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Matchup Index: Detroit Lions

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The Daily Norseman once again dives deep into the statistical trends and player grades to find matchup advantages for the Vikings upcoming game against the Detroit Lions.

John Konstantaras

This week we'll once again look for statistical trends and matchup advantages that the Vikings could potentially take advantage of in their clash this Sunday with the Detroit Lions.  Since there appeared to be some overall disdain and general consternation over the use of Pro Football Focus player grades last week, this time around I'll be utilizing multiple resources in trying to decide which matchups the Vikings could potentially exploit.  What follows is something of a "Matchup Index" if you will.

Starting with the Lions offense versus the Vikings defense, there are a few general trends of which to make note.  Overall, the Lions offense has generated an average of 343.2 total offensive yards per game through the first 5 games of the year, good enough to rank tied for 19th best with the Titans.  This is just an average showing in overall yardage output, and unfortunately for the Lions they only average 19.8 points per game, one spot worse than the Vikings.  Some of this could probably be explained by the fact that Calvin Johnson has not been playing 100% healthy for the past few games and he has historically accounted for a large share of their offensive production.  But despite the low scoring recently, the Lions are still very good on 3rd down, converting 46% of their 3rd down attempts, ranked tied for 9th.

Looking a little deeper at their offensive ranks shows that they are a much better passing offense than rushing offense.  While Matthew Stafford hasn't been a particularly efficient quarterback this year (89.1 passer rating, ranked 27th overall and only 6 passing TDs to 4 INT) he has managed to accumulate a lot of passing yards per game: 279.4 (ranked 10th best) thanks to their willingness to commit to the pass (179 attempts through 5 games, 7th most).  When everyone was healthy in week 1, the Lions offense totally steamrolled the Giants with a final score of 35-14, but they haven't been able to maintain that level of health the past few weeks, which could partly explain the low overall numbers for Stafford.  But it could also be the offensive line, which according to Football Outsiders has an adjusted sack rate of 8.4% (ranked 29th).  Pro Football Focus ranks the Detroit offensive line 19th best in "pass blocking efficiency" which takes into account sacks allowed, hits allowed and QB hurries as a total measure of "pressure allowed" divided by their total number of pass plays.  So, perhaps a combination of sub-par pass blocking combined with injuries to the skill positions could explain the lack of points and efficiency in the Detroit passing offense.

The Lions rushing attack has slipped from a middle-of-the-pack yards per game ranking last year, to a bottom of the pack ranking in 2014.  Last year they averaged 112 rushing yards per game, with Reggie Bush running wild for much of the season en route to the 2nd most rushing yards of his career.  This year however, the Lions have only managed an average of 83.6 yards per game through the first 5 weeks, ranked 28th overall.  And it's not because they have been running the ball infrequently; they run an average of 26.6 times per game (tied for 17th most).  It's that they are not effective as a rushing offense, because their yards per carry mark is terrible: only 3.1 rushing yards per attempt, ranked 2nd worst in the league.  Again, this is probably an issue of the offensive line.  Football Outsiders has the Detroit offensive line ranked 22nd overall in "Adjusted Line Yards" which attempts to account for the number of rushing yards the line generates independent of the running back.  Similarly, Pro Football Focus ranks Detroit's overall "Run Blocking" 20th best.

So, generally speaking the Lions offense has tended to throw the ball a lot, and has generated a lot of passing yards with a high 3rd down conversion rate.  But their rushing attack has not been effective, and they haven't managed to put up a lot of points on the board outside of a week 1 blowout win against the Giants.  Most of their issues appear to stem from the offensive's line inability to block: both in passing and rushing.

The Matchup Indices below will compare the blocking grades of each individual Detroit offensive lineman against each of our defensive lineman's blocking grades.  This should allow us to see where there might be some potential for matchup exploitations in the trenches.  Last week I highlighted Shariff Floyd against the Packer's right side of the O-line as a possible point of exploitation.  Sure enough, Floyd notched one of our two sacks last week, and also got a QB hit as well en route to the highest graded pass rushing effort on the team in the game from Pro Football Focus.  So, let's see if there are any decent matchups this week.

