This is it. Do or die time. The Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams. One advances to the next round, and the other goes home to agonizing defeat. There are a lot of tangible and emotional stakes in this game, but because we bill ourselves as the “objective” preview, there will be no talk of narratives here. This is just football team A vs. football team B.
In case you’re not familiar with how On Paper works or the meaning of all these charts, go read the opening few paragraphs of our Week 1 preview.
Otherwise, let’s just get into our Detroit Lions vs. Los Angeles Rams On Paper preview and prediction.
Note: One addition this week: I have included the Rams’ DVOA number since their Week 11 bye, because, quite frankly, they’ve played like an entirely different team since then. I’m not sure the Rams’ season-long DVOA carries that much weight compared to how they’re playing right now.
Lions pass offense (7th in DVOA) vs. Rams pass defense (21st)
Rams pass defense since bye week: 17th
After a small step back against a good Cowboys defense, the Lions passing attack is back on track. Jared Goff continues to enjoy his best season as a Lion, setting personal Detroit highs in completion percentage (67.3, seventh in NFL), touchdown percentage (5.0, eighth) yards per attempt (7.6, seventh), and touchdowns (30, fourth). And despite his relative lack of mobility, he has the third-lowest sack rate (4.7%) in the NFL. That’s a testament to Goff’s improved ability to avoid negative plays, but it’s also obviously a sign of how dominant the offensive line is playing.
How dominant is it? As a team, the Lions rank t-eighth in pass blocking PFF grade, fourth in adjusted sack rate, and 13th in ESPN’s pass block win rate. Both tackles, Penei Sewell (78.1) and Taylor Decker (80.0), rank in the top 14 among offensive tackles in pass blocking grade.
They are a bit vulnerable up the middle, though, and that’s important this week. Jonah Jackson ranks 34th among 78 guards in pass block grade (62.7), while Graham Glasgow is 53rd (56.2). Thankfully sandwiched between the two is Frank Ragnow, who ranks fifth among centers (73.9) in pass blocking.
That all being said, the Lions have a wide variety of receivers who can hurt opposing defenses. Amon-Ra St. Brown is chief among them, as he ranks third in the NFL in yards, t-second in catches, and t-fourth in touchdowns. Detroit also deploys Jameson Williams as their big-play threat downfield, and don’t sleep on Josh Reynolds—an underappreciated weapon. Of course, the status of Sam LaPorta looms large, as the rookie tight end ranks second on the team—by a wide margin—in both catches (86) and yards (889).
The Rams pass defense hasn’t been particularly good all season. For all of the second-half improvements that they have made, the passing defense remains a particularly big weakness. Meaningless season finale aside, the Rams defense has only held one of their last six opponents significantly below their passer rating average, and six of their last seven have surpassed yardage averages.
On the season, the Rams rank 13th in yards per attempt allowed (6.9), 12th in passer rating allowed, 18th in dropback EPA, and 12th in success rate.
That doesn’t seem that bad, so why the relatively low DVOA? Because they’ve faced a lot of terrible offenses this year. Per DVOA numbers, they’ve faced the second easiest schedule by opposing overall offenses, and a quick glance at the chart confirms that. Seven of their games have come against passing offenses with an 85.0 or lower passer rating average—the league average is 89.0.
Additionally, the Rams have been particularly poor as of late. From Week 14-17 (again excluding the finale), the Rams rank 25th in pass defense DVOA and 17th in dropback EPA.
Their overall pass rush is just okay. They rank 21st in adjusted sack rate, 28th in pressure percentage, tied for 23rd in sacks (with the Lions), and 14th in PFF pass rush grade.
That said, the interior of their defensive line is a problem. Aaron Donald (8.0 sacks) and rookie Kobie Turner (9.0) are game-wreckers:
The most important matchup in the game on Sunday will be Rams interior DL vs. Frank Ragnow.— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) January 9, 2024
Rams iDL leads the NFL in pressure rate. We know how Goff struggles with interior pressure. That's where Rams HAVE to win. Will need a big game from Donald and Turner.
Donald ranks first in the NFL in pressures (84) among defensive tackles, and Turner is 17th (48).
However, the secondary is a different story. The Rams’ overall coverage grade ranks 31st in PFF grade. The only defensive back that ranks in the top 40 in PFF coverage grade at their position is nickel corner Quentin Lake.
Player to watch: Donald vs. iOL. Turner is a great story and all, but 84 pressures from a defensive tackle is insane. The quickest path to derailing the Lions passing game is interior pressure, so Jackson, Ragnow, and Glasgow will have to be at their best.
