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Lions vs. Giants Week 11 preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown, preview and prediction of the Detroit Lions vs. New York Giants Week 11 matchup.

NFL: Houston Texans at New York Giants Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions (3-6) take on the New York Giants (7-2) in a pretty big game for both teams. While the Lions are technically “In The Hunt” for an NFC Wild Card spot, this game means more symbolically. They’re on a two-game winning streak, but those two teams are a combined 7-14. A win over the Giants—especially on the road—would go a long ways in proving their legitimacy.

For the Giants, this is a critical week to avoid a slip-up. Some New Yorkers may be looking ahead to Thanksgiving, where the Giants have a huge divisional matchup against the Dallas Cowboys. The Lions are not a team to overlook, and dropping an NFC game would give Dallas the opportunity to jump them in the standings next week.

So how do these teams match up? Let’s take a look in our Week 11 On Paper preview.

Lions pass offense (11th in DVOA) vs. Giants pass defense (23rd)

The Detroit Lions passing offense continues to consistently put up a lot of yardage, but their efficiency numbers have been inconsistent all year—which makes sense considering Jared Goff’s overall inconsistency. He has stretches where he looks like a legit franchise quarterback, and he has bouts of turnovers that hurt the team.

The good news for Goff is that for the first time since Week 3, he could have his full cast of characters around him. DJ Chark is trending towards coming off injured reserve, and Josh Reynolds could be in play after practicing on Thursday. With D’Andre Swift also slowly getting better and increasing his role, Detroit’s passing offense should be the healthiest it has been since early in the season when they were averaging 35 points a game.

Overall, the Lions rank eighth in passer rating (93.7), t-eighth in yards per attempt (7.6), and 13th in expected points added per dropback.

Pass protection has been mostly good, but the advanced statistics are mixed. They have the 10th lowest pressure percentage (18.7%), but rank 27th in PFF’s pass blocking grade and 19th in pass block win rate (57%).

The Giants pass defense has been pretty average all season. They haven’t exactly faced a ton of great quarterbacks this season, but even when they have, they’ve done an okay job.

Overall, they rank 10th in passer rating allowed (87.5), t-13th in yards per attempt (6.9) and 17th in EPA allowed per dropback.

Their secondary is young and suspect—especially with safety Xavier McKinney on IR—but they make up for it with an aggressive and successful pass rush. They get interior pressure from their incredible defensive tackle duo of Dexter Lawrence and Leonard Williams, who have combined for 6.5 sacks and 53 pressures (per PFF). Rookie Kayvon Thibodeaux is also starting to turn the corner, tallying at least three pressures in four of his last six games.

If that weren’t enough, the Giants also love to send the blitz, especially on third down. They have the highest blitz percentage in the league.

But despite all of that, New York still ranks just 22nd in pass rush grade, 15th in pass rush win rate, and 13th in pressure percentage. They’re an above average unit, but not quite elite yet.

Player to watch: Lawrence. As I pointed out in my scouting report, Lawrence is putting up Aaron Donald-like disruption numbers. Lions center Frank Ragnow is dealing with a foot injury, and while I suspect he’ll still play, it could limit his effectiveness on Sunday.

Advantage: Lions +1. If the Lions were at full health, the scales would be tipped more in their favor. If Chark and Reynolds are good to go, that would be a huge boost to this passing offense that has struggled for the past month. Detroit is likely to get at least one of them back, though, so that’s enough for me to give them a slight advantage.

Lions run offense (14th) vs. Giants run defense (23rd)

Detroit’s rushing attack has been extremely disappointing as of late, and the injury to D’Andre Swift has a lot to do with it. He missed games 4, 5, and 6, and while he’s been back for the past three, he’s been on a pitch count and is clearly not feeling like he was at the beginning of the year.

Jamaal Williams has done an admirable job filling in, but the big reason for Detroit’s downward spiral has been their lack of explosive plays on the ground. They haven’t had a run over 15 yards in the past three weeks and haven’t had a rush over 20 yards since the Seahawks game.

Then there’s the short-yardage problems that still persist. Detroit ranks 31st in rushing efficiency in power situations (defined here), converting just 52 percent of the time (league average is 68%).

This is not a good run defense... at all. Every single opponent has rushed for at least 87 yards against this defense, and only two have been held below 4.7 yards per carry. For the entire season, the Giants are 32nd in yards per carry allowed with opponents averaging a whopping 5.5 YPC.

The advanced metrics paint a slightly better picture... but not by much. They rank 29th in run stop win rate, 20th in PFF’s run defense grade, and 24th in EPA per rush.

The one place they do excel, though, is in short-yardage situations. They’re allowing conversions on just 60 percent of power situations (fourth), which explains why they also have the second-best red zone defense in the league.

Player to watch: Penei Sewell. The Giants can be beat around the edges, and especially have trouble when the offensive line gets up and pulls and moves. Sewell is Detroit’s biggest weapon in situations like this, so don’t be surprised to see the Lions utilize their right tackle’s athleticism early and often.

Advantage: Lions +1. This would be an ideal game for Swift to return to form, but banking on that to happen has been a fool’s errand as of late. To put bluntly, this Lions rushing attack has just been unreliable over the past month. They may be facing one of the worst run defenses in the league, but look at the past two weeks! The Bears and Packers were also two of the worst run defenses in the league, and the Lions didn’t even average 4.0 YPC against either of them. The hope this week is that with the return of Chark and Reynolds, defenses will respect the Lions passing attack more and free up the box. But you have to imagine the Giants’ primary goal to start the game is to stop the run. It will be on Goff to help open up the run game.

