clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Detroit Lions vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers preview, prediction: On Paper

NFL Divisional Round preview and prediction for Detroit Lions vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Detroit Lions v Tampa Bay Buccaneers Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

We’re breaking new ground here at On Paper. For the first time ever, we’re covering a Divisional Round game as the Detroit Lions host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a ticket to the NFC Championship game. While the two teams faced off in Week 6, there’s plenty that has changed about both teams since that mid-October matchup.

So let’s just jump right into our NFC playoff preview and prediction for Lions vs. Buccaneers.

Of note: Because this is the first time in On Paper history that we’re dealing with a second round in the playoffs, it’s worth noting that all averages and DVOA numbers are from the regular season only, unless otherwise stated. That includes the average columns in the charts.

Lions pass offense (7th in DVOA) vs. Buccaneers pass defense (14th)

Outside of the Bears games and the Ravens game, this Lions passing offense has been the model of good, consistent football. Jared Goff has posted nine games with a 100+ passer rating, and Detroit has finished with at least 250 net passing yards in 11 games.

Overall as a team, the Lions rank seventh in dropback EPA, fifth in success rate, fifth in passer rating, fifth in PFF passing grade, and sixth in yards per attempt. Just about every metric shows this is a passing attack pushing near a top-five spot in the league, and after a little midseason lull, they are back playing at their best again.

Goff is helped by one of the best pass-blocking units in football. Detroit ranks fourth in adjusted sack rate, fourth in sacks allowed, and 10th in PFF pass blocking grade.

Then, of course, there’s the litany of weapons at Goff’s disposal. First-team All Pro Amon-Ra St. Brown leads the way. He has at least six catches in 14 of 17 games played this season, and he’s crossed over 100 yards in 10 games—including the last time the Lions played the Buccaneers. But Detroit also utilizes a heavy dose of tight end Sam LaPorta, Josh Reynolds, and has more recently been getting Jameson Williams involved.

The Bucs pass defense chart doesn’t exactly vibe with the 14th DVOA ranking—it looks significantly worse. Their best performances were early in the season, and most of their green cells came against some pretty awful passing attacks. Look at teams who averaged a 90+ passer rating on the season, and you’ll find a dominant performance against the Bucs defense.

Tampa ranks 22nd in pass defense EPA, 16th in success rate, 22nd in passer rating allowed (92.0), and 26th in yards per attempt. That feels a bit closer to where their level is at: below average.

That said, defensive coordinator Todd Bowles plays an aggressive game designed to create disruptive plays. Thanks largely to the team’s third-highest blitz rate in the league (40.1%), they rank seventh in sacks and are tied for 17th in interceptions.

But without the blitz, I’m not so sure this defense packs that much of a punch. Their secondary ranks 22nd in PFF coverage grade, and the team has just 64 passes defended on the season, tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL.

Player to watch: Antoine Winfield Jr. The Bucs safety leads the team in passes defended (12), interceptions (3), forced fumbles (6), and fumble recoveries (4). He is a game disrupter waiting to happen. Lions must take care of the ball when he’s in the vicinity.

Advantage: Lions +3. Last matchup, the Lions were one-dimensional on offense and still managed to dominate the Buccaneers through the air. I think they have a better chance to be balanced this week, and I haven’t seen any significant improvement from the Bucs this season to believe Detroit should struggle this time around.

Lions run offense (4th) vs. Buccaneers run defense (8th)

The Lions run game has hit a bit of a snag as of late. It’s not like it has been horrible, but it certainly hasn’t been up to Detroit’s lofty standards. The last two games are the first time this rush offense had been held under 4.0 yards per carry since... oh, the last time the Lions played the Buccaneers.

Now, that Bucs game certainly comes with some asterisks. Most notably, no Jonah Jackson or Jahmyr Gibbs in that game—and David Montgomery left in the second quarter with a rib injury. But as we’ll see in a second, Tampa’s defense deserves a ton of credit.

Detroit’s reputation in the run game this year has been fantastic. They ranked first in adjusted line yards, 13th in ESPN’s run block win rate, and second in PFF run blocking grade—and it has resulted in some pretty impressive overall stats for the unit. Detroit finished the season fifth in rushing yards, fifth in yards per carry (4.6), sixth in EPA, and eighth in success rate.

There is one aspect of the game they oddly struggle with though, and that’s short-yardage situations. Detroit ranks just 18th in power success rate, per FTN Fantasy, converting on short-yardage runs (defined as 2 yards or less to go on third or fourth down) just 65 percent of the time.

The Bucs run defense has only allowed 4.0 yards per carry or more twice in the last 11 games, and they’ve only allowed 150 rushing yards three times all season.

Tampa finds success stopping the pass thanks to a strong front seven, led by the likes of defensive tackles Vita Vea and Calijah Kancey, and linebacker Lavonte David. Oddly, they rank 14th in adjusted line yards, 22nd in run stop win rate, and 25th in PFF run defense grade. However, they are seventh in yards per carry allowed (3.8), fifth in yards per game (95.3), fifth in EPA, and 17th in success rate.

The low rankings in some categories suggest that there is some vulnerability there, but teams don’t typically stick with the run often against the Buccaneers. The Lions are a team that could.

Player to watch: Vea. He’s just an absolute beast up the middle. Last week, the Lions had a specific plan on how to deal with Aaron Donald. And while Vea is a completely different kind of threat (see 60 pounds heavier), the Lions will need their own individual plan for him, too.

Advantage: Draw. I’d give the Lions the slight edge here if they weren’t in the midst of a little drought here. That said, I’d be pretty shocked if Tampa was able to hold Detroit to 40 rushing yards again this week. I expect something closer to the 70-85 range.

