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Detroit Lions vs. Carolina Panthers preview, prediction: On Paper

Our statistical breakdown and prediction for the Week 5 matchup between the Detroit Lions and Carolina Panthers.

NFL: Preseason-Detroit Lions at Carolina Panthers Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions enter unfamiliar territory this week as 10-point favorites over the Carolina Panthers, the biggest line in their favor since 2017. With it being so early in the season, it can be a scary-looking line; we don’t really know the true identity of most teams at this point, and for a team as young in their new regime, the Panthers could be the type of team that sees significant week-to-week growth.

So are the Lions on upset watch this week? Let’s take a look at this matchup, On Paper.

Lions pass offense (4th) vs. Panthers pass defense (11th)

In my personal opinion, Jared Goff is playing his best football as a Detroit Lion right now. My statistical proof? He ranks sixth in QBR (68.9), third in PFF grade (83.7), and sixth in ANY/A (adjusted net yards per attempt). The only thing that is truly dragging him down in terms of traditional stats and that chart above are the untimely interceptions. His 2.3 interception percentage is the fourth-highest of his career, but otherwise, he’s nearly setting career numbers in completion percentage (69.5, best of career), yards per attempt (7.9, 3rd highest), and QBR (highest).

The offensive line continues to be one of the best pass protecting units in the league. Detroit has allowed just five sacks, tied for the third-fewest in the league while ranking ninth in ESPN’s pass block win rate and fifth in PFF’s team pass blocking grade.

One key factor this week is whether Amon-Ra St. Brown will play. He has missed the first two practices with an abdominal injury but sounded optimistic about his chances to play this week. Detroit is capable of spreading the ball around, as St. Brown is only responsible for 28 percent of the Lions’ catches, but when Goff is in a gotta-have-it situation, St. Brown is that guy.

The Panthers pass defense has been surprisingly stout through four games. And while you may think they’ve faced some poor passing offenses, that has not really been the case the past two weeks. They mostly shut down a decent Vikings passing attack, and while Geno Smith racked up a ton of yards against the Panthers, they did pick him off and sack him twice.

Their pass rush is formidable. They rank fifth in PFF pass rushing grade, 14th in pass rush win rate, and they’re tied for 11th with 12 sacks on the season, even with a middle-of-the-road pressure percentage. That unit is led by Brian Burns, who has three sacks on the season despite only tallying nine total pressures on the year, per PFF. But don’t sleep on off-ball linebacker Frankie Luvu, who has 2.5 sacks of his own.

What could be an issue for the Panthers this week is their banged-up secondary. They’ll be without top cornerback Jaycee Horn, and it’s likely they’ll be missing their top safety Xavier Woods, too—their defensive player with the highest PFF grade.

Player to watch: Jeremy Chinn. Chinn is their box safety/nickel corner who is a key piece of their secondary. With as much as the Lions like to work the middle of the field, Chinn is the defensive piece the Lions will have to account for the most. He’s only given up 52 yards in coverage with two pass breakups, per PFF.

Advantage: Lions +1. The Lions are coming in with a healthy offensive line that should be able to mostly handle Carolina’s formidable pass rush. And with a beat-up secondary, the Lions should be able to find some open receivers. But this Panthers pass defense is certainly going to make Detroit work for it, so don’t be surprised to see underwhelming numbers this week from the passing game.

Lions run offense (6th) vs. Panthers run defense (32nd)

As someone in the comments pointed out last week, this chart is being a little adversely impacted by kneel downs. Their YPC in the Chiefs game bumps up to 3.9 if you take out the kneel downs, and against the Falcons, it would jump to 4.2, making that box green.

This is why I love DVOA so much, because it basically renders kneel downs a non-play, and that explains why Detroit’s running game—despite a low team yards per carry (4.0, 19th)—is actually one of the best rushing attacks in football.

David Montgomery has been low-key outstanding in creating yards where they aren’t there. He’s currently first in broken tackles (12) and is seventh in rushing success rate (55.1%).

