The Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers face off in Detroit’s first NFC North matchup of the 2023 season. It’s a battle between 2-1 teams, while every other team in the division is still winless. In other words, this game could mean a heck of a lot when it comes to crowning the NFC North winner in January.
So let’s break down this pivotal Thursday night matchup with our On Paper preview, prediction, and statistical matchup.
Note: This week, we’re throwing all of the 2022 data out the window. It’s time to focus solely on this season. However, DVOA numbers are still not opponent-adjusted yet. That’s where our chart will do some heavy lifting this week.
Lions pass offense (6th in DVOA) vs. Packers pass defense (10th)
The Lions passing offense continues to be one of the best in the league, even without some of the gaudy numbers. Detroit ranks seventh in passing yards (809) and t-seventh in passing touchdowns (five), but their efficiency metrics are where they truly shine. They rank fourth in yards per pass attempt (8.0), fifth in passer rating (101.6), and fourth in sack percentage (2.8).
This is largely because Jared Goff is playing extremely well. Despite two interceptions, he’s been PFF’s fifth-best quarterback (83.5 grade) with the third-lowest turnover worthy play rate (1.8%). He’s also sixth in completion percentage over expected (CPOE) and ninth in dropback expected points added (EPA).
The biggest question of this unit has been pass protection. While Goff has only been sacked three times, he’s faced a pressure percentage of 24.3% (14th highest), but they rank sixth in PFF’s pass blocking rating and 14th in ESPN’s pass block win rate.
If Taylor Decker—who earned an 82.0 pass blocking grade in the opener—returns to left tackle, it will help this unit tremendously, as Colby Sorsdal gave up two pressures on just 16 pass blocking snaps.
The DVOA numbers here don’t really match the chart, and the reasoning is pretty obvious: the Packers ain’t played nobody yet. Justin Fields, Desmond Ridder, and a combination of Derek Carr and Jameis Winston is far from a murderer’s row of quarterbacks. So when looking at the raw statistics, they look good for Green Bay. But as you can see from the charts above, the Packers actually failed to keep those quarterbacks below their very low season averages, suggesting they may not be as good as the basic stats suggest.
The Packers have succeeded, however, at pass rush. They have the eighth highest pressure rate, eighth highest pass rush win rate, and rank 14th in PFF’s pass rush grade. They aren’t afraid to send extra pressure—they’re seventh in blitz rate—but Rashan Gary has also been a menace on his own. Though he hasn’t played more than 23 snaps in a game yet, he has already generated 13 pressures and 3.5 sacks. His 31.8 win percentage (per PFF) is second in the NFL only to Myles Garrett.
Gary lines up on both sides of the line, but you better believe the Packers are going to place him over the offense’s right side, with Penei Sewell expected now to play left tackle, and Sorsdal and/or Dan Skipper on the right.
Green Bay’s secondary is full of promising young players, but their safety play had been concerning. The main question here is whether Jaire Alexander will be playing, and that’s a huge factor in this matchup, as he’s a legitimate shutdown corner. Of course, the Lions played another shutdown cornerback last week in A.J. Terrell, and managed to have a diverse enough passing attack to be somewhat productive.
Player to watch: Sam LaPorta. With a questionable safety duo and missing linebacker De’vondre Campbell, this Packers defense could be vulnerable up the middle. They haven’t been particularly good against tight ends thus far this year:
Week 1: Cole Kmet — 5 catches, 44 yards
Week 2: Jonnu Smith: 4 catches, 47 yards
Week 3: THEY LET 84-YEAR-OLD JIMMY GRAHAM SCORE A TOUCHDOWN
LaPorta has caught at least five passes in each of this first three games, and I expect that streak to continue this week.
Advantage: Lions +1. I don’t have a lot of reason to believe in the Packers pass defense quite yet. Admittedly, they have playmakers at each level with Gary, Quay Walker, and Alexander, but the rest of the supporting cast is questionable, and Detroit has faced a couple of better-looking defenses already this year.
UPDATE: I dropped this from Lions +2 to Lions +1 with the latest Decker news. Detroit starting a third or fourth string right tackle against a decent pass rush is a major concern that could flip this matchup in hurry.
