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Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown, preview and prediction for the Detroit Lions’ Week 3 matchup against the Minnesota Vikings.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Last year, the Detroit Lions took the Minnesota Vikings to the brink in both contests. It took a 54-yard field goal for the Vikings to take the first contest in Minnesota, and it took Detroit a buzzer-beating touchdown pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown to walk out of Ford Field with their first victory of the season.

Now that the Lions are a much better team, it’ll be an easy sweep for them in 2022, right? Yeah, that’s not exactly how this works. The Vikings overhauled their management this offseason, and now new head coach Kevin O’Connell is trying to drag Minnesota into the 21st century with some high-octane offense. The results have been mixed, but it’s safe to say these aren’t your old Vikings anymore.

With only two weeks of data to go on, it still remains a fool’s errand to try to formulate decisive, objective conclusions about this matchup, but we’ll do the best we can with On Paper, Week 3: Detroit Lions vs. Minnesota Vikings.

Note: This is the last time I’ll be using any data from 2021. Next week, each positional ranking will be based on 2022 DVOA information, and the charts will no longer include any statistics from last year. Prepare for mini-charts. While I include a bunch of 2021 data this week, I am starting to wean off of it in terms of the influence on the final matchup advantage.

Lions pass offense (28th in DVOA in 2021/13th in 2022) vs. Vikings pass defense (13th/23rd)

Last year, we saw the Lions passing offense see a late-season surge for a bunch of reasons: Taylor Decker returning from injury, the midseason addition of Josh Reynolds, and, most notably, the changing of the guards at play caller. Coach Dan Campbell took over those duties from Anthony Lynn starting in the Steelers game, while then tight ends coach Ben Johnson received an informal promotion to pass game coordinator. Johnson is now the offensive coordinator, and it appears those improvements have carried over into 2022.

The Lions passing offense has not been explosive thus far this season, but it’s been a nice complement to the team’s high-powered rushing attack.

As a team, the Lions are averaging 6.6 yards per pass attempt (21st), rank seventh in passer rating (100.1), and have an expected points added (EPA) of .035 per dropback (14th).

There has already been an exhausting debate about whether Jared Goff has been good this year. Looking at some of the basic statistics, the answer seems like yes. He’s eighth in passer rating, he’s thrown just one interception (t-11th) to six touchdowns (t-fifth). But that argument starts to fall apart looking at rate stats. His completion percentage above expectation per NextGenStats is -8 percent—which is lower than all but five quarterbacks. The high drop rate for the Lions (14.6 per PFF, second highest in NFL) certainly plays a huge factor, but even Goff’s adjusted PFF completion percentage (67.6%)—which essentially credits the quarterback for completions on drops of accurate passes—ranks him 27th out of 34 quarterbacks. His yards per attempt is just a meager 6.6, which is somehow the exact same mark he had last year when he was Checkdown Charlie.

Pass protection has been a mild issue for the Lions, as well. While they have only ceded four sacks in two games, the Lions rank 28th in ESPN’s pass block win rate. The main offenders are exactly who you think they are—the two replacement guards in the game, with Logan Stenberg allowing 10 of the team’s 23 pressures thus far and Dan Skipper adding another three in replacement of Jonah Jackson last week.

Put it all together, and it’s a fine passing offense, but it sure feels like it should be better. Getting healthier on the offensive line and more consistent play from their receivers should help. But Goff needs to be better (see: more accurate) too.

Last year, the Vikings boasted a pretty average pass defense, and it’s hard to know what to make out of it this year. They did a phenomenal job holding the Packers down in Week 1, but Jalen Hurts tore them apart in every facet of the game on Monday.

Put the two games together and the Vikings rank 30th in yards per attempt allowed (8.5), 18th in passer rating allowed (91.8), but seventh in EPA per dropback (-0.54).

There’s a lot of turmoil in the Vikings’ secondary right now. Patrick Peterson is 32 and his best years are behind him, while young cornerback Cameron Dantzler has shown flashes, but was benched in Monday night’s game against the Eagles. Throw in an injured Harrison Smith—who will have to be replaced by either Lewis Cine (who has one defensive snap to his name) or Josh Metellus—and the Vikings seem vulnerable on the back end. If you listened to our podcast with Arif Hasan, some of the struggles seem to be adapting to the new scheme, which makes a lot of sense.

Their defensive front, however, remains a threat. Za’Darius Smith has already logged seven pressures to his name, while Danielle Hunter is always dangerous and seems to be regaining his legs (2.0 sacks already) after missing most of 2021.

