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Lions vs. Packers preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown and prediction for the Week 18 matchup between the Green Bay packers and Detroit Lions.

Green Bay Packers v Detroit Lions Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

We have reached the end of On Paper season. Before we get into this week’s matchup between the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions, I wanted to thank all of you for sticking around all season. On Paper is one of the most labor-intensive pieces I do every week, and sometimes it feels like a chore when you’re doing it for—let’s say—a two-win team all season. On Paper actually dates back all the way to 2008, so even though I’ve found a groove on how to get these done in a timely manner, it still takes a lot of work. So for the handful of you that reads every word of these things every week, I sincerely thank you.

With that out of the way, let’s get to the charts.

Lions pass offense (28th) vs. Packers pass defense (12th)

Sadly, Tim Boyle and the Detroit Lions passing offense couldn’t take advantage of one of the worst passing defenses in the league last week, stunting the positive growth we’ve seen from this unit over the past couple months. Of course, Detroit didn’t have their starting quarterback, wide receivers 1 and 3 and they were missing their starting center and right guard.

They get most of those pieces back this week, although the situation is still unclear at quarterback. If you need a reminder of how big of a difference it is between Jared Goff and Tim Boyle, let me remind you:

Jared Goff’s 2021 season: 311-of-464, 231.3 passing yards per game, 6.5 Y/A, 17 TDs, 8 INTs, 90.0 passer rating

Tim Boyle’s 2021 season: 61-or-94, 131.5 passing yards per game, 5.6 Y/A, 3 TDs, 6 INTs, 63.5 passer rating

So, let’s call that a significant difference.

Besides Goff vs. Boyle, the biggest question facing this unit is who will be starting at the tackle positions. Starters Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell were placed on reserve/COVID-19 on Monday, which gives them an opportunity to return by Saturday should their symptoms subside. If not, the Lions would have to start some combination of Will Holden, Matt Nelson, Dan Skipper, and Darrin Paulo. Those four have a combined 20 starts among them.

Here’s the part where I mention that I have no idea how the Packers will deploy their personnel. They keep saying they’re going to play all of their starters, and at this point, the only reason I have not to believe them is that the Vegas line in this game remains at a mysteriously low Packers by 3.5.

Regardless, let’s take the Packers at their word, and as you can see, this is a damn good passing defense. They’ve only allowed four teams all season to surpass their passer rating average, and only twice have they allowed a passer rating above 100.

As a team, they’re ceding a passer rating of just 84.5 (eighth), 6.5 yards per attempt (sixth), and have produced 18 interceptions on the season (fifth).

Their pass rush is a mixed bag, and it depends on what metric you trust the most because the numbers are all over the place. They rank 14th in sacks, 28th in pass rush win rate, third in PFF’s pass rush grade, and 19th in pressure percentage. The biggest outlier here seems to be PFF grade, so let’s just call it an average unit.

Player to watch: Rashan Gary. The former Wolverine is in the midst of a breakout season, with Za’Darius Smith sidelined. He leads the team in sacks (9.5) and PFF grade (87.2). In fact, Gary’s 86.7 pass rushing grade is eighth in all of the NFL.

Advantage: Packers +3 if Boyle is playing, Packers +1.5 if Goff is playing. This is a pretty dang good Packers defense when it comes to stopping the pass, so Detroit is outmatched no matter who is at quarterback. The tackle situation only makes this matchup even more terrifying.

The Lions rushing attack has been so much better than in previous years, but this chart is a great reminder that there is plenty of room for improvement. It’s still a below-average unit, but it’s getting there.

Where the Lions seem to struggle most is in short-yardage situations, where they continue to be ineffective. Using Football Outsiders’ Power Success metric, the Lions are only converting 59 percent of short-yardage downs on the ground, which ranks 27th in the league—well below the NFL’s 66 percent conversion average.

That said, Detroit still ranks ninth in yards per carry (4.5) and 20th in percentage of rushes earning first downs.

Last week, the Lions got D’Andre Swift back, but he had a very limited role. It sounds like you can expect more of the same this week.

“I think it’ll probably be the same,” Swift said of this week’s game plan. “I’m not sure as far as what it look like on the note sheet or a piece of paper, but just talking to the coaches throughout the week, it’ll probably be the same process.”

The Packers' run defense has had three different stages this season. They were not particularly good in the first two months of the year. They had a fantastic run in the middle of the season, and then they’ve struggled in three of the past four weeks. It’s probably worth noting that one of those past weeks was without elite run stuffer Kenny Clark, but that doesn’t tell the entire story.

Green Bay is allowing a league-high 4.8 yards per carry this season and a league-high 30.6 percent of rushes against this team earn first downs. In short, this is a vulnerable unit that Detroit could seriously take advantage of.

Player to watch: Clark. The six-year veteran is quite literally a handful. He’ll mostly line up either over backup center Evan Brown or right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, although he moves around quite a bit.