Giants pass offense (13th) vs. Lions pass defense (24th)

Daniel Jones has been effective, but not explosive. The Giants have only thrown for over 200 net yards in a single game this season, averaging just 161 per game (30th). This is for two very simple reasons: they barely throw the ball (30th in passing attempt) and Daniel Jones has the fourth lowest intended air yards per pass (6.4).

This is all by design, of course. The Giants have struggled to find any reliable receivers downfield, with the highly-publicized struggles of Kenny Golladay and the failed draft investments of Kadarius Toney and Wan’Dale Robinson (so far, but it’s early).

Their offensive line also isn’t the best at pass blocking. Daniel Jones has the second-highest pressure rate of any NFL quarterback and has taken the fourth most sacks. The Giants rank 18th in pass block win rate, 17th in PFF pass blocking grade, and 31st in adjusted sack rate.

While we have been championing an improved defense over the past two weeks, it’s hard to definitively say that is happening when it comes to pass defense. The Packers game was a step in the right direction, but last week’s game against the Bears cannot really be categorized as a success considering Justin Fields outgained his averages. We saw the return of a couple of coverage busts, and while the pass rush got home three times, Fields has been sacked more than any quarterback in the league.

In reality, this is still a very young, poor pass defense. Their pass rush is inconsistent, their coverage—while seemingly improved—is still prone to mental errors, and that is just not a good combination right now.

Player to watch: Aidan Hutchinson. Hutchinson’s play has been slowly improving, and while left tackle Andrew Thomas has been a top-five player this year, the situation is a little more precarious at right tackle. Rookie Evan Neal has been struggling and is dealing with a knee injury.

Advantage: Giants +0.5. The Giants are probably the better unit here, but because they pass so infrequently, it’s unlikely to make a big difference in this game. Think of it like last week: New York could break out a big gain or two, but if the Lions are able to force the Giants into must-pass scenarios, it’s advantage Detroit.

Giants run offense (13th) vs. Lions run defense (27th)

The Giants rushing attack has been the model of inconsistency through nine games. They’ve had five games in which they’ve finished with 150 or more rushing yards (three of 230+), and four where they’ve been held under, including two below 100. They’ve rushed for 6.0 YPC or more in four games, but 4.1 YPC or less in four.

Oddly, two of their worst performances came against the bad run defenses of the Panthers and Seahawks.

Despite that, we can’t ignore how big of a weapon Saquon Barkley has been this year. The man is one of a dying breed, capable of still carrying it 30+ times a game and not slowing down. He’s currently second in the NFL in rushing yards (931) and still carrying a respectable yards per carry average of 4.7 (t-20th). He’s second in the league in 20+ yard rushing plays (7). Oh, and he also leads the Giants in receptions.

Then there’s Jones. The Giants quarterback is averaging 43.0 rushing yards per game and has even tallied a 100-yard game on the ground against the Jaguars. New York won’t use him as much as the Bears used Fields, but there will be a handful of designed runs the Lions will need to account for—not to mention the occasional scramble (Editor’s note: Daniel Jones is second in the league in scrambles [35] behind only Justin Fields [49]).

Okay, here’s some actual, definitive, observable improvement. Out of the bye week, the Lions changed how they were defending the run, crashing the line inward and relying more on their physical secondary to play a big role in stopping the run. You can certainly make the argument that last week was a significant step back—and in some ways, it was—but the Bears rushing attack is also hitting its stride right now. They’re also a unique challenge that isn’t quite as relevant to this week’s matchup—despite Jones being a mobile quarterback.

But let’s be clear: this improvement isn’t from horrible run defense to good run defense. It’s more horrible run defense to below-average run defense. They’ve still got a long ways to go here.

Player to watch: Barkley. I’ll just let Dan Campbell explain.

He can run between the tackles, but if he finds a crease, and those guys push on him enough upfront, they’ll bang away at you, but he’s got enough patience, and if he can find that crease, he’s got breakaway speed. He’s got strength to get through the hole, and he can turn a routine run into an explosive run like that. You see him on the perimeter, and he gets an edge, he’s gone.

Advantage: Giants +1.5. The Lions’ improvements give them a fighting shot this week, even with Barkley being one of the most dangerous backs in the game. I still think the matchup favors New York, but last week was a good primer for this Lions defense, and the Giants aren’t nearly as lethal on the ground as the Bears are.

Last week’s prediction:

I don’t feel all that bad about my 31-24 Bears prediction last week. In fact, going into the final five minutes of the game, the score was 30-24 Bears. What I did not see coming was both Detroit’s struggles on the ground and success through the air. That has me feeling a little more confident in Goff’s ability to succeed this week, especially if Chark and Reynolds are back.

In the comment section, none of you could beat out Pride of Detroit columnist Mike Payton, who just barely missed on his 31-28 prediction. Mike’s request for his photoshop: “I would like to be on the Titanic please.”

I don’t know if this was a reference to Twitter, or just a desire to be held by Leonardo DiCaprio, but request granted:

If you’re wondering way Mike is being held by former Pistons star Grant Hill, it’s because Mike has a Pistons podcast called Bad Boys & Beyond, and he had Hill on the latest episode.

This week’s prediction:

The preview comes out with a draw, and that feels accurate because I have no idea who to pick this week. The Giants simply aren’t as good as their record suggests, but they do play mistake-free football. And if we’re being completely honest, the Lions have relied on their opponents making mistakes in each of the past two weeks. For the Packers, it was the interceptions. For the Bears, it was penalties and a late pick-six.

This year, the Lions have undoubtedly been the more mistake-prone team this year, but the Giants’ turnover and one-score game luck is just plain unsustainable. So I am going against my own objective instincts here and picking the Lions to win. Sue me. Lions 23, Giants 20.

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