The Detroit Lions face off against the Green Bay Packers this week in Detroit’s just second NFC North battle of the season. They were just barely edged out by the Minnesota Vikings on the road in their one previous divisional matchup, but this Packers team isn’t playing anywhere near the level that Minnesota is right now.
Green Bay is struggling mightily on both sides of the ball and it has led to a rare four-game skid for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. At 3-5, they’re decided out of the playoffs right now, and after striking out at the trade deadline, there are no reinforcements on the way.
Does that give the Lions the opportunity to pull off the upset and break out of their own five-game slump? Let’s take a look in our Week 9 On Paper preview.
Lions pass offense (16th) vs. Packers pass defense (9th)
The Lions pass offense had a nice bounce back game last week against a pretty bad Dolphins defense—despite only really producing for one half of football. Overall, this still looks like an above average unit, but entering Friday, there are a number of (growing) injury concerns.
The receiving crew may be more shorthanded than it’s ever been this season. DJ Chark remains on IR, Josh Reynolds is dealing with his third injury of the season and missed Thursday’s practice, and, of course, T.J. Hockenson was traded away earlier this week. Hockenson leads the Lions in receiving yards this year, and Reynolds isn’t far behind.
The offensive line—the strength of this team—could also be shorthanded on Sunday. Penei Sewell has been absent from practice as he (presumably) tends to his pregnant partner, and it’s unclear if he’ll be back by Sunday. Taylor Decker is dealing with a new groin injury that had him downgraded to limited on Thursday. With backup tackle Matt Nelson almost certainly out due to injury, the Lions could be in real trouble at tackle.
The Packers pass defense has been better in recent weeks, but it’s been an overall disappointing unit. It’s not often that these charts run in clash of the DVOA rankings, but when you look at Expected Points Added statistics, they fall closer to the charts. The Packers defense ranks 11th in EPA per pass dropback, so let’s just call them average despite the fact that they rank 18th in yards per attempt (7.2), t-23rd in interceptions (4), and 29th in pass breakups (29th).
What undoubtedly helps this unit is the Packers’ pass rush. Though they’ve only produced 17 sacks (t-18th), they rank sixth in pressure percentage (25.3%), seventh in pass rush win rate (49%) and eighth in PFF pass rush grade.
Player to watch: Penei Sewell vs. Rashan Gary. Let’s just assume Penei Sewell will play for our own sanity. Whether he’s on the left or right due to Decker’s injury, he’ll see some time opposite Gary. The Packers edge defender ranks eighth among his position group in pass rush win rate and 14th in PFF pass rush grade (81.4). Meanwhile, Sewell owns a solid 74.4 pass blocking grade with only one sack allowed per PFF.
Advantage: Draw. If the Lions were healthy, I’d probably give them a +1 advantage here, but even if Reynolds plays, this receiving corps is a shell of itself, and we all know what happens when Jared Goff faces pressure. Despite Detroit’s strong offensive line (if healthy), expect the Packers to make Goff uncomfortable here and there, and that could result in a bad turnover or two.
Lions run offense (7th) vs. Packers run defense (31st)
While the Lions rushing attack has cooled off a little bit as of late, it’s still been a very good unit overall this season. Obviously, it has missed some of the explosiveness that a healthy D’Andre Swift brings to the table, but Detroit could (maybe) get that back this week. Coach Dan Campbell said that Swift is feeling healthier this week than he did last week—when he was ineffective against the Dolphins. And Detroit appears to be taking it slower with him during this week of practice, resting him completely on Wednesday.
Overall, Detroit ranks fifth in yards per carry (5.2), 13th in EPA per rush, and third in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards.
The Packers run defense remains a mess, as it has for several years, but this may be the worst yet. All but one opponent has reached at least 125 rushing yards, and all but two have averaged at least 4.4 yards per carry in the game.
A look at the advanced stats aren’t much better. They rank 26th in run stop win rate, 22nd in PFF run stop grade, 29th in rush EPA allowed, and 31st in adjusted line yards allowed. The only thing they do well is hold up in power situations, holding opponents to just a 59 percent conversion rate (seventh-best).
Player to watch: Quay Walker. With De’Vondre Campbell likely out this week, it’ll be on the rookie out of Georgia to take on a bigger role. Walker has struggled with hesitancy and reading his keys poorly—which is fairly normal for a rookie—but could result in a big advantage to Detroit.
Advantage: Lions +3. This is about as big of an advantage you’ll see in Detroit’s favor this year. If Swift was reliably healthy this week, it would probably bump up a point or two. But you have to imagine the Lions will lean into this matchup for three reasons: they love to run the ball anyways, it’ll keep some pressure off Jared Goff, and it’ll keep their horrible defense off the field.
Packers pass offense (12th) vs. Lions pass defense (32nd)
This chart gives at least a little insight into the Packers’ struggles in the passing game. Those struggles could be at least a little overstated. As you can see in the chart, the Packers have played some really, really good pass defenses thus far. By DVOA rankings, they’ve faced the fourth, fifth, sixth, and eighth-ranked pass defenses.