Advantage: Lions +2. Literally, the only way the Rams can slow the Lions down here is by interior disruption. Detroit should be fine protecting on the edges, and their receivers are far better than the Rams’ defensive backs. One other thing to keep in mind, if LaPorta plays, and it could be a huge advantage: the Rams rank 23rd in pass DVOA against tight ends.
Lions run offense (4th) vs. Rams run defense (20th)
Rams run defense since bye week: 10th
The Lions rushing attack didn’t finish the strongest, and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson knows it.
“Last two games were not what we want,” Johnson said this week. “Last week, we were mistargeted and our communication was off too much and so we’re looking to fix that right now.”
If the Lions can shore up these issues, they should be able to return to one of the best rushing attacks in football. Last week’s 70-yard performance was the last time they were held below 100 yards and 4.0 yards per carry since all the way back to Week 6.
In total, the Lions rank fifth in yards per carry (4.6), first in adjusted line yards, sixth in rush EPA, and eighth in success rate. They’re also very capable of explosive plays, ranking fourth in 20+ yard runs (15).
The Lions’ rushing attack is a marriage between great blocking (second in PFF run blocking grade) and outstanding running backs. Jahmyr Gibbs ranks second in the NFL in yards after contact per attempt (2.5), and David Montgomery ranks third (2.3).
And while the interior offensive line has struggled as pass blockers, they are elite as run blockers. Glasgow ranks fifth among guards in PFF run blocking grade while Ragnow is second among centers. Jackson has been the weak link, though, ranking 43rd out of 80 qualifying guards.
After a rough start to the season, the Rams have finally started to stabilize in defending the run. They’re not exactly elite at it, but they have certainly been an above-average unit out of their bye week (post-Packers game). They’ve managed to hold five of their last eight opponents below 100 rushing yards, and only two were able to outgain their YPC average against LA.
For the season, the Rams rank 17th in YPC (4.2), 21st in adjusted line yards, 13th in EPA, 12th in success rate, and seventh in PFF run defense grade. Since Week 11, they’re 14th in EPA and ninth in success rate.
Of note, they have allowed 11 rushing plays of 20+ yards, which is tied for the 12th-most in the NFL.
Overall, I would call this an average run defense that has been playing slightly above average in the past couple months.
Player to watch: Ernest Jones. Jones is slowly emerging as a star linebacker in this league. He leads the Rams with a 90.0 run defense grade and his run stop percentage of 10.2% is tied for the seventh-best in the NFL.
Advantage: Lions +1.5. The Lions’ running game is consistent and diverse enough to exploit the Rams’ weaknesses—which is the edges of the defense. Running behind Penei Sewell—the best pass blocking lineman in football—would work highly to Detroit’s advantage this week.
Rams pass offense (9th) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)
Rams pass offense since bye week: 4th
This is where you can see the Rams’ dramatic turnaround out of the bye week. Matthew Stafford has been absolutely on fire since Week 11, and it’s put the rest of the league on notice. Since Week 11, Stafford ranks:
- Sixth in passer rating (104.5)
- Eighth in yards per attempt (7.8)
- Third in touchdowns (16)
- Fourth in success rate
In Stafford’s last six starts, the Rams have surpassed the opponent’s passer rating average in every game, and they’ve managed at least 249 net passing yards in all but one contest.
It’s no secret that Stafford’s favorite targets are rookie Puka Nacua and veteran Cooper Kupp. Those two alone account for 51.7% of the Rams’ receiving yards, but the Rams also mix in tight end Tyler Higbee (495 yards).
In terms of pass protection, the Rams have done a good job. They rank sixth in adjusted sack rate, 20th in PFF pass blocking grade, sixth in pressure rate, and t-sixth in fewest sacks allowed (34). However, the primary way they avoid sacks is by getting rid of the ball quickly. Stafford’s time to throw ranks sixth fastest in the NFL. If there’s a weakness to their offensive line in terms of pass blocking, it’s left tackle Alaric Jackson (22nd most pressures allowed among all OT) or center Coleman Shelton (first in pressures allowed by centers).
The Lions pass defense has been very bad all year, but you can see in the chart a little bit of an improvement in the past month. The catalyst behind that improvement has been their pass rush. Bolstered by a schematic change that involves much more blitzing—particularly from the secondary and guys like Ifeatu Melifonwu—the Lions have posted an average of 10.25 QB hits and 3.25 sacks a game over the past four games. That has led to an increase in disruptive plays, including an average of 7.0 pass breakups and 2.3 interceptions over that span. They’re still hemorrhaging yardage, but those negative plays are resulting in more ends of possessions for opponents.
