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Lions vs. Broncos preview, prediction: On Paper

Previewing the Detroit Lions and Denver Broncos Week 15 matchup with a statistical analysis and prediction.

Detroit Lions v Denver Broncos Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions will attempt to get back on track against the Denver Broncos in a Saturday night showdown at Ford Field. On the surface, it appears both teams are headed in opposite directions. The Broncos have won six of their last seven, while the Lions are “just” 4-3 over that same stretch.

But are the Broncos truly playing at a higher level right now? Are the Lions doomed to jeopardize their divisional chances against one of the hotter teams in the NFL?

Let’s take a closer look at our On Paper preview and prediction for Lions vs. Broncos.

Lions pass offense (13th in DVOA) vs. Broncos pass defense (20th)

The Lions pass offense is certainly not headed in the right direction right now. Granted, it does seem to be that the Chicago Bears specifically have their number. Even still, the Lions pass offense has had some serious lulls—even in the games the overall stats look good (Packers, Saints). This is reflected in the DVOA numbers. After the Chargers game, the Lions pass offense ranked sixth in DVOA. It has plummeted since.

To further illustrate that point, Detroit ranked 11th in dropback EPA through the first 10 weeks. In just the past four weeks, they rank 21st. The trend is clear, but the sample size remains quite small and heavily influenced by the aforementioned Bears defense that is trending in an impressive direction.

For the entire season, the Lions rank seventh in yards per attempt (7.4), eighth in passer rating (94.8), and 15th in dropback EPA.

So how do we judge where this passing offense is right now? Well, it should help that the team’s entire starting offensive line is trending towards playing because pass protection has been one of the leading issues to their problems. But a certain amount of confidence in this unit has been shaken. For now, let’s just classify the Lions pass offense as above average/good—but certainly not great.

This is one of the most drastic turnarounds I have ever witnessed on an On Paper chart. Through the first five games, this was quite literally one of the worst passing defenses in the history of the NFL. Since then, they’ve turned things around in a big way: first with a couple of average performances against the Chiefs and Packers, and since then, dominant performances against everyone but C.J. Stroud. And while part of that is aided by games against backup quarterbacks Josh Dobbs, Dorian Thompson-Robinson, and Easton Stick, they held Josh Allen and Patrick Mahomes to their lowest passer ratings of the season.

It’s hard to put your finger on one reason the Broncos have managed such a drastic turnaround, but part of the reason is likely just settling into Vance Joseph’s defensive scheme. But beyond that, they also have a ton of talent in the secondary. Patrick Surtain is a legit shutdown cornerback, nickel cornerback Ja’Quan McMillian has been a breakout star in Year 2 of his career, and safety Justin Simmons is a ball hawk with nine interceptions over the past two seasons.

Although, interestingly, the Broncos rank 31st in PFF’s coverage ranking... suggesting something is up here.

The Broncos also don’t sport much of a pass rush. They rank 30th in ESPN’s pass rush win rate, 25th in PFF pass rush grade, and 24th in pressure percentage. Because of that, they are an aggressive defense, blitzing at the seventh-highest clip in the NFL. They’ll also be without Nik Bonitto, who currently leads the team in sack (7.0).

So what exactly is going on here?

Two things: the Broncos are being weighed down from their horrible start, and they’ve also been incredibly opportunistic with turnovers. In the past six games, the Broncos have forced 17 turnovers, including six interceptions. That hardly seems sustainable.

If we take turnovers out of the equation, I’m not so sure this pass defense is to be feared all that much. For the season, Denver ranks 27th in yards per attempt allowed (7.6), 24th in completion percentage allowed, and 22nd in success rate.

Player to watch: Taylor Decker. The Lions left tackle has struggled in recent weeks and a back injury likely isn’t helping. Decker has given up 16 pressures in the past five games after allowing just 13 in the previous six. Last week, he allowed four sacks.

