The Detroit Lions head home this week still looking for their first win of the season. While looking at the schedule this offseason, many pegged the Cincinnati Bengals as a team that could be Detroit’s first victory of the Dan Campbell era. However, perceptions have changed significantly after the Bengals jumped out to a 3-2 start. Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase are the ones creating the headlines, but the defense may be the reason they’re actually tallying the wins; they haven’t given up more than 25 points this year—but they also haven’t scored more than 27.
So can the Lions finally break through this week, or will Detroit head into the Stafford reunion still winless?
Let’s look at the Lions vs. Bengals matchup: On Paper.
Lions pass offense (28th) vs. Bengals pass defense (12th)
While the Lions have been throwing a ton of passes and running up a lot of yards, their efficiency numbers all season have been pretty poor. A lot has been made about Jared Goff’s horrible depth of target average, but the problems go well beyond that.
As a team, the Lions are averaging just 6.6 yards per attempt (27th), completing 66.5 percent of their passes (15th), and have a passer rating of 90.6 (22nd). And after a promising start to the year, the Lions’ offensive line is starting to slip, too. Detroit has been sacked 14 times (tied for sixth-most), and their sack percentage of 6.6 is 19th. This chart really drives the offensive line struggles home:
Detroit could be getting Taylor Decker back this week, but based on Penei Sewell still taking reps on the left side in practice (with Decker taking reps after him on the left), it still seems like he’s at least a week away.
Football Outsiders ranks this as the 12th-best pass defense, but I would rank it a little closer to average. They haven’t had any true standout performances, and they’ve pretty much held all of their opponents near their passer rating averages.
While Trey Hendrickson (4.5 sacks, 79.8 PFF pass-rush grade) is a significant pass-rushing threat, the Bengals don’t have much else in their front seven that can threaten the quarterback. Overall, the Bengals rank 12th in sacks (6.3), but 27th in team pass-rush grade.
That being said, their coverage ability is solid. Chidobe Awuzie has been a top-tier cornerback in the league thus far, and second-year linebacker Logan Wilson is doing an impressive job in coverage over the middle.
As a result, the Bengals rank seventh in yards per attempt allowed (6.9), 25th completion percentage (68.7), and eighth in passer rating (89.8). They’ve only given up six touchdowns through the air (t-fifth) and they’ve already tallied four interceptions (t-11th).
Player to watch: Eli Apple. If there’s one Achilles heel (dangit, I still need a better reference) to this defense it’s at the corner opposite Awuzie. With Trae Waynes out, it will be on Apple to step up. The former New York Giant has already started four games in place of Waynes. It’s fair to say teams are picking on him—he’s been targeted 32 times, and given up 21 catches for 196 yards and a score.
Advantage: Bengals +2. The Bengals are just kind of an average pass defense, but the Lions’ passing offense is just a disaster right now. Detroit’s receiving corps is decimated by injury, meaning they’ll likely have to trot out Kalif Raymond, KhaDarel Hodge, and Amon-Ra St. Brown as their starters. Jared Goff is not playing well and turning the ball over far too much. And the offensive line—missing its two best players—is struggling now, too.
Lions run offense (25th) vs. Bengals run defense (7th)
Based on the eye test, the Lions’ rushing attack seems pretty good, honestly. Their DVOA ranking (25th) is hard to fully grasp, but the charts above provide some clarity. Every week they’ve faced a run defense that has allowed at least 4.3 YPC on average, except for the Bears game, which was arguably their worst game on the ground.
However, I still think it’s better than these statistics suggest. As a team, they’re averaging a respectable 4.3 YPC (14th) and they’re earning first downs on 27.7 percent of their rushes (12th). That feels more around where this rushing attack truly lies.
But the one thing they’re undoubtedly lacking is explosion plays in the running game. They’ve only had two rushes of 20 yards or more, and one of those came from Jared Goff. Detroit’s running backs have a long rush of 20 yards this year, and Duce Staley puts that on the backs themselves.
“Yeah, it’s about breaking tackles,” Staley told me this week. “Of course, when you get a back that’s in the defensive secondary, we’ve got to make sure that BOOM you break a tackle.”
The stats bear that out as Jamaal Williams only has four broken tackles in the run game this year (t-30th) while D’Andre Swift only has one (t-60th).
Meanwhile, the Bengals counter with one of the best run defenses in the league. They’ve held all but one of their opponents significantly below their YPC average. The only exception was last week against the Packers, and those stats are a tad misleading. A 57-yard run from Aaron Jones—which was initially swallowed in the backfield—bumped the Packers’ yards per carry from 3.6 YPC to 6.0.
Overall, the Bengals are allowing 4.1 yards per carry as a team (14th) and ceding first downs on 23.6 percent of rushes (15th).
Overall, I would consider this a top-10 run defense.
Player to watch: D.J. Reader. The Bengals nose tackle is currently PFF’s sixth-highest graded interior defender with the fourth-highest run defense grade. Against, Frank Ragnow, this would’ve been a marquee matchup to watch. Unfortunately for Detroit, Ragnow is out for the season, and Evan Brown—who will start his second career NFL game on Sunday—will have his hands full.
Advantage: Bengals +1. The running game is the only thing the Lions have been able to do consistently well this season. Unfortunately, they’re running into the Bengals’ best unit this week, too. The good news is that three teams have still eclipsed the 100-yard mark against this Bengals defense. The bad news is that those rushing games are all better than the Lions’.
Bengals pass offense (18th) vs. Lions pass defense (27th)
While the Bengals haven’t been killing teams in the passing game—they’re averaging just 234.8 passing yards per game, good for 23rd—their efficiency numbers are what should really scare the Lions this week.
