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Lions vs. Bills preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown, preview and prediction for the Detroit Lions’ Thanksgiving matchup against the Buffalo Bills.

Buffalo Bills v Detroit Lions Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are headed into Thanksgiving with something to actually play for. Coming off a three-game winning streak, the Lions suddenly find themselves just 1.5 games out of a Wild Card spot with a soft spot in their schedule coming up.

Before they get there, though, the Lions face their biggest challenge to date. The Buffalo Bills are the most well-rounded team on their schedule, and there is nothing to suggest this Bills team won’t content for a Super Bowl this year. They are good, and will challenge the Lions in every way possible.

Can Detroit keep the good times going and make a big step towards proving that their playoff chances aren’t quite as unrealistic as they seem? Or will the Bills humble them and show that there is still a long ways to go before this Lions team is ready to compete?

Let’s take a closer look in our Lions vs. Bills Week 12 On Paper preview.

Lions pass offense (13th) vs. Bills pass defense (7th)

Despite all of the injuries to the receiving corps, the Lions passing attack continues to keep its head above water and produce when it needs to. Obviously, it hasn’t been the high-flying offense we saw in the first four weeks of the season—which makes sense considering DJ Chark has been out or limited since then, and both Josh Reynolds and Amon-Ra St. Brown have been out of the lineup at times. But even so, they’ve been mostly efficient, and have shown they’re capable of making big plays in big moments.

Some of that credit undoubtedly goes to Jared Goff. Here’s where Goff ranks in a lot of key statistics:

  • Completion percentage: 63.9 (22nd)
  • Yards per attempt: 7.5 (10th)
  • TD%: 4.6 (15th)
  • INT%: 2.1 (19th)

Certainly not eye-popping numbers, and there is some concern over his high amount of turnover-worthy plays, but during Detroit’s three-game winning streak he’s only turned the ball over once.

Detroit’s offensive line also deserves a ton of credit over the past three weeks. Goff has been sacked just twice during that span.

But that brings us to the unfortunate part of this preview. It seems almost certain the Lions will be missing their starting guards in this game, leaving two of the following three players in line to start: Dan Skipper, Logan Stenberg and Kayode Awosika. The first two have a COMBINED PFF pass blocking score of 20.8 this season. Awosika has never started a game and has just 51 career offensive snaps.

That said, Chark is back this week and is expected to have a more significant role than he did last Sunday, and Reynolds’ “return” to practice on Tuesday opens up a chance for Detroit to have both starting outside receivers for the first time since Week 3.

The Bills pass defense has been up and down all year, but they started out as one of the fiercest units in the league. Through the first four games of the year, they had held every opponent below 200 net passing yards. Only one of their first five opponents tallied a passer rating above 75.

Since then, though, every opponent short of Kirk Cousins posted a passer rating above 75, and four of Buffalo’s last six opponents have reached 300 net passing yards.

Buffalo’s secondary has been missing its two best players in cornerback Tre'Davious White and safety Micah Hyde. But White has missed all season, and Hyde played in just two games to start the season, so the sudden turnaround isn’t exactly explained by that. That said, injuries to rookie corner Kaiir Elam and safety Jordan Poyer haven’t helped. Both of those players are expected to play this week.

Overall, the Bills still rank ninth in yards per pass attempt (6.8), sixth in passer rating allowed (80.4) and 10th in dropback EPA.

They’re 12th in sacks, led by the ageless Von Miller (8.0 sacks), but it looks like they’ll be without their next biggest threats in Greg Rousseau (5.0 sacks) and AJ Epenesa (3.5). Still, they also rank second in passes defended, so their marriage between rush and coverage is solid.

Who to watch: Amon-Ra St. Brown. Since his full recovery from an ankle sprain, St. Brown has been the primary focus of Detroit’s passing attack. In the past three weeks alone, he’s caught 21 of 28 targets for 250 yards—and that’s without much of a supporting cast taking attention away from him.

