That's it. Do or die. The Detroit Lions and Los Angeles Rams. One advances to the next round, the other suffers a painful defeat. There are many tangible and emotional aspects to this game, but since we call ourselves an “objective” preview, there will be no talk of narrative here. This is just soccer team A vs soccer team B.
If you're not familiar with how On Paper works or what all of these charts mean, read the opening paragraphs of our Week 1 preview.
Otherwise, let’s just move on to our “Detroit Lions vs. Los Angeles Rams On Paper” preview and prediction.
Note: An addition this week: I included the Rams' DVOA number since their bye in Week 11 because, frankly, they've played like a completely different team since then. I'm not sure the Rams' DVOA over the entire season carries that much weight compared to their style of play at the moment.
Lions pass offense (7th in DVOA) vs. Rams pass defense (21st)
Rams pass defense since bye week: 17th
After a bit of a regression against a good Cowboys defense, the Lions passing attack is back on track. Jared Goff continues to enjoy his best season as a Lion, setting personal Detroit highs in completion percentage (67.3, seventh in the NFL), touchdown percentage (5.0, eighth), yards per attempt (7.6, seventh) and touchdowns (30, fourth). . And despite his relative lack of mobility, he has the third-lowest sack rate (4.7%) in the NFL. That's a testament to Goff's improved ability to avoid negative plays, but it's obviously also a sign of how dominant the offensive line is playing.
How dominant is it? As a team, the Lions rank eighth in PFF pass blocker rating, fourth in adjusted sack rate and 13th in ESPN pass block win rate. Both tackles, Penei Sewell (78.1) and Taylor Decker (80.0), are among the top 14 offensive tackles in pass blocking.
However, they are a bit vulnerable in the middle and that is important this week. Jonah Jackson ranks 34th among 78 guards in pass blocking grade (62.7), while Graham Glasgow ranks 53rd (56.2). Luckily, between the two is Frank Ragnow, who ranks fifth among centers in pass blocking (73.9).
That being said, the Lions have a wide variety of receivers who can hurt opposing defenses. Amon-Ra St. Brown is the frontrunner among them, as he ranks third in the NFL in yards, second in catches and fourth in touchdowns. Detroit also uses Jameson Williams as a deep threat downfield and doesn't ignore Josh Reynolds – an underrated weapon. Of course, Sam LaPorta's status is significant, as the rookie tight end is second on the team by a wide margin in both catches (86) and yards (889).
The Rams' pass defense hasn't been great all season. Despite all the improvements they made in the second half, pass defense remains a particularly significant weakness. Aside from the meaningless season finale, the Rams' defense has held just one of their last six opponents well below their passer rating average, and six of their last seven have exceeded the yardage average.
This season, the Rams rank 13th in yards per attempt allowed (6.9), 12th in passer rating allowed, 18th in dropback EPA and 12th in completion percentage.
That doesn't seem so bad, so why the relatively low DVOA? Because they have experienced many terrible crimes this year. According to DVOA numbers, they faced the second easiest schedule in defending against attacks overall, and a quick look at the standings confirms this. Seven of their games came against passing attacks with a passer rating average of 85.0 or lower – the league average is 89.0.
Additionally, the Rams have been particularly bad lately. From Weeks 14 to 17 (again excluding the Finals), the Rams ranked 25th in pass defense DVOA and 17th in dropback EPA.
Their pass rush is fine overall. They rank 21st in adjusted sack rate, 28th in pressure percentage, 23rd in sacks (with the Lions) and 14th in PFF pass rush grade.
However, the interior of their defensive line is a problem. Aaron Donald (8.0 sacks) and rookie Kobie Turner (9.0) are game-wreckers:
Donald ranks first in the NFL in pressures (84) among defensive tackles, and Turner is 17th (48).
The secondary story, however, is a different story. The Rams' overall rating ranks 31st in PFF Ratings. The only defensive back ranked in the top 40 at his position in PFF coverage grade is nickel corner Quentin Lake.
Player to Watch: Donald vs. iOL. Turner is a great story, but 84 pressure points by a defensive tackle is crazy. The quickest way to derail the Lions' passing game is internal pressure, so Jackson, Ragnow and Glasgow will have to be at their best.
