Welcome back to another season of our Detroit Lions On Paper series! I’m hoping this can be an extra special season of On Paper because I’ve never been so excited for a season of Lions football.
Before we get into my preview and prediction, a quick recap of what On Paper is and what it tries to accomplish.
I created On Paper decades ago because too many previews took the worthless approach of comparing the same unit on each team. Which team has the better quarterback? Whose offensive line is better? Those are worthless comparisons because those players don’t play against each other. Instead, On Paper pits compatible units against each other. How does the Kansas City Chiefs’ offensive line match up against the Lions defensive line? Will Detroit’s running game have a huge advantage over Kansas City’s run defense? You get it.
In order to compare these units, I use data from the season—or in the case of the first month of each year, last season’s stats. I put that data into a chart, a total of eight for each matchup: each team’s pass offense, run offense, pass defense and run defense.
For each team’s unit, I compare their weekly performance to season averages. For example, if Jared Goff throws for 310 yards and a 98.0 passer rating, that seems like a pretty good day. But in On Paper, we put it in its proper context. So if that performance comes against the best defense in the league that is allowing just 220 yards and an 85.0 passer rating on the season, it’s a fantastic performance. If the defense is averaging 350 yards allowed and a passer rating of 120.0, that’s actually a not-so-good performance. Each weekly performance is charted, compared to season averages, and color coded. Beating weekly averages earns a green cell. Performing below averages earns a red cell. And if the performance is within five percent of averages, the cell is yellow. After discussing each matchup, I will give an advantage on a scale of 1-5 based both on how lopsided the advantage is and how much I think it’ll impact the final outcome.
It sounds like a lot, but you’ll get used to it.
Again, we are only using 2022 data, but I’ll try to provide caveats based on personnel changes in the offseason.
Let’s get into it. Here is my Week 1, Lions vs. Chiefs, On Paper preview.
Lions pass offense (6th) vs. Chiefs pass defense (14th)
I don’t need to remind you of just how much Jared Goff and the Lions turned it on at the end of last season... but I’m going to remind you anyways. Here’s a look at the splits of his crazy 2022 season:
Weeks 1-9: 173-of-275 (62.9%), 2,041 yards. 7.4 Y/A, 14 TDs, 7 INTs, 91.8 passer rating
Weeks 10-18: 209-of-312 (67.9%), 2,397 yards, 7.7 Y/A, 15 TDs, 0 INTs, 105.9 passer rating
The Lions’ dropback efficiency, per expected points added, went from 20th in the first nine weeks, to first for the final nine games.
What can we attribute that rapid growth? There are a few important factors to keep in mind—none of which is an easier schedule. Look closely at that chart, the pass defenses weren’t considerably easier than what they faced in the early half of the season.
Instead, we can attribute it to comfortability in the scheme. In offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s first season, it was bound to take some time for the team to find its rhythm. Additionally, the offense got healthier—particularly the offensive line. In the first half of the season alone, the Lions lost their starting right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai (for the season), Frank Ragnow missed a game (suffering a foot injury that would linger the entire season), and Jonah Jackson missed three games. They also lost running back D’Andre Swift for three games, starting receiver DJ Chark for seven games, and Amon-Ra St. Brown for two games (including the Cowboys game where he was pulled early for concussion protocol). Outside of the right guard position, all of those players were back and active the entire end of the season.
Health along the offensive line did wonders for Goff, who played nearly flawless ball from a clean pocket. Here’s a little snippet from this week’s Pride of Detroit Direct article via Ryan Mathews:
Goff was fourth in adjusted completion percentage (82.0) and threw 24 touchdowns to just three interceptions when kept clean.
This offseason, the Lions got healthy on the offensive line and—barring some horrible act of God—will be starting their projected five offensive linemen for the first time in the Dan Campbell era. The only other notable difference is at receiver. Gone is field stretcher DJ Chark and he’s been replaced with quite literally the oldest receiver in the league in Marvin Jones Jr. While Jones Jr. is likely to be a subpackage guy—with Josh Reynolds, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Kalif Raymond starting—it highlights what could be construed as one of the few downgrades on the roster this year (without Jameson Williams). Elsewhere, rookie tight end Sam LaPorta takes over for T.J. Hockenson, but the Lions’ passing offense took off well after Hockenson was traded, so LaPorta’s addition to a thin room is a welcome upgrade from where they were after the trade deadline a little less than a year ago.
The Chiefs pass defense wasn’t particularly good last year, but like Detroit, they found some late-season success that helped propel them to Super Bowl champions. This has been a trend with the Chiefs as of late, and you can either credit defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo for turning things around or criticize him for not having them ready to start the season.
Regardless, the Chiefs defense has a lot of questions surrounding them heading into 2023. There is youth everywhere, which, again, can be interpreted two ways. Either it’s budding talent that will come out better in 2023 than 2022, or it’s going to still take a while for it to fall into place.
On the defensive front, the biggest concern is pass rush. With no Chris Jones expected on Thursday, the Chiefs are losing 15.5 sacks from last year and the No. 1 defensive tackle in pass rush win rate and No. 1 rated defensive tackle by PFF. His 77 pressures was 22 percent more than any other defensive tackle in football.