Buccaneers pass offense (16th) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)

After an inconsistent start to the season, Baker Mayfield has turned things around on offense, and the Buccaneers are suddenly one of the better passing attacks in football. While the overall DVOA is mid, here are some of their pass offense rankings since Week 8:

  • 12th in DVOA
  • 6th in EPA
  • 12th success rate
  • 8th in passer rating
  • 12th in yards per attempt

Are they on the same level of the Los Angeles Rams or Dallas Cowboys teams the Lions have faced recently? No. But they’re probably in the very next tier.

In terms of pass protection, the Bucs are just okay. They’ve got a pair of very talented tackles in Tristan Wirfs (left) and Luke Goedeke (right), but they’re vulnerable up the middle. They’ve allowed 40 sacks on the season (t-12th), but are only ceding a 17.6 pressure percentage (seventh-best).

Their best asset, though, is their receiving corps. Both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin surpassed 1,000 yards this season, but don’t sleep on rookie Trey Palmer and tight end Cade Otton.

And this leads to the biggest concern of this matchup: the Buccaneers’ big-play ability on offense. Mayfield is not afraid to uncork the ball—in fact, he prefers to. The Buccaneers rank sixth in the NFL in intended air yards per pass attempt (8.5), Mayfield is tied for third in the NFL in most attempts of 20+ air yards, and the Buccaneers are seventh in the league in passing plays of 20+ yards. That doesn’t exactly bode well for the Lions defense.

Speaking of which, the Lions run defense continues to get run up on when it comes to overall stats. Now, they’ve been facing some pretty high-octane offenses as of recently, but the issues predate that.

We don’t need to dwell on how bad the Lions pass defense is, but here’s a reminder via a bunch of stats. They’re 21st in passer rating, 31st in yards per attempt, 28th in EPA, and 27th in success rate.

But they have improved drastically in one metric: pressure. In the last four games of the regular season, the Lions generated 60 pressures, which was seven more than any other team. The Lions significantly upped their blitz percentage, and it helped dramatically in creating more disruptive plays. They had 13 sacks in those four games (t-seventh most) and seven interceptions.

Oh, and now they have James Houston back.

Player to watch: Mike Evans. Because the Lions will likely continue to be aggressive in sending pressure, it will leave their corners in vulnerable one-on-one situations occasionally. Evans has the second-most contested catches in the NFL and his 53.3 contested catch rate is seventh-best in the NFL.

Advantage: Bucs +2.5. I am interested to see if the Lions can cause a little disruption in Mayfield’s game, but for the most part, I expect this to be a relatively big game for the Bucs passing offense. The biggest key for Detroit is to limit the amount of big plays, which is going to be tough. Tampa is going to take a lot of shots in this game, and Detroit is going to have to avoid allowing the talented receivers to make big plays or draw flags. I don’t have a ton of confidence in that.

Buccaneers run offense (28th) vs. Lions run defense (1st)

We can take care of this last section pretty quickly because the advantage is big and obvious. The Buccaneers—while slightly better down the stretch—have one of the worst rushing offenses in the league.

They rank 32nd in yards per rush (3.4), 21st in EPA, 29th in success rate, 27th in adjusted line yards, and tied for 28th in rushing touchdowns (8).

As mentioned earlier, their weakness is the interior offensive line, and that just so happens to be where the Lions defense is strong in terms of run blocking.

The Lions run defense continues to dominate and make opposing offenses one-dimensional.

For the year, Detroit is third in yards per carry (3.7), fifth in EPA, 10th in success rate, and sixth in adjusted line yards.

Player to watch: Alim McNeill. McNeill has been back for a few weeks now, but he hasn’t quite had the explosive impact yet. Now back into his normal load of snaps and in a favorable matchup against the Bucs, this could be one of those games he finishes with several tackles for loss.

Advantage: Lions +3. Part of me thinks I shouldn’t give such a big advantage when the Buccaneers could just focus their game plan on passing the ball. But at the same time, this is what defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said on Thursday about the Bucs rushing attack:

“Are the yards per carry there as they want it? No, but the thing is they’re committed to it. If you look through the last, I think eight games, man, they’ve been running at least like 31 to 32 times a game on average, and I think that says a lot of the commitment.”

If they stay committed to the run game, it’s going to be a major mistake for Tampa.

Last week’s prediction

On Paper perfectly threaded the needle of picking a Lions victory, but having the Rams cover the three-point spread. That means On Paper is now 13-5 overall, and an impressive 14-2-2 against the spread. My 30-28 score prediction was a little high, though, as the scoring came to a screeching halt in the second half. I probably underestimated the Lions’ run defense and overestimated their run offense, which is in a bit of a slump.

In the comment section, WE HAD A PERFECT PREDICTION! Congratulations to “Feld,” who dropped a Lions 24-23 prediction and had absolutely nothing else to say. I appreciate a person of brevity, so extra kudos to you.

Your prize is a sneak preview of the new banner the Lions are raising this Sunday.

This week’s prediction

The Lions come out with a +3.5 advantage with big advantages in half the matchups. While Detroit’s inability to defend the pass will always keep the opponent in these games, Detroit simply has more avenues to walk away with this one. They’re just a better, more well-rounded team.

It bears repeating all the time, but the Lions have top-10 units in pass offense, run offense, and run defense. That kind of dominance in three phases is rare. Meanwhile, the Bucs are a borderline top-10 passing offense and top-10 run defense. They’re below average in the other two main categories.

I’m still predicting a close game because Mayfield’s big plays will keep Tampa in this one. But Detroit should win. Lions 27, Bucs 23.

Subscribe to PODD

After winning their first NFC North title in 30 years, the Lions have unfinished business this offseason. Stay updated with Jeremy Reisman through Pride of Detroit Direct, our newsletter offering up exclusive analysis. Sign up with NFCNORTH30 to get 30% off after your free trial.