Advantage: Lions +2. In the truest sense of the word, the Rams can only slow down the Lions here through internal disruption. Detroit should be able to defend well on the perimeter and their receivers are far better than the Rams' defensive backs. If LaPorta plays, there's something else to keep in mind, and it could be a big advantage: The Rams rank 23rd in pass DVOA against tight ends.
Lions run on offense (4th) vs. Rams run on defense (20th)
The Rams have defended since the bye week: 10
The Lions' rushing attack hasn't been the strongest, and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson knows it.
“The last two games weren’t what we wanted,” Johnson said this week. “Last week we were addressed incorrectly and our communication was too disrupted. That’s why we’re trying to fix that now.”
If the Lions can fix these issues, they should be able to return to one of the best offensive attacks in football. Last week's 70-yard performance was the last time they were held under 100 yards and 4.0 yards per carry since Week 6.
Overall, the Lions rank fifth in yards per carry (4.6), first in adjusted line yards, sixth in rush EPA and eighth in success rate. They are also very capable of explosive plays, ranking fourth in runs over 20 yards (15).
The Lions' rushing attack is a marriage of great blocking (second in PFF run blocking rating) and outstanding running backs. Jahmyr Gibbs ranks second in the NFL in yards after contact per attempt (2.5), and David Montgomery ranks third (2.3).
And while the interior offensive line has struggled as pass blockers, they are elite as run blockers. Glasgow ranks fifth among guards in PFF run blocking grade, while Ragnow ranks second among centers. However, Jackson was the weakest link, ranking 43rd out of 80 qualifying guards.
After a difficult start to the season, the Rams have finally started to stabilize in defending the series. They're not exactly elite, but they were certainly an above-average unit in their bye week (after the Packers game). They have managed to hold five of their last eight opponents under 100 rushing yards, and only two have exceeded their YPC average against LA.
This season, the Rams rank 17th in YPC (4.2), 21st in adjusted line yards, 13th in EPA, 12th in success rate and seventh in PFF Run defense grade. As of Week 11, they are ranked 14th in EPA and ninth in success rate.
Notably, they have allowed 11 rushing plays of over 20 yards, which is the 12th most in the NFL.
Overall, I would describe this as an average run defense that has played slightly above average over the last few months.
Player to Watch: Ernest Jones. Jones is slowly becoming a star linebacker in this league. He leads the Rams with a 90.0 run defense grade and his 10.2% run stop percentage is seventh best in the NFL.
Advantage: Lions +1.5. The Lions' running game is consistent and varied enough to exploit the Rams' weaknesses – namely the edges of the defense. Running behind Penei Sewell – the best pass blocker in football – would benefit Detroit greatly this week.
Rams pass offense (9th) vs. Lions pass defense (16th)
Rams adjust offense since bye week: 4
Watch the Rams' dramatic turnaround after the bye week here. Matthew Stafford has been absolutely on fire since Week 11, sending the rest of the league into a frenzy. Since Week 11, Stafford has occupied the following positions:
- Sixth in passer rating (104.5)
- Eighth in yards per attempt (7.8)
- Third in touchdowns (16)
- Fourth in success rate
In Stafford's last six starts, the Rams outscored the opponent's average passer rating in every game and managed at least 249 net passing yards in all but one game.
It's no secret that Stafford's favorite targets are rookie Puka Nacua and veteran Cooper Kupp. Those two alone account for 51.7% of the Rams' receiving yards, but the Rams also mix in tight end Tyler Higbee (495 yards).
When it comes to pass protection, the Rams have done a good job. They rank sixth in adjusted sack rate, 20th in PFF pass blocking grade, sixth in pressure rate and sixth in number of sacks allowed (34). However, the most important way to avoid sacks is to get rid of the ball quickly. Stafford's throwing time is the sixth fastest in the NFL. If their offensive line has a weakness when it comes to pass blocking, it's left tackle Alaric Jackson (22nd in most pressures allowed among all OTs) or center Coleman Shelton (first in pressures allowed among centers).
The Lions' pass defense has been very poor all year, but you can see a small improvement in the graph over the last month. The catalyst for this improvement was their pass rush. Aided by a schematic change that includes much more blitzing – particularly from the secondary and players like Ifeatu Melifonwu – the Lions have averaged 10.25 QB hits and 3.25 sacks per game over the last four games. This has led to an increase in disruptive plays, including an average of 7.0 pass breakups and 2.3 interceptions during that period. They still lose yardage, but these negative plays result in opponents having more ends of possession.
