Scouting the Opponent: Detroit Lions

Scouting the Opponent is a weekly preview series looking ahead to the Titans upcoming matchup.

The Tennessee Titans (9-4) will host the Detroit Lions (5-8) on Sunday for their last home game of the season. I wrote earlier in the week about the tough task of closing out the season with back-to-back road games, and the importance of winning the division with that type of schedule (check that out if you missed it).

Here we’ll focus more specifically on the Detroit Lions…

The Stats

Comparing the Lions and Titans statistically looks a bit like last week’s comparison to the Jaguars. On paper, the Titans are a much better team. Throughout the season on the field, the Titans have been a much better team. But you know, any given Sunday and all that…

Titans/RankMetricX/Rank
3rdTotal Yards/G20th
19thPassing Yards/G10th
2ndRushing Yards/G30th
4thTotal Points/G18th
26thTotal Yards Allowed/G29th
29thPass Yards Allowed/G27th
15thRush Yards Allowed/G29th
21stPoints Allowed/G29th
4th (+9)Turnover DifferentialT-21st (-2)
12th (+54)Point Differential27th (-79)
16th (42%)3rd D Conversions18th (41.3%)
32nd (52.2%)3rd D Defense28th (46.5%)
23rd (53.5 YPG)Penalty Yardage20th (50.7 YPG)
13thDVOA*24th
13thWeighted DVOA*26th
3rdOffense DVOA13th
26thDefense DVOA31st
29thSpecial Teams DVOA17th
3rdRush DVOA – Offense22nd
3rdPass DVOA – Offense18th
16thRush DVOA – Defense26th
28thPass DVOA – Defense30th
2020 Statistical Comparison

*DVOA is a Football Outsiders metric that stands for Defense-adjusted Value Over Average. DVOA accounts for a team’s opponents. Weighted DVOA is adjusted so that earlier games in the season become gradually less important.

The Lions are among the worst defenses in football. For all the struggles the Titans have had this season, they’re still considerably better than Detroit in terms of points allowed, run defense (both DVOA and overall volume), and turnover differential, where Tennessee remains one of the best in the league.

It just hasn’t been the Lions year, with numerous injuries, bad breaks (see their Week 1 loss to Chicago), and extremely poor leadership, leading to the midseason dismissal of third-year head coach Matt Patricia.

Key Players and Staff

Patricia and Mike Vrabel were hired during the same offseason cycle and share a history with the Patriots. In fact, Patricia served as Vrabel’s linebackers coach for three seasons (2006-2008) in New England.

But Patricia is gone now, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell has been promoted to interim head coach. Bevell has 15 years of offensive coordinating experience, starting with the Vikings (2006-2010), then making a name for himself with a Super Bowl ring in Seattle (2011-2017), and finally joining the Lions in 2019 to replace Jim Bob Cooter, a holdover from Jim Caldwell’s staff.

Bevell was fired from his post with the Seahawks after the 2017 season and spent 2018 away from football. But he returned last year and unlocked a side of Matthew Stafford that had been missing for a while, bringing the veteran back to the gunslinging ways of his youth. Cooter had turned Stafford into a dink-and-dunk, get-the-ball-out-quickly distributor, whereas Bevell vaulted Stafford’s average depth of target to a league-high 11.3 yards per attempt in 2019.

Stafford was playing some of his best football, on pace for 38 touchdowns and 4,999 passing yards, before a Week 8 back injury ended his season prematurely. This year, Stafford doesn’t appear to have the same mobility or strength, and his play has noticeably declined.

Stafford suffered a ligament injury to his throwing-hand thumb earlier this season and tried to play through it. His first game with the injury was a terrible showing against a porous Panthers defense, with Detroit getting shutout in a 20-0 loss. Stafford completed just 55% of his passes for 178 yards.

The next game was Patricia’s last as head coach of the team, and the last game Bob Quinn would hold his post as General Manager. The Texans blew out the Lions 41-25 on Thanksgiving Day, and that was the end of the Patricia-Quinn era in Detroit.

With Patricia ousted, Cory Undlin takes over as the lead architect of a bad Lions defense. Patricia had served as more of a CEO-type head coach rather than coordinate the defense despite his background as the Patriots defensive coordinator, but late last season, Patricia took over at least some playcalling duties from then-DC Paul Pasqualoni. Pasqualoni stepped away from football to spend more time with his family after last season, and Undlin was hired to replace him.

Undlin had never served as a defensive coordinator in the NFL but has an extensive history as a defensive backs coach. Undlin’s defense this year has been miserable while dealing with injuries to key players like Trey Flowers, rookie Jeff Okudah, Desmond Trufant, and more. Currently, the Lions boast the 32nd-ranked defense by weighted DVOA, meaning that by this metric, the Lions have the worst defense in the NFL heading into Week 15.

When it comes to Sunday’s matchup, it’s unknown yet if Stafford will be able to go with a rib cartilage injury sustained last weekend. Center Frank Ragnow, the anchor of the Lions’ O-line, has already been ruled out with a fractured throat. Stafford was able to get on the field for a limited practice on Friday despite difficulty extending his arms, and given his history, I actually kind of think he’ll play on Sunday. I’m not sure he’ll play very well with this painful injury, but Stafford has played through hurt ribs before.

Back in 2015, Stafford was crushed early in a game against the Vikings and stayed in and played the whole game despite hardly being able to deliver the playcalls, gasping for air in the huddle. He’s very proud of his toughness, and I could see him playing on Sunday more out of pride than anything else, especially with reports that the Lions are planning to move on from Stafford at the end of the year.

Rookie running back D’Andre Swift has been sensational when given opportunities this season, but concussion-like symptoms following Detroit’s Week 10 win over Washington kept the Georgia product from playing alongside his fellow former Bulldog (Stafford) on Thanksgiving and the two games following. Swift made his return last week against Green Bay but only played 54% of the snaps. He took seven carries for 24 yards and caught four of five targets for 26 more yards and a touchdown through the air.

Adrian Peterson, signed off the street a week before the season began, has handled the majority of the rushing load for Detroit. The future Hall of Famer has 508 yards on 139 carries, well ahead of the production from any other Lions player (Derrick Henry has over 1,000 more rushing yards than Peterson).

Marvin Jones has been the team’s most consistent receiver with Kenny Golladay set to miss his ninth contest of 2020. Jones edges tight end T.J. Hockenson by ten yards for the team lead in receiving yards 667 to 657, while Hockenson owns the team lead in receptions at 58, three more than Jones. Both have caught six touchdowns.

The 5-8 Lions aren’t technically eliminated from playoff contention (although even winning their final three games would put them at just 27% to make the postseason, per the New York Times playoff simulator), but with a fired head coach and general manager, they seem headed for a full rebuild, possibly including at the quarterback position.

Golladay will be a free agent come March, and although he’s expressed an interest to remain in Detroit, it’s fair to be skeptical. Would he want to stick around for the rebuild? Will the new GM and head coach want him to stick around at whatever salary he may command on the open market?

Titans Biggest Advantage

The Lions defense is simply not playing at a level capable of slowing down the Titans powerful offensive attack. Tennessee has managed an opening drive touchdown in four of their last five games, and I think this matchup is set up nicely to make it five of six.

Henry should be in line for a big day as the Titans look to punch their ticket to the postseason. If they win and the Ravens lose (or tie), Tennessee is in. If they win and the Dolphins lose, they can clinch with a Browns win or tie.

The Titans are also much healthier than Detroit. While Tennessee has its own injury woes to worry about, those concerns are nothing compared to what Detroit is dealing with, even if Rodger Saffold is unable to go on Sunday.

Ultimately, these are two teams headed in opposite directions. The Titans are gearing up for another playoff run while the Lions are gearing up for a full rebuild.

Lions Biggest Advantage

The Lions biggest advantage is twofold. On one hand, their unwillingness to publicly comment on Stafford’s health status may force the Titans to prepare for him and backup quarterback Chase Daniel, taking away time they could use to hone in on the details.

On the other hand, the Titans and Lions both know the reality of this matchup, with Tennessee heavily favored. “Any given Sunday” is an overused cliche for a reason — because you never know when a double-digit road underdog is going to upset a playoff team, like we saw with the Giants beating the Seahawks a couple weeks ago.

If the Titans enter this game overconfident or arrogant, the Lions could surprise them. After all, these are professionals who want to win. Regardless of who the coach in Detroit is next year, these guys are auditioning for roles on this team, or whichever team they may play for next season. Don’t think they won’t be trying to win and potentially play “spoiler” against a Titans team favored by 11 points. Surely they’ve heard nothing but negative comments and predictions about their chances this weekend and want to prove those doubters wrong.

My Prediction: Tennessee 42, Detroit 27

The Titans should have no trouble moving the ball on Detroit’s defense. Tennessee has crossed the 40-point threshold three times already this season, the same number of games the Lions’ defense has allowed 40+ points in a contest.

The Tennessee defense, as it is every week, remains the true concern. But given the injury to Ragnow and Stafford’s questionable status, along with no Kenny Golladay, the defense should be able to carry over their momentum from a strong performance against the hapless Jaguars. If they can just keep Detroit’s offense at bay, Ryan Tannehill and co. should be able to do more than enough to win comfortably.

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