Every week, it seems like the Detroit Lions are faced with a new, big challenge. Whether it’s the defending champions, a division rival on primetime, or an up-and-coming team coming off their bye, the Lions have answered every call with a rousing success.
This week, the Baltimore Ravens may present the biggest challenge yet. While they already have two losses, they have a strong team across the board and match up well against an electric Lions team.
So will the Lions again rise to the occasion, or is their four-game winning streak about to come to a close? Let’s take a closer look at this week’s matchup and make a prediction in our On Paper preview.
Lions pass offense (4th in DVOA) vs. Ravens pass defense (3rd)
The Lions’ success through the air becomes even more impressive when you look at some of the defenses they’ve faced. The Bucs and Chiefs are both top-10 units by DVOA, while the Packers (14th) and Panthers (18th) aren’t too bad, either. Four out of Detroit’s six opponents are allowing under 200 passing yards a game, and Detroit humbled each one but Green Bay’s.
Last week in particular was an impressive data point. The Bucs were ranked as the No. 2 pass defense by DVOA, and Detroit just absolutely dominated them in the second half. If that trend continues, we could be talking about the No. 1 pass offense in football.
As it stands, the Lions aren’t far off from that title. Just look at the team’s overall PFF grades in each facet of the passing game:
- First in passing grade (88.4)
- First in pass blocking grade (77.4)
- Third in receiving grade (78.6)
Going beyond PFF grades, the Lions rank fifth in dropback expected points added, sixth in success rate, third in passer rating, and third in yards per attempt.
Everything is working in cohesion through the air thanks to a solid group of receivers, great pass protection, and a quarterback that is playing at an MVP level.
The Ravens pass defense has, indeed, been one of the best in the league. Like the Lions pass offense, they are an extremely well-rounded unit. Not only do they have the second-best PFF coverage grade, but they also lead the NFL in sacks.
But when we parse through these numbers a bit, there are some weaknesses underneath the surface. Take that sack number, for instance—it doesn’t really match the efficiency of their pass rush. They rank just 26th in pressure percentage, 13th in PFF pass rushing grade, and 13th in pass rush win rate. It’s reasonable to believe their high sack-to-pressure ratio is unsustainable. That said, I think that imbalance also speaks to the Ravens’ success rate when blitzing. They disguise well, and that will require good pre-snap reads from Goff to counter. Thankfully, that is something the Lions quarterback has excelled at this year.
“He’s seeing the defense pre-snap, he’s having an idea of what needs to happen, what he’s expecting,” passing game coordinator Tanner Engstrand said this week of Goff. “So I think there’s a lot of diagnosing that’s going on pre-snap that’s really putting him in a position to have that success post-snap.”
I won’t knock the Ravens’ coverage unit. Safety Kyle Hamilton is having a year, while Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen are unbelievable coverage backers in the middle of the field. Their outside corners are beatable, but Detroit doesn’t exactly attack the perimeter all that often.
Lastly, though, we have to look at the Ravens’ opponents. While DVOA adjusts for opponents, Baltimore has been gifted an especially favorable start to the season when it comes to opponents’ pass offense. Just look at the quarterbacks they’ve faced:
- C.J. Stroud in his very first start
- Joe Burrow while battling injury
- Gardner Minshew
- Dorian Thompson-Robinson
- Kenny Pickett
- Ryan Tannehill/Malik Willis
The Lions represent a significant rise in difficulty.
Player to watch: Josh Reynolds. Because the Ravens struggle on the perimeter, this could be a sneaky big game for Reynolds. The Lions’ underappreciated outside receiver has at least three catches and 50 yards in all but one game this season, and he’s on pace for just short of a 1,000-yard season.
Advantage: Lions +1.5. We’ve truly yet to see the Lions pass offense get stopped this year. And while the Ravens pass defense could very well be the best pass defense they’ve faced yet, two factors push this in Detroit’s favor. For one, Detroit just knocked off one of the best pass defenses last week, and the Ravens have yet to be tested by a passing offense anywhere close to what Detroit is capable of.
Lions run offense (7th) vs. Ravens run defense (7th)
The Lions rushing offense has been mostly good, even in the face of some of the best run defenses in the league (Seattle, Atlanta). However, last week against the Buccaneers is a troublesome datapoint. The Lions rushing attack was completely halted to the point where offensive coordinator Ben Johnson just had to completely abandon it. Part of that was due to David Montgomery’s injury, but the Lions weren’t having any success before he left the game either—Montgomery had six rushes for 14 yards.
