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Detroit Lions vs. Baltimore Ravens preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown and prediction for the Lions’ Week 3 matchup against the Ravens.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Baltimore Ravens Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

After dropping their first two games of the season, the Detroit Lions are looking to avoid an 0-3 start for the first time since the 2015 season. Unfortunately for them, the Baltimore Ravens are in town.

While the Ravens themselves are a fumble away from an 0-2 start themselves, they’re also a 55-yard field goal at the end of regulation away from a 2-0 start against very competent opponents in the Chiefs and Raiders.

The Ravens are one of the most unique teams in the NFL, as they rely almost exclusively on the running game on offense, and they’re one of the few teams in the league that has maintained year-to-year consistency on defense.

They’re one of the model franchises in the NFL, having sported a losing record just once during head coach John Harbaugh’s 13-year tenure in Baltimore.

But this team isn’t unbeatable. They’ve shown some flaws over the first couple of weeks and some very much work in the Lions’ favor. Let’s take a closer look to see if the Lions can pull off a big Week 3 upset like they did several times under the previous regime.

Note: This is the final week we’ll be using any data from 2020. Next week, the chart will only represent 2021 games.

Lions pass offense (25th in DVOA) vs. Ravens pass defense (24th)

The Lions' passing attack has been better than advertised this offseason. Jared Goff has been far from perfect—and has had huge, costly turnovers in each game—but there are some very promising signs for this offense. They’re going three-and-out at the fifth-lowest rate, they’re punting at the sixth-lowest rate per drive, and they’re perfect in the red zone.

Of course, some of this has to do with the run game, but Goff has looked in command of this offense at times, even if it still is relying heavily on short targets.

Through two games, Goff ranks 27th in yards per attempt (6.3), but 16th in completion percentage (68.8), 22nd in passer rating (94.6), and 23rd in QBR (43.9). It’s not great, but with Detroit's lackluster receiving corps, it’s not all that bad either.

Consider this: combine the receiving stats for running backs D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams with the tight ends and you have 39 catches, 337 yards, and 3 touchdowns. The rest of the team: 25 catches, 247 yards, 2 touchdowns.

(Note: That is not an error, the Ravens allowed a passer rating of 0.0 in Week 17 last year)

The Ravens' pass defense was a mixed bag last year, but mostly good. They finished 10th in DVOA, seventh in passer rating allowed, and second in yards per attempt allowed.

This year, it hasn’t been nearly as good. Of course, they’ve played the Chiefs and Raiders—currently the first and 10th-ranked passing offenses by DOVA. But they’ve certainly looked more vulnerable in the past.

Part of it can be attributed to the laundry list of injuries they’re currently dealing with. Baltimore is missing key pieces both in the secondary and in their defensive front. As a result, the Ravens rank 25th in yards per attempt allowed (8.9) and 22nd in passer rating allowed (104.5).

Player to watch: Hockenson. The Ravens have faced a murderer’s row of tight ends thus far. The results:

  • Travis Kelce: 7 catches, 109 yards, 1 TD
  • Darren Waller: 10 catches, 105 yards, 1 TD

Time to eat, T.J.

Advantage: Draw. The Lions certainly have a chance to win this matchup, but pass protection is going to be key. The Ravens haven’t done a great job pressuring quarterbacks this year, but it isn’t for lack of trying. This is still one of the most aggressive defenses in the NFL—they rank first in blitz rate through two weeks. And the book on Goff is that he tends to panic under pressure. Detroit’s offensive line has been very good through two weeks, but this is an entirely different threat, and I just can’t say with confidence that the passing offense will not only succeed but avoid major mistakes like in previous weeks.

Lions run offense (4th) vs. Ravens run defense (9th)

I’m not quite ready to say it, but... y’all... the Lions may have finally established the run in Detroit. After a mostly down season last year, the Lions currently rank fourth in yards per carry (5.2), 13th in rushing yards per game (112), and that’s despite trailing for huge portions of both games this year. They also lead the league in percentage of rushes earning first downs (34.9).

A true sign that the Lions’ rushing attack is consistently good is the fact that they only have two rushes of 20+ yards this year. This early in the year, averages could be skewed by outliers, but Detroit doesn’t have one or two runs buffing their numbers.

Okay, one more promising stat to prematurely celebrate this Lions’ rushing attack: According to Football Outsiders’ “stuffed” statistic, Lions running backs have been hit at or behind the line of scrimmage on just 11 percent of runs—good for sixth in the NFL.

The Ravens' run defense is part of that consistently good defense over the past few years. Iconic linebacker play mixed with a strong defensive front has created a fortress for this defense that hasn’t been cracked very often.

This year appears to be no different. Through two games, the Ravens rank sixth in yards allowed and 10th in yards per carry allowed. Just 20.5 percent of opponent’s rushes are earning first downs, good for 11th in the NFL. Hoping to rip off a long gain on the ground against this defense? Good luck—Baltimore’s surrendered just one rush of 20+ yards this year.

Player to watch: Brandon Williams vs. Frank Ragnow. The Lions’ rushing attack is anchored by their center, and this week, he’ll have his hands literally full with the Ravens’ 336-pound nose tackle Brandon Williams. Williams is hurting with a neck strain and was limited in practice on Thursday. Now in his ninth NFL season, Williams has quietly been the anchor of this run defense for the better half of a decade.

