Reading the Lions Numbers

The New England Patriots return to Foxborough with an 8-2 record, courtesy of a 42-20 romp over the Indianapolis Colts. Coupled with the Denver Broncos 22-7 loss to the St. Louis Rams, the Patriots currently hold the pole position in the AFC race for home-field advantage. Next up are the Detroit Lions, whose strong defense will pose a stiff challenge for the Patriots offense.

Tough and Stingy

Despite losing to the Arizona Cardinals in Week 11, the Lions hold a share of first in the NFC North with the Green Bay Packers at 7-3. Their success is fueled by their tough defense which leads the league in several statistical categories. They have surrendered a league-low 15.6 points per game, with a high of 24 allowed against the Carolina Panthers.

The Lions own the best run defense in the league, allowing just 68.8 yards per game and 3 yards per carry. Their pass defense is no slouch either at fifth in passing yards per game (221.5), ninth in passing yards per attempt (6.9), and tenth in sacks (26). Their pair of defensive ends Ezekiel Ansah and George Johnson along with tackle Ndamukong Suh have combined to record 14 sacks, which will present a stern test for the Patriots offensive line coalescing in front of Tom Brady.

Type D

By the numbers, Detroit’s defense is most comparable to those of the Miami Dolphins and the Kansas City Chiefs – the two teams that beat the Patriots earlier this season. Also included in this group are the Broncos, whose run defense held up against the Patriots but got burned by the air attack:

Det Mia KC Den
Points against 156 (1) 180 (4) 171 (2) 234 (16)
TD’s against 16 (t-1) 18 (3) 16 (t-1) 24 (t-15)
Yards against 2903 (1) 3025 (2) 3260 (8) 3164 (5)
Pass yards per game 221.5 (5) 208 (2) 201.6 (1) 243 (18)
Rush yards per game 68.8 (1) 94.5 (8) 124.4 (25) 73.4 (2)
Pass yards per attempt (YPA) 6.9 (t-9) 6.1 (t-1) 6.6 (6) 6.1 (t-1)
Rush yards per attempt 3.0 (1) 3.8 (t-7) 4.8 (31) 3.3 (2)
First downs against 186 (t-4) 178 (1) 196 (t-11) 201 (14)
Third down conversion rate against 35.2 (t-2) 38.3 (10) 35.2 (t-2) 36 (t-6)
Sacks 26 (10) 30 (t-3) 30 (t-3) 27 (t-7)

Detroit is the best defense statistically speaking that the Patriots have faced this season; they do lag behind in YPA and sacks, but otherwise they are a top-notch unit. Averaging 25 yards per drive with an average starting point at the opponents’ own 25 yard line, the Lions are the hardest team against which to breach field goal range.The Detroit front four is highly likely to make this a frustrating Sunday for Tom Brady and the offense.

Ground to a Halt

While the defense is formidable, the Lions are saddled with a below-average offense. The main culprit is their ground game, averaging just 79.8 rushing yards per game, second-lowest in the NFL. Joique Bell leads the attack with 49.1 yards per game (26th in NFL), and the other three backs (George Winn, Theo Riddick, and Jed Collins) have totaled 15.7 yards per game. Reggie Bush remains questionable with an injured ankle, but even when healthy he is unlikely to pose much of a threat between the tackles for the improving Patriots run defense.

The bulk of Detroit’s offense rests on Matthew Stafford’s shoulders. He has thrown for 2,679 yards, good for eighth in the league and 13 touchdowns (tied for 15th). His main problem seems to be his offensive line as he has been sacked 31 times, just one fewer than the league leaders Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick. During Detroit’s three losses this season, Stafford has been sacked 14 times.

The Megatron Effect

Stafford’s main targets, Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson, have combined for 1,470 yards and 6 touchdowns on 102 receptions. While Tate has more yardage (950) and receptions (68), Megatron is still Stafford’s top target. In the five full games Johnson has played, he was targeted for 12.2 passes per game, and Tate for 7.2.

Healthy Calvin Johnson (5 games)

Johnson Tate
Targets 61 36
Receptions 31 29
Yards 501 351
Touchdowns 3 0

Limited or Out Calvin Johnson

Johnson Tate
Targets 3 59
Receptions 3 39
Yards 19 599
Touchdowns 0 3

With Megatron listed as probable for Sunday’s game, the Patriots will need to plan for both receivers. The Patriots defense have a trend of covering their opponents’ top two receivers and daring them to throw to their third option. Over the last six games opposing #1 receivers have caught 57.8% of their passes for 58.8 yard per game (YPG), #2 receivers have caught 55.2% of their passes for 76.3 YPG, and #3 receivers have caught 73.5% of their passes for 69.5 YPG. Since Detroit’s third leading receiver is running back Joique Bell at 204 yards (NFL rank: 135), the Patriots defense will probably double-cover Johnson and press Tate to dare Stafford to throw to other receivers. Four of Stafford’s interceptions have come on deep passes to Johnson, so safety Devin McCourty should have some opportunities to snag an interception.

Conclusion

Reading the Lions numbers shows a tough test for the Patriots on both sides of the ball, one that will provide Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia and Josh McDaniels a glimpse of the team’s postseason pedigree. On the other hand, the Lions’ impotent running attack may turn their overall offense one-dimensional and play right into the Patriots’ defensive schemes. This has potential to be a tough, grind-it-out game.

Premium statistics provided by Football Outsiders and Pro Football Focus.

Follow Douglas Storms on Twitter @stormsorama.

Douglas Storms is Inside The Pylon‘s numbers man; each week he looks at the stats to find themost interesting and possibly impactful data about the matchup.

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