UPDATE 2: Decker is playing, back up to Lions +2.
Lions run offense (13th) vs. Packers run defense (17th)
The Lions have eclipsed 100 yards in each game so far this year, but it hasn’t been pretty. By EPA, the Lions actually rank 23rd, and their rush success rate (35.2%) ranks 25th. Particularly troubling is Detroit’s short-yardage rushing attack. They currently have just a 50% success rate in short-yardage situations, which is tied for 26th in the league.
If David Montgomery is back this week, it’ll help tremendously in those situations. He has gotten the ball in three third-and-short situations and converted two of them. Jahmyr Gibbs and Jason Cabinda are a combined 0-for-2 in those scenarios.
Offensive line injuries have also hurt the team. The two lowest-graded run blocking offensive linemen—Matt Nelson and Colby Sorsdal—are both reserves who are not projected to play this week. Despite the short-yardage struggles, center Frank Ragnow has the highest run blocking grade among all NFL centers.
Where the Lions run game has succeeded is broken tackles. Detroit is tied for second in the league with 13 broken tackles and rank 11th in yards after contact in the run game. If the Packers aren’t sound in their tackling, it could be a long day for them.
The Packers have notoriously been horrible at stopping the run, but so far this year... they’re just plain bad. In addition to ranking 17th in DVOA, they’re 21st in EPA and 23rd in run stop win rate.
That said, they are a pretty sound tackling team. They rank fifth in PFF tackling grade and have just 10 missed tackles all year (t-10th fewest).
They had a nice game last week, but without De’Vondre Campbell—their third-best run defender by PFF grade—the unit could take a hit this week.
Player to watch: Kenny Clark. While Clark is a better pass rusher than run defender, he’s ultimately just a disruptor on the line. Mostly lined up as a three-tech, Jonah Jackson and Graham Glasgow will have to be at the top of their game.
Advantage: Lions + 1. Admittedly, this is relying a little more on reputation than 2023 results, but I don’t see Detroit’s rushing regression to last very long as the offensive line gets healthier. The Packers are far from a good run defense, so Detroit should have modest-to-good numbers this week.
Packers pass offense (2nd) vs. Lions pass defense (19th)
The Jordan Love era is certainly off to a promising start. While many are getting hung up on his bad completion percentage (53.1, 33rd) and CPOE (-9.9%, dead last), the Packers passing attack has actually been shockingly efficient. Not only are they second in DVOA, but Green Bay is third in dropback EPA.
The disconnect is hard to get to the bottom of, but we tried our best in our conversation with Packers writer Dusty Evely. The conclusion: The Packers just love to chuck the ball deep and that’s not a horrible strategy in today’s NFL, even if it means sacrificing your completion percentage. They’re low percentage throws, but high value outcomes. Love has the highest average depth of target in the league in (10.4), and while he’s only connected on a few deep shots, he’s also benefited from something just as good as a completion: pass interference penalties.
Looked up a stat after our chat with @DustyEvely:— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) September 27, 2023
The Packers offense has already gained 154 yards on pass interference penalties.
The next closest team is Dallas... with 73.
Next closest is the Jaguars with 46.
That’s over 50 yards of PI per game. If that sort of ridiculous rate continued for a season, the Packers would finish with 873 pass interference yards. Last year, the highest total was 240. In other words, this trend will not continue. At some point, the Packers will stop getting bailed out by officials.
[Editor’s note: Or will they?]
That said, one thing the Packers have excelled at is pass protection—even with a beat-up offensive line. Green Bay currently has PFF’s top offensive line in the league, largely because of their third-highest pass blocking grade and ninth-highest pass block win rate. Like the Lions, they’ve only allowed three sacks this season and their pressure percentage is 11th lowest in the league.
Getting Christian Watson back this week—albeit in an expected limited role—will help add some reliability to a young and mistake-prone receiving corps.
It’s hard to get a firm grasp on the Lions pass defense thus far. They held strong against the Chiefs and a bad Falcons pass defense, but the Seahawks thoroughly picked them apart.
