Any Given Sunday: Lions over Eagles

Jamal Agnew
Jamal Agnew
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Rivers McCown

It's not hard to explain why Philadelphia's offense has struggled on paper the last two weeks. DeSean Jackson has a 59.0% DVOA on the 10 targets he had this season. He left Sunday Night Football against Atlanta and didn't play in Week 3. Alshon Jeffery has a 43.7% DVOA on the six targets he has this season. He left Sunday Night Football against Atlanta and didn't play in Week 3. The (searching for adjective) ever-mercurial Nelson Agholor caught two touchdown passes in this game, but also fumbled. He dropped passes left and right against Atlanta, and also caught a big fourth-down pass that set the Eagles up with a chance to win. Agholor has been a wild ride. Zach Ertz had the worst DVOA of any tight end through two weeks, and didn't exactly have a great Week 3 either. Two of Ertz's incompletions hit him in the hands. Chris Spielman out-and-out noted that Ertz had been doubled a lot during the game against Detroit, and that Philadelphia was being forced to go further down the route tree.

One thing I do want to point out with the Philadelphia offense is an observation from our Film Room compatriot Derrik Klassen:

It's worth pointing out that A) last season Wentz averaged 7.7 yards per attempt, and B) that dipped to 6.5 yards per attempt in empty sets, with three sacks, two touchdowns, two picks, and a fumble lost. While we don't have splits for that sort of thing just yet in our database for this year, Wentz played a lot of empty in comeback mode against the Falcons and Lions over the last two weeks.

The Lions got a crucial stop early in the game on third-and-goal that forced the Eagles to kick a field goal:

When I stop this frame, you can see that Wentz doesn't have anywhere over the middle to throw to. They've doubled his two middle options with linebackers, and his underneath route to the left is going to have to shed a tackle to get a first down as well. That leaves Mack Hollins on the corner and the ball has to be absolutely perfect. Wentz just isn't up to the task.

Philadelphia's in comeback mode here and they're having so many problems getting routes down the field that Wentz actually takes a short check to a well-covered Ertz. Lucky this one wasn't defensed in a more impactful way, but Tracy Walker is all over it.

The Eagles had just a 42% success rate on pass plays against the Lions, and it was only 43% against the Falcons. They need their main pass-catchers healthy, and it probably wouldn't hurt to make the offense a little less predictable as well.

Where the Game Swung

(This is viewed from Detroit's perspective. GWC is Game-Winning Chance, EdjSports' metric of how likely a team is to win the game based on the game situation and strength of each team at any given time.)

The kick return touchdown by Jamal Agnew was worth 13.0% GWC all on its own. That's the first big spike. Agholor's fumble at the end of the second quarter to set the Lions up deep in Philadelphia territory added another 20.5% GWC.

The end was a wild ride, and GWC believes Lions head coach Matt Patricia played things way too conservatively. By punting on fourth-and-8 at the Philadelphia 40 with a three-point lead, the model believes he cost the Lions 4.7% GWC. By going for the field goal after getting the ball deep in Philadelphia territory, it believes Detroit lost another 4.9% GWC. Making a three-point lead into a six-point lead is something GWC often hates.

By the VOA

DET -1.8% -9.8% 20.6% 28.7%
PHI -0.6% 1.0% -25.2% -26.8%

As you can see, outside of special teams, VOA believes that a football game was played. Neither team had a significant edge in either offense or defense. Detroit's defense was the best of the four units on the field. Let's talk about that!

Matt Patricia's Defense Awakens

We believed that the Lions would make the playoffs this year. We projected them with 8.3 wins on account of an easier schedule than most of the NFC North. (We need a name for this sort of schedule-based turnover -- the cupcake bounce?) Year 2 of the Matt Patricia era has brought with it instant and marked improvement on defense. We projected the Lions with a 1.7% defensive DVOA. Through three games, they're at -10.0% VOA, and this matchup was more of the same.

While Darius Slay and Quandre Diggs were quite good in 2018, the rest of the Lions secondary was simply not equipped to play Patricia's scheme in their first season. Glover Quin retired, with Tracy Walker replacing him towards the end of last season and now as the main starter this year. The Lions imported Rashaan Melvin and Justin Coleman to boost Slay and Diggs on the outside. The early returns have been quite worthwhile:

Lion's Share of Cornerback Credit
  2018   2019
Player Yards
per Pass
Players Yards
per Pass
CB2 Mike Ford 13.1 23% Rashaan Melvin 7.6 62%
CB3 Teez Tabor 12.5 38% Justin Coleman 3.2 67%
CB4 DeShawn Shead 13.7 24% Jamal Agnew 7.2 40%

The Lions simply couldn't get good play out of anyone they tried last year -- and they tried a lot of people. This year, Melvin and Coleman have settled things down.

