With the Detroit Lions opening game now just days away, it’s time for the return of our “On Paper” previews.
For newcomers to Pride of Detroit, here’s my disclaimer for On Paper from last year’s Week 1 preview:
At the core of On Paper is the desire to compare units that will actually face each other. I’ve never understood the NFL previews that compare “Lions offense to 49ers offense: Advantage Lions.” Those guys don’t even play each other.
So On Paper is split up into four sections: one team’s passing offense vs. the other team’s pass defense, and the same with the run game. Then flip offense and defense for both teams.
For each team’s unit, I use a chart to compare their weekly performance to season averages. For example, if Jared Goff throws for 310 yards and a 98.0 passer rating, that seems like a pretty good day. But in On Paper, we put it in its proper context. So if that performance comes against the best defense in the league that is allowing just 220 yards and an 85.0 passer rating on the season, it’s a fantastic performance. Each weekly performance is charted, compared to season averages, and color coded. Beating weekly averages earn a green cell. Performing below averages earns a red cell. And if the performance is within 5 percent of averages, the cell is yellow.
Admittedly, I’m not entirely happy with the statistics used in each chart—yards, yards per carry, and passer rating—but those are the best available stats that are widely available both on a weekly and season-long basis. To make up for the limitations of those stats, I offer more meaningful stats in the text below each section.
At the end of each matchup, I offer an advantage on a scale of 0-to-5 based on both how lopsided the matchup is and how integral I believe it will be to the overall game outcome. There is no magical formula for this advantage. It’s a mix of data and feel. I know, it’s not the most scientific.
I know that sounds like a lot, but you’ll get used to it.
One more note: because we are in Week 1 of the regular season, all data being used is from 2021 unless otherwise stated. I refuse to use preseason data. We’ll switch over to only 2022 data in Week 4.
Without further ado, here is my Week 1 preview for Detroit Lions vs. Philadelphia Eagles.
Lions pass offense (28th) vs. Eagles pass defense (25th)
*Games without Jared Goff
The Lions passing offense was god awful to start the season. Not only was Jared Goff struggling to protect the ball, but the Lions’ passing attack was also extremely conservative. All season, Goff was near the bottom of the league in average depth of target, finishing dead last in the figure—averaging just 6.4 air yards per pass attempt.
However, things changed on Thanksgiving against the Bears. Thanks to a confluence of changes—Dan Campbell taking over play calling, Josh Reynolds being added to the roster via the waiver wire, and Taylor Decker returning to the lineup—Goff and the passing offense suddenly opened up significantly. Here’s Goff’s stats in his final five starts, starting with the Bears game:
- 69.6 percent completions
- 7.1 yards per attempt
- 11 TDs
- 2 INTs
- 107.1 passer rating
Goff started airing the ball out more, too, averaging 7.1 air yards per attempt in those final games.
With an entire offseason to build upon that—plus the addition of a downfield weapon in DJ Chark (and Jameson Williams later this season)—the hope is that Goff has all he needs to play at a much higher level this season.
But for this week, there is one big hurdle in the way: the health of what was supposed to be a healthy, dominant offensive line. Starting right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai is already out for the first four games of the season, and Detroit’s issues compounded with the recent development that All-Pro center Frank Ragnow is dealing with a groin injury that caused him to miss Thursday’s practice.
The Eagles pass defense was almost equally as bad in 2021, and it did not have the late-season improvement that the Lions pass offense did.
They did, however, add a heck of a lot of players who are going to impact this defense, including:
- EDGE Haason Reddick
- LB Kyzir White
- CB James Bradberry
- CB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson
- DT Jordan Davis
- LB Nakobe Dean
That’s an interior and outside pass rusher, a starting cornerback, a three-down linebacker, and a versatile defensive back all added in one offseason. Oh, and they get back Pro Bowl edge defender Brandon Graham, who missed 15 games with a torn Achilles.
Theoretically, this should do wonders to help out a pass defense that produced the second-fewest sacks in the league—though maintained an average (22nd) pressure rate—and ranked 23rd in passer rating allowed.
