Detroit Lions vs. Atlanta Falcons preview, prediction: On Paper

Pride of Detroit

The Detroit Lions are hoping to make it three wins in four games to keep the positive vibes going in Allen Park. With upcoming games against two teams with losing records, Detroit could certainly end 2021 on a nice little run, even if it jeopardizes their chances at a top-tier player in the 2022 NFL Draft.

This week, the Lions will face off against a 6-8 Atlanta Falcons team. They are technically alive in the NFC Playoff race and are not even that far behind. But a closer look at the team reveals a squad much worse than their record suggests.

So, can the Lions get two in a row in December? Let’s take a closer look with our On Paper prediction.

Lions pass offense (29th in DVOA) vs. Falcons pass defense (30th)

The Detroit Lions offense may be starting to turn a corner here. Though they aren’t putting up top-tier numbers, Jared Goff and the pass offense have been efficient over the past month. Here are Goff’s numbers over the last four weeks, and where that ranks among all NFL QBs:

  • Passer rating: 105.1 (third)
  • Yards per attempt: 6.85 (16th)
  • Passing TDs: 9 (t-fourth)
  • INTs: 2 (t-sixth fewest)

The success of the offense can be attributed to many things: the return of left tackle Taylor Decker, the addition of Josh Reynolds, the emergence of rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Dan Campbell taking over play-calling duties, with tight ends coach Ben Johnson acquiring a bigger role in game planning, as well.

Unfortunately, it’s unclear if Goff is going to play in this game. As of writing this, he remains on the reserve/COVID-19 list, but because he was placed there early in the week, there’s a realistic chance he clears the league’s new protocol by Sunday. If not, Tim Boyle would likely step in and make his second career start. He made his first career start earlier in the year, but in windy, rainy conditions, his play was quite poor (77 yards, 2 INTs, 34.1 passer rating).

UPDATE: On Friday, Lions head coach Dan Campbell said it was “highly unlikely” Goff plays this week.

All year, the Falcons have held just a single opponent significantly below their passer rating season average, and that was with a horrible Jets team. The Lions’ season-long passer rating average is 87.3, so you should expect Detroit to finish with at least that good of a passer rating (with Goff in).

The most defining thing about the Falcons’ pass defense is their horrible pass rush. They have only 16 sacks on the season, which is last by a considerable margin. Their secondary is better, led by Pro Bowl snub, cornerback A.J. Terrell.

Overall, they rank 22nd in yards per attempt allowed (7.3), 29th in completion percentage allowed (68.9), and 29th in passer rating (101.5). But they do rank ninth in pass breakups (65).

Player to watch: A.J. Terrell. The second-year cornerback may only have two interceptions, but his 14 pass breakups rank fourth in the NFL. His 87.3 PFF grade is also first among cornerbacks who have played at least 100 snaps.

Advantage: Lions +1 if Goff is playing, draw if not. Boyle was pretty bad last time he had to play, but it’s worth noting that he had just come off of IR and the Lions’ offense was not clicking at that point in the season. He’d be entering a much healthier situation this week. Still, I don’t have a lot of confidence in him right now, even though he should have a healthy pocket all day.

Lions run offense (26th) vs. Falcons run defense (26th)

The Lions’ run defense is much better than it has been in decades, but it still clearly has work to do. They have run for 100 yards or more in five of their last six games, but they’ve also averaged 4.0 or under three of their last four games.

Overall, Detroit still ranks 10th in yards per carry (4.5) and 16th in percentage of rushes earning a first down (24.9). This week, the Lions look like they may get left guard Jonah Jackson back, so they’ll have four of their starting five in the lineup.

The question is how they’ll use their running backs. My educated guess suggests D’Andre Swift is still a week away, but Jamaal Williams should be back. With Craig Reynolds’ recent success (195 yards, 5.3 YPC in the past two games combined), how much will Williams take over?

The Falcons’ run defense is their best unit on the team, and it’s still not very good. Though they’ve only given up over 150 yards rushing three times this season, they’ve allowed 4.4 yards per carry or higher in exactly half of their games this year. They’ve been a little better as of late, shutting down the run game of two divisional rivals in the Bucs and Panthers, but they haven’t been great outside of the division.

They rank 18th in yards per carry allowed (4.3) and 27th in percentage of rushes earning first downs (27.3). They are particularly vulnerable in the red zone, allowing 15 rushing TDs this season (t-seventh-most). They also rank dead last in Football Outsiders power success metric, which measures efficiency in third and fourth down running situations, including goal-line scenarios.