Detroit's Defense Versus Receivers, 2018-2019
  vs. #1 WR vs. #2 WR vs. Other WR vs. TE vs. RB
2018 21.5% 19.4% 39.5% 19.4% -6.6%
2019 -13.5% -6.9% -54.1% 4.6% 33.4%

Last year, the Lions finished 32nd in DVOA against No. 1 wideouts, 27th against No. 2 wideouts, and 32nd against other wideouts. This year, through Week 2, their rankings are at seventh, 12th, and third -- and all three are negative (which means good defense). The only area where Detroit is getting gashed in the passing game is by running backs. (Ironically, that was the only thing they were good at defending last year.)

Detroit's sack rate is falling -- which is fine, because last year's rate was unsustainable based on the pressure they were getting anyway -- but because they rush three so often compared to most other teams, they're going to be an outlier on adjusted sack rate. Typically that manifests itself as a top-10 amount of time to throw that week. Per Next Gen Stats, Kyler Murray in Week 1 had 2.84 seconds, Philip Rivers in Week 2 was at 3.03 seconds. Both underperformed their expected accuracy based on down-and-distance.

This play is what Patricia is building to. He has read the offensive tendencies properly, and the quarterback wants to get the ball out to his first read but realizes that he can't. As Wentz realizes that, he gets swallowed by someone winning one-on-one. That's where the negative plays come with this defense: confusion. There has been a lot more of it this year.

Wentz in Week 3 did not have an above-average amount of time to throw. He was at 2.74 seconds. He underperformed his expected completion rate by a whopping -13.2%, the biggest difference of the week for a non-Miami Dolphin. That's a big ceiling for what Patricia's defense can do when it has you read well.

What happens if you pair a team that we had already projected for 8.3 wins with a defense that is empirically one of the ten best in the NFL? Well, you start talking about being good enough for a playoff spot even if they don't win the division. It's early yet, and Patricia may still leak win expectancy all over the field and botch more games as he did in Arizona. But this is looking pretty promising for the Lions.


8 comments, Last at 25 Sep 2019, 3:28pm

1 Great article. What a…

Great article. What a relief it is this year to not see opposing receivers running wide open. Rashaan Melvin was a mess in Oakland last year, but that apparently had more to do with his environment than him. Justin Coleman has thus far been worth every penny. Of course, things may look different against Kansas City next week (gulp).

Also agree about Patricia/Bevell's decision-making when trying to close out games. It's atrocious. Bevell is actually a creative play-caller in neutral situations, but when he's trying to sit on a lead, he turns into John Fox. Two failed runs into a stacked box on 1st and 2nd down, and then asks Stafford to repeatedly convert 3rd and long.

2 Looking at the division, my…

Looking at the division, my guess is that if any of the four teams wins more divisional road games than the others, that team will finish first, so the Packers have the lead in more than just winning percentage at this time. It'd be pretty fun if they were all within a game or two of each other come Thanksgiving.

5 It’s been a long time since…

It’s been a long time since all 4 teams in the division have been at a minimum, above average.  The last time I can remember that happening was in the old NFC Central in 1994.  The Packers, Bears, Vikings, and Lions all made the playoffs and all were top 15 in DVOA (yes, I know the Buccaneers were in the division back then, but they didn’t count until Tony Dungy came to down).

6 Losing Dungy really set…

Losing Dungy really set Denny Green back, which was masked somewhat by having Moss fall in his lap late in the first round a couple years later. Green never could get his defense quite right again, but (to understate things) heaving the ball deep to Moss counterbalanced weaknesses elsewhere.

7 Hah, I'm sure Vikings fans…

Hah, I'm sure Vikings fans would take a Moss for Dungy trade 10 times out of 10.  Even though I like watching good defensive play as much as the next guy, Randy Moss made the Vikings a must-watch in the late 90's/early 00's.  I prefer not to think about the fact that the Lions took CB Terry Fair one pick before him.  I couldn't avoid doing that in this game:

There's nothing that accentuates your draft failure more than having your 1st round okay but not great CB get toasted over and over again by the future HOF receiver taken right after him.

3 Before you face the Chiefs,…

Before you face the Chiefs, we wanted to take this moment to congratulate you on the solid defensive numbers you've posted so far this season … because they'll likely be gone next week. (And then maybe back the following week, once opponent adjustments get started).

So far this season, the Lions have spent the end game trying to nurse leads (with results that have been perhaps a bit better than the process involved). This week, we may get to see how they respond to multi-score deficits.

On the other hand, if the Lions' D proves solid enough to let Stafford go toe-to-toe with Mahomes, it should be good season in Motor City.

4 You’re almost certainly…

You’re almost certainly right.  I can’t envision a scenario where the Chiefs offense gets stopped.  If the Lions manage to at least avoid getting blown out and put up credible effort, I’ll be okay with them going into the bye at 2-1-1.  I was predicting they would be 1-3 going into the bye before the divisional games, along with softer part of their schedule unfolds.  So they’re playing with house money right now.

8 7 drops

I'm pretty sure our WRs/TEs dropping 7 balls including 2 wide-open TDs is why Carson 'underperformed' his completion %.