Advantage: Draw. If Detroit can somehow get a full performance out of DJ Chark and Josh Reynolds back, that should be more than enough to overwhelm the Bills’ mediocre secondary. However, giving Goff enough time could be a huge problem with Miller on the other side and a couple of replacement guards who can’t pass block. This could go either way.

Lions run offense (7th) vs. Bills run defense (4th)

Last week, the Lions run offense seemed to finally find its footing again, but when put into the context that the Giants have one of the worst run defenses in the league, their performance arguably should have been better.

Of course, some larger context is needed here, because YPC and overall yardage doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, if you take away Goff’s kneel downs against the Giants, the team’s YPC jumps up to 4.8. Additionally, because the Lions run so often in the red zone, it limits their YPC potential. It’s also important to point out that Detroit currently ranks third in rushing touchdowns while still owning a solid 4.7 yards per carry as a team (11th).

It hasn’t been an electric running game ever since Swift’s injury, but it has still been reliable when called upon.

A theme is starting to develop here with the Bills. While the defense was absolutely dominant over the first six games of the sason—holding all but one opponent below 4.0 yards per cary—the Green Bay Packers seemed to figure something out a month ago. Since then, teams have been exploiting the Bills run defense, which undoubtedly has played a significant role in Buffalo’s 2-2 record over the last four. How drastic of a shift are we talking about? Let’s take a look:

First six games: 76.2 rushing yards allowed per game, 3.5 YPC
Last four games: 152.3 rushing yards allowed per game, 5.25 YPC

Of course, it’s worth mentioning the Bills got back on track this past week, holding Nick Chubb to just 19 yards on 14 carries.

In short, this Bills run defense has shown significant flashes of being quite literally the best run defense in the NFL, but that three game stretch makes you wonder if they’re more vulnerable than they look.

One more stat of note: the Bills run defense ranks first in the NFL in power situations, allowing a conversion on just 52 percent of opportunities.

Player to watch: Matt Milano. The current AFC Defensive Player of the Week is Buffalo’s do-it-all linebacker. With Tremaine Edmunds likely to miss this game, the pressure will be on Milano to carry the second level of this Bills defense.

Advantage: Draw. Hate to say it again, but I can see this matchup going either way. Both units are overall trending down right now, but this is the strength of the Lions offense. Even though they’ll be down two starting offensive linemen, the Lions’ replacements can actually run block.

Bills pass offense (3rd) vs. Lions pass defense (23rd)

Look at that, another downward trend for the Buffalo Bills in the past four weeks! This recent Bills slide certainly seems real from a statistical perspective. The biggest problem has been Josh Allen’s propensity to turn the ball over. In the past four weeks, Allen threw six interception, lost a fumble, and was sacked 11 times (at least twice in each game). Those negative plays will keep your opponents in every contest, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen during Buffalo’s rough patch.

But don’t get it twisted: this Bills passing offense is DANGEROUS. Here are their ranks in some key statistics:

  • Fifth in yards per attempt (7.8)
  • t-third in passing touchdowns (21)
  • Seventh in passer rating (95.6)
  • Third in dropback EPA (first in dropback success rate)

They boast a talented duo of receivers in Stefon Diggs and Gabe Davis. Combined, those two account for 56 percent of the Bills receiving yards and 13 of their 21 touchdowns.

I’ve seen some people in the comments argue whether Detroit’s defensive turnaround is real or not, and the debate seems to revolve around turnovers. In the case of passing defense, I think a strong argument can be made that, yes, almost all of the “improvement” can be attributed to the interceptions. Let’s take a look:

First 7 games (per game stats): 69.3% completion rate, 7.5 Y/A, 246.9 yards, 1.7 TDs, 0.3 INTs, 1.6 sacks

Last 3 games: 58.9% completion rate, 7.4 Y/A, 263.0 yards, 1.3 TDs, 2.0 INTs, 2.0 sacks

Obviously, the completion rate has also dramatically dropped, but when the yards per attempt number is still nearly identical, that means they’re possibly even more susceptible to big plays. Of course, it’s also worth pointing out that Detroit has played with a lead more in these past few weeks, which could mean they’re playing softer defense.