Player to watch: Grady Jarrett. The veteran two-time Pro Bowler is one of the best defensive tackles the Lions will face this year.

Advantage: Lions +1. It feels like the Lions run game is trending in the right direction, and with as healthy of an offensive line as they’ve had all season, they’re primed for another decent game this week.

Falcons pass offense (25th) vs. Lions pass defense (26th)

The Falcons’ pass offense is clearly missing a spark right now, you have to look no further than receiver Calvin Ridley, who took a leave of absence from the team to get his mental health in order. Matt Ryan has not been the same quarterback without him:

5 games with Calvin Ridley: 133-199 (66.8%), 1326 yards (6.7 Y/A), 10 TDs, 4 INTs, 93.9 passer rating
9 games without Calvin Ridley: 191-281 (67.9%), 2014 yards (7.1 Y/A), 8 TDs, 7 INTs, 87.7 passer rating

Overall, the Falcons rank 22nd in yards per attempt (6.8) and 25th in passer rating (85.9).

Detroit’s pass defense is hanging in there. They’re bad, don’t get me wrong. But they’re down to their fifth or sixth options at cornerback, their top two options at linebacker, and their best two pass rushers.

Unfortunately, Detroit may be down another top cornerback this week, with Amani Oruwariye dealing with a finger injury that may require surgery to repair. He currently leads the Lions with six interceptions and has played like a top-20 cornerback over the past month (75.2 PFF grade since Week 12).

Player to watch: Kyle Pitts. We all know rookie tight ends tend to struggle in Year 1, but Pitts is on the verge of breaking records. He already has 847 receiving yards, but curiously just one touchdown. Calling him a tight end, though, is a bit misleading. Pitts has been lined up as an outside or slot receiver in nearly 69 percent of his snaps. Only 31 percent are lined up inline.

Advantage: Falcons +1. Atlanta doesn’t pass block very well, so if Charles Harris can continue his dominance, the Lions have a decent shot to slow Matt Ryan. Unfortunately, the Lions’ secondary is just too beat up, and a veteran like Ryan is likely to be pretty efficient against them.

Falcons run offense (31st) vs. Lions run defense (29th)

The Falcons have struggled to run the ball all year. They’ve only reached 100 rushing yards in six games this year, but half of those have come in the past four weeks. Cordarrelle Patterson assuming primary back duties in the back half of the season has certainly helped, but even he is averaging just 4.2 yards per carry this season. Like their defense, they also suck at power situations, converting just 47 percent of the time (NFL average is 66 percent).

The Lions’ run defense can’t seem to build any sort of consistency, positive or negative. There aren’t really any recent trends, either. I don’t know what to tell you about this matchup, because this unit has become the absolute toughest to predict on a week-to-week basis. They’ve had some really fantastic performances and some really terrible ones. I’ve got nothing else.

Player to watch: Cordarrelle Patterson.

Advantage: Lions +0.5. All I know about this matchup is that the Falcons are bad at running the ball, and pretty consistently so. So even though the Lions are extremely unpredictable, I will say with very little confidence that they have the advantage here.

Last week’s prediction

I, like everyone else that wasn’t drunk on Lions Kool-Aid, completely whiffed on the Lions/Cardinals game. No one saw that result coming. No one in the comment section was even close, but there were a few “brave” souls who picked the Lions to win. The closest was the appropriately named “Meth Chef Jeff” who predicted the wild score of 42-20 Lions.

On his Friday appearance on “Good Morning Football,” Dan Campbell revealed that his favorite Christmas movie is “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and ever since, all I can think about is Campbell, wearing only a robe, emptying a septic tank with a beer in his hand. So now you get to envision it, too:

This week’s prediction

For the first time all season, I’ve got the Lions with a +0.5 advantage if Goff is out, a +1.5 advantage if Goff plays. I did pick the Lions to win one other time, but the Bears and Lions had an “even” advantage in that game.

Detroit has a slight edge this week, but I truly do believe the Lions are the better team, and they are certainly playing with a lot of pride and confidence right now. Obviously, the Falcons are, too, as they have six wins despite a clearly struggling team.

This game is a true toss-up, but for just the second time all season, I’ll take the Lions. Lions 24, Falcons 20.

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