Matchup Index: Lions Pass Blocking vs Vikings Pass Rushing

Detroit Player

RT LaAdrian Waddle

RG Larry Warford

C Dominic Raola

LG Rob Sims

LT Riley Reiff

PFF Grade

+0.3

+4.6

+0.1

-6.4

+1.6

Minnesota Player

DE Brian Robison

DT Shariff Floyd

DT Linval Joseph

DE Everson Griffen

PFF Grade

-2.4

-0.8

-0.4

-2.5

Granted, it's difficult to extrapolate much from the Pro Football grades, other than to say that over the course of the first 5 games of the year the Vikings defensive line has been generally graded poorly as pass rushers on an individual standpoint, and the Lions have been graded sort of mixed on an individual standpoint.  But the sack rates and pass rushing efficiency numbers I pointed to above point out that the Lions don't really excel as pass blockers when taken together as a whole line.  Aside from Larry Warford, and to some extent Riley Reiff, the Lions offensive lineman are not standout pass blockers.  And Rob Sims appears to be a real liability in pass blocking.  Unfortunately for the Vikings, there aren't too many stand-out pass rushers on the defensive line to take advantage of the Detroit weaknesses.  In fact, Football Outsiders has the Vikings defensive line ranked 13th in adjusted sack rate (6.3%) and Pro Football Focus has the Vikings ranked 24th overall in pass rushing.

I think it's important to note at this point that backup tackles Tom Johnson and Shamar Stephen are not included in the table above for the Vikings.  While they have received about a third of the defensive snaps, Tom Johnson has been the most effective pass rushing defensive tackle on the team, garnering a +2.0 pass rushing grade and the most sacks (2) of any tackle on the team.  Never-the-less Linval Joseph could be in line for a good game lining up over the top of Sims and Raola, both of whom are average or worse in pass blocking.  Joseph has the most total pressures of any defensive lineman (11 hits, hurries and sacks), with the 7th best "pressure percentage" of all defensive tackles in the league.  His -0.4 grade suggests he is slightly below average as a pass rusher, but his high "pressure percentage" says otherwise.  I like his matchup this week especially.  Although on the whole, I can see our front four finding it difficult to apply pressure to Matthew Stafford without some blitzing help.

Matchup Index: Lions Run Blocking vs Vikings Run Defense

Detroit Player

RT LaAdrian Waddle

RG Larry Warford

C Dominic Raola

LG Rob Sims

LT Riley Reiff

PFF Grade

-1.7

-3.1

+2.8

-1.1

-2.9

Minnesota Player

DE Brian Robison

DT Shariff Floyd

DT Linval Joseph

DE Everson Griffen

PFF Grade

+2.5

+1.1

-6.8

+2.5

There are some encouraging matchups in the run game.   The Detroit line looks generally poor in run blocking, and our defensive ends excel in securing the edges.  However, Detroit's veteran center Dominic Raola grades out very well as a run blocker and will be facing our lowest graded run defender in Linval Joseph (which is kind of surprising given that he's the nose tackle).  I believe the Vikings defensive line will have a real advantage against their run game as not only do the player grades suggest this, the overall team statistics suggest it as well.  The Vikings run defense has allowed an average of 121.8 yards per game (19th best) and 4.3 yards per carry (17th best), which puts them in the middle of the pack.  Football Outsiders ranks our run blocking "adjusted line yards" 29th best, while Pro Football Focus ranks our overall run defense 14th best.  This is certainly a mixed review of our run defense, but as I pointed out above, the Lions have a dreadful rushing attack.  Hopefully we'll be able to take advantage of their generally weak offensive line in the running game.  If the Lions want to try to pound the ball through the center of our defense, they should find it much easier sledding though, especially considering that middle linebacker Jasper Brinkley merely has a +0.8 grade in run defense to support Linval Joseph (not bad, but not particularly good either).  Reggie Bush is "day to day" after spraining his ankle last week, and if he misses the game Sunday that can only bode well for the Vikings defense's chances of stopping the run.

In looking at the skill positions, it's a much more difficult comparison as wide receivers and tight ends can lineup all over the field and against a variety of defensive backs and linebackers.  The "Matchup Index" won't prove quite as useful as it would for lineman.  But we'll break it down anyway.  In this case, I've chosen to look at the Detroit wide receivers "receiving" grades against the Vikings defensive backs "pass coverage" grades.

