The state of the Detroit Lions is such that they are seven point underdogs against a 5-9 Broncos team — and there is really no way to have any reasonable qualms with this line. The Lions are expected to return Kerryon Johnson this week, but their offensive line still can’t block and David Blough is still under center, at Denver, against a Vic Fangio defense that has been above-average this year, ranking 12th in DVOA, 13th in yards allowed, and 10th in points allowed, while ranking a solid ninth in opponent drive success rate. Furthermore, the Broncos looked comfortable on offense against the Chargers and Texans before predictably failing at Arrowhead, and this week they will be taking on a fully crumbled Lions defense that ranks 26th in DVOA, 31st in yards, 26th in points, and 26th in drive success rate. The Lions have faced the seventh most running back touches — and while they’ve allowed only 3.98 yards per carry to backs, they have also given up the third most receiving yards to the position. The Lions have also boosted aDOT by 25% — the largest boost in the league — while allowing the fifth most yards per pass attempt.
The Broncos moved away from the run as they fell behind the Chiefs last week, calling on Drew Lock to throw the ball 40 times after he had posted only 28 and 27 pass attempts in his first two starts — while dropping Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman to 12 combined carries after giving them 22 and 24 in their previous two games. Barring outlier game scenarios, we should expect the Broncos to return to the run in a game they should control.
Lindsay is likeliest to be the main beneficiary of this approach, with 20 and 18 touches in Lock’s first two starts. Lindsay’s pass game role has not been particularly valuable in this offense (only one game above 11 receiving yards in his last nine games), so even though he has a legitimate pass game role on paper, he is best viewed as a yardage-and-touchdown back (with any pass game production a bonus — a shame, as Detroit is especially susceptible in the screen game). Lindsay’s floor has proven to be low on this uninspiring offense, but his ceiling remains high, and the matchup — while not exactly a boost — is at least non-threatening. Behind Lindsay, Royce will need a spike in usage/role in order to produce — though given the Broncos’ run-leaning tendencies, there is at least a greater-than-0% chance that this bet could pay off.
Through the air, the key piece for this offense has been Courtland Sutton, with recent target counts of 9 // 8 // 5 // 7 // 10. Sutton will match up with Slay in this spot — though with the Lions unable to get their pass rush on track this season (and too willing to lean on man-heavy coverage schemes behind that poor pass rush), we should expect volume to be a bigger concern for Sutton than matchup. He’s a decent bet to connect on a couple of downfield plays (70+ yards in seven of his last 10 games), and he’s a poor bet for a slate-breaking score in this non-aggressive offense. Ultimately, Sutton will need a multi-touchdown game or for the Lions to keep this game close in order to really pay off — so while these are possible outcomes, he’s better rostered for his steady production than in the hopes of rising to the tops of tourneys through this play.
Behind Sutton, the highest target mark any Broncos pass catcher had reached in three games before Lock’s 40-attempt showing last week was five — done twice: when Noah Fant went 3-14-0 vs Buffalo, and when Jeff Heuerman went 3-15-0 against the Chargers. Unless you are just hoping to capture a fluky output on a busted play, ancillary pass catchers on the Broncos are best saved for rosters that bet on Detroit keeping this game close and forcing heavier-than-expected volume.
The Lions are a crapshoot across the board with Blough failing to crack even a 60% completion rate so far, with five interceptions to go with his three touchdowns. His preferred target so far has been Danny Amendola (8 // 8 // 13), though Amendola’s 102 yards last week marked the first time in seven games he had topped 50 yards (and only the second time in that stretch he had topped 35). He’s volume-and-fortune-dependent for his upside.
Alpha Kenny Golladay, meanwhile, is merely fortune-dependent, as he has lines with Blough of 4-158-1, 6-58-1, and 3-44-0 on target counts of only 5 // 8 // 7. This is a really tough spot against a Broncos team that has allowed the fifth fewest catches to wideouts — though Blough has gone for 38+ pass attempts in all three starts this year, creating at least some potential for Golladay see a bit more work in this spot. (Chris Lacy saw only two targets last week. The focus, if going here, should be on Amendola and Golladay.)
Among running backs, Kerryon may be eased in and has topped 50 yards on the ground only once this year (against Kansas City) behind this poor offensive line, making him merely a bet-on-broken-plays-or-touchdowns dart.
Among tight ends, Logan Thomas, Jesse James, and Isaac Nauta combined for 11 targets last week but turned this into a line of just 4-41-0. These guys are just a guessing game requiring a multi-touchdown spike in order to provide serious value.
JM’s Interpretation ::
Even on a small slate, I don’t expect to have heavy interest in this game — with a low total, and with the Broncos likely to control this game without generating any slate-breakers. If I do go here, the first place I’ll be interested in is Lindsay, while Sutton could also be worthy of “small percentage” exposure for his talent and alpha status in a great matchup. Of course, the best bet for Sutton to hit an actual slate-breaker is for the Lions to keep pace — so if you really want to target “the top of the slate” with a Sutton build (rather than just taking him for his typically steady production), you should strongly consider bringing that roster back with some Lions exposure. I won’t be surprised if Sutton goes for another solid game, but the prospect of bringing him back with a Lions piece might be enough to keep me off this play, as it’s tough to see a scenario in which Sutton really hits big without the Lions keeping pace…and it’s tough to see the Lions keeping pace unless it’s simply through a low-scoring affair.