With Montgomery expected to be out for the next few weeks, the Lions will undoubtedly turn to rookie Jahmyr Gibbs, who is likely to make his return this week after missing the last two games. Detroit’s rushing game will have to take on a completely new identity, as their physical, grind-it-out style doesn’t really mesh with Gibbs’ strengths. That said, the Lions’ run game is diverse enough that they shouldn’t have to make wholesale changes to their scheme.
The Lions had moderate success the last time Montgomery was sidelined. Against the Falcons, Gibbs had 17 carries for 80 yards, with Craig Reynolds and Zonovan Knight pitching in another 28 yards on seven carries. However, it’s worth pointing out that for the majority of that game, the Lions’ running game struggled. Through three quarters, the Lions rushed for 62 yards on 18 carries for just a 3.4 YPC average.
The Ravens run defense isn’t quite unbeatable, but it’s going to be a slog against them. Only two opponents have rushed for over 100 yards against them, and they’ve held four of six opponents to 4.0 yards per carry or less. Even their worst data point—last week against the Titans—is heavily skewed by a single rushing play. Take away Derrick Henry’s 63-yard run on a bit of a trick play, and Tennessee managed just 66 on 18 carries (3.7 YPC).
That said, maybe trick plays like that are the key to a Lions win in this aspect of the game. Coach Dan Campbell has already said that they may compensate for running back injuries by throwing a receiver in the backfield, and we know Johnson is creative enough to scheme up some misdirection to catch this Ravens defense off-kilter.
Regardless, just about every stat shows how strong this defense is. Baltimore ranks seventh in rush EPA allowed, seventh in success rate, and they’re particularly strong in short-yardage situations. They’ve only allowed a single rushing touchdown on the year, and they’re holding opponents to just a 58% power success rate, good for eighth in the NFL. Without Montgomery, the Lions will face a serious challenge in goal-line situations.
Player to watch: Michael Pierce. The Lions are likely familiar with the former Vikings nose tackle, but that doesn’t make him any easier to stop him. His run stop percentage of 12.0% (per PFF) ranks fifth among interior defenders.
Advantage: Ravens +1. With Montgomery, I’d probably give a slight edge to Detroit in this matchup, but it’s hard to know how the Lions will adjust without him or how Gibbs will look in his first game back from injury. There are just too many unknowns on the Lions’ side, while we pretty much know the Ravens run defense is going to bring it.
Ravens pass offense (14th) vs. Lions pass defense (5th)
You wouldn’t know it from traditional stats, the chart above, or even the DVOA ranking, but Lamar Jackson is having himself a very solid season thus far. Not only is he PFF’s No. 2 overall quarterback, but he’s also eighth in completion percentage above expected (+2.6%).
So why does this chart (and DVOA ranking) look so bad? A few reasons. For one, they’re still a running team at heart, so their 173 passing attempts (25th in the league) have something to do with the low yardage. Additionally, drops and turnovers have been a problem. The Ravens have the 11th-highest drop percentage, and Baltimore has turned the ball over eight times.
But even with all of those excuses, this passing attack has underwhelmed at times. The Ravens rank 13th in yards per attempt (7.2), 20th in dropback EPA, but seventh in dropback success rate.
One problem—which has always been a problem with Jackson—is the high sack rate. Jackson tends to hold onto the ball for a long time, which has led to 16 total sacks (t-11th) and a sack percentage of 8.5% (ninth).
The Lions pass defense has mostly been outstanding, but they obviously had a rough game against the Seahawks, and were a bit fortunate against the Bucs last week after Baker Mayfield missed some wide-open shots.
Still, all the statistics point to an impressive unit. Detroit ranks seventh in yards per attempt allowed (6.3), eighth in passer rating (79.6), ninth in dropback EPA, and tied for fifth in passes broken up (32).
Pass rush for the Lions has been inconsistent. While they’re tied for fourth in pressures, they drop down to eighth in pressure percentage, and other advanced statistics present a far less efficient unit. Detroit ranks 17th in PFF pass rushing grade and 27th in pass rush win rate, suggesting defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has been scheming up pressure rather than the Lions players winning their one-on-ones.
Coverage, too, has been up and down, but the presumed return of Brian Branch should improve the team’s weak link in the secondary. Detroit’s overall PFF coverage grade ranks 14th, but it’s bogged down by backup nickel Will Harris, whose 43.2 coverage grade is worst among Lions defensive backs. Branch (80.4), Cameron Sutton (68.9), and Jerry Jacobs (60.8) present a solid trio of corners.
