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Detroit Lions vs. Dallas Cowboys preview, prediction: On Paper

Breaking down the matchups in Lions vs. Cowboys, and making a score prediction for Sunday’s game.

NFL: DEC 26 Lions at Cowboys Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Detroit Lions will try to right the ship out of the bye week on a trip to Dallas for a meeting with the Cowboys. Dallas is coming off a tough loss to the Philadelphia Eagles, but with the return of quarterback Dak Prescott expected this week, the 4-2 Cowboys are still feeling pretty darn good about their outlook for the rest of the season.

For the Lions, it’s a tough team to see out of the bye week. That said, if they’re able to pull off the upset, it should be a big confidence boost for both the players and the fan base.

The Cowboys are seven-point favorites right now, but are they truly that much better of team? Let’s take a closer look in our Week 7 On Paper preview.

Lions pass offense (15th) vs. Cowboys pass defense (3rd)

For the most part, the Lions pass offense has been pretty good this season. Jared Goff has exceeded expectations, but he took a big step back in the last game against the Patriots. New England forced Goff out of the pocket often, and it resulted in two sacks, an interception and a lost fumble returned for a touchdown.

This week, the Lions look like they’re going to be shorthanded again at receiver. DJ Chark seems like a long-shot to play, while Josh Reynolds has also missed the first two practices of the week. That leaves a 90% healthy Amon-Ra St. Brown, Kalif Raymond, Tom Kennedy and whoever they bring up from the practice squad. Not ideal.

The Cowboys have faced some pretty tough pass offenses this year, and they’ve humbled just about every one of them. Only one opponent has surpassed 200 net passing yards in a game, and the only time they allowed a passer rating above 90 was last week when Jalen Hurts only completed 15 passes for 155 yards.

Their pass rush is the key to making the whole unit work. As I noted in my scouting report, the Cowboys rank first in sacks, first in pressure rate, second in pass rush win rate and second in PFF pass rush grade. And that’s all while blitzing at a very average rate of 27.9 percent (14th).

That said, their secondary is playing quite well, too, with cornerback Trevon Diggs and safety Malik Hooker playing at high levels.

Player to watch: Micah Parsons.

Uh oh.

Parsons is a game-wrecker, and even though Detroit will counter with two impressive offensive tackles in Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell, Parsons is the kind of player that you can only contain for so long. He’s going to make something happen, and it won’t matter how many chip blocks you send his way.

Advantage: Cowboys +2. While the Lions have a pretty good offensive line, we saw last game what happens when they struggle. The Cowboys have the best pass rush Detroit has seen yet this season, and Jared Goff has consistently shown in his career that he can be mistake-prone under pressure. Throw in some injuries to the Lions’ receiving corps, and Detroit is going to have to overcome some mismatches on paper to win this portion of the matchup.

Lions run offense (5th) vs. Cowboys run defense (17th)

The Lions rushing attack has been consistently good this year, even with a half step back last week against the Patriots. Even without D’Andre Swift in the lineup for the past two weeks, Detroit has managed to move the ball well in the run game.

The good bit of injury news: it appears Swift is on track to return this week. While I would not expect him to keep pace with his ridiculous 8.6 yards per carry average, he should bring the threat of an explosive play any time he gets the ball.

But for all of the good things about the Lions rushing attack, they still remain outrageously poor in short-yardage situations, converting on 53 percent of power situations (28th). Here’s offensive coordinator Ben Johnson talking about that earlier this week.

“To me, that’s the disappointing part of it is the short yardage because we take a lot of pride, particularly in our run game, of being able to get a yard when we need a yard. And so, when you look back at it, I think a lot of it stems back to execution on a lot of levels. It’s little details that are slipping through, and so starting this week, we’re going to put a little bit more emphasis on it. Not that we weren’t before, but I think the guys are feeling the heightened awareness here on third-and-1, fourth-and-1.”

Though they’ve improved over the past two weeks, the Cowboys run defense is very clearly their biggest weakness on the team. And here’s the best news for Detroit: the Cowboys defense ranks dead last in defending power run situations, allowing conversions 90 percent of the time.

Player to watch: Swift. Not only is Swift’s yards per carry ridiculous, but he’s also way ahead of the pack when it comes to yards gained above expectations.

The sample size is small, but with a strong offensive line and a bad Cowboys interior defensive line, this could be a big day for the Lions RB1.

Advantage: Lions +2. The Lions are going to try and run the ball down the Cowboys’ throats on Sunday. How do I know? Well, besides the obvious mismatch here and the fear of Dallas’ pass rush, Dan Campbell said as much this week.

“Certainly, we’ve got to be able to run the ball,” Campbell said on Wednesday. “We’ve got to be able to run the football. It all starts there for us.”

