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Detroit Lions vs. New Orleans Saints preview, prediction: On Paper

A statistical breakdown, preview and predictions for the Detroit Lions’ matchup against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints are in desperate need of a bounceback. The Lions may have only lost one of their last two games, but they looked wholly uninspiring in both performances, leading many to worry they’ll struggle down the stretch. The Saints’ situation, on the other hand, is far more dire. Their loss last week to the Falcons dropped them out of the NFC South lead and a playoff spot entirely. They’ll have to play better than they have this season in the final six weeks to make the postseason and likely save some jobs.

So who will be on the better path after Sunday? Let’s take a look in our Week 13 preview and prediction.

It’s On Paper!

Lions pass offense (9th in DVOA) vs. Saints pass defense (11th)

For the most part, the Lions passing offense has been humming along. But the last two weeks, it’s been a different story—regardless of how the chart looks. In particular, the Lions pass protection has been an issue against both the Bears and Packers. Green Bay racked up 33 pressures against Detroit, and Chicago tallied 18. That has led to six Jared Goff turnovers in two weeks.

The good news is that despite those turnovers, the Lions are still moving the ball relatively efficiently. The Lions actually outgained the Bears on a per play basis (5.7 vs. 4.7) and still managed 464 yards of offense against Green Bay.

For the season, the Lions rank 13th in dropback EPA, seventh in success rate, sixth in yards per attempt (7.6), sixth in ANY/A, and ninth in passer rating (96.9). Despite last week’s struggles, they’re still considered one of the best pass blocking units in football, ranking fifth in PFF grade and fifth in adjusted sack rate. With Jonah Jackson trending towards playing, this could be only the third game this season with Detroit’s full starting offensive line—since Graham Glasgow was named the new starter at right guard.

For most of the season, the Saints’ pass defense has been very good. They play a very aggressive, physical style with their defensive backs, and it leads to a lot of production on the ball. They lead the league with 72 pass breakups and are second in interceptions (14). They’ve only given up over 250 net passing yards in a game once, and they’ve allowed a passer rating over 90 just three times.

However, there is one important caveat.... look at the quarterbacks they’ve faced:

Depending on how high you are on C.J. Stroud and Trevor Lawrence, you could certainly make the argument Goff will be the best quarterback this team will have faced after Sunday.

Still, the Saints have done what you’re supposed to do against bad quarterbacks: dominate them. New Orleans ranks 11th in dropback EPA allowed, ninth in success rate, sixth in yards per attempt (6.3), sixth in ANY/A, and third in passer rating (74.4).

But the important question this week is pressure. Can the Saints get Goff off his game? It doesn’t look like it. New Orleans’ pressure percentage of 18.5% is fifth worst in the league, they rank 23rd in PFF’s pass rushing grade, and dead last in ESPN’s pass rush win rate. The Saints have just 18 sacks on the season, with only the Bears having one fewer.

It’s also worth noting the Saints’ secondary is beat up, with CB1 Marshon Lattimore on IR and safety Marcus Maye battling a shoulder injury that has held him out of the first two practices of the week—leading to the team signing safety Johnathan Abram from the practice squad.

Player to watch: Amon-Ra St. Brown. The Lions will likely have to do most of their work over the middle and in the short area. The Saints have allowed a total of just 28 pass plays of 20+ yards all season (eighth fewest) and only 16 “deep” passes (tied for third fewest). So expect guys like St. Brown and Sam LaPorta to get targeted early and often.

Advantage: Lions +0.5. This matchup could go either way. While it does scare me a bit that the Saints play a physical style of defense that produces turnovers, the fact that they don’t create a lot of pressure is nice to see. It will be on the Lions’ receivers this week to fight through press coverage, but if Goff gets enough time, I trust this receiver group to get open eventually.

Lions run offense (4th) vs. Saints run defense (22nd)

The Lions rushing attack has hit its stride, and with both a healthy backfield and a healthy offensive line, things are looking mighty promising for this unit right now. They’ve rushed for at least 4.5 yards per carry in seven of their last eight games, and over 5.0 in four of those contests.

Best of all, it’s a perfect marriage of good blocking and tough running. The Lions rank second in PFF run blocking grade and first in adjusted line yards, but they also rank fifth in yards after contact per attempt and eighth in PFF rushing grade.

Simply put, the Lions have a solid argument as the best rushing offense in the league with the caveat that it does not include a rushing quarterback.

The Saints run defense is trending in the wrong direction in a hurry. After some early promising performances, the Saints have given up at least 110 rushing yards in six straight games, and four of those six offenses were able to rush for 4.3 YPC or more. Most troubling for the Saints is that those performances includes some of the worst rushing offenses in the league: the Texans (27th in DVOA), Vikings (30th), and Jaguars (24th).

This team can get moved around up front, as evidenced by their 21st ranking in adjusted line yards and their 4.5 yards per carry allowed (27th).

Surprisingly, though, they rank sixth in rush EPA allowed and sixth in rush success rate. My best guess for the reason for that: they are excellent in short yardage situations. Per FTN Fantasy, the Saints rank first in the NFL in power success, allowing short-yardage conversion on just 50 percent of opportunities.

Player to watch: LB Demario Davis. Davis has the seventh-highest PFF grade among linebackers, and his run blocking has a big part in it. His six tackles for loss are second on the team.

Advantage: Lions +3. Last week, the Falcons were the first team to rush for over 200 yards on the Saints, and the Lions could very well be the second. I think they should be able to regularly get 5+ yard chunks against this defensive line, but the short-yardage situation may be key this week. The Lions rank second in power success (71%), so that is a low-key strength vs. strength matchup.