Still, for the season, the outlook is dreary. The Lions rank 21st in passer rating allowed, 31st in yards per attempt (7.8), 25th in dropback EPA, and 25th in success rate.
Detroit’s fatal flaw is undoubtedly their outside cornerbacks—as evidenced by their 29th overall coverage PFF grade. The current starters, Kindle Vildor and Cameron Sutton, rank 133rd and 114th among CBs in passer rating allowed (out of 135) respectively. Yikes.
Player to watch: Demarcus Robinson. Nacua and Kupp get all the media attention but don’t overlook Demarcus Robinson. Filling in for Tutu Atwell, Robinson had an extremely productive December. Robinson posted 319 yards and four touchdowns in his last five games. Detroit’s coverage will have to run deep.
Advantage: Rams +3. This is clearly the biggest advantage in the game, but is it really all that different from the Lions pass O vs. the Rams pass D? Both passing offenses have been among the best in football this season, while both defenses have ways they can disrupt the passer. Detroit’s secondary is worse, but the Rams’ secondary isn’t good, either. Plus, with the Lions getting Alim McNeill and C.J Gardner-Johnson back—and their defense trending in the right direction as of late (compared to the Rams going in the other direction)—I think it’s fair to mark this a +3, when I was thinking of making it a +4 or even a +5 earlier in the week.
Rams run offense (6th) vs. Lions run defense (1st)
Rams run offense since bye week: 3rd
Kyren Williams has been a revelation this year, particularly in the back half of the season. The Rams have rushed for 100+ yards in each of their last seven games, and they’ve only been held below 4.2 yards per carry in the finale—in which Williams did not play.
Just about every statistic marks this as a top-10 rushing attack: while they’re only 11th in yards per carry (4.3), they’re ninth since Week 11 (4.5). They’re also fifth in adjusted line yards, eighth in rush EPA (fourth since Week 11), and sixth in success rate.
The Rams rank fifth in run blocking grade as a team, and Williams ranks second among RBs in yards before contact per rush (3.2). But Williams has been doing his part, too. He ranks sixth among running backs in broken tackles (22).
They’re particularly lethal on the right side of the offensive line. Their center (12th), right guard (first), and right tackle (fourth) all rank extremely high in run blocking grade at their position.
The Lions counter with an incredibly strong run defense. After a mid-season lull—caused largely by mobile quarterbacks—the Lions are back to being quite stiff against the run (last week aside).
For the season, the Lions rank third in yards per carry allowed (3.7), sixth in adjusted line yards, fifth in PFF run defense grade, fourth in EPA, and eighth in success rate.
Player to watch: Lions linebackers. The Lions’ linebackers are key to their run success, and tackling has been a point of emphasis this week against Williams. The Lions have only been average in that category. Derrick Barnes and Alex Anzalone rank 35th and 36th respectively in missed tackle rate (out of 60 linebackers. Jack Campbell has fared better at 19th.
Advantage: Draw. I can’t for the life of me figure this one out. The Lions haven’t faced a ton of great rushing attacks this year. And while they have struggled against the strong ones this year, those have been bolstered by a mobile quarterback. Even going back to last year, the Lions have been dominant against traditional run games, but the Rams may be the best one they’ve faced in 2023. This is a critical matchup and it could go either way.
Last week’s prediction
On Paper notched another win both straight up and against the spread, pushing our record to 12-5 overall and 13-2-2 against the spread. The Lions were a little disappointing on both their rushing attack and run defense, but the overwhelming data suggests those were outliers. Everything else matched up as predicted, and my overall prediction of 34-17 wasn’t too far off from the 30-20 final.
In the comment section, we had a couple good guesses, but none were better than our own Hamza Baccouche’s 28-20 prediction.
Enjoy this prize.
This week’s prediction
The Lions come out with a +0.5 advantage, which almost feels like I subconsciously fudged the numbers. But I stand behind my methods here. The Lions’ only clear disadvantage is against the Rams passing attack. We’ve seen that sink the Lions before, but in the past month, they have thrived despite it. And while Los Angeles also brings the threat of a run game like no other offense they’ve faced since Baltimore, Detroit is still equipped to stop that.
Offensively speaking, outside of a pair of disruptive tackles, I don’t see anything the Lions should fear. Detroit should be more than capable of hanging 30 on the Rams, even with their improving run defense.
This game will truly be a toss-up, but with an extremely rowdy Detroit crowd, it pushes my confidence over the top. Lions 30, Rams 28.