Player to watch: Amon-Ra St. Brown. The Lions’ entire offense seems to revolve around St. Brown right now, and the Eagles did most of their damage in the shallow parts of the field:

Advantage: Lions +1. While I think there is an entirely different level this Lions offense has yet to reach—and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson agrees—I think this is a pretty nice matchup for Detroit. The Lions’ set of offensive tackles could keep Goff relatively clean, despite some issues on the interior, and I like the matchup between the Lions’ pass catchers vs. the Vikings’ secondary.

Lions run offense (26th/2nd) vs. Vikings run defense (25th/32nd)

Last year, the Lions running attack was average by most measures, maybe a little below average.

However, this year the Lions have finally seemed to have broken through. Look at just about any statistic, and the Lions are just dominating on the ground: 7.2 yards per carry (first) and 0.196 EPA/rush (second). Of course, some of those statistics are being swayed by the three rushes of 50 or more yards. That’s simply an unsustainable rate of huge plays on the ground. That said, even if you were to remove those three plays, the Lions are still averaging a very healthy 4.4 yards per carry, and you can’t completely remove the big plays, when that’s the whole reason you have someone like D’Andre Swift. He is an explosive back who will turn 10-yard gains into 40+ ones.

Despite curiously low blocking metrics via advanced statistics (15th in PFF’s run blocking grade, 20th in ESPN’s run block win rate), the Lions offensive line has been putting in work, opening up ridiculously-sized holes.

Last year, this was a mostly-bad run defense, but they went through some changes that should theoretically help. Adding defensive tackle Harrison Phillips and linebacker Jordan Hicks were meant to shore up that unit, but... it hasn’t really played out that way.

To be fair to the Vikings, the Packers and Eagles are expected to be two of the most efficient running teams in 2022. Both teams were great running the ball last year, and when you look at their 2022 performance in the other game they played (Packers vs. Bears, Eagles vs. Lions) they were actually more efficient in those contests than they were against the Vikings.

Still, this feels like a unit of significant concern for the Vikings. They rank 28th in yards per carry allowed (5.3) and 29th in run defense EPA per rush (.112)—and dead last in rushing success rate allowed.

Player to watch: Swift. I mean, when the guy turns seven touches into 87 yards and a touchdown, he kinda has to go in this section. With him being healthier this week, expect him to get a bigger piece of the pie, and that could mean more explosive plays.

Advantage: Lions +2. I’m not quite ready to call the Vikings run defense bad because they’ve just had a horrible draw when it comes to the run offenses they’ve faced thus far. Unfortunately for them, the Lions rushing attack seems just as lethal as those two teams. If the sample sizes were a little bigger on both ends, I’d probably lean even heavier in Detroit’s favor, but I get the feeling that the Lions’ rushing attack will regress to the mean some once the explosive plays settled down a bit.

Vikings pass offense (12th/24th) vs. Lions pass defense (27th/19th)

I don’t know, man. Last year, Kirk Cousins and the passing offense seemed pretty good but had spouts of just awful play. This year under Kevin O’Connell’s new offense, Kirk Cousins and the passing offense seemed pretty good in Week 1 and then just looked awful last week.

Cousins is an enigma that I can’t (and won’t) try to explain statistically. You’d think after Monday night’s game that he is a quarterback who is horrible against the blitz, but he’s actually historically been one of the better quarterbacks against the blitz.

Justin Jefferson is not an enigma. He is a top-five receiver in this league, and he may be on the higher end of that group. In his first two years in the NFL, he combined for 3,016 yards and 17 touchdowns. This year, despite getting “shut down” on Monday night, he’s somehow outpacing both of those seasons. You should be afraid of this man. And the scariest part of him is that he can play anywhere. This year, Jefferson has played 56 percent of his snaps out wide, 41 percent in the slot, and the remaining three percent in the backfield.

The Vikings offensive line features a set of decent offensive tackles, but the interior offensive line is not good. Their trio of interior offensive linemen all post pass blocking grades below 57.0 per PFF. Through two weeks, Cousins has faced 30 pressures—the fifth most of any quarterback. Over two-thirds of those pressures have been ceded by the guards and center.

The Lions pass defense was awful last year, and it’s not off to too promising of a start in 2022. While it’s noticeably better than last year, Detroit’s pass defense had trouble getting stops when they needed to against both Hurts and Carson Wentz.