But it’s not just about losing Jones. They no longer have Frank Clark (5.0 sacks in 2022), Carlos Dunlap (4.0), and Khalen Saunders (3.5 sacks). They’re handing the reins to last year’s first-round pick George Karlaftis (58.7 PFF pass rush grade) and this year’s first-round pick Felix Anudike-Uzomah. That’s going to be a problem this week.
In the secondary, there’s more youth. Veteran safety Justin Reid is surrounded by 2022 draft picks Trent McDuffie (starting outside corner, also plays nickel), Bryan Cook (starting safety), Joshua Williams and Jaylen Watson (both depth corners who may play on Thursday).
Player to watch: Jahmyr Gibbs vs. Chiefs linebackers. Ben Johnson, Dan Campbell and Goff all mentioned the athleticism of the Chiefs linebackers, which tells me they’ve been thinking of this particular matchup for the past month. The Lions are going to use rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs all over the place: in the backfield, in the slot, out wide: everywhere. But this could be a tough matchup for him this week—and, really, much of the Lions’ receiving options. We know Detroit likes to work the short-to-intermediate part of the field, and that could play into the Chiefs linebackers’ hands.
Advantage: Lions +2. You give Goff time, and he’s going to make you pay. Spagnuolo isn’t going to go quietly into the night—likely dialing up a lot of blitzes—but Goff was also extremely dangerous against the blitz last year. We’re all excited to see where Johnson takes this offense in Year 2, and with a few new pieces around, I think that will be enough mystery to keep a mediocre defense missing its biggest piece on its toes.
Lions run offense (12th) vs. Chiefs run defense (15th)
The Lions run offense got off to a hot start last year, but trailed off considerably in the second half of the year. Detroit still maintained good efficiency in short-yardage situations, but their explosive plays almost completely disappeared.
Detroit is hoping a healthy offensive line, as well as the additions of tackle-breaking machine David Montgomery and “offensive weapon” Gibbs, will bring back some of that early success.
Detroit deploys a myriad of run schemes, which should stave off some feared regression now that teams have tape on Ben Johnson’s offense. But, still, with two new weapons in the backfield, the Lions have a lot to prove here, even if this looks like a running game that should be quite successful this year.
As their DVOA rating and chart suggests, this was a pretty average run defense last year. The problem for the Chiefs is Jones was just as much a force in the team’s run defense as he was as a pass rusher. Jones ranked seventh in PFF run defense grade and his replacements are either very untested (Tershawn Wharton) or just weren’t very good last season (Derrick Nnadi, 38.8 run defense grade in 2022).
The linebacking corps, led by Nick Bolton, should help out on the second level, but if Detroit’s offensive line can get to the second level without resistance, it may not matter.
Player to watch: Penei Sewell. While eyes will certainly be on Gibbs and Montgomery, it’s fair to say that the Lions third-year right tackle is just as important to their run game. The Lions are not afraid to pull him, put him in motion, or just tell him to bulldoze. Sewell finished 2022 with the fourth-highest run blocking grade of all NFL offensive tackles (100 run blocking snaps minimum).
Advantage: Lions +3. I’d like to think this is a bigger advantage for Detroit, but I need a little more proof of concept before I start handing out huge advantages here. Still, I’m extremely excited to see what the Lions can do on the ground this year.
Chiefs pass offense (1st) vs. Lions pass defense (23rd)
I don’t know if there’s anything I can tell you that you don’t already know about Patrick Mahomes. He’s the best player in the NFL and he has been for several years. There’s no single stat that can capture everything he can do, because he can do everything. Drop into a two-shell defense, he’ll take you apart little by little. Send blitzes, he’ll sidestep them and drop a dime over the top. Man, zone, it doesn’t matter, he can beat it.
But the one thing we don’t know about Patrick Mahomes is what he looks like without Travis Kelce. That is not hyperbole. We have essentially no datapoints for that, other than a couple of regular season finales and a random Week 15 game in which Kelce had COVID and Mahomes still threw for 258 yards and three touchdowns on the way to a 36-10 win over the Steelers. Even though Tyreek Hill was active for that game, he only accounted for 19 yards. So, that’s at least one datapoint that shows what we all probably knew already: Mahomes is still pretty damn dangerous even if he’s missing his future Hall of Fame tight end.
If Kelce can’t play—which has yet to be determined—Mahomes’ cupboard will be barer than it’s been in the past. Of his top receivers—Kadarius Toney, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Skyy Moore—only Valdes-Scantling has ever had more than 450 yards in a season.
As for protecting Mahomes, Chiefs fans and analysts seem to think he’s got the best offensive front of his career this season. There’s certainly statistical evidence to support the offensive line’s productivity, as it ranked first in pass block win rate and ninth in PFF pass blocking. That said, there are two new tackles in town, with Donovan Smith (58.1 PFF grade in 2022) at left tackle and Jawaan Taylor (58.7) at right. Many believe those are two upgrades over their predecessors, but we’ll see.