Advantage: Lions +1. I may regret showing early faith in this Lions running game, but I do think they have the advantage here. The Ravens run defense has been extremely solid through two games, but the Raiders and Chiefs also didn’t choose to run the ball very much. The Ravens have faced just 39 rushing attempts through two games, the fourth-fewest in the league. And while they held Josh Jacobs to 34 yards on 10 carries, he did find the end zone twice. There’s a true opportunity here for Detroit to prove itself on the ground.

Ravens pass offense (19th) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)

*Lamar Jackson did not play in this game

The Ravens don’t pass the ball very much, so you can pretty much ignore that entire red column. But when Lamar Jackson does drop back to pass, the Ravens passing attack tends to be average. Last year, the Ravens ranked 17th in passing DVOA, 14th in passer rating (95.7), and 18th in yards per attempt (7.2).

Through two games, I think it’s fair to say it’s more of the same. The Ravens have a bunch of solid receiving threats in Marquise “Hollywood” Brown, Sammy Watkins, and tight end Mark Andrews, but this isn’t exactly a dynamic passing attack. It’s simply there to support the running game and based on their 27 and 36 points scored in each game this year, it’s doing a good enough job.

Can we just skip this part?

The Lions' pass defense was abysmal last year, and it’s off to an even abysmaler start. Yes, I will make up words to describe how bad this pass defense is.

Detroit has been bitten by the injury bug, losing two of their top three cornerbacks in Jeff Okudah and Ifeatu Melifonwu. In their place, they’re likely starting 25-year-old Amani Oruwariye, 23-year-old Bobby Price, and 23-year-old AJ Parker.

But the secondary has only been part of the problem. Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone, combined, have allowed 13 catches on 13 targets for 168 yards, 2 TDs, and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Obviously, the Lions have placed Collins on the trading block and expect both rookie Derrick Barnes and veteran Jalen Reeves-Maybin to play in his place.

Player to watch: Mark Andrews. It’s been a bit of a slow start for the Ravens' premier tight end. He has just 77 yards on eight receptions and has yet to find the end zone yet. But if there’s a week for him to break out, this is the one. Can Barnes and Reeves-Maybin provide some coverage skills? That is still to be determined.

Advantage: Ravens +2. The Ravens aren’t going to throw for 300+ yards and five touchdowns against the Lions. They’re just not that kind of team. But given how much the Lions have struggled to defend the pass at any point on the field, it seems likely that whenever they need to pick up a third-and-5, they will.

Ravens run offense (2nd) vs. Lions run defense (29th)

Look at some of these numbers, man. The Ravens are special. They averaged over 6.0 yards per carry seven times last year, and they’ve already managed to do it once this year. I don’t think I need to waste a lot of your time convincing you this is an elite unit not only led by Lamar Jackson but a running back corps that, despite the major injuries suffered, has still managed to dominate. Ty’Son Williams—an undrafted player from 2020—is averaging 6.5 yards per carry this year. Outside of Jackson, it’s not the player, it’s the dynamic scheme.

Detroit’s run defense struggled a lot in Week 1, and while they got better in Week 2, those stats are a bit misleading. You take away three kneel-downs, and the Packers averaged 3.5 yards per carry. You take away Aaron Rodgers’ four rushes for 6 yards and it bumps up to 3.9.

Still, improvement is improvement, and the Lions' defensive line appears to be knocking off some rush. Here’s defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn on that unit’s performance in Week 2.

Just watching those guys operate, we can win with that d-line that we have. So that’s another positive that I pointed out. If we continue to build and continue to knock the rust off … and you’re right, those guys didn’t play a lot in the preseason, but we’re starting to see the fruits of what we expect from all those guys.

Overall, the team is allowing 3.8 yards per carry (13th), and 18.6 percent of the opponent’s rushes are earning first downs (eighth). So, there are promising developments, but they just aren’t quite there yet.

Player to watch: Lamar Jackson. You can take everything away from Jackson, and he’ll still manage to beat you with his legs. I hate to be so reductionist, but we’re in Year 4 of Jackson’s career and no one appears to have found a way to slow the kid down. He’s going to get his regardless of what the defense schemes up for him.

Advantage: Ravens +3. I believe the Lions' run defense will be better than it has looked over the past couple of weeks, but I don’t think it’s going to show against the Ravens. The addition of Barnes to the linebacking corps will keep things interesting, but while the rookie has tremendous sideline-to-sideline speed and incredible hustle, he’s also going to be prone to making mistakes with all of the misdirection the Ravens run. Good luck, rook.

Last week’s prediction:

Last week, I absolutely nailed my prediction for Lions vs. Packers. Take my final two paragraphs alone:

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.

With the final score of 35-17 Packers, I won this week’s On Paper challenge. But because I’m the most humble person I know, I’ll pass it on to others who were just as close to the final score.

Again, we saw a staffer nail the predictions, as Kellie Rowe shared my 34-17 prediction, making her this week’s On Paper Champion. Per tradition, she gets to request the Photoshop this week:

“I have no idea lol the most i’ve been able to think of is Lamar flipping into something like a lions den.”

Absolutely positively done.

This week’s prediction:

The Ravens come out with a +4 advantage solely as a result of their offense looking like they will humble Detroit’s defense. In a lot of ways, this game resembles the matchup of last week. There are signs that the Lions' defense could find some success and keep the game close early. But I just don’t see how they’re going to get stops on defense unless that defensive front takes another huge step this week.

I don’t see that happening, and if the Lions get down early, the Ravens are going to send pressure the rest of the game and give Goff fits. I think this one has a chance of getting ugly at an even quicker pace than the last couple of games. Lions 14, Ravens 38.