Nevertheless, the outlook for the season is bleak. The Lions rank 21st in passer rating, 31st in yards per attempt (7.8), 25th in dropback EPA and 25th in success rate.
Detroit's fatal flaw is undoubtedly their outside cornerbacks – as evidenced by their 29th overall PFF rating. Current starters, Kindle Vildor and Cameron Sutton, rank 133rd and 114th, respectively, among CBs in passer rating allowed (out of 135). Yikes.
Player to Watch: Demarcus Robinson. Nacua and Kupp get all the media attention, but don't forget about Demarcus Robinson. As a replacement for Tutu Atwell, Robinson had an extremely productive December. Robinson rushed for 319 yards and four touchdowns in his last five games. Coverage of Detroit must be comprehensive.
Advantage: Aries +3. This is clearly the biggest advantage in the game, but is it really that different from the Lions' Pass O versus the Rams' Pass D? Both passing attacks have been among the best in football this season, while both defenses have opportunities to disrupt the passer. Detroit's secondary is worse, but the Rams' secondary isn't good either. With the Lions also getting Alim McNeill and CJ Gardner-Johnson back – and their defense trending in the right direction lately (compared to the Rams, who are going the other way) – I think it's fair to give this a + To rate 3 if I was thinking about putting it at +4 or even +5 at the start of the week.
Rams run on offense (6th) vs. Lions run on defense (1st)
The Rams are 3rd on offense since the bye week
Kyren Williams has been a revelation this year, especially in the second half of the season. The Rams have rushed for more than 100 yards in each of their last seven games, and in the finale, where Williams didn't play, they averaged just under 4.2 yards per carry.
Almost every stat points to this being a top-10 rushing attack: While they rank just 11th in yards per carry (4.3), they are ninth since Week 11 (4th). ,5). They are also fifth in adjusted line yards, eighth in rush EPA (fourth since Week 11) and sixth in success rate.
The Rams rank fifth as a team in run blocking rating, and Williams ranks second among RBs in yards before contact per rush (3.2). But Williams also did his part. He ranks sixth among running backs in broken tackles (22).
They are particularly dangerous on the right side of the offensive line. Their center (12th), right guard (first), and right tackle (fourth) all have extremely high run-blocking ratings at their position.
The Lions counter with an incredibly strong run defense. After a midseason lull caused largely by mobile quarterbacks, the Lions are pretty stiff again (last week aside) against the run.
This season, the Lions rank third in yards per carry allowed (3.7), sixth in adjusted line yards, fifth in PFF run defense rating, fourth in EPA and eighth place in success rate.
Player to watch: Lions linebacker. The Lions' linebackers are key to their running success, and tackling was a focus this week against Williams. The Lions were just average in this category. Derrick Barnes and Alex Anzalone rank 35th and 36th, respectively, in missed tackle rate (out of 60 linebackers). Jack Campbell did better in 19th place.
Advantage: draw. I can't for the life of me figure this out. The Lions haven't faced many great rushing attacks this year. And although they struggled against the strong this year, they were reinforced by a mobile quarterback. Even last year, the Lions were dominant in traditional running games, but the Rams may be the best they've faced in 2023. This is a critical duel and it could go either way.
Last week's forecast
On Paper scored another win both straight up and against the spread, increasing our record to 12-5 overall and 13-2-2 against the spread. The Lions were somewhat disappointing in both their rushing attack and their run defense, but the overwhelming data suggests those were outliers. Everything else matched up as predicted and my overall prediction of 34:17 wasn't too far off from the final outlook of 30:20.
We had a few good guesses in the comments section, but none were better than our own Hamza Baccouche's 28:20 prediction.
Enjoy this price.
This week's forecast
The Lions come out with one +0.5 advantage, which almost feels like I unconsciously manipulated the numbers. But I stand behind my methods here. The Lions' only clear disadvantage is the Rams' passing attack. We've seen the Lions sink as a result, but they've still performed well over the last month. And while Los Angeles faces the threat of a running game like no other offense since Baltimore, Detroit is still equipped to prevent it.
As far as offense goes, other than two disruptive tackles, I don't see anything that the Lions have to worry about. Detroit should be more than capable of outscoring the Rams by 30 points despite their improving run defense.
This game will be a real challenge, but given the extremely loud crowd in Detroit, it pushes my confidence to the limit. Lions 30, Rams 28.