The Lions pass defense seemed to figure things out a bit in the second half of the season. The big catalysts of improvement there was their improved pass rush (went from 19th to ninth in pressure rate after Week 12) and turnovers (six forced in first seven games, 16 forced in the final 10 games).
This offseason, the Lions arguably got better in both of those facets. On the defensive front, they’ll be returning a handful of players who were hampered by injury last year, including Charles Harris, Romeo Okwara, Josh Paschal, and Levi Onwuzurike. In the secondary, they added a bunch of ballhawks, including Cameron Sutton (15 PBUs last year), C.J. Gardner-Johnson (NFL-leading six INTs), and rookie Brian Branch (23 PBUs in three years at Alabama).
Does that mean the Lions pass defense is going to set the world on fire in 2023? That’s still very much to be determined, but on paper, there’s reason to believe they could surprise some people this year.
Player to watch: Mahomes. Sorry to oversimplify this, but regardless of how much pressure you can apply and regardless of who is at receiver, Mahomes has the play-making potential to extend the play, and put additional stress on the Lions corners. With Detroit having serious questions marks in the middle of their defensive line, Mahomes could have a lot of escape routes from pressure coming on the edges.
Advantage: Chiefs +2. (with Kelce +3) This is possibly the Lions best shot at Mahomes, but there are just too many unknowns here. Will the Lions secondary be clicking right away? Can the Chiefs’ new offensive tackles slide in and elevate that unit? Will Detroit’s edge defenders live up to their billing? Will Kelce play? The only thing we know for sure is that Mahomes is an unstoppable force until otherwise proven.
Chiefs run offense (10th) vs. Lions run defense (25th)
The Chiefs don’t exactly hammer home the run game—they ranked 24th in rushing attempts last year and 20th in rushing yards—but they are pretty efficient when they do decide to use it. Their 4.7 yards per carry in 2022 ranked 11th in the NFL and their 18 rushing touchdowns ranked t-seventh most.
Again, it’s their offensive line that is the star of the show here. They have the best run-blocking center in the league in Creed Humphrey, and both Trey Smith (13th) and Joe Thuney (22nd) finished in the top 25 among guards in PFF’s run blocking grade.
The Chiefs also deploy a solid duo of running backs. Isiah Pacheco is the bruising, tackle-breaking back with 4.37 speed, while Jerick McKinnon is their Theo Riddick—capable of being an extra receiver and making the first defender miss. In fact, McKinnon caught nine touchdown passes last year, just three behind Kelce. Look for him to be a red zone threat against this Lions linebacking corps.
Back to the run game, though. Last year, the Chiefs had four games in which they rushed the ball less than 20 times and just two in which they had over 30 rushing attempts in a game. That could change this week if Kelce can’t go, as their passing attack rarely is without their biggest weapon.
The Lions run defense undoubtedly got better as the season went on, but that Panthers game sticks out as a reminder that they had a lot of room to improve even by December.
It’s hard to say definitively that the Lions improved in this area this offseason. Their only true additions were third-round defensive tackle Brodric Martin—who is still far behind enough to not expect much in Week 1—and first-round linebacker Jack Campbell, who may not start on Thursday.
The hope is that schematic changes from last year carry over, and the health of their defensive front elevate the unit. Remember, all those defenders returning from injury should help in the run game, as well. Still, with the curious benching of Isaiah Buggs—meaning Benito Jones could be in line for his first NFL start (against one of the best centers in the league, no less)—that’s not exactly a comforting feeling.
Player to watch: Benito Jones. I say this with no sarcasm at all, but Benito Jones may be one of the most important players on the field for Detroit on Thursday night. He didn’t exactly have a great season last year, tallying just 16 tackles and eight stops on 309 snaps—earning a 46.3 run defense PFF grade and 53.3 overall grade. However, he did look better in this year’s preseason. Not enough to give me confidence against Humphrey, but we’ll see.
Advantage: Chiefs +3. While I remain somewhat optimistic Detroit will be better in run defense this year, I don’t particularly like their matchup against the Chiefs. And while allowing Kansas City to run the ball well typically isn’t nearly as big of an issue as letting Mahomes kill you through the air, they may rely on the run game more than normal with Kelce’s injury.
We come out with a dead draw between the two teams. If Kelce plays, that gives the Chiefs a +1 advantage. I don’t have a great read on the Kelce situation, but it looks like they’re at least going to test out his knee on Thursday, and that makes me think Kelce is probably going to play. Hard to imagine them keeping a competitive guy like that on the sidelines.
Regardless, this should be an offensive showcase for both teams—which is no surprise considering both were among the best offenses last year with serious questions still remaining about their defense.
Last year, the Lions didn’t fare particularly well in shootouts. They lost 38-35 to the Eagles, 48-45 to the Seahawks, 31-27 to the Dolphins, and 28-25 to the Bills. They only won two games in which their opponent scored 25 points or more: 36-27 over the Commanders and 31-30 over the Bears.
But this isn’t the 2022 Detroit Lions. I can’t wait to see them unveil this revamped defense, and I do think they have a chance to give the Chiefs some problems. Ultimately, though, I think the moment is just going to be a little bit too big for Detroit. Chiefs 30, Lions 27.