The last time the Detroit Lions and New England Patriots faced off in Foxborough was 2014. The Patriots whipped the Lions 34-9. Despite the thrashing, it was a special year for both teams. For Detroit, it was their first 11+ win season since 1991, and one of the best Lions teams we’ve seen in quite some time. For the Patriots, it was yet another Super Bowl-winning year, but their first in 10 years.
Safe to say, those days are well behind both teams right now. Gone is Tom Brady. Gone are Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson, Ndamukong Suh, and others.
Both of these teams are 1-3 and desperately trying to turn their corner. Bill Belichick is really the only constant.
So let’s dive a little deeper into these struggling franchises and see who has the advantage this Sunday in our Lions vs. Patriots On Paper preview and prediction.
Lions pass offense (12th) vs. Patriots pass defense (10th)
The Lions passing offense is off to one of its best starts in years. Jared Goff ranks in the top 10 in yards per attempt (7.5, t-10th), touchdowns (11, t-first), and passer rating (99.9, seventh). Detroit also leads the NFL in passing plays of 20+ yards. It’s worth pointing out that the Commanders and Seahawks have two of the worst passing offenses in football (30th and 32nd in pass defense DVOA, respectively), but Detroit has still managed to do okay against the Eagles (second in DVOA) and Vikings (20th).
It’s hard to know exactly which weapons will be available for Detroit this week. D’Andre Swift seems highly doubtful and Amon-Ra St. Brown’s status is only slightly more optimistic. Meanwhile, DJ Chark and Josh Reynolds are trending in positive directions after returning to practice on Thursday. Chark, Reynolds, Kalif Raymond, and Tom Kennedy are a respectable group of receivers, especially when you include tight end T.J. Hockenson, who is coming off a career game vs. the Seahawks.
Detroit’s offensive line has passed the eye test through four weeks, and they’ve allowed just five sacks (t-second fewest) and the fourth lowest pressure percentage (16.1 percent). However, some advanced statistics still paint this offensive line as a very bad pass blocking unit. They rank 31st in PFF’s team pass block grade and 27th in team pass block win rate. In all honesty, I don’t trust the advanced metrics at this point, because they don’t match the eye test.
The Lions face a pretty good test with the Patriots pass defense this week, who have held all four opponents below 300 net passing yards, but in terms of overall efficiency, they’ve just been average—holding the Dolphins and Ravens right around expectations.
New England ranks 12th in yards per attempt allowed (7.0), 16th in completion percentage allowed, 22nd in passer rating (95.3), and 11th in expected points added per dropback (0.00).
Their pass rush seems about average-to-below-average, depending on which metric you trust.
- 27th in pass rush win rate (36%)
- 20th in team PFF pass rush grade (66.3)
- t-sixth in sacks (11)
- 19th in pressure percentage (22.9%)
Their coverage team is better than average. Rookie cornerback Jack Jones posted a league-high 93.5 PFF grade last week and got a rare pick-six off of Aaron Rodgers (Rodgers has only thrown four career pick-sixes). On the other side, Jonathan Jones is continuing his solid career.
Player to watch: T.J. Hockenson. Not only is Hockenson coming off a career year and St. Brown is trending towards missing this game, but the Patriots have given up five receiving touchdowns to tight ends this season, including three against the Ravens.
Advantage: Lions +1. Detroit’s offense is humming along really nicely, and the only thing that has really disrupted it thus far is pass rush. I’m not overly concerned with New England’s pass rush, especially if Jonah Jackson can make his return this week.
Lions run offense (4th) vs. Patriots run defense (31st)
After two weeks of the season, I was concerned that Detroit’s run offense was being overly inflated due to D’Andre Swift’s explosive runs, and that they’d eventually regress to the mean. While that has been partially true—that 7.2 yards per carry through two weeks was never sustainable—the Lions have been impressively efficient every week of the season thus far. In their lone “below average” performance against the Vikings, Jamaal Williams still produced 87 yards on 20 carries (4.4 YPC) and two touchdowns. And while it looks like the Lions will be without Swift again this week, Williams’ performance last week against the Seahawks—19 carries, 108 yards, two touchdowns—shows that this run offense is more than just who’s in the backfield.
And that’s where the Lions offensive line comes in. Two metrics that attempt to measure offensive line efficiency in the run game—yards before contact and Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards—really highlight the job they’re doing.
- 3.8 yards before contact per carry (second best)
- 5.10 adjusted line yards (fourth)
After a promising start to the season—against one of the worst rushing attacks in the league—the Patriots run defense has gotten worse and worse. In the past two weeks alone, New England has ceded 387 rushing yards at 6.3 yards per carry. Now, granted 107 yards of those came from Lamar Jackson, but even taking away his statistics (since Goff is not a threat to run), the Patriots have allowed 280 rushing yards at 5.6 yards per carry in the past two weeks.
New England ranks 21st in adjusted line yards, 32nd in stuffed ranking (meaning they very infrequently get tackles of zero or negative yardage in the run game), and have the fourth-most missed tackles in the NFL.
Player to watch: Jonah Jackson. Jackson is trending towards playing in his first game this year after suffering a finger injury. It will be interesting to see how much that finger limits the Pro Bowl offensive lineman if he plays.
Advantage: Lions +2.5. This is a clear advantage for the Lions and one they are almost certainly going to try to exploit heavily on Sunday. Of course, the Patriots have always been focused on taking away the opponent’s biggest weapon. Everything the Lions do offensively is predicated on their running game, so the Patriots may sell out to try and stop it. But I question whether they have the personnel to do it against Detroit’s strong offensive line.
