The Detroit Lions have not been a great team, but they are about to play a lot of teams for whom that is also true.
I get it Detroit Lions fans. I’ve been here the whole time. Well, I’ve been here since the early 90s. We are a fanbase with a fully logoed-up set of pitchforks and torches, as we storm the gates of the team facility in Allen Park searching for this year’s monster to run out of town. It is really difficult to find optimism coming out of the bye week when your team is 1-3. However, if either DeAndre Swift makes the difficult catch at the end of the Chicago game, or Nick Swardson… sorry, Matt Prater, hits that really long field goal in the middle of the game, the Lions would be .500 and heading into what looks like a pretty easy stretch.
The folks in the slack were discussing the next seven-game stretch, and looking at it, there are a ton of winnable games over the next two months. I honestly would not be much more surprised if the Lions won six than if they won one. I suspect the number will be closer to the middle than either extreme. So, I did what I’ve always done… I checked a bunch of statistics. Going into week five, I thought I would compare how the 1-3 Lions stack up with their upcoming opponents.
I am going to base these predictions on some basic stats, like yards per game, points per game, and so on, but I’ll mix in some fancier stats as well. Points per drive, yards per drive, turnovers per drive, and so on. Of course, I will hedge my bets by saying that a four-game sample size doesn’t really tell us enough. However, some folks need an adrenaline shot. I haven’t looked at the numbers as I write this, I hope I’ll be giving us one. It’s not a perfect statistical model by any means, but there isn’t one. “Any given Sunday” is the entire basis of the NFL’s popularity after all. The hope that our previously bad team can stop being a bad team is what keeps most of us tuning in.
There tend to be clear lines of what constitutes really good, what constitutes really bad, and what sits in the middle. The teams that rank 17th and 24th in any given category tend to be fairly similar statistically whereas 9th and 24th, do not. It’s the top and bottom of the list that are great or terrible. The others are merely above or below average. Because I do not work for football outsiders, and I am not just going to reprint their content, I’m only going to tell you if a team ranks in the top eight, upper-middle eight, lower-middle eight, or bottom eight. If you want to look at the specifics, give them a click and hang out a bit here.
The Detroit Lions 1-3
At 1-3 it is not surprising that the Lions do not rank well in a lot of categories. They are bad in terms of their total yardage, and below average in every other offensive category except turnovers per drive in which they rank as good. On defense, they are bad in every category but turnovers generated per drive (below average) and passing yardage allowed (above average).
The Lions strengths based on their statistics are minimal to this point. They’ve scored a slightly below average number of points whether per drive or total. The main thing the offense can hang their hat on is not turning the ball over, they are in the top tier of that category per drive. They’ve allowed slightly fewer passing yards on defense than the league average, but if you can’t stop the run teams do not have to pass much.
The route to success begins with fixing their internal issues. There are no trades that can fix all of these problems, though if the team can pick up a win this week, they may try to add immediate help. The front office and coaching staff could be playing week to week for their jobs if the team doesn’t move toward a .500 record.
The Jacksonville Jaguars
The Lions offense has not been great, but this weekend they get to play a defense that has been even worse than Corey Undlin’s crew. The Jags have had the worst defense in the league and that’s why they’re 1-4. They are in the bad tier in every category but total points allowed, where they ranked in the last slot of below average. In every single category I was looking at for this article, the Lions’ offense is higher ranked than the Jaguars defense, though in a few categories within the same tier.
The per drive stats are particularly in favour of the Lions, with double digit gaps in points per drive and turnovers per drive. The Lions offense should be able to move the ball and score points Sunday. If there is a week for the Lions to figure out their issues throwing the ball, this is it.
Unfortunately the Lions have to play defense. The Jags offense is also higher ranked on all counts than the Lions defense. The points per drive and yards per drive are paricularly damning with 12 slot and 19 slot gaps between the Jags offense and Lions defense. The Lions “bend but don’t break” defensive style makes the yardage disparity somewhat less distressing, but that’s a big gap. This game has all the markings of an old fashioned shootout, which probably means it will be a 13-10 win for the Lions.
The Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons are in complete turmoil right now.They are 0-5, their facility has been shut down due to a Covid 19 outbreak, and they fired their head coach after their most recent loss. Falcons defense is below average in rushing yards allowed, yards per drive, and turnovers created per drive. They are bottom three in all other defensive categories. All the defense can really do well is stop the run, but they have been porous to the extreme in passing situations. Look for Lions receivers to feast against the Falcon’s poor coverage. The Falcons give up points, and that is why theire defensive minded head coach Dan Quinn lost his job just a few years after a superbowl appearance.
The Falcons offense has been missing Julio Jones, but still rank in the upper tier of NFL passing offenses, though garbage time yardage has come into play there. They are above average in yards, points scored, and turnovers per drive. They are below average in points scored, rushing yards, and yards per drive. The Falcons offense has actually performed surprisingly well, without their best weapon for much of the year. However, as Lions fans, we are more than accustomed to the inflated offensive stats that come with getting shelled week in and week out.