Advantage: Lions +1. I know this seems counterintuitive with the trajectory of both units. Furthermore, the Broncos are forcing a ton of turnovers, while the Lions passing offense is giving the ball away lately. However, turnovers are just not predictive week-to-week, and the trends of both teams are currently unsustainable. Additionally, the Broncos don’t force a ton of pressure, which is typically the cause of Detroit’s turnovers. Therefore, when you cut through some of the noise here, I believe the Lions to be the better unit here. Not by a ton, but enough to see some success this week.

Lions run offense (4th) vs. Broncos run defense (31st)

Despite the Lions’ recent overall struggles, their rushing attack remains lethal. They have averaged at least 4.5 yards per carry in seven straight games, and have hit the 140 rushing yards mark seven times this year—including in five of their last six games.

Overall on the season, the Lions rank fourth in yards per carry (4.7), fifth in rush EPA, and eighth in success rate.

While the Lions’ backfield is certainly responsible for some of the unit’s overall success, the offensive line has truly been the biggest catalyst. They rank second in adjusted line yards, first in PFF run blocking grade, and eighth in yards before contact per attempt.

But Detroit also ranks third in yards after contact per attempt and ninth in rushing PFF grade. In other words, everything is clicking on the ground right now, and with a relatively healthy offensive line, expect that to continue.

Denver’s run defense has certainly improved from early in the season, but it hasn’t had the complete turnaround that the passing defense has experienced. Here’s a chart pulled directly from this week’s Pride of Detroit Direct preview newsletter.

Only their EPA has moved into the top half of the league, and, again, that is highly influenced by Denver’s ridiculous 11 fumbles recovered since Week 6.

Player to watch: Alex Singleton. The Broncos linebacker has 58 more tackles than anyone on the team (136) and sports a strong 75.0 run defense grade per PFF (24th out of 78 LBs).

Advantage: Lions +2.5. Though the Lions run defense can occasionally go through some disappearing spells, they have been the motor that runs the Lions offense, and this feels like their most favorable matchup in a while. As long as they hold onto the ball, this could be the advantage that wins them the game on Saturday.

Broncos pass offense (16th) vs. Lions pass defense (19th)

The Broncos passing offense has been largely efficient, although rarely explosive this season. While Russell Wilson has had seven games with a passer rating above 100, he has also only netted above 250 passing yards twice all season (Note: this is net passing yards, which subtracts sack yardage).

For the season, the Broncos passing attack has been relatively consistent, ranking 17th in yards per attempt (6.9), fifth in passer rating (98.3), 20th in EPA, and 22nd in success rate. Wilson has, essentially, been taking what the defense gives him, as his average depth of target of 7.0 yards ranks 28th in the league.

That said, receiver Courtland Sutton is their deep ball threat, and he’s more than capable of bringing down a contested catch—he ranks third in the NFL in contested catch rate (60.0%) on passes 20+ yards downfield per PFF. Wilson actually attempts deep shot (20+ yards) 13.8 percent of the time, which is fifth-highest in the league, and his 93.8 PFF grade on those throws ranks ninth in the NFL.

In summation, this passing offense throws it a ton at or behind the line of scrimmage, but is also not afraid to uncork the deep shot.

Pass protection is a mild problem for Denver, although, as always, a good amount of Wilson’s sacks are his own fault. In total, the Broncos have allowed 38 sacks, which is tied for the sixth-most in the NFL.

The Lions pass defense remains in a tailspin. The secondary has been a huge problem, as Detroit now ranks 28th in PFF’s coverage grade. The Lions made some changes last week, adding Kindle Vildor to the outside cornerback rotation and replacing safety Tracy Walker with Ifeatu Melifonwu. It’s unclear at this point whether those changes are upgrades.

Overall, the Lions pass defense ranks 22nd in yards per attempt (7.3), 25th in passer rating (921.), 26th in dropback EPA, and 29th in success rate.

And as you can see by the chart above, everything is trending in the wrong direction.