It’s hard to get a good handle on the Lions’ pass rushing efficiency. They lead the league in pressures, but have the 26th ranked pass rushing grade per PFF and rank 21st in pass rush win rate. Part of the equation there is that the Lions simply are blitzing a ton, meaning the pressure is less a result of 1-on-1 wins and more well-schemed pressure packages. But the why doesn’t really matter here, the Lions are generating pressure at a much higher rate than last year. Right now they’re getting pressure 26 percent of the time (14th) vs. 20.5 percent last year (29th).

The secondary is still a work in progress. Jeff Okudah has played well. Tracy Walker has been a steady presence at safety. Everything else is still getting figured out. The return of Amani Oruwariye should help some, but he wasn’t exactly great against AJ Brown in the opener.

Player to watch: Whoever is on Jefferson. The Lions don’t seem likely to have anyone shadow Jefferson, so that means Okudah, Oruwariye, and Mike Hughes will all have to win their matchups with him. That’s a tough ask, even if/when they get safety help.

Advantage: Vikings +2. I think the Lions have a good chance to rattle Cousins a bit, but part of the reasons the Eagles were so effective at blitzing the Vikings was because they do it so rarely. In fact, one of the biggest criticism in Philly was how infrequently they blitz.

The Lions’ aggressive defense will not be a surprise to Minnesota, so Aaron Glenn will have to be creative. I hate to keep going back to Justin Jefferson, but until Detroit proves they are capable of shutting down—or even slowing—a player of his caliber, I will live in fear. Last year, Jefferson went for 18 catches and 306 yards between the two matchups vs. Detroit.

Vikings run offense (27th/6th) vs. Lions run defense (31st/23rd)

Last year, the Vikings rushing attack was quite bad, even though Dalvin Cook ran for 1,159 yards and 4.7 yards per carry. Alexander Mattison’s ineffectiveness had a large part to do with it, but so did Minnesota’s questionable interior offensive line.

This year, there’s just not enough data out there. The Vikings have run the ball a total of 39 times thus far, with Cook only accounting for 26 of those. Their yards per carry (4.8) look good, but that’s slightly inflated by a Cousins run of 13 yards and a random Jalen Reagor 17-yard run. Cook and Mattison have combined for just 151 yards on 36 carries (4.2 YPC).

Minnesota’s rushing EPA per play is -0.38, which ranks them 15th. Because we are bereft of data here, let’s just call them an average rushing attack with a running back capable of overcoming some run blocking deficiencies.

I really, really, really want to believe Lions linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard when he said this last week.

“The facts are the facts. Who’s line up and run the ball between the tackles on us? The facts are the facts, guys. I’m going to keep it real, and I’m going to tell you the truth.”

That’s him referring to the Lions’ run defense when you take a running quarterback out of the equation. Now, at the time, the only evidence Sheppard had on his side was preseason statistics—which were admittedly fantastic, but also a tad useless. Against the Commanders, however, he proved to be right. Antonio Gibson had just 28 rushing yards on 14 carries (2.0 YPC).

Detroit has focused their efforts on a beefy defensive front and instinctive, fast linebackers, and the results are trending in a promising direction. I’m not quite ready to crown this unit as fixed, but the improvement from last year is obvious.

Player to watch: Malcolm Rodriguez. You didn’t think I’d go this entire article without mentioning him, right? The Lions’ sixth-round pick has been dynamic in the running game, earning a 75.2 run defense grade, which ranks 11th among all NFL linebackers.

Advantage: Even. I just don’t know much about the Vikings’ running attack right now to confidently give an edge either way. And while I feel like the Lions may actually match up pretty well here, Cook is such a talented back that he can compensate for bad offensive line play. Detroit has not been the most sound tackling team, and Cook could exploit that Sunday.

Last week’s prediction:

Last week, I ended up picking the Lions after projecting a very evenly-matched game. I don’t really feel like I missed out on any of the individual matchups, though I supposed I underestimated how successful the running game and Amon-Ra St. Brown would be.

In the comment section, we had a ton of people with very close predictions to the 36-27 final score. In the end, both RodrigosEgo and positivebob came closest with their 34-27 predictions. Here is your photoshop prize.

Say hello to Rodrigo’s Bob:

This week’s prediction:

The Lions come out with a +1 advantage despite being six-point underdogs. Part of this can simply be explained by tiny sample sizes. I don’t know if O’Connell will make the Vikings one of the more lethal passing attacks, as promised. I don’t know if the Lions can keep up this ridiculous efficiency in the running game. I don’t even know if the Lions can win on the road under Dan Campbell—something they’ve yet to do in nine tries.

But I do believe this is a pretty decent matchup for Detroit, and they should have a real chance to edge out the Vikings and climb atop the NFC North this week. Lions 31, Vikings 27.

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