Still, it’s hard to ignore how poor Aaron Rodgers’ stats are compared to his normal output. Particularly shocking is his either inability or straight refusal to throw the ball downfield. His average completed air yards (3.9) is lowest in the league, and his yards per pass attempt (6.6) is the lowest of his career and ranks 24th in the NFL.
Green Bay’s receiving corps—fairly or unfairly—has taken the brunt of the blame with Rodgers himself even calling out the group several times over the course of the past couple months. That said, aside from Randall Cobb, who remains on IR, the Packers may have their full cast of receivers this week with Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, and rookie Romeo Doubs and Christian Watson all trending towards being available on Sunday.
The offensive line, however, could be missing a valuable piece. Left tackle David Bakhtiari has been fighting a knee injury all season and has missed the first two days of practice. Overall, the unit has still been performing relatively well, ranking 18th in pressure percentage (21.1%).
The Lions pass defense doesn’t do anything well. We’ve covered this exhaustively, and the firing of defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant only highlights that issue. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has promised to get more involved in coaching the unit moving forward, but until I see some actual progress, I will assume the secondary is going to be terrible moving forward.
While some of the secondary struggles may have been expected, the lack of a pass rush is more disappointing. Detroit has spent a ton of resources on the unit over the past two years, and here’s where it’s gotten them:
- 32nd in pass rush win rate (30%)
- 27th in PFF pass rush grade (63.4)
- 23rd in pressure percentage (20.4%) despite the fifth-highest blitz rate (31.5%)
- 31st in sacks (11)
Detroit could get a boost there this week as Charles Harris is trending towards playing for the first time since Week 4. If he does play, it will be the first game the Lions have Harris, Aidan Hutchinson and Josh Paschal all in the lineup.
Player to watch: Aaron Rodgers. You know he’s going to do something that makes you furious on Sunday.
Advantage: Packers +2. I don’t expect Green Bay to go all Tua Tagovailoa on this Lions defense, but I have zero faith that if Rodgers drops back on a third-and-7 that Detroit will do anything to stop him. Give me a reason to believe, Aaron Glenn.
Packers run offense (9th) vs. Lions run defense (30th)
Green Bay’s rushing attack has been up and down all season and was heading for a troubling trend in the three-game lead up to the Bills game. However, they clearly found something that worked against what is typically a pretty stout Buffalo defense.
The Packers have three games where they combined for 610 rushing yards, but four where they combined for 256, so that makes this unit tricky to predict.
One thing we know for sure, though, is that Aaron Jones is still really good. He’s averaging 5.9 yards per carry (fifth), 3.2 yards before contact (13th) and 2.6 yards after contact (t-sixth).
The Lions run defense has been slowly improving out of the bye week, but still remains pretty bad. Detroit ranks 28th in yards per carry (5.1), 26th in adjusted line yards, 22nd in run stop win rate, and 27th in PFF run defense grade.
They are relatively stout up the middle with defensive tackles Isaiah Buggs and Alim McNeill leading the way to the 10th-best run defense in power situations (64% conversion rate), but the Lions have not been great on the edges.
Player to watch: Jeff Okudah. The last time the Lions faced someone who prioritized the run games (Cowboys), Okudah was a menace on the field. In that game, Okudah produced 15 tackles, seven “stops,” and a 90.1 run defense grade. He figures to be a big part of the game plan again this week.
Advantage: Packers +2. Detroit has not stopped a team from averaging at least 4.1 yards per carry in a game, and all but one opponent has eclipsed 100 yards. I don’t necessarily expect another 200+ yard game from the Packers rushing attack, but it’s also not out of the question. This matchup may be the key to the entire game, and while I don’t have a ton of confidence predicting this aspect of the game, the numbers ultimately favor Green Bay.
Last week’s prediction:
Although I wasn’t all that close in the final score prediction, I feel like On Paper did a pretty good job predicting who would win each matchup. I gave the Dolphins pass offense a +4 advantage and Tagovailoa dominated. I gave the Lions passing attack a +1 advantage and that felt pretty accurate, too. So no adjustments this week.
In the comment section, our own Erik “The Machine” Schlitt came out on top of the On Paper challenge. His 31-28 prediction was just a point off the 31-27 final.
Per On Paper tradition, when a staff member wins the week, they get to request the photoshop I make this week. Here was Erik’s request:
Your wish is my command:
This week’s prediction:
The Packers come out with just a small +1 advantage, and that represents well how I feel about this game. I truly believe Detroit has a real chance to win this game, especially if their run defense shows up and the Packers struggle. The Lions will need to come out on the better end of injury luck this week as guys like Taylor Decker, Penei Sewell (personal absence thus far), and D’Andre Swift could be absolutely critical for a victory this week.
Also working in Detroit’s favor is the fact that both teams will likely try to run the ball a ton. That means a small amount of possessions and a low-scoring game. If Detroit manages to keep with that game plan, they’ll have a shot at the end.
But that leads me to what ultimately tips the scales in Green Bay’s favor. If this game is close in the final five minutes, who do you trust: A Lions team that hasn’t been able to close out games since Matthew Stafford walked out the building or Aaron Rodgers? Packers 26, Lions 20.