I like Detroit’s chances.

Cowboys pass offense (21st) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)

I have no idea what to think about the Cowboys pass offense. Cooper Rush did a good enough job not turning the ball over and modestly moving the ball downfield. He only threw two touchdown passes in a game once, but didn’t turn the ball over until last week against the Eagles—when he threw three interceptions.

But we aren’t talking about Rush this week. Dak Prescott is back, and it’s hard to know what to expect out of him. Sometimes when a quarterback is coming off a finger injury, it takes a few weeks to get back into the rhythm of the game and trust the throwing hand. Sometimes, he’ll pick up right where he left off.

Dallas has a decent receiving corps despite losing Amari Cooper this offseason. CeeDee Lamb leads the team in yards, while Noah Brown is in the midst of a breakout season, and Michael Gallup is still dangerous. Still, it feels like this unit is missing a gear right now. Perhaps Prescott can be that catalyst.

Pass protection has been a bit of an issue this year as Dallas has allowed the 10th-highest pressure rate, rank 32nd in pass block win rate, and 20th in PFF pass blocking grade. With Rush, they avoided sacks by getting rid of the ball quickly. They may try to do the same with Prescott, but he tends to hold onto the ball longer.

While I don’t have a lot of confidence in predicting what Dak Prescott will do on Sunday, I have a pretty good feeling on how the Lions pass defense will perform. They are bad. They are bad at everything. Bad at pass rush (32nd in pass rush win rate). Bad in coverage (31st in PFF coverage grade). Bad in the red zone (27th in touchdown percentage). Bad on third down (32nd in conversion rate).

The Lions are claiming they are making more changes out of the bye, and that could give them an “element of surprise” edge on Sunday. They could also be getting up to three guys back on defense that they’ve been missing for several weeks: defensive linemen John Cominsky and Josh Paschal, along with cornerback Jerry Jacobs.

But consider me highly skeptical until I actually see some results.

Player to watch: Aidan Hutchinson. Hutchinson has been the most effective in his young career when Cominsky has been in the game, and, indeed, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn seemed excited about Hutchinson’s potential this week.

“We’ll get some guys back, Cominsky will be back, Paschal will be ready. Being able to use Aidan in other spots, allowing him to have some freedom to do some things also.”

Advantage: Cowboys +1. Obviously, I have to give Dallas the advantage here with how bad the Lions pass defense has been thus far this year. But with so many unknowns in this matchup—specifically, what changes the Lions have made and how Prescott will look—I can’t give them the advantage with much confidence.

Cowboys run offense (6th) vs. Lions run defense (31st)

The Cowboys rushing attack got off to a slow start, but it has really come on in the past four games. While Ezekiel Elliott remains the main back, Tony Pollard is averaging 5.3 yards per carry—over a yard more than Elliott (4.1). Pollard is fifth in the NFL in yards after contact per rush.

In terms of their offensive line, Dallas ranks ninth in run block win rate, but just 28th in PFF’s run blocking grade.

Though they rank high in DVOA, other stats suggest this is closer to an average unit. They rank 19th in yards per carry (4.3) and 16th in expected points added per rush. Still, they are trending in the right direction.

The Lions are not trending in the right direction. They aren’t trending in any direction. They started really, really bad, and they remain really, really bad at stopping the run. Here are some sad stats:

  • 5.5 yards per carry allowed (30th)
  • 31st in rush defense EPA
  • 10 rushing TDs allowed (31st)
  • 30.7% of rushes earning first downs (32nd)

Player to watch: Malcolm Rodriguez. Detroit’s best chance at winning this matchup, Rodriguez leads the team in run defense PFF grade (69.3) and stops (13).

Advantage: Cowboys +2. I’m not sure the Cowboys rushing attack is very good, but I know the Lions run defense is bad. And because Dallas may want to ease Prescott in, I wouldn’t be surprised if they pound the rock hard in this game. I have little confidence Detroit will stop them.

Last week’s prediction:

The Lions had a bye last week. This is not me avoiding the Patriots game. This is a fact. Moving on.

This week’s prediction:

The Cowboys come out with a modest +3 advantage. However, they do have the advantage in three of four matchups. That said, I don’t think a Lions upset is completely out of the picture. They have a real chance to control the pace of the game with their rushing attack, especially with the return of D’Andre Swift. If the Lions can lean on that, and scatter in a couple of big plays in the passing game, that’s how they win.

The bigger challenge is fixing a very broken defense. Again, the element of surprise out of a bye week could work in Detroit’s favor, but that’s relying on faith right now. This article is all about objective results, so I can’t just blindly believe the Lions defense will be fixed. Lions 17, Cowboys 30.

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