Advantage: Even. The Packers have been playing better run defense than they did at the start of the year, and I’m a bit concerned that Detroit could find themselves down early in this game again and be forced to abandon the run. If not, they’ve got a shot to win this matchup, but it’s hard to have a ton of confidence when Detroit could be missing both of their tackles and Green Bay is coming off a performance where they completely shut down Dalvin Cook.

Packers pass offense (2nd) vs. Lions pass defense (29th)

Aaron Rodgers is good. Do I really need to say more? Okay, fine. No mailing in the last On Paper of the season.

Perhaps the most shocking thing about this Packers passing attack is how well they’ve endured despite injuries to the offensive line. Without heir left tackle all season and having to shuffle players throughout the rest of the lineup, the Packers offensive line is absolutely killing it in every statistical category:

  • Pass blocking win rate: 65% (sixth)
  • Pass blocking PFF grade: 73.0 (8th)
  • Run blocking win rate: 73% (fifth)
  • Run blocking PFF grade: 61.2 (23rd)

Overall, the unit ranks second in passer rating (108.1) and sixth in yards per attempt (7.6). Okay, moving on.

You may look at this chart and wonder why the hell Aaron Glenn is getting so much praise this year. Well, it’s because of those five green boxes in passer rating allowed. They’ve had some shockingly phenomenal performances mixed with a majority of awful ones. The Lions have been without their top two pass rushers for the majority of the season and at least two of their top three cornerbacks. Throw in the first year of a new system, and there are plenty of excuses as to why this unit has been so bad.

But they are so bad, and that’s all that matters in this preview. How bad, welllllllll....

  • 30th in yards per attempt allowed (8.0)
  • 29th in passer rating allowed (101.4)
  • 27th in touchdowns allowed (28)
  • t-24th in interceptions (9)
  • 30th in sacks (26)

Player to watch: Davante Adams vs. Ifeatu Melifonwu. These two faced off in Week 2 and the rookie corner actually manage to hold his own until the play that he injured his leg. In the first half, Adams had just three catches for 29 yards.

Advantage: Packers +4. The highest advantage I give out—which is incredibly rare—is +5. There are only two reasons I’m not giving Green Bay that kind of advantage here. First, I can’t be sure Rodgers is going to play for all four quarters, and while the Lions' pass defense has been horrible in terms of efficiency, they aren’t exactly getting blown up for 300 yards every game.

Packers run offense (8th) vs. Lions run defense (31st)

After a slow start to the season, the Packers running game appears to be on track. They aren’t a kind of running team that will pound the rock 35 times a game and hit over 200 yards, but when they want to run it, they’re pretty good at it.

The Packers have rushed for over 160 yards just once all season, but they’re averaging a decent 4.2 yards per carry (t-20th). Perhaps most importantly, they’re good at moving the sticks via the ground. They are converting on 72 percent of short-yardage situations, good for ninth-best in the league.

Still, I think their DVOA ranking of eighth is a bit high for this unit. They’re only producing first downs on 24.6 percent of rushes, which ranks 18th in the league. I’d call them an average or slightly above average running team.

Detroit’s wild inconsistency stopping the run continues. This is an incredibly hard run defense to predict, as you can see from the chart. They’ve held six of 16 opponents below 4.0 yards per carry in a game, but they’ve also allowed 5.0 yards per carry or more in five of 16 games.

So... I wish I could tell you something insightful here, but I’ve given up on trying to figure it out. All I can say is the difference between a good and bad unit is consistency, and the Lions are all of out that.

Player to watch: Derrick Barnes. Lions head coach Dan Campbell did not hide the fact that he was disappointed with Barnes’ performance last week, and made several references to issues at the second level as the reason Detroit struggled to stop the run. The rookie linebacker will likely continue to see a lot of snaps in the season finale, so hopefully, we’ll see a bounceback game from him.

Advantage: Packers +1.5. They’re the more consistent unit. That’s all.

Last week’s prediction

While I was nowhere near the final score on my prediction, I did give the Seahawks a pretty significant +5.5 advantage with Boyle in. The only thing I underestimated was how poor Boyle was going to play against a bad Seahawks pass defense.

There weren’t a lot of good predictions in the comment section, and understandably so. Not many saw a shootout of sorts happening against two struggling offenses in the rain.

But Defend The Den came closest with a 41-31 Seahawks prediction. Here’s your prize, DTD. I got you a sneak peek at Hub Arkush’s MVP ballot:

This week’s prediction

The Packers come out with a +7 advantage if Goff is playing and a +8.5 advantage if it’s Boyle. That shouldn’t be much of a surprise between a 13-3 team and a 2-13-1 team. But who knows what’s actually going to happen with the Packers not playing for anything.

The last time the two teams played, Detroit was able to keep the game competitive until the Packers’ clear superiority took over. The Lions can hang with Green Bay if the running game works early, but with all the injuries and the COVID issues on the offensive front, I can’t feel comfortable in that prediction. Lions 16, Packers 31.