Perhaps the only thing that may be moving in the right direction is the pressure Detroit is generating. The Lions’ pass rush grade is 14th by PFF, their pressure percentage ranks fifth overall, and here are their pressure numbers (via PFF) in the last four games:

  • vs. Chargers: 17
  • vs. Bears: 19
  • vs. Packers: 21
  • vs. Saints: 23
  • vs. Bears: 18

Those are strong numbers and mild hope that eventually all these pressures will lead to actual sacks—where the Lions still rank 25th (28 total sacks).

Player to watch: Sutton... vs. Sutton? The Lions have given up far too many big shots in recent weeks, and Denver is going to eventually test Detroit’s secondary. Can Cameron Sutton prevent Courtland Sutton from a big play? Courtland has five straight games with a catch of 30+ yards.

Advantage: Broncos +2. Again, Denver isn’t a team likely to tack on 300+ yards of passing offense, but like the Bears last week, they can be efficient when they need to be. The key for Detroit will be to stay disciplined and not let Wilson beat them over the top when the eventual deep shot comes. I don’t have a ton of confidence in that right now.

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

Like the Lions, the Broncos have a physically-tough running game. They rely heavily on their bruising back Javonte Williams, but he is far from as efficient as David Montgomery—Williams is averaging just 3.8 yards per carry to Montgomery’s 4.8.

But Denver still grinds out a ton of yards due to their commitment to the running game. Also, that physical nature leads them to be great in short-yardage situations. Their power success rate of 78% ranks fifth in the NFL.

And while Wilson still prefers to throw when on the move, the Broncos have leaned more into his rushing potential this year. His 315 rushing yards ranks eighth among quarterbacks in 2023.

Overall, the Broncos rank 11th in yards per carry (4.3), 12th in adjusted line yards, 13th in rush EPA, and 10th in success rate.

The Lions run defense has struggled a little in recent weeks, but that is a relative term. They have yet to be truly gashed on the ground all season, with their only slip-ups coming against mobile quarterbacks. But even in those games, they’ve been able to keep things under control between the tackles.

The loss of Alim McNeill last week proved to be somewhat impactful in the run game, but overall the unit remains quite strong.

Detroit ranks fifth in rush EPA, ninth in success rate, ninth in yards per carry (3.9), and 11th in adjusted line yards.

Player to watch: Aidan Hutchinson. Hutchinson is pretty pissed over his mistakes from last week, and I think he could be in for a big game. While we tend to obsess over sack numbers, Hutchinson has always been a strong run defender, and you know where the Broncos are the weakest in the run direction?

Advantage: Draw. In general, this matchup favors the Lions, but with a somewhat mobile quarterback and Detroit still figuring out how to manage their defensive front without McNeill, I’ll call this a draw. That said, I would be shocked if the Broncos racked up 150 yards or more.

Last week’s prediction

I picked the Bears last week, moving my overall record in this preview to 9-4 straight up and 10-2-1 against the spread. The only aspect of the preview I feel I miscalculated was Detroit’s pass offense having the edge over the Bears defense. Honestly, I feel like that was more of an error underestimating Chicago’s defense, which has been steadily on the rise for a month. But at the same time, the Lions passing offense has felt flat the past few weeks, too. I’m certainly a little skeptical of Detroit’s passing attack, which fell four spots in DVOA this week.

In the comment section, JayBDet came away the closest with their 31-13 Bears prediction (the final score was 28-13). Here is your prize:

The story all game is going to be DAN CAMPBELL VS. HIS MENTOR SEAN PAYTON. So enjoy this morphing of the two together, via AI generated art from Gencraft.com.

This week’s prediction

The Lions come out with a +1.5 advantage, and I feel like I may have been a little generous to Denver, honestly. Don’t get me wrong, the Broncos’ turnaround is truly remarkable, but let’s not conflate improvement with greatness. They’re still a pretty average team, and I think Detroit matches up with them pretty well.

If the Lions manage to take care of the ball and limit Wilson’s big plays to one or two rather than three or four, it should be a relatively comfortable win. Lions 27, Broncos 20.

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