My conclusion of the Lions pass defense improvement: inconclusive.

This week, the Lions will be without their top cornerback in Jeff Okudah, and that’s tough timing with Diggs in town.

Player to watch: Alim McNeill. The Lions second-year defensive tackle is coming off the game of his life, producing 10 pressures and three tackles for loss against the Giants. With Buffalo center Mitch Morse trending towards not playing, this could be the key for the Lions to create enough pressure to disrupt Allen into more turnovers.

Advantage: Bills +2. The DVOA ranks heavily fall in the Bills’ favor, but the recent trends for both teams give the Lions a shot in this one. Ultimately, though, Detroit really hasn’t been tested by a good passing offense during their three-game winning streak. The last time they faced an offense on par with the Bills passing attack was the Dolphins game, and we know how that one went.

Bills run offense (19th) vs. Lions run defense (27th)

This one is going to take a little investigating. This is one of the cleanest charts you’ll see in On Paper, yet they’re ranked 19th in DVOA? Well, part of the disconnect is Josh Allen. He currently leads the entire team with 71 carries for 483 yards and four touchdowns. If you take out his rushes completely, here’s what the Bills have accomplished on the ground for the season: 184 rushes, 857 yard (4.66 YPC) and five touchdowns.... okay, so still pretty good.

Digging deeper in Football Outsiders’ numbers, it appears Buffalo struggles to avoid negative plays on the ground. They have the second-highest “stuffed” rank, meaning when their running back is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage. That’s good news for Detroit, because they rank 14th in that statistic. So don’t be surprised to see some negative plays on Thursday.

Supporting Football Outsiders’ numbers is EPA, which ranks the Bills’ rushing attack 28th in the NFL.

The Bills compensate for that, however, by producing a lot of explosive runs. They rank second in the NFL with 13 rushes of 20+ yards. They’re also coming off their two most productive rushing games of the season.

Here’s where the Lions’ defense has shown some undeniable improvement. Though they used to be one of the worst run defenses in the league, the Lions clearly figured some things out at the bye week. Since then, they rank 20th in EPA rush allowed and just look at the raw numbers:

First five games: 151 rushes, 838 yards (5.55 YPC), 10 TDs
Last five games: 144 rushes, 699 yards (4.85 YPC), 7 TDs

It’s not a huge improvement, but those numbers are also being skewed by a Bears team that has just recently figured out how to maximize their run game.

In short, this is now performing like a below-average run defense rather than a historically bad run defense—though they still remain vulnerable to a mobile quarterback, something they’ll have to deal with again this week.

Player to watch: Allen. In the past three weeks alone, Allen has racked up 178 rushing yards on just 17 attempts. That’s an average of 11 yards per carry.

Advantage: Bills +1. If we’re talking between the tackles, I think the Lions have a good shot of stopping the Bills in the run game. However, if the Bills use Allen to attack the edges of this run defense, that has been a proven method to success against Detroit. Combine that with the fact that Allen is one of the toughest quarterbacks to take down and, well, you all saw what happened with Justin Fields.

Last week’s prediction

On Paper moved back .500 last week after predicting a 23-20 win for the Lions. I underestimated Detroit’s run defense despite pointing out their recent improvement, but everything else went about as planned.

In the comment section, we had a lot of predictions that were extremely close, but none more than the unconventional 32-19 Lions prediction from the not-so-aptly-named LIONSall THEway 2021. But, hey, if you were a fan of the Detroit Rams, then maybe you are aptly named. So here you go, LIONSall THEway 2021.

This week’s prediction

The Bills come out with a +3 advantage, which is honestly more modest than I was expecting. The Lions offense truly has a shot to put up points against this solid Bills defense considering the trajectory of both teams, however those injuries to Jonah Jackson and Evan Brown loom large. While the Bills aren’t playing their best offensive football right now, they simply have more trusted weapons that can exploit this young defense. In the end, I think the Lions will keep it close for a while... but not for the entire four quarters. Lions 24, Bills 34.

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