Matchup Index: Lions Receivers vs Vikings Defensive Backs

Detroit Player

WR Calvin Johnson

WR Corey Fuller

WR Jeremy Ross

WR Golden Tate

PFF Grade

+3.4

-1.1

-0.7

+3.6

Vikings Player

CB Xavier Rhodes

S Robert Blanton

S Harrison Smith

CB Captain Munnerlyn

PFF Grade

+0.7

-3.7

+6.5

-1.3

Overall, based on the Pro Football Focus grades, the Lions appear to have a slight advantage with two green graded players and only one red, to the Vikings one green player and two reds.  If Calvin Johnson misses time though, that would elevate Ryan Broyles to their #4 spot.  Broyles has been a healthy scratch several times and has only played 11 snaps all year with a +0.2 (aka, league average) grade.  That would still give the Lions a slight edge, but would certainly level playing field a bit.  One interesting thing to note about these grades is that Pro Football Focus has Golden Tate graded higher than Calvin Johnson.  This is probably due to Johnson trying to play through his injury and largely being used as a decoy the past few games.  But Football Outsiders also likes Tate more than Johnson in their DYAR (Defensive Yards Above Replacement) rankings.  In fact, Golden Tate is their 5th ranked wide receiver through the first 5 weeks, while Calvin Johnson is 11th.  Not only that, but Golden Tate is averaging over 90 receiving yards per game (7th most) with a 14.5 yards per catch average.  Johnson is only averaging just under 70 yards per game (ranked 20th).  Corey Fuller and Jeremy Ross are replacement level players at this point with Fuller over-taking Broyles on the depth chart as a rookie.  In short, if Calvin Johnson is healthy and plays, I expect him and Tate to be able to do some damage to our secondary.  But if he sits, then I think it significantly levels the playing field.  In addition Pro Football Focus ranks the Lions passing offense 11th best, while Football Outsiders ranks them 16th best.  Football Outsiders ranks the Vikings pass defense 24th while Pro Football Focus ranks them 25th in pass rushing (as a team) and 20th in pass coverage (as a team).

After taking a look at the matchups and trends for the Lions offense against our defense, I can say that a lot of it is going to ride on the health and effectiveness of Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush.  If both are out, I expect the advantage to swing pretty heavily in favor of the Vikings.  The Lions should find it difficult to get much established on the ground even with Bush healthy, although Stafford will likely have all day in the pocket. That said, if Megatron sits that could allow us to send extra pass rushers in to pressure Stafford and leave the likes of Jeremy Ross and Corey Fuller in single coverage without too much worry.  But the Lions have a good passing attack, and our defense hasn't figured out a good way to counter opposing passing offenses which could spell trouble especially if Calving Johnson is healthy enough to play.

On the flipside of the coin, how do the matchups look for the Vikings offense against a much improved Detroit defense?  Well, the Vikings offense overall has looked pretty inconsistent thanks in large part to having to start three different quarterbacks through the first five weeks.  We are generating only 335.2 total offensive yards per game (ranked 23rd best), slightly worse than the Lions.  We are ranked 25th in 3rd down conversion percentage (36%) and only 26th in points per game (20.2).  Unfortunately, the Lions defense is ranked #1 in total yards allowed (allowing an average of only 282.4 yards per game).  They are also second best in points allowed, with an average of only 15.8 per game.  They have the 5th best passing defense, allowing an average of 208 passing yards per game, and the 4th best run defense allowing an average of only 74.4 rushing yards per game.

In looking at the Vikings offense in more detail, our 27th ranked passing offense is a serious hindrance as our quarterbacks have only managed an average of 205.2 passing yards per game, despite attempting the 17th most passes (165 total).  Our "Voltron-esque" quarterbacks have managed a combined passer rating of 68.6, 2nd worst in the league (thanks Cassel and Ponder) with only three passing touchdowns against SIX interceptions.  Teddy Bridgewater was our most efficient quarterback so far accounting for nearly 1/3 of all of our passing yards in one start.  With Teddy back in the fold this week, our passing attack should rebound.

Despite having Peterson on the field for only one game, our rushing attack is not nearly as inept as our passing game though.  We are ranked 10th in rushing yards per game with 130, although we also have the 10th most rushing attempts in the league.  Still, our yards per carry average has improved recently climbing up to 4.6 (also ranked 10th).  The Vikings are getting Jerick Mckinnon more involved as well they should, because his 5.5 yards per carry average dwarfs Matt Asiata's 3.7 yards per carry average.  It's a small sample size to be sure, but Mckinnon's explosive potential, as evidenced by his 55-yard scamper against the Falcons (longest run by a Vikings running back this year) makes him a logical player to see an increased role.

All that said the matchup indices below paint a pretty bleak picture for the Vikings offense.  We'll start in the trenches as I did above as we'll compare the passing game first, and the run game second.

