-break mentality on defense.
I don’t quite have the faith the Lions can hold up those standards, especially in Lambeau on a Monday night. Packers 34, Lions 17.