EAGAN — As the Minnesota Vikings head to Ford Field to face off with the Detroit Lions, much of the conversation has been about whether they can carry over explosive offensive performances from the last two weeks into the Motor City.
Overall the Vikings now have one of the best offenses in the NFL. They rank seventh in offensive Expected Points Added (via Pro-Football Reference), fourth in net yards per pass attempt and third in rushing yards per attempt.
But their big performances have largely come against defenses that have struggled this season. Minnesota’s wins have come against defenses ranking 32nd, 26th, 28th and 22nd in defensive Expected Points Added. Their losses have come against teams that rank fifth and seventh.
In the traditional categories, Detroit doesn’t look like a very good defense. They are 28th in passing yards allowed per game and 27th in rushing yards allowed per game.
The underlying metrics paint a pretty different picture.
Key “advanced” rankings
Expected Points Added vs. Pass — 10th
DVOA (Football Outsiders) vs. Pass — 10th
Opposing QB rating — 7th
Completion % allowed — 3rd
Adjusted Net Yards/Attempt — 16th
PFF team defense grade — 13th
Circumstances and opposition play a significant role in the Lions’ poor yardage totals. In Week 1, for example, they jumped out to a 24-6 lead early in the fourth quarter. In a furious comeback attempt, the Cardinals threw 54 passes and amassed over 300 yards. Detroit’s late-game performance on defense wasn’t shining but overall they allowed a 75.3 rating to Murray and 5.7 yards per pass attempts — both exceptional in efficiency.
Aside from Murray, the other quarterbacks the Lions have faced have been either future Hall of Famers or presently top-notch QBs. As they usually do, the likes of Rivers, Wentz, Mahomes and Rodgers put on somewhere between solid and downright impressive showings.
Opposing QB performance by PFF grade (1-100):
Kyler Murray — 53.4
Phillip Rivers — 74.4
Carson Wentz — 81.6
Patrick Mahomes — 69.2
Aaron Rodgers — 89.7
There were a number of cases in which the Lions’ process was pretty solid but one of the elite QBs simply did something special. One example being Rodgers’ 35-yard touchdown throw to Allen Lazard. NFLNextGEN stats reported that Detroit’s cornerback was less than one yard away from the receiver in coverage when Lazard caught the ball.
“I know this, watching the tape, I’m impressed,” offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski said. “It’s a group that can roll up and play man coverage. I think really across the board they have DBs that can get up and press you and make life really hard on you. And then they’re smart in how they scheme and add a few different wrinkles in a few different zone coverages. I see a sound defense from the run game and the pass game, and we’re really going to have our work cut out for us I think to be able to be explosive in this ballgame.”
Through just five games the traditional statistics can be so swayed by schedule that we are more likely to get accurate readings when focusing on efficiency numbers and pure talent.
Part of the formula for efficiency ratings like Expected Points Added and DVOA is turnovers. Detroit is currently seventh in turnover percentage.
“We have to make sure we take care of the football and hold on to it,” head coach Mike Zimmer said. “They’re very good in yards after catch, another stat for you. All those things are going to be important. They’re going to try and strip the football.”
The Lions made great efforts in the offseason to improve their personnel by signing Justin Coleman and Trey Flowers. Aside from a bizarre penalty call at the end of the Lions’ loss to Green Bay, Flowers has been solid, creating 17 pressures (per PFF) and grading as one of the best edge rushers in the NFL against the run by PFF standards.
Coleman is Detroit’s highest graded defensive player, ranking fourth best by PFF standards among all NFL corners and giving up just 55.8% completion percentage into his coverage.
On the outside, Darius Slay has long been one of the league’s better man-to-man coverage cornerbacks. He’s giving up a 59.1% completion percentage this year and just an 82.0 rating over his career despite shadowing top receivers. Last year against the Vikings, Slay allowed just five catches on 11 targets for 71 yards and intercepted one pass.
“He’s definitely a talented player,” receiver Stefon Diggs said. “I’ve been seeing him since I came into the league since my rookie year, so I know all about him. He definitely makes a lot of plays, especially when we play them, he always makes a play. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us, they’ve got a lot of talented guys over there, not just him. They’ve got a lot of talented guys on the back end, so that’ll be challenging for us. Something we’ve got to work on throughout the week and execute when it’s time.”
Lions head coach Matt Patricia came from the Bill Belichick coaching tree, which has not often guaranteed success but in this case Patricia has carried over some of his mentor’s defensive philosophies that can make life difficult on offenses.
“They do a lot,” Zimmer said. “They’ll double guys, they’ll double two guys. They’ll drop the extra guy in the coverage. They’ll try and re-route a guy off the line of scrimmage before they rush. They’ll give us multiple front looks, so we’re going to have to be really good in communication with that.”
So at a closer look, we see a defense that has some highly talented players with underlying numbers that paint a much better picture than the yardage averages. They have some issues, especially at linebacker and have not been dominant but Detroit will be a much better test than the likes of Atlanta, Oakland, New York or Philadelphia.