Saints pass offense (22nd) vs. Lions pass defense (13th)

The Derek Carr New Orleans era is off to a pretty wobbly start. Though they have been racking up yardage (11th in passing yards per game), the efficiency really hasn’t been there. The Saints rank 22nd in yards per pass attempt (6.7), 16th in ANY/A, 18th in passer rating (86.5), and 21st in dropback EPA.

Pass protection hasn’t been much of an issue, though. They rank second in pressure percentage, t-10th in sacks allowed, but oddly 23rd in PFF’s pass blocking grade and dead last in ESPN’s pass block win rate. The cause of the discrepancy? New Orleans gets rid of the ball in a hurry. Per NextGenStats, Carr gets rid of the ball in an average of 2.67 seconds, good for sixth-quickest among all NFL quarterbacks.

One issue facing the Saints this week is their depleted receiving corps. All three of their top receivers are dealing with an injury. Michael Thomas (39 catches, 448 yards, 1 TD) is on IR. Rashid Shaheed (33 catches, 534 yards, 3 TDs) is expected to miss this week’s game. Chris Olave (63 catches, 771 yards, 3 TDs) is going through concussion protocol. Olave could very much return this week with two limited practices under his belt, but it’s also quite possible New Orleans plays it safe.

Regardless of whether Olave plays or not, look for the Saints to rely heavily on running back Alvin Kamara and positionless weapon Taysom Hill.

There’s no easy way to put this: the Lions passing offense has been terrible since the Ravens game. How bad?

Since Week 7, the Lions pass defense ranks:

  • 31st in dropback EPA
  • 32nd in success rate
  • 28th in DVOA
  • 31st in passer rating (113.3)
  • t-29th in sacks (8)
  • 28th in passing touchdowns allowed (11)

While they have played two of the best passing offenses over that stretch (Ravens, Chargers), they have also played some very bad passing attacks, and that’s what’s most concerning this week. The Saints aren’t great at passing the ball, and they’re beat up, but that hasn’t seemed to have mattered against this pass defense in recent weeks.

Things were better earlier in the season, but that feels like a distant past, and I’m not sure how much I really take into account those performances anymore.

Player to watch: Olave. If he plays, he’s a problem. PFF’s 19th best receiver, Olave is a deep ball threat (96.4 PFF grade on deep balls, first in the NFL) and the Lions have struggled with that recently.

Advantage: Saints +1. I don’t care how bad Carr has been (particularly in the red zone) or how beat up the Saints weapons are. Until the Lions can settle down their pass defense, I have very little confidence in them.

Saints run offense (10th) vs. Lions run defense (7th)

The Saints don’t exactly have an explosive running game—rushing for over 150 yards just once this season—but they’ve been relatively efficient, particularly in the past few weeks.

That said, the overall stats don’t look all that impressive. The Saints rank just 26th in yards per carry (3.8), 14th in rush EPA, 17th in success rate. The offensive line ranks eighth in adjusted line yards, 14th in run block win rate, but just 19th in PFF grade.

Kamara has come a little alive in recent weeks (24 carries, 111 yards in past two games), but no running back has a rush over 20 yards yet this season for the Saints. And someone put Jamaal Williams on a milk carton, because not only is his production way down from last year in Detroit (47 carries, 137 yards, 2.7 YPC), but he’s barely touching the ball anymore. Since coming back from a hamstring injury, Williams is averaging just 4.0 carries per game, and he has yet to find the end zone.

The Lions run defense hasn’t been at its best in the past few weeks, but it’s still overall good. The only times they’ve given up significantly over 100 rushing yards is when a mobile quarterback is part of the equation, and unless you count Taysom Hill (who only has six passing attempts to 57 rushing attempts), that shouldn’t be a problem this week.

In total, the Lions run defense ranks eighth in yards per carry (3.9), third in PFF run defense grade, 11th in EPA, 13th in success rate, and 10th in adjusted line yards. They’ve also been phenomenal in short-yardage situations, allowing just a 53% conversion rate (third best).

Player to watch: Jack Campbell. With Alex Anzalone—arguably the team’s best second-level run defender—likely out this week, it will be on Detroit’s first-round rookie to step in and make an impact. Campbell has been decent in run defense (68.7 PFF grade, 49th out of 86 LBs), but he will have added responsibilities this week.

Advantage: Lions +1. I don’t think the Saints rushing attack is as good as some of these stats indicate, and despite a step in the wrong direction last week, the full body of work for the Lions’ run defense is still impressive.

Last week’s prediction

Without a doubt, last week’s prediction was the worst of the season. I predicted a Lions blowout (37-20), and the actual result was almost the opposite (Packers 29-22). I did say the Packers’ best path to success was Jordan Love having the game of his life, and... well, we got pretty close to that. Still, I did not expect the Lions to struggle on offense as much as they did. I don’t know if that has really caused me any second-guessing of the offense, but if it continues this week, there will have to be some adjustments in this article.

Despite the awful prediction, On Paper is still 7-4 on the season and a solid 8-2-1 against the spread.

In the comment section, only one person came even remotely close to the final score. Hankfan232425 predicted 23-20 Packers. Even though you were a traitor last week, you still win.

I don’t know which Hank you’re a fan of, so I put a bunch of the best ones together. Hopefully one of them is right:

This week’s prediction

The Lions come out with a +3.5 advantage. And while that feels like a comfortable lead, I don’t exactly feel comfortable this week. Three of these matchups could truly go in either direction, and Detroit’s god-awful pass defense could sink the entire team any given week right now.

And while I think the Saints defense is due for some negative regression in the turnover department, that should also be a cause for some anxiety. This is a huge week for Lions receivers to win their one-on-ones. If the Saints can disrupt timing routes, it could lead to more Goff turnovers.

In the end, though, I think the Lions can control both of the line of scrimmages, and that should be enough to edge out the Saints in a nail-biter. Lions 31, Saints 26.

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