Matchup Index: Vikings Pass Blocking vs Lions Pass Rushing

Minnesota Player

RT Phil Loadholt

RG Vlad Ducasse

C John Sullivan

LG Charlie Johnson

LT Matt Kalil

PFF Grade

-0.8

0.0

-0.3

-1.4

-8.8

Detroit Player

DE Jason Jones

DT Nadamukong Suh

DT Nick Fairley

DE Ezekial Ansah

PFF Grade

-2.3

+4.2

+2.9

-0.9

As you can see based on the individual grades, things don't look good for the Vikings offensive line when it comes to pass blocking against the Lions.  Football Outsiders ranks the Vikings 31st in adjusted sack rating (9.0%), while Pro Football Focus ranks them 29th in pass blocking efficiency.  Just about any way you slice it, the offensive line looks poor.  And try not to notice that Nadamukong Suh gets to face our backup right guard in Ducasse.  Unfortunately for us, Brandon Fusco was our highest rated pass blocker before he landed on injured reserve.  Not only are the Lions two defensive tackles highly graded, but Suh has the 5th best  "pressure percentage" of all defensive tackles in the NFL, and Fairley has the 7th best.  I see nothing but disadvantages for the Vikings in the trenches in our passing game.

Matchup Index: Vikings Run Blocking vs Lions Run Defense

Lions Player

RT Phil Loadholt

RG Vlad Ducasse

C John Sullivan

LG Charlie Johnson

LT Matt Kalil

PFF Grade

-1.3

-3.7

+2.2

-1.9

-5.3

Vikings Player

DE Jason Jones

DT Nadamukong Suh

DT Nick Fairley

DE Ezekial Ansah

PFF Grade

+1.1

+8.3

+3.4

-2.4

Just like with pass blocking, our offensive line looks completely overmatched in the running game.  The Vikings sport the 21st best offensive line in "Adjusted Line Yards" according to Football Outsiders.  Conversely, the Lions have the 2nd best defensive line in "Adjusted Line Yards" allowed.  As pointed out above, the Lions are 4th best at stopping the run allowing an average of only 74 yards on the ground.  In short, the Vikings could find it difficult to get much of anything going on the ground this Sunday.

Things don't exactly get much better when considering the skill positions.  The Vikings offensive line looks like it will be over-matched in all aspects against Detroit, but unfortunately the wide receivers have a tough road ahead of them as well.  As before, I've included the Vikings receiving grades to compare against the Lions pass coverage grades.

Matchup Index: Vikings Receivers vs Lions Defensive Backs

Vikings Player

WR Greg Jennings

WR Jarius Wright

WR Adam Thielen

WR Cordarrelle Patterson

PFF Grade

-1.3

-1.5

0.0

-1.1

Detroit Player

CB Rashean Mathis

S James Ihedigbo

S Glover Quin

CB Darius Slay

PFF Grade

+5.3

+1.6

+4.0

+1.7

Folks, this is not your friendly Detroit Lions secondary anymore.  They have completely revamped their secondary with free agents and draft picks with all four members of the secondary grading positively "in the green" in pass coverage.  Sad to say, but not one Vikings receiver grades in the positive through the first 5 games.  This matchup looks dreadful on paper.  It's not just Pro Football Focus that is down on our receivers, Football Outsiders ranks Greg Jennings as the best receiver, which isn't saying much as he's ranked 27th overall in their DYAR metric.  Patterson is ranked 32nd and Jarius Wright is ranked 51st in the same metric while Adam Thielen doesn't qualify.  Jennings leads all Vikings receivers in catches and yards (17 receptions for 235 yards and a TD), but don't get too excited.  Jennings is ranked only 54th overall in receiving yards in the NFL so far.  I can't help but put much of the blame for the lack of production at receiver on the quarterback and offensive line.  But the Vikings receivers are at least partly to blame with less than desirable catch rates with Jennings clocking in at 61%, Patterson at 60% and Wright at 58%.

All signs point to the Vikings offense struggling against the Detroit defense.  Teddy Bridgewater will certainly have his work cut out for him and I will not be at all surprised to see him struggle with a fierce pass rush and receivers that can't get open (or that simply drop catchable balls).  The Vikings running backs will also find it difficult to find daylight.  The Vikings will want to employ screen passes to neutralize the Detroit pass rush, and try to get their running backs out on the edges to attack their defensive ends and linebackers.

I'm not going to offer up a scoring prediction, but I would not be surprised to see the Lions pull off a win, even if Calvin Johnson misses the game.