The Green Bay Packers host the Detroit Lions on Monday Night Football in week two. To preview the matchups in this game, it is still far too early in the season to learn really anything from cumulative numbers like EPA-per-play or DVOA, so that’s not going to be the focus of this week’s By the Numbers preview. Instead, the focus will be more on how the Lions match up with what Green Bay tries to do, and vice versa.
An Unorthodox Receiving Corps and a Misleading Scoreline
The Lions wide receiver group might be the weakest in the NFL, so instead of trying to force passes to an overmatched group, the Lions focused on trying something else in week 1: pummeling targets to tight ends and running backs. Jared Goff attempted 57 passes as the Lions tried to come back from a massive early deficit. Of those 57 attempts, only 23 went to wide receivers. Tight end TJ Hockenson and running back D’Andre Swift were targeted eleven times each, with former Packer Jamaal Williams receiving nine targets. Hockenson and Williams each were relatively efficient with their targets, while Swift actually produced a negative EPA on his targets. Despite putting up 33 points, the Lions were not efficient doing anything against San Francisco. Jared Goff put up a -0.03 EPA-per-dropback and the Lions only put up 0.01 EPA-per-rush, a good chunk of which came on a run by wide receiver Kalif Reymond. The running backs combined for -0.04 EPA-per-rush.
The Lions were particularly awful on third downs as they were only 4-15 and put up -0.64 EPA-per-play on late downs (3rd/4th). The Lions were put into a lot of third downs because of the short nature of their passing game. Goff averaged only 3.9 air yards on his completions, a necessary bug of having to force so many targets to running backs. As basically everyone knows at this point, Jared Goff is not a good traditional dropback passer, so keeping him in third and medium or long situations creates a great deal of problems for the Lions offense.
From a personnel usage perspective, the Lions used 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB) on 71% of their plays against San Francisco, but it’s important to note that they were down by 21 at halftime and spent the entire second half trying to play catch-up. Similar to Green Bay’s offense, which spent even more time in 11 in week one, it’s hard to take too much about how Detroit WANTS to play considering the game state.
If Green Bay’s defense can’t stop Detroit, or at least stop them when the game matters, then we have to have a very serious readjusting of expectations for this season. This is an offense with a very limited quarterback, perhaps the league’s worst wide receiver group, and a group of tight ends and running backs that is no more than fine on the whole. Green Bay has struggled with tight ends and running backs some in the past, but none of these weapons are remotely as dynamic. Of course if Kevin King gets a lot of snaps and the interior defensive line just doesn’t show up again, it could still be a long night.
A Bad Secondary Gets More Depleted
We think of the 49ers as a run-first team, and that’s true in the same way that it is true for all of the Shanahan-related offenses. Everything about the structure of the offense is built off the running game and the looks that provides to the defense. But the 49ers didn’t plow over the Lions in the way they did to Green Bay in 2019. Instead, they ripped off an outrageous 0.68 EPA-per-dropback. Deebo Samuel, the de facto number one for San Francisco with whatever is happening with Brandon Aiyuk going on, decimated the Lions secondary with 9 catches for 189 yards and a touchdown on 12 targets. Oh, and he had two drops to go with that.
It’s not like the Lions were able to stop anyone else either. George Kittle had 78 yards on his five targets and no individual receiver had a passer rating of less than 95.8. No Lions defender had more than one incompletion when targeted. It was a bloodbath back there. Now, to make matters worse, their presumed CB1 Jeff Okudah will miss the rest of the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
The Lions weren’t able to do much against San Francisco rushing attack either. Despite what you see in their EPA-per-rush (-0.20), that is almost entirely due to a Jimmy Garoppolo aborted snap on the 49ers first play from scrimmage and Trey Lance’s -1 EPA per play on 3 rushing attempts. The 49ers running backs churned along to the tune of +0.17 EPA-per-rush.
One thing to note with all the talk about one-high vs two-high looks against this Packers offense is that Detroit was relatively even in those pre-snap alignments. Per PFF, they played MOFC (middle of the field closed, or one-high) on 55% of their defensive snaps, compared to 45% MOFO (middle of the field open, or two-high). There are two things that could change this pretty dramatically: game state and a Packers-specific game plan. Detroit getting down by several scores in week one led to San Francisco running the ball more, which could lead to more single-high looks to add a box defender. Also, the Lions could look to more two-high looks to contain the Packers offense that lead the league in basically every passing efficiency statistic last year. To combat that, Green Bay will have to run the ball at least relatively effectively and take the dink-and-dunk passes to churn long drives. Given how weak Detroit was at stopping basically anything last week, this looks like an opportunity at a get-right game for Green Bay’s offense.