But at this point, it’s all just theoretical.
Player to watch: Fletcher Cox. With all of the Lions’ injury issues along their interior offensive line, Cox is the most likely to exploit them. He’s finished with a PFF pass rush grade of at least 70.9 in each of the past seven seasons and finished with at least 41 pressures. Jordan Davis is also terrifying.
Advantage: Eagles +0.5. Both units are massively improved on paper from when the two teams faced off last time. However, a porous offensive line threatens the whole operation for the Lions. If Ragnow can’t play, it’s nothing short of a disastrous start for the Lions offensive line, and the Eagles are just the kind of team you don’t want to face. Still, the Lions have a versatile set of weapons that even the Eagles’ improved back seven will have trouble keeping in check for four quarters.
Lions run offense (26th) vs. Eagles run defense (18th)
The Lions run game was fairly inconsistent all year, and they often had to abandon it due to game situation. They still finished the season with a respectable 4.4 yards per carry (13th), but where they really struggled—and therefore pulled down their DVOA ranking—was in the red zone. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson explained this back in June:
“Where our run efficiency dropped off tremendously when we hit the red zone, and we talk about, No. 1, running the ball still has to be a staple for us. And it gets challenging the tighter you get, but the funny thing was I’m talking about from the 20 to the 15, we dropped from 50 percent efficient to under 20 percent. It was staggering.”
Red zone efficiency has been a focus for the Lions offense this offseason, but it’s hard to know how far they’ve come with almost no data to go on.
One thing we do know is that the Lions are feeling pretty optimistic about D’Andre Swift as he enters the year healthier than ever. If the offensive line can just find themselves healthy enough for the season, the Lions are certainly expecting a breakout year for him.
The Eagles run defense struggled a little early in the season, but they had a very strong finish to the year, holding all but two opponents below 100 rushing yards from Week 8 and beyond. In those 10 games, just five opponents were able to hit the 4.0 yards per carry mark.
And now, with the new defensive additions—see: Jordan Davis, Kyzir White—it’s reasonable to believe they could pick up right where they left off and potentially even take a step forward.
There are still some questions about their defense at the second level, but with how good and how deep the defensive front is in Philly, you have to wonder how many times running backs will even make it to the second level.
Player to watch: LB T.J. Edwards. A bit of a forgotten man on the defense, but Edwards had the fifth-best PFF run defense grade among off-ball linebackers with at least 550 defensive snaps last year. With a defensive front that should keep him clean, Edwards could be a tackle machine on Sunday.
Advantage: Eagles +1. Again, both units should be better than last year, but the offensive line injuries really move the needle in the Eagles’ direction here.
Eagles pass offense (14th) vs. Lions pass defense (27th)
*Games without Jalen Hurts
The Eagles passing offense was pretty average last year. They were efficient, but not particularly threatening. Jalen Hurts actually pushed the ball downfield quite a bit (Eagles ranked third in intended air yards per pass attempt), but the team also attempted the fewest passes in the league—instead, focusing their efforts heavily on their running game.
But the Eagles got aggressive this offseason and got a big weapon in A.J. Brown who could change all of that. Brown and Hurts have seemingly already developed chemistry, as Brown reportedly had a dominant training camp. Throw second-year receiver DeVonta Smith into the mix and suddenly it feels like the Eagles could open things up this year.
The question of whether or not Hurts is the right guy, though, still remains. He’s proven plenty with his legs, but his arm is very much in question. He’s completed just 59 percent of his passes at the professional level.
But, like Jared Goff, he’s got a heck of a supporting cast: a top-five offensive line, a couple of legit downfield threats, an excellent pass catching tight end in Dallas Goedert, and arguably the best running game to boot. The conditions are perfect.
The Lions pass defense was bad last year, but like the Eagles, the Lions added several pieces they hope to turn things around. Second overall pick Aidan Hutchinson joins the defensive front to hopefully add to a pass rush that produced bottom-five outputs in sacks and pressures. DeShon Elliott and Mike Hughes represent modest upgrades in the secondary, while the return of Jeff Okudah from injury hopes to round out the cornerback position. It wasn’t quite as aggressive of an offseason as the Eagles did to revamp their defense, but it should be a notable improvement.