I think this defense is terrible, and the Lions should move the ball at will if they can bring themselves to use their potent weapons in the air rather than obsess over ball control. Running into this defense is the only way to give the Falcons a chance. Lions win 25-18
The Indianapolis Colts
Colts goin win… 35-10, Colts DC Matt Eberflus is a possible head coach for the Lions if this doesn’t work out. This defense is very good despite a bit of a hiccup in week 5. The colts are 3-2 but their net points are among the best in the NFL.
The Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have been a better team than their record says they are by the eyeball test. They’re currently sitting at 1-4, in the basement of the NFC North. The reason for that is that their previously stalwart defense has completely fallen apart as the team pays the price for years of punting their salary cap situation into the future. The Vikings defense is bad in every category but rushing yards allowed, where they have the lowest spot in the below average tier. The Lions are going to put up points on the Vikings defense. They will Flim Flam the Zim Zam, to quote our intrepid podcast host chris.
The Vikings offense is going to punch back, though. The Lions can’t stop the run, and the Vikings are in the top half of the top tier in rushing yards. It is the one thing the Vikings are very good at, and they’ll ride it to success against the Lions. They’re right in the middle of the league in yards, points, and points per drive. The passing attack has held them back when they needed it, and they’ve turned the ball over a lot this year. If the Lions can get up, and keep their foot on the gas rather than turning into a bad ball control team, the Lions can win this game. However, they’ll likely get up, collapse, and come up just short. Vikings win 24-23.
The Washington Football Team
The Hogs are an interesting contrast to the Lions opponents so far. They are a bad team, like everyone but the Colts on this list to this point. They deserve their 1-4 record. Their defense under Jack Del Rio (possible future head coach of the Detroit Lions) is quite good. They have a fierce pass rush that has kept their pass defense in the top tier of the league. They are also in the “good” category for yards per drive and turnovers generated per drive. This is going to be al ong day for the Detroit Lions. The Hogs are above average in total yards and yards per drive, but below average in points allowed, and rushing yardage allowed. Adrian Peterson will also be very motivated for this game, and he is likely the key to the Lions offensive attack. He’s not as good as he once was, but he’ll be as good once as he ever was. A first ballot hall of famer does not take getting cut by a bad team the week before the season lightly.
The Washington offense has been insufferably bad. The only category in which they do not rank in the bottom tier of the league is turnovers, where they cling to the final spot of the below average tier. Alex Smith may be the team’s savior, but that has never been the kind of player he was. After a miraculous recovery he’s a guy you want to cheer for, but he has no weapons. Lions 18-16
The Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are not a mirage. They sit at 3-2 after an 0-2 start. They are the inspiration Lions fans should cling to, because they stumbled out of the gate too. The Panthers’ defense has been their strength. They are in the top tier of the league in passing yards, and turnover generation per drive. They are above average in total yards, and points allowed. But in terms of points per drive, they are below average, as they are in yards per drive. They are just barely in the bottom tier for rushing yards. The Lions offense will have trouble dealing with the Panthers defense. Matthew Stafford will be in for a long day. The committee of running backs will need to step up.
The Lions defense is going to get gashed. The Panthers have not scored a ton of points, they’re right in the middle of the pack in every category but total yards, and passing yards. Nobody saw the Panthers elite passing attack one coming with Teddy Bridgewater at QB. The Lions haven’t allowed a ton of passing yards, but it is difficult to see their pass defense as a legitimate strength. Christian McCaffery is very likely to be back for this game, and that doesn’t bode well for the Lions’ who have struggled to stop skilled running backs this year. Panthers win 20-10.
The Houston Texans
The Texans won their first game last week after firing Bill O’Brien. You don’t want him within 100 miles of the Detroit job by the way. He’s a power-hungry dictator who grabbed constantly for a position he was completely terrible at. Their defense, previously one of the jewels of the league, has been bad in all of the per drive categories, and rushing yards allowed. They’ve not allowed a lot of passing yards, but other teams have been running out the clock, They’re below average in yards and points. The Lions’ obsession with ball control plays into the weaknesses of this defense so far in 2020.
Their offense, despite having a decent array of weapons has been abysmal. They’ve moved the ball in the air, but as I said in the Falcons’ section, bad teams get passing yardage for free. The points, points per drive, and rushing yards are bottom tier. Yards per game and per drive are below average. They’re in the middle of the pack in terms of turnovers. The wildcard here is that the Lions have a history of having problems with mobile quarterbacks. They limited Arizona’s Kyler Murray by keeping him in the pocket, however. and a similar tactic may find success with Watson. The Lions are going to need to find a balance between pocket integrity and real pressure to be successful against the Texans. Lions win 21-20.
Can the Lions Turn it Around?
Well, I have them going 4-3 in the next seven games, with wins vs Jaxonville, Atlanta, Washington, and Houston; and I have their losses as Indy, Carolina, and Minnesota; but you could convince me that the games against Jacksonville and Minnesota could go either way.
Seven weeks from now, the Lions could be sitting at 6-5. They could also be sitting at 3-8. The opportunity to turn the season around and save everyone’s jobs is there. The Detroit Lions just have to take it. If my predictions are wrong against Jacksonville and Atlanta, we will have our answer much sooner.