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Lions vs. Rams 5Qs playoff preview: Detroit’s defense must pick their poison

A playoff preview with Evan Craig about the Wild Card matchup between the Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams.

Detroit Lions v Los Angeles Rams Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

On Sunday, the Detroit Lions host the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card round of the 2023 NFL Playoffs.

The Lions? Like the NFC team that hasn’t won a playoff game in over 30 years? They’re hosting a playoff game? I’m just trying to understand here...

As always, we would never pass up the opportunity to get some intel from the opponent’s perspective, especially for the biggest game in many Lions fans’ lifetime. Ahead of this matchup between the Lions and Rams, we called on Evan Craig from to give us some insight into Los Angeles’ hot streak to end the regular season, the personnel turnover on the defensive side of the ball, and the emergence of some rookies not named Puka Nacua.

During his time spent quarterbacking the Lions offense, Matthew Stafford hardly had any semblance of a running game, or at least one that posed enough of a threat to consistently make defenses take it seriously. Even during the Rams Super Bowl run in 2021, their rushing attack was near the middle of the pack, ranked 14th in DVOA and averaging just 4.3 yards per attempt between Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson respective workloads.

Fast forward to 2023 and the Rams have the 7th ranked rushing offense according to DVOA, led by Pro Bowl running back Kyren Williams and his 5.0 yards per attempt over 228 carries. Just how big of a difference have Williams and this Rams running game made for this offense that’s been on fire since Week 11?

Heading into the season, Cam Akers was expected to carry the load after having three straight games of 100+ yards to end 2022. Kyren Williams was almost an afterthought until Akers proved he was fool’s gold and was traded to the Vikings ahead of Week 3. Having Williams mentioned in the same breath as Todd Gurley during his heyday in only his sophomore campaign is quite a feat. It might not be much of a stretch in saying that Kyren is perhaps the best running back Matthew Stafford has ever played with. The cupboard was pretty bare for Stafford in Detroit, so I honestly wouldn’t doubt it. No offense.

What the presence of Williams has allowed has been a more balanced and consistent offense. Part of why Stafford started to light it up after the bye is because he had a ground attack that was taking the pressure off him so he didn’t feel the need to carry the offense on his back all the time. Excluding the regular season finale, the Rams averaged 27.2 points per game with Kyren in the lineup compared to averaging only 14 in the four-game span while he was on IR. Williams also adds another element by being involved in the passing game so he’s been taken even more seriously by opposing defenses. The kid can do it all and he could make a strong push for the rushing title next year after just falling short. I also found it pretty incredible how close he was stat-wise to Christian McCaffrey which again proves exactly why I’m very excited about his future.

Detroit’s defense has struggled mightily against potent passing attacks this season, especially so over the past month. The likes of CeeDee Lamb and Justin Jefferson have been able to take what they want through the air, and the Lions have yet to find an answer to slowing down opposing offenses through the air.

Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua have formed one of the better 1-2 punches in the league this year. How do the Rams get the most out of this tandem, and where do these two do the most damage on the field?

Cooper Kupp and Puka Nacua have simply excelled at consistently being on the same page as Matthew Stafford. Even though Kupp is in his third season with Stafford and Nacua his first, they all play like they’ve been together a decade-plus. Their chemistry is rivaled by very few tandems across the league and they each possess a great nose for the ball. Kupp and Puka are almost always wide open so Stafford can throw up any pass to them as he trusts them enough to come down with it. Chemistry is the one thing you truly can’t coach. Either you have it or you don’t and these two have it with Stafford.

The tandem does the most damage when moving the chains. Puka for example was in the top-5 with 68 first downs on the season. Kupp had about half that total at 33 which seems low, but remember he was out for the first four weeks. When either of them gets going and keeps drives going, stopping them is no easy feat. Basically you’re picking your poison as the Lions are unlikely to stop one or both of them completely.

The Rams defense isn’t the dominant unit it’s been in years’ past (first in points allowed [296] and yards per play [4.6] in 2020, third in team defense DVOA [-12.1%] in 2021). How much of that is moving on from aging stars like Jalen Ramsey or Bobby Wagner? How much of it is the Rams playing a dangerous game with draft picks and not restocking their depth? Where has it left them thin and susceptible in 2023?

I think it’s a mix of both moving on from aging stars and playing a dangerous game as you alluded to. Getting rid of Bobby Wagner after one season despite the multi-year contract he was offered last free agency period was questionable to me, but I came to understand the reasoning. Same with the Jalen Ramsey trade. It’s hard letting go of productive veterans as the risk sometimes doesn’t end up paying off. I would argue releasing Wagner has paid off for the Rams.

The emergence of third-year linebacker Ernest Jones is proof. Jones has become one of the more reliable contributors on the defense and clearly learned a few things from Wagner. While a costly move to part with, it still seemed to work out for LA in the end. Not restocking their depth heading into the year was risky, yet the defense has gradually located its form. There will be lapses in coverage and other questionable plays that have left me shaking my head, but they often don’t break. This young defense is holding its own and has a touch of physicality that equals those great units of the past despite the stats not lining up.

However, the Ramsey trade has left LA quite susceptible in the secondary. Veteran CB Ahkello Witherspoon was a smart pick up by Les Snead. The rest of the cornerback room is littered with mostly first and second-year guys who have been unable to serve as suitable replacements for Ramsey. They’ve also struggled against top wideouts like CeeDee Lamb so I fear what the “Sun God” will do to them.

Setting aside the breakout debut season from Nacua, the Rams have received some big contributions from fellow rookies Byron Young and Kobie Turner on the defensive side of the ball. Tell us a little more about their roles and how important they’ve been to the defense this season.

What more can I possibly say about this dynamic duo? Early in the season, I wrote a weekly rookie report and came away impressed with how much Kobie Turner and Byron Young were improving with each game. There were some fans who were worried about their sack totals which was a legitimate concern. Of course those were the same fans who were concerned that Puka wasn’t scoring any touchdowns. You can’t please everyone. Like anything when it comes to young players, things take time. So many fanbases and people involved with the NFL expect instant gratification with every draft pick which is entirely unrealistic. I could see how Turner and Young were producing in hitting and pressuring the quarterback, even if the sacks hadn’t followed through at the time.

The duo first took off against the Packers when they combined for 20 total tackles and three sacks. That was the game where I felt like my prior comments were finally coming to fruition. Turner has grown into a solid complementary piece alongside Aaron Donald. The future HOFer hasn’t had to do everything because of Kobie’s presence. Registering nine sacks at the nose tackle spot as a rookie is no small feat. With Young, he’s complemented Ernest Jones really well and has recorded eight sacks of his own. Turner and Young have been in the DROY conversation for much of the season’s second half. I don’t expect either one to win since top draft position and popularity rules all on the NFL awards front. No matter, these two are irreplaceable foundational pieces for the defense. I feel so much better about the unit’s future with these two on the field.

What’s one nugget of Rams’ intel that a gambling Lions fan would find useful for their bet slip this Wild Card weekend?

[Note: You can catch the latest odds here at DraftKings Sportsbook]

In Sean McVay’s first four seasons in Hollywood, the Rams were 36-26-2 ATS. The last two years have been a stark contrast for LA as the team has gone 14-19-1 ATS, including going 6-10-1 during their dreadful 5-12 disasterclass. This season has been a stark contrast as the Rams completely reversed their record ATS, finishing the regular season with a 10-6-1 mark. LA has gone over their ATS difference in six of their last seven matchups. For anyone who understood what in the hell any of that meant, power to you and I wish you the best of luck on your gambling endeavors.

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