The Detroit Lions are looking to rebound after a disappointing loss to the Seattle Seahawks. While it may have appeared in the preseason that the Atlanta Falcons would be the perfect team to bounce back against, the NFC South team is off to a 2-0 start and look like legit playoff contenders. On top of that, the Lions are limping into Week 3 with a lengthy injury list on top of a couple key players already placed on injured reserve.
It’s a bleak outlook for what started out as a such a promising season, but are things always as they seem? Let’s take a closer look at this matchup with our On Paper preview and prediction.
Lions pass offense (3rd in DVOA) vs. Falcons pass defense (20th)
The Lions passing offense continues to hum along very nicely. For those concerned about some Jared Goff regression this year, the veteran quarterback has thoroughly eased those concerns through two games.
Jared Goff through 2 weeks:— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) September 21, 2023
- 2nd in NFL in Y/A (8.2)
- 3rd in passer rating (109.0)
- 6th in completion percentage (71.4)
- 4th in PFF grade (82.2)-
Goff’s two primary targets—Amon-Ra St. Brown and Josh Reynolds—account for over 55 percent of the team’s receiving yards, but Sam LaPorta (102 yards), Kalif Raymond (66) and Jahmyr Gibbs (57) have pitched in their fair share, as well.
For the most part, pass protection has held up well, too. Detroit ranks third in PFF’s pass blocking grade, but just 23rd in ESPN’s pass block win rate. It certainly struggled more last week with two replacements in the lineup. Backup tackle Matt Nelson allowed two pressures and a quarterback hit against the Seahawks, and backup guard Graham Glasgow allowed three pressures in just 15 pass block snaps. Both are expected to start this week.
Last year, the Falcons had one of the worst pass defenses in the league. They ranked 31st DVOA and 29th in expected points added (EPA). While it looks like they may have improved in the second half of the season, they really didn’t. They simply played a poor set of quarterbacks and held them around their bad averages.
It’s hard to get a firm grasp on how their pass defense looks this season. In Week 1, they tormented rookie Bryce Young in his first career start. The following week, Jordan Love—in just his third career start—had a quiet, but efficient day. While he only threw for 151 yards and completed 56 percent of his passes, he did find the end zone three times.
Atlanta also hasn’t been challenged much at wide receiver. The Packers were without Christian Watson, and the Panthers’ best receiver is a 33-year-old Adam Thielen.
That said, there is reason to believe this Falcons pass defense is better. They’ve added safety Jessie Bates to their secondary, and he’s already rewarded them with two interceptions, a forced fumble, and a league-leading 93.3 PFF grade. Pair him with one of the best cornerbacks in the league in A.J. Terrell, and there are some serious playmakers in the secondary.
There are more questions about their pass rush, however. Last year, they ranked 31st in pressures and sacks; this year, they only have three sacks and rank 23rd in PFF’s pass rushing grade. The majority of their pressure actually comes from the interior with defensive tackles Grady Jarrett (7) and David Onyemata (5) leading the team in pressures.
Player to watch: Jeff Okudah. You didn’t think I’d forget about him, did you? It looks like he’ll make his Falcons debut this week, which means there will be a highly-motivated player opposite Detroit this week. It’s unclear how the Falcons will use him, but with Terrell likely deployed to either shut down St. Brown or Reynolds, it will be on either Kalif Raymond, Marvin Jones Jr., or rookie Antoine Green to beat out the former Lions cornerback.
Advantage: Lions +2.5 Maybe I’m being naive or overly optimistic, but I just don’t believe in this Falcons pass defense yet. They have a new defensive coordinator and a few new pieces that will take time to gel. They’ve looked decent so far, but they couldn’t have had a more favorable schedule to ease into the season. Let’s see how they fare against a passing offense that has been a top-three unit in the league dating all the way back to November of last year.
Lions run offense (14th) vs. Falcons run defense (11th)
The Lions yards per carry continue to drag well below league average, but most of their other efficiency stats paint this as—at least—an average rushing attack. They rank 14th in DVOA, but 20th in EPA and 24th in success rate. Interestingly, the Lions rank third in PFF run blocking grade and 11th in run block win rate.
What appears to be the missing part of the equation is explosive runs. Detroit only has four rushes of 15+ yards, and none of them are longer than 18 yards. They’ve also struggled in short-yardage situations, converting those just 60 percent of the time (17th).
With no David Montgomery this week, it will be on rookie Jahmyr Gibbs to help the unit improve—with some help along the way from either Zonovan Knight or Craig Reynolds (my money is on Knight). Gibbs hasn’t had much early success between the tackles, but offensive coordinator Ben Johnson insists he’s more than capable of it.
“Yeah, Gibby can do anything,” Johnson said. “So yeah, we’ll see what all we ask him to do, but we feel very comfortable with him doing anything that our running backs need to do.”
Last year, the Falcons were very up and down against the run. They finished the season 27th in DVOA and seemed to only get worse as the season went on.
However, they’re off to a promising start to the season. They’ve got that very good interior defensive line with veterans Jarrett (81.6 PFF grade) and Onyemata (91.5) leading the way against the run.
That said, both the Panthers and Packers found ways to be efficient on the ground against Atlanta. While both of those teams have somewhat mobile quarterbacks that help keep the defense guessing, here’s how running backs have played against Atlanta thus far:
- MIles Sanders: 18 carries, 72 yards (4.0 YPC)
- Chuba Hubbard: 9 carries, 60 yards (6.7 YPC)
- AJ Dillon: 15 carries , 55 yards (3.7 YPC)
The opportunity is there, but it won’t be easy this week.
Player to watch: Gibbs. Detroit will have to run Gibbs up the middle to keep the Falcons defense honest, but he’ll still likely do most of his damage on the edges. The Falcons aren’t nearly as strong on the perimeter, and Gibbs will be a huge mismatch against Bud Dupree and Calais Campbell, who are both over 30. But if Detroit can’t establish Gibbs as a between-the-tackles threat, Atlanta will use their corners and safeties to help on the edges, and those fellas can tackle. Terrell boasts an 81.4 run defense grade, and we all know what Okudah can do out there.
Advantage: Draw. I could really see this one going either way. It could be Gibbs’ breakout party, or it could be a reminder of just how important Montgomery is to this team’s offensive identity. The biggest challenge for Detroit is to establish themselves as a real threat up the middle so the Falcons don’t sell out on the edges, but Atlanta’s interior strength will make it tough on them.
Falcons pass offense (22nd) vs. Lions pass defense (27th)
*The asterisk marks the start of the Desmond Ridder era last year
The Falcons passing attack has been quiet, but efficient at times. They are obviously not a team who wants to throw it 30 times a game, but with a dangerous ground game, they utilize play action early and often. They’ve both attempted the second-fewest passes in the NFL and average the sixth-shortest air yards per pass attempt. This is not a team that poses much of a threat to stretch the field vertically.
And the reasoning is quite obvious: Desmond Ridder is just not a very good quarterback right now. Ridder ranks 31st of 33 qualifying quarterback in PFF grade (45.2) and his passing grade is only ahead of Kenny Pickett and Bryce Young. That doesn’t mean he will be a terrible quarterback forever, but he isn’t a good one yet.
This also could be an opportunity for Detroit’s pass rush to get back on track. Through two weeks, the Falcons’ pass blocking grade ranks 28th in the league and Desmond Ridder has been pressured on 25 percent of his dropbacks (11th most).
The Lions pass defense was downright awful last week. There’s no way around it. Geno Smith just has this team’s number right now, and while there was plenty wrong with Detroit’s defense, you do have to give credit to Smith for successfully avoiding pressure and delivering quickly and accurately.
So how concerned should the Lions be about their own defensive performance. The lack of sacks are certainly concerning, but you may be surprised to hear that the team is actually 11th in pressure percentage (25.6%) despite only ranking 23rd in blitz percentage (23.3%). Of course, there are not-so-flattering stats, too. When it comes to winning their one-on-ones, the Lions have been horrible. They’re 30th in pass rush win rate and 26th in PFF’s pass rush grade.
In coverage, the Lions have been playing a ton of zone, and while that has done a good job preventing the big plays, they’ve been getting killed underneath. Now, Detroit is staring down the barrel of missing its top two safeties with C.J. Gardner-Johnson on IR and Kerby Joseph missing the first two practices this week with a hip injury.
How much of Detroit’s defensive strategy will change this week, though? In the first two weeks of the season, the Lions faced two quarterbacks who do a ton of damage outside the pocket. While Ridder can move around, he’s yet to prove he can be the dynamic threat that Smith and Patrick Mahomes can be.
Player to watch: Kyle Pitts. The Lions have not been great against tight ends thus far this season, and play-action passes have proven to be tough for a defense that focuses primarily on stopping the run. Pitts is a likely candidate to take advantage of that, as the Lions are certainly going to sell out to stop the run this week.
Advantage: Draw. I’m not ready to completely give up on the Lions defense like some seem prepared to do. They’ve had two pretty tough matchups in the first two weeks of the season, and while the pass rush concerns are real, I’m not sure that means you should be fearful of a young, inconsistent quarterback in his seventh career start.
Falcons run offense (5th) vs. Lions run defense (13th)
This is the matchup of the game. The Falcons love to run the ball, and they’ve been damn good at it for well over a year. Adding electric rookie Bijan Robinson to the mix is simply unfair. Robinson currently ranks second in rushing yards (180), and his teammate—Tyler Allgeier—is not far behind, ranking 15th (123).
Detroit’s tackling better improve from last week, because Robinson is t-eighth in missed tackles forced on run plays, while Algeier is t-17th.
While both of those guys have enough talent on their own, the Falcons’ offensive line deserves a ton of credit, too. Atlanta ranks fourth in PFF run blocking grade but 17th in run block win rate. Their strength—like on the defensive side—is up the middle. Center Drew Dalman has the second-highest run blocking grade in the NFL at his position, while All-Pro Chris Lindstrom is fifth among guards.
Since the midway point of last season, the Lions run defense—particularly against running backs—has been shockingly great. From last week’s preview:
Week 11 (2022): Saquon Barkley — 15 rushes, 22 yards (1.5 YPC)
Week 12: Devin Singletary — 14 rushes, 72 yards (5.1 YPC)
Week 13: Travis Etienne — 13 rushes, 54 yards (4.2 YPC)
Week 14: Dalvin Cook — 15 rushes, 23 yards (1.5 YPC)
Week 15: Zonovan Knight — 13 rushes, 23 yards (1.8 YPC)
Week 16: DON’T LOOK HERE D’Onta Foreman — 21 rushes, 165 yards (7.9 YPC)
Week 17: Khalil Herbert — 5 rushes, 31 yards (6.2 YPC)
Week 18: Aaron Jones — 12 rushes, 48 yards (4.0 YPC)
Week 1: Isaiah Pacheco — 8 rushes, 23 yards (2.9 YPC)
Now you can add this to the list:
Week 2: Kenneth Walker — 17 carries, 43 yards (2.5 YPC)
It’s worth pointing out, too, that both Pacheco and Walker had pretty successful games when not playing the Lions this season. Last week, Pacheco had 70 yards on 12 rushes against the Jaguars. In Week 1, Walker had 64 yards on 12 carries against the Rams.
Player to watch: Ridder. The Lions still continue to struggle containing running quarterbacks, and it’s worth pointing out last week the Falcons unleashed more designed runs for Ridder. After not registering a single rushing play in Week 1 (other than a kneel), Ridder ran it 10 times for 39 yards and a touchdown last week. If Detroit hyper-focuses on Robinson, Ridder could do this to them:
Advantage: Falcons +1.5. Atlanta is going to try to run the ball a ton, and while the Lions have a good chance at containing a more traditional rushing attack, I am fearful of the Falcons’ realization of Ridder’s potential as a runner with so much focus on the backs. Zone reads will put a lot of pressure on the edge defenders this week, so the Lions need strong performances out of the likes of Aidan Hutchinson, Charles Harris, and John Cominsky.
Last week’s prediction:
On Paper is 0-2 (but 2-0 against the spread). I don’t feel like last week’s preview was egregiously wrong in any matchup, but where I missed the most was the Lions pass defense not showing up against the Seahawks. I still gave Seattle the edge there, but not enough in their favor.
In the comment section, we have a rare back-to-back champion. After Defend the Den had a near-perfect prediction in Week 1, they betrayed us in Week 2. Though not a great score prediction, Defend The Den was one of just a couple of commenters who picked the Seahawks to win.
We’re not mad, Defend The Den. Just disappointed. Here’s your prize:
This week’s prediction
The Lions come out with a small +1 advantage. This is a peculiar matchup, because while I think the Lions should focus on throwing the ball this week, they’ll undoubtedly try to run it a bunch. And when the Falcons have the ball, it’s strength vs. strength (run games) and weakness vs. weakness (pass games).
That’s all to say I don’t have a firm grasp on this week’s outcome at all. It’s going to be another physical matchup for Detroit, so it’s a tough game to be shorthanded. However, I ultimately believe in the Lions’ offense just a tad more than the Falcons’ offense. Lions 24, Falcons 17.