The main hope is that the Lions generate pressure without necessarily bringing extra pressure—though they won’t be afraid to send it. Hutchinson will help, but don’t sleep on Charles Harris, who had a breakout year last year (7.5 sacks, 78.7 PFF pass rush grade) despite seeing higher double-team rates than almost everyone else in the league.
Player to watch: Brown vs. Amani Oruwariye/Jeff Okudah. The Lions play sides when it comes to their cornerbacks, so there won’t be one player on Brown, assuming he moves around. The Lions secondary is suspect, but if Oruwariye and Okudah can play to their potential, the Lions could keep their head above water.
Advantage: Eagles +1. Philadelphia’s passing attack still remains theoretical, and Hurts’ relatively low ceiling likely means he’s not going to be the type of quarterback who will regularly throw for 300 yards.
But Detroit’s pass defense was awful last year, and I don’t think they made enough adjustments to seriously believe it will suddenly be much better.
Eagles run offense (3rd) vs. Lions run defense (31st)
By just about every measure, the Eagles had a top-three rushing attack last year. And unfortunately for the Lions, they were the first team to really see it break out with the Eagles racking up 236 rushing yards at 5.1 a pop in Week 8 of 2021.
This year, not much has changed. The team’s offensive line is essentially the same, running backs Miles Sanders and Boston Scott return, and Hurts—who led all quarterbacks in rushing yards last year (784)—remains their biggest threat.
This is a team that was held under 100 yards rushing just twice last year and had at least 4.0 yards per carry in all but one game. There’s no reason to expect that’ll change this year.
The Lions run defense was awful last year for a variety of reasons, but the main culprit was their lack of an interior presence. On the defensive front, Michael Brockers and Levi Onwuzurike were ineffective, and at the second level, the Lions got downright awful play at linebacker. Alex Anzalone led the league in missed tackles while the rotating cast between rookie Derrick Barnes and Jalen Reeves-Maybin led to misreads and big runs.
Unfortunately for Detroit, this remains one of the biggest questions facing the team. Detroit didn’t add any notable interior defenders this year, and Onwuzurike won’t make the Year 2 jump if he remains sidelined with a back injury. The linebacking corps, however, could be improved. Sixth-round pick Malcolm Rodriguez is poised for a big role after an extremely impressive training camp and preseason. Barnes, too, has shown some progress.
The Lions are hoping those additions, plus a minor tweak in philosophy to be a more attacking defensive front—rather than a more “read and react”—will help turn around this unit. Consider me skeptical.
Player to watch:
Advantage: Eagles +3. The Lions know they need to stop the run, and you’d like to think the adjustments they have made this offseason have helped. But the personnel just doesn’t look like it’s there yet, and the Eagles may have the best running game in the league.
The Eagles hold the edge in all four matchups and an overall +5.5 advantage. There is certainly a chance that this one is lopsided—though probably not as lopsided as last year’s 44-6 tilt.
The Detroit Lions seem like a team that is defined entirely by their offensive line. Its strength allows them to be balanced on offense and keep the defense well-rested with a theoretically decent run game. But with the sudden injuries to starters Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Frank Ragnow, that foundation is already starting to shake. And it just so happens the Eagles are the exact wrong team to face when there are questions on the defensive front.
Combine that with the fact that the Eagles’ biggest strength (running game) matches up against the Lions’ biggest weakness (run defense), and this just doesn’t look like a great opening day matchup for Detroit.
But Week 1 is wacky, and everything is not always as it appears “On Paper” this early in the season. Maybe Detroit’s improved run defense throughout the preseason is for real. Maybe the offensive line issues aren’t as bad as they look. Maybe Jeff Okudah balls out and shuts down his side of the field.
Those are too many maybes for me to pick the Lions, but I think it’ll be closer than the matchup looks on paper. Eagles 27, Lions 20.