RAMS // LIONS OVERVIEW
Week 13 brings us a couple of severe and laughably unfair mismatches, with the 10-1 Rams traveling to take on the 4-7 Lions, and with the 9-2 Chiefs traveling to take on the 2-9 Raiders. The first of these games (Rams at Lions) gives us a matchup between a Rams team that ranks third in points per game and a Lions team that ranks 24th in points allowed.
One interesting wrinkle in this game is the ball control style of each team, as both rank in the top eight in time of possession, and both also rank top five in fewest opponent plays allowed per game. The Rams have been one of the more run-heavy teams in the NFL, while the Lions have preferred to lean run-heavy when possible. While the Lions have struggled in the red zone (26th in red zone touchdown rate), they rank a respectable 14th in drive success rate on offense, and only four teams have a lower rate of three-and-outs per drive. Unsurprisingly, the Rams are one of these four teams (they rank first in the NFL in this department), and the Rams also rank third in drive success rate when they have the ball. They’ll be taking on a Detroit team that ranks 28th in drive success rate allowed on defense.
Unsurprisingly, the Rams have been installed as early-week 10 point favorites, with an Over/Under in this game of 54.5. Neither side projects to generate an outsized number of plays this week, but each team can post efficient production in this spot — with the Rams an especially attractive team in a positive matchup, with a rested team and two weeks to prepare for the vanilla defensive scheme that Matt Patricia is running with the Lions.
RAMS PASS OFFENSE
Detroit could be in trouble against the Rams’ passing attack this week, as they have allowed the deepest aDOT in the NFL, and they have allowed a 5.4% boost to the league-average catch rate, leading to a number 30 ranking in yards allowed per pass attempt. With Detroit limiting opponent play volume (they have allowed the fewest opponent plays per game in the NFL) and being so attackable on the ground through the first half of the year, they have faced the second fewest pass attempts in the NFL this year…and yet, they have allowed more passing yards than 12 other teams, and they have allowed the sixth most passing touchdowns in the league. Darius Slay has played below expectations this year — allowing a 64.7% completion rate on passes thrown into his coverage, with five touchdowns allowed and a 101.5 quarterback rating allowed — and the Lions’ musical chair setup at their other cornerback spots introduces no reason to be afraid of this matchup.
In their first game without Cooper Kupp, snaps among Rams pass catchers (out of 80 total plays) looked like this:
:: Robert Woods — 79 snaps (11 targets)
:: Josh Reynolds — 78 snaps (8 targets)
:: Brandin Cooks — 70 snaps (12 targets)
:: Tyler Higbee — 59 snaps (7 targets)
:: Gerald Everett — 23 snaps (4 targets)
Jared Goff is much likelier to throw 30 to 35 passes in this spot, after throwing 49 against the Chiefs, so those raw target numbers should not be used as a baseline; but if Goff does throw 35 times (and we assume Gurley sees his typical six looks through the air), something like seven to 10 targets for Cooks/Woods, four to six targets for Reynolds, and seven or eight total targets for the two tight ends is a reasonable expectation.
Against a Chiefs team that also allows one of the deepest aDOTs in the NFL, Woods saw four targets more than 20 yards downfield, with another three targets more than 15 yards downfield. Cooks saw three targets more than 20 yards downfield and another two more than 15 yards downfield. Each guy mixes in high-floor looks close to the line of scrimmage. The only risk here is a potential for limited volume if the Rams control this game from the start. Outside of that slim concern, each guy carries floor and ceiling.
Reynolds played 30 of his 78 snaps out of the slot (38.5%) and took on the intermediate role vacated by Kupp — with seven of his eight targets coming within five to 15 yards of the line of scrimmage. He’s the least likely to pop for big volume, and his targets offer the least upside, but something like a 4-50-0 line is a comfortable range, and he has room to grow from there in all three of receptions, yardage, and touchdowns.
While Higbee had a big edge on Everett in both snaps and targets, he ran only 25 pass routes to Everett’s 18, as this team really likes what they have in the pass game with Everett. Neither guy is likely to pop for a big usage game here (unless the Lions unexpectedly turn this into a back-and-forth affair — unlikely, given their recent “horizontal” style of play), but each guy will be given a few opportunities to produce.
RAMS RUN OFFENSE
If we take away the 70-yard run that Dalvin Cook had against the Lions in their first game with Snacks Harrison plugging up the middle, rushing lines against this team since Harrison was added have looked like this:
19-50-1 to Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook
35-138-1 to Chris Carson and Mike Davis
18-36-0 to Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen
13-53-0 to Christian McCaffrey
10-27-0 to Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen
In all, that’s 304 yards on 95 carries — good for only 3.2 yards per carry, which would be the best mark in the NFL. Even if we add in the Dalvin Cook run, the Lions hang tough at 3.9 yards per carry (which would