Player to watch: Zay Flowers. The rookie receiver has quickly become Jackson’s favorite target, leading the team in receptions (35) and receiving yards (367). That said, the Lions have been excellent against No. 1 receivers this year, producing the sixth-lowest DVOA (low is good for the defense) in the NFL. Credit to Sutton for that.
Advantage: Lions +1. Detroit will have to be cleaner than they were last week because Jackson is a much more accurate passer than Mayfield. That said, Branch’s return is huge, and the Lions have done a surprisingly good job keeping mobile quarterbacks from hurting them outside the pocket. I truly feel this matchup could go either way, but the stats undeniably favor Detroit.
Ravens run offense (4th) vs. Lions run defense (3rd)
The Ravens rushing attack remains elite despite losing J.K. Dobbins for the season in the opener. Obviously, Jackson sits at the center of their attack, as Baltimore still leans into designed runs. Jackson leads the team with 327 rushing yards and four touchdowns, but the Ravens have found some moderate success with their thunder-and-lightning duo of Gus Edwards and Justice Hill, respectively.
That said, the Ravens’ run blocking appears to be somewhat mediocre by advanced statistics. They rank 14th in adjusted line yards, 12th in PFF grade, and 13th in run block win rate.
Where they thrive is both Jackson's and their backs’ ability to force missed tackles. Jackson alone has forced 19 missed tackles (11th among all rushers), while Edwards (9) and Hill (8) both rank in the top 40 despite a relatively low amount of carries.
It’s a fair argument to say the Lions haven’t faced a very strong rushing attack all season. By DVOA, they’ve faced three of the bottom seven rushing attacks (Panthers, Packers, Bucs), and haven’t faced a top-10 unit yet. Their toughest matchups were against the Seahawks (13th) and Chiefs (16th), and they managed to hold both in check.
Detroit can only face the teams that are on their schedule, and it’s fair to say they essentially have dominated them all. Mobile quarterback or otherwise, not a single team has rushed for 100 yards against this defense, and they’re just one of two NFL teams who have yet to allow a rush over 20 yards (Seattle is the other).
Detroit ranks second in PFF run defense grade, second in YPC allowed (3.3), and first in yards per game allowed (64.7).
Player to watch: Jackson. Detroit has faced mobile quarterbacks and held them all in check (Mahomes: 45 rushing yards, Geno Smith: 20, Jordan Love: -2). But Jackson is a different challenge. He leads QBs in rushing yards (327) and has nearly twice as much as Mahomes (185).
Advantage: Draw. This matchup can truly go in either direction. While I do believe the Lions’ run defense is for real, the lack of a strong opponent to date is a stark reminder that we’re dealing with small sample sizes here. Jackson is capable of explosive plays at any time, so that gives me enough caution to not give an advantage either way.
Last week’s prediction
On Paper is now 4-2 at predicting winners and still a perfect 6-0 against the spread. I feel pretty darn good about the score prediction of 27-20, although I clearly overestimated the offenses on each team (or underestimated the defenses). The only real adjustment I feel is necessary is the Lions’ run game taking a significant hit this week, but that’s already been addressed.
In the comment section, it was r0 with the closest prediction, and it wasn’t just the score they predicted well:
Here is your prize:
If you missed special teams coordinator Dave Fipp’s press conference this week, please spend 14 minutes to watch it here. It’s absolutely off-the-wall, as Fipp brings a ton of energy and an extremely short attention span. Conversations quickly spiral into random stories about a Marine base and a ton of talk about music. So enjoy this compilation album of Dave’s Greatest Fipps, which undoubtedly includes Luke Combs, Eminem, Adele, Whitney Houston, and “Chariots of Fire”—all of which are mentioned in this presser.
This week’s prediction:
The Lions come out with just a +1.5 advantage. If I’m being completely honest, I went into this week expecting to pick the Ravens. But it’s time to acknowledge that the Lions are at the top of the mountain right now. The Ravens have every right to be just as scared as the Lions as the inverse.
That said, I don’t have a lot of confidence in predicting the outcome this week. Two key matchups involve a unit that hasn’t truly been tested going against one of the best. The Ravens have yet to face a good passing attack, and the Lions are bringing an elite one to Baltimore this week. Detroit’s great run defense hasn’t faced anyone above mediocre, but the Ravens have had one of the best run offenses for years.
I have no confidence in the outcomes of either of those matchups, yet those will undoubtedly determine the game. So I say—with no confidence at all—Lions 20, Ravens 17.