Patriots pass offense (28th) vs. Lions pass defense (24th)
Even before Mac Jones’ injury, the Patriots’ passing attack has not served the team well through the first quarter of the season. Maybe it’s due to the new offensive scheme under Matt Patricia. Maybe it’s the lack of prime receiving threats. Maybe it’s some offensive line pass protection lapses. Most likely, it’s a combination of all three.
It’s unclear which quarterback will be playing this week, as it sounds like Jones is getting closer to returning from his ankle injury, but third-stringer and rookie Bailey Zappe seems to be trending to make his first career start. Last week, Zappe stepped in and managed the game well, even if the Patriots didn’t ask him to do much.
But even beyond quarterback play, the Patriots don’t offer much. Nelson Agholor is by far their best healthy receiver, and while Jonnu Smith and Hunter Henry looked like a dynamic duo of tight ends, the pair have combined for just 12 catches for 99 yards through four games.
Overall, the Patriots are a decent pass blocking team, but they have a serious issue at right tackle. Isaiah Wynn was benched last week for 34-year-old Marcus Cannon
The Lions pass defense has some major issues. The defensive front can only seemingly get pressure when Detroit sends extra rushers (31st in team pass rush win rate), and the secondary—playing one of the highest percentages of man coverage in the league—cannot hold their own (30th in PFF coverage grade).
Overall, the Lions are allowing 7.8 yards per attempt (26th), 100.5 passer rating (24th), and an EPA that ranks 30th per dropback.
Player to watch: Aidan Hutchinson. The Lions have intimated that they will be moving things around on the defensive line, and Hutchinson hinted that he may be on the move a little bit in this game. Even if he stays where he is, he may get lined up opposite whoever the Patriots play at right tackle, and that should be a good opportunity for Hutch to add to his sack total.
Advantage: Draw. I can’t give the Lions the advantage here, even against a third-string quarterback who is a rookie in his first potential start. That said, there’s no reason to give the Patriots an advantage, either. This is a horrible matchup with two awful units. If Zappe somehow finishes this game with more than 250 passing yards, Detroit is going to have to do some serious soul searching during the bye.
Patriots run offense (1st) vs. Lions run defense (32nd)
And here’s where the preview takes a stark turn.
While the Patriots’ rushing attack is not exactly explosive—their longest run of the season is 18 yards—they are still incredibly efficient. They rank third in EPA per run, first in run success rate, and eighth in percentage of rushes that earn first downs (29%).
It’s an interesting matchup, because the Patriots are very efficient in short-yardage situations (currently holding a 100 percent success rate) and they effectively avoid negative yardage plays (fourth in Football Outsiders’ “stuffed” metric). But the Lions defense—while generally horrible at stopping the run—is not terribly bad in power situations (20th) and getting the occasional stuff (22nd).
Essentially, this is a rushing attack that keeps moving the ball forward, one small chunk at a time. Their strength is up the middle, where both center David Andrews and right guard Michael Onwenu hold run blocking grades of 70 and higher.
The Lions have just been horrible at stopping the run for all but one game this season. Now, to be fair, their worst performances came when the opposing team had a rushing threat at quarterback. Of Detroit’s 662 rushing yards allowed, 139 of that (21%) have come at the feet of Geno Smith and Jalen Hurts. Without those threats, the Lions run defense is just plainly bad, not disastrously bad.
That said, their strength also comes from the middle of the line. This week, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn insisted that he still likes the play of his interior defenders.
“The interior as far as the run defense is doing pretty well,” Glenn said. “I think (Alim McNeill) Mac and (Isaiah) Buggs are doing a hell of a job. It’s just now putting everything together, and then showing to our guys, they’re seeing the big picture and everything works together to make sure we do that.”
So while this still is a really, really bad matchup for the Lions, it does play a little into whatever perceived strength this last-ranked unit has.
Player to watch: Demetrius Taylor. The Lions appear poised to give the undrafted rookie his first playing time this week to mix up things on the defensive front. Taylor is poised to play the “big end” position, meaning he’ll typically be on the side with the tight end. While it’s unlikely he gets starter reps, that’s a pretty big responsibility this week against one of the top rushing teams.
Advantage: Patriots +3. Even though the Patriots don’t have the offensive balance that the Lions do—which should help both of Detroit’s units—I have a hard time believing a well-coached team like the Patriots won’t find an easy way to exploit this run defense that has just been awful thus far.
Last week’s prediction
Last week, On Paper missed pretty bad. The biggest miss was calling the Lions run defense vs. the Seahawks run offense a draw. Seattle hadn’t seen that kind of success on the ground thus far this year, which means Detroit’s run defense may be even worse than we thought. Clearly, I made some adjustments this week.
Here’s your prize:
Enjoy Patricia’s Greatest Hits. You’ll want to run up the hill with excitement for such tracks as:
- Greatest Play in Super Bowl History
- “Stop sucking this man’s privates”
- A spoken-word, 15-minute diatribe about the value of practicing in the snow even when the next three games are being played indoors
- And, of course, his No. 1 hit, Sit Up Straight
This week’s prediction
While the Lions come out with a slight +0.5 advantage, I truly believe this game can go in any direction. Given that both teams will have a heavy incentive to run the ball, that means we could be in for a limited-possession, low-scoring game. If that’s what ends up happening, the winner is simply going to be the team who makes the fewest mistakes. That may be advantage Detroit, since the Patriots will be starting a fourth-round rookie quarterback, but despite their struggles, New England is still a relatively well-coached team.
Ultimately, I have to stick with the numbers here, but I have very little confidence in my prediction this week. Lions 24, Patriots 21.