Joe Burrow and the Bengals are averaging 8.8 yards per passing attempt (fifth), completing 71.7 percent of their passes (third), and have a 106.4 passer rating through five games (sixth). Burrow has the ninth highest PFF passing grade (83.5) and the eighth-best overall grade among quarterbacks (85.4).
Of course, you can’t talk about one half without talking about the other. Ja’Marr Chase is putting up legit Rookie of the Year numbers thus far. PFF’s 18th best receiver is currently seventh in receiving yards (91.2 yards per game) and second in touchdowns (five).
Unfortunately for Detroit, the challenges don’t stop there. Tyler Boyd is one of the best slot receivers who has a couple of 1,000-yard seasons under his belt. And second-year Tee Higgins can’t be overlooked, either.
If there is one aspect of this passing offense that could be vulnerable, it’s the offensive line. The Bengals run a lot of empty sets, leaving their front five alone to pass protect. The results have been mixed. While the tackles (Trent Williams and, oh hey, Riley Reiff) have held up well, the interior offensive line is just not good. The Bengals have allowed 14 sacks (t-sixth most) and their 8.8 sack percentage is the fourth-highest in the league.
Detroit’s pass defense is getting better. It’s far from good, and those passer rating numbers are slightly skewed by an interception in each of the past three games, but you have to give the Lions credit for those interceptions. They happened.
However, there are far more concerning stats to look at. Detroit is dead last in yards per attempt allowed (10.0), 21st in completion percentage allowed (68.1), and 30th in passer rating (110.9). They’ve also allowed 22 passing plays of 20+ yards (t-fifth-most) and four of 40+ yards (t-fourth-most).
But their strength does match up against the Bengals’ one weakness here. Their pass rush remains better than it looks. They’ve tallied 11 sacks (t-14th), but they’ve faced a low amount of passing attempts, which means their sack percentage (7.5%) is much higher (sixth). PFF also has the Lions’ pass rush grade as 12th in the league, so this doesn’t appear to be a misleading statistic.
Player to watch: Chase vs. Amani Oruwariye. Last week, Oruwariye couldn’t hold Justin Jefferson in check, and this week he’s battling a hip injury. You have to imagine Burrow will be looking Chase’s way a lot again this week.
Advantage: Bengals +2. If the Lions pass rush can get going, they’ve got a shot to at least contain the Bengals within their averages this week. Unfortunately, though, the Bengals receivers will be far too much for Detroit’s young, struggling secondary. Expect the Lions to play a lot of two-high safety looks—as they did against the Packers—which means there may be more pressure on the Bengals rushing attack to beat Detroit’s thinned-out defensive front.
Speaking of which…
Bengals run offense (19th) vs. Lions run defense (28th)
This is one of the more surprising developments for this Bengals team. Joe Mixon was the identity of this Cincinnati offense a couple of years back, but he and the Bengals rushing attack have seriously struggled through the first month of the season. They’ve yet to surpass the defense’s YPC average this year, and if that trend continues, that means they’re not going to hit 4.4 YPC this week (Detroit’s defensive average).
As a team, Cincinnati is averaging just 3.9 YPC (22nd) and earning first downs on 18.3 percent of rushes (31st).
Samaje Perine is currently on the COVID-19 list, Mixon continues to battle through an ankle injury, and the Bengals may be on their third or fourth-string right guard. So this already struggling unit may not be at its best this week.
Despite these charts, the Lions’ run defense is improving. After a really poor start, the Lions have put up decent performances against the Ravens and Vikings. Last week’s stats don’t look very impressive, but Minnesota basically had just one successful 48-yard run, and ran for 2.7 yards per carry the rest of the day.
However, it’s hard to even call this run defense average right now. They’re allowing 4.4 YPC (22nd) and they’re allowing first downs on 23.0 percent of rushes (12th). PFF ranks Detroit’s run defense grade as 23rd in the league.
Player to watch: Levi Onwuzurike. Typically lined up over the team’s right guard—which will be the Bengals weak point—Onwuzurike is coming off his best game to date. Though he’s still only garnering 20-30 percent of snaps, he could make the most of them this week. When he’s not in, look for Nick Williams to take advantage.
Advantage: Draw. I think the Bengals rushing attack is worse than the DVOA numbers suggest and I think the Lions are slightly better. The key will be if the Lions decide to drop their safeties back deep, can the Lions’ front seven take care of the run on their own? They did an okay job against the Packers, but they’re playing better now. So there should be a small level of confidence there.
Last week’s prediction:
I titled the scales a little too much in the Vikings’ favor last week. Detroit’s pass and run defense both performed above expectations, but I feel like I nailed the rest of the preview. So it makes sense that I got the Lions’ points right, but overshot the Vikings with my 31-17 prediction.
For the third time in five weeks, the closest prediction came from the Pride of Detroit staff. This time, newbie Morgan Cannon had the most accurate prediction with his 27-17 prediction.
Per tradition, when a staff member wins, they get to choose what I photoshop. Morgan’s request was photoshopping Tracy Walker over Mowgli when he’s squaring off against Shere Khan from The Jungle Book. So I delivered with my typical elite photoshopping skills.
This week’s prediction
The Bengals come out with a +5 advantage, slightly lower than last week’s results against the Vikings. Detroit is also at home, which may tip the scales a little, although home-field advantage has been nonexistent in the NFL in 2021 thus far.
The key to this game for the Lions is old-school football: run the ball and stop the run. And there’s actually a viable road to success there. I think there’s a legitimate chance the Lions’ run defense handles the Bengals rushing attack. However, being able to run against this Cincy defense will prove the much tougher challenge, especially with a beat-up offensive line.
In the end, I do think the Lions have a legitimate shot to pick up their first win this week, but the numbers don’t favor them. 26-20 Bengals.