That said, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson more or less said that the offensive line needs to do a better job creating space for Montgomery to get more yards before contact.

“We haven’t hit our stride yet offensively through four games,” Johnson said. “He’s doing all this and yet, I don’t know that he’s averaging over four yards a carry yet, so we have to do a little better job upfront on a consistent basis.”

The advanced statistics are mixed on that statement. The Lions rank 19th in run block win rate, but fourth in PFF grade and eighth in adjusted line yards. One thing is for certain, though, they need to be better on the edges. Tight end Brock Wright has a team-low 39.5 run blocking PFF grade, while Taylor Decker is a disappointing 55.2.

It’s interesting that both in our 5 Questions preview and our preview podcast, Panthers writers have insisted that the run defense isn’t as bad as it statistically looks. As someone who values statistics, I simply cannot buy it. Just about every single data point highlights this as one of the worst run defenses in the league.

Not only does their chart look bad and their DVOA ranks them last in the NFL, but they’re also last in rush EPA, 31st in run defense success rate, 29th in PFF grade, and 32nd in adjusted line yards. Even the traditional stats have them 29th in yards per carry allowed (4.7) and their six rushing touchdowns allowed is fifth most.

The evidence is overwhelming and damning that this is an extremely vulnerable run defense, and I can’t figure out for the life of me why anyone would suggest otherwise. I suppose you could argue that they’ve faced some tough rushing attacks, as three of four opponents average at least 4.4 YPC, but DVOA adjusts for opponents and still defines this run defense as horrible.

Player to watch: Halapoulivaati Vaitai. Graham Glasgow did more than an admirable job filling in for Vaitai, but it appears Big V may be on his way back into the starting lineup. If he is, that could be the boost this offensive front needs. It’s a small sample size, but in 1.5 games, Vaitai has a 72.9 PFF run blocking grade.

Advantage: Lions +3. You may think this is low on a scale of 1-5, but I’m allowing for a little early-season variance. Statistically, this should be a massacre, but we’re dealing with pretty small sample sizes here, and I’m going to remain at least a little guarded with how Panthers writers are talking about this run defense. Still, with a more evenly-matched passing game, I expect Detroit to play a lot of bully ball on the ground, and see a significant amount of success there.

Panthers pass offense (22th) vs. Lions pass defense (8th)

*Andy Dalton started Week 3 for an injured Bryce Young

Understandably so, the Panthers passing attack has struggled under first overall pick Bryce Young. He’s a rookie quarterback in a new offensive system getting used to new weapons around him. Despite what C.J. Stroud is doing in Houston, this is the norm for a young quarterback.

As pointed out by Erik Schlitt in his five keys to victory, this is a passing attack that is trying to protect its quarterback with an overreliance on short passes. Young is last by a considerable margin in intended air yards per pass attempt (5.2) despite the fact that Young is actually holding onto the ball the eighth longest of any quarterback (2.93 seconds).

Unsurprisingly, that propensity to hold onto the ball long has led to a high amount of sacks (14, eighth most). But he also isn’t being helped much by his offensive line. Though they rank 15th in pass block win rate, they’re 29th in PFF grade and have given up the ninth most pressures.

They’re particularly vulnerable on the left side of the offensive line, where second-year left tackle Ikem Ekwonu has earned just a 54.3 pass blocking grade, while rookie left guard Chandler Zavala has a 7.2 pass blocking grade (not a mistake). Combined, the two have allowed 37 pressures, with 28 of those coming from Zavala.

As far as receivers go, it’s been the Adam Thielen show for the Panthers. He has accounted for 33 percent of Carolina’s receiving yards and half of their touchdowns. It’s been a slow start for DJ Chark, as the team has struggled to push the ball downfield.

The Lions pass defense has been the most pleasant surprise from the team thus far. The reason for their sudden success is really a true marriage between pass rush and coverage. In terms of pressure, while the Lions rank curiously low in pass rush win rate (29th), they’re seventh in pressure percentage, 17th in PFF pass rush grade, and tied for seventh in sacks (13).

In terms of coverage, the Lions rank 14th in PFF grade, eighth in passes defended, 14th in passer rating allowed, and 10th in yards per attempt allowed.

Most notably for this matchup, they have successfully made young, inexperienced quarterbacks uncomfortable in the past two weeks and forced them into critical mistakes.

Player to watch: Alim McNeill. If McNeill is lined up over Zavala, look out. Not only has Zavala been a disaster so far, but McNeill is really starting to turn things on. In the past two weeks alone, he’s tallied seven pressures and earned a collective 80.6 PFF pass rush grade, good for 11th among all interior defenders.

Advantage: Lions +2. It’s a tough week to likely be missing Brian Branch because Detroit will need someone to cover Thielen in the slot. That’s the one advantage that does seem to go in Carolina’s favor, and it could be the well they continue to go to. Still, the Lions are likely to make Young uncomfortable in this game.

Panthers run offense (26th) vs. Lions run defense (4th)

I’m here to tell you that you don’t need to be afraid of this Panthers rushing attack anymore. I know what happened last year. You know what happened last year. Let’s just not talk about it ever again. This is an entirely different rushing attack, and while the Panthers still have talented backs in Chuba Hubbard and Miles Sanders, this offensive line is not producing the rushing lanes they were last year.

Carolina ranks 25th in PFF run blocking grade, 27th in adjusted line yards, and 32nd in run block win rate.

Feel better now?

Admittedly, some of the stats in that cart are impacted by low rushing rates. The Panthers have largely played from behind this year, leading to the 10th fewest rushing attempts in the league. Still, their 4.0 yards per carry (21st) and 38.5 percent success rate (18th) are average, at best.

Welcome to a new era of Lions football. No team has managed to run for 4.0 yards per carry against Detroit nor reach 100 total yards. In the past two weeks, the Lions have ramped up their efficiency, allowing a combined 71 yards and 2.2 yards per carry in two games.

Advanced statistics paint this run defense as an absolutely elite unit. They’re allowing the lowest success rate (30%) in the league, they’re eighth in adjusted line yards, seventh in PFF grade, and.... weirdly 26th in run stop win rate.

Player to watch: Derrick Barnes. Barnes has taken a massive Year 3 jump, and it starts with his newfound ability to quickly diagnose and play downfield. Barnes leads the team with eight run stops, and his run stop percentage of 17.0% ranks second in the NFL among linebackers.

Advantage: Lions +3. The only thing stopping me from making this an even bigger advantage is Young’s mobility. The rookie quarterback has not used his legs much so far this year (seven carries, 61 yards), but seeing as this offense is looking for a spark, I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to get him moving.

Last week’s prediction

On Paper moved to 2-2 on the year and 4-0 against the spread. I expected a comfortable win over the Packers and that’s exactly what we got. I likely underestimated the Lions’ run game a bit, so that has clearly been adjusted this week.

In the comment section, we had a ton of really close predictions, but none closer than the irregular prediction of 34-22 from Tefkham (final score was 34-20).

Here is your prize, Tefkham. Benito Jones has popularized overalls with his amazing pregame fit against the Packers and these outstanding custom Lions overalls he was sporting in the locker room this week:

But you don’t want to be the thousands of people wearing these overalls at the game this week. Here’s my own take on a customized Lions overalls fit:

This week’s prediction:

The Lions have an advantage in every matchup and a cumulative total of a +9 advantage. That’s quite massive in terms of an On Paper edge, and certainly one of the biggest tilts in Detroit’s favor in On Paper history.

That said, we’re early in the season, and the outlook of a team can change drastically from week to week with so little data. Hell, just look at the Chicago Bears on Thursday night.

Of course, the Lions have been playing impressively consistent football dating back to the midway point of last season. So there shouldn’t be many questions about who the Lions are. But are the Panthers truly this bad right now? It’s hard to say, but the Lions are catching them at a pretty good time. They’re still in the infancy of this rebuild with a quarterback making his fourth career start. They’ll get better, but it’s going to take some time. Lions 31, Panthers 13.

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