Detroit seemed to finally find themselves a pass rush last week, switching up their strategy on the defensive front and completely wrecking the Falcons’ game plan. It won’t be as easy for them this week with Green Bay’s solid offensive line and a slightly-more-mobile Jordan Love behind center.
Coverage has been a very mixed bag, too. While rookie nickel corner Brian Branch has been fantastic and Cameron Sutton has been steady, Jerry Jacobs has struggled and the Lions will be trotting out two backup safeties in Tracy Walker (formerly a starter) and Ifeatu Melifonwu. The good news is that Emmanuel Moseley is expected to make his debut, but he’ll likely be on a pitch count.
Most advanced stats paint this as an average defense, ranking 17th in dropback EPA, 10th in yards per attempt, and 19th in passer rating allowed.
Player to watch: Aidan Hutchinson. The league leader in pressures will either be lined up over backup left tackle Rasheed Walker (a 2022 seventh rounder), injured right tackle Zach Tom, or whoever they trot out there if Tom can’t play (likely Yosh Nijman). FEAST.
Advantage: Packers +1. I’m not quite a believer in the Packers passing offense just yet, but coach Matt LaFleur is a talented offensive mind, and he’s made a patchwork group of players work thus far. I’d love to think the Lions defense of last week is the new normal, but we have to consider strength of opponent here. If Detroit can win this matchup, it will go a long way in my belief this defense is for real.
Packers run offense (27th) vs. Lions run defense (5th)
The Packers have only had Aaron Jones for a few quarters this season—and it shows. But it would be overly simplistic to blame all of Green Bay’s struggles on the ground on Jones’ absence. For as good as the offensive line has been in pass blocking, they’ve been almost equally bad at run blocking. The Packers rank 26th in PFF’s run blocking grade, 23rd in run block win rate, and 28th in adjusted line yards. To really drive the point home, the Packers rank 26th in yards before contact per rush at just 1.8.
Jones is expected to play this week, but it’s unclear how much. That does give the Packers a chance at an explosive play or two, but don’t expect them to have a consistently strong running game on Thursday night.
The Lions run defense has been the biggest pleasant surprise of this team so far. Granted, I’ve pointed out repeatedly that their improvement in this facet of the game dates back to the midway point of last season. Still, these are tremendous numbers against rushing attacks that are projected to be some of the best in the league.
Some impressive rankings thus far:
- 8th in rush EPA allowed
- 3rd in rush success rate allowed
- 7th in adjusted line yards allowed
- 10th in power success
Player to watch: Aaron Jones. It has to be Jones. Because for as good as the Lions run defense should be on a down-to-down basis, Jones is capable of explosive plays every time he touches the ball. Last year, Jones had 12 rushes of at least 15 yards, good for 13th in the NFL.
Advantage: Lions +2. I’m still mildly concerned about Jones breaking out a big run, but overall, this is a matchup that highly favors the Lions any way you look at it. And while you may think the Packers will shy away from this matchup, lessening its impact on the overall game, that is not how Green Bay operates. They love to run the ball, and every time they do, it’s advantage Detroit.
Last week’s prediction
On Paper moved to 1-2 on the season (3-0 against the spread) with a solid 24-17 Lions prediction. My biggest whiff was giving the Falcons an advantage in the run game, which obviously did not come to fruition. That only speaks to how real this run defense appears to be.
In the comment section, no one came close to predicting Detroit holding Atlanta to just 6 points, but the closest prediction was duck-lion, who not only came fairly close to the 20-6 final score, but nailed the bonus prediction in their comment:
Congrats, duck-lion. Here is your prize: a preview of Dan Campbell’s new standup special:
This week’s prediction
The Lions come out with a fairly decisive
+3 +4 advantage and an edge in three of the four matchups. Simply put, the Lions are a better team than the Packers right now. Green Bay isn’t a bad team, but they’re still finding their identity on both sides of the ball.
As long as the Lions can avoid giving up explosive plays on defense—and keep Goff relatively clean in pass protection—it should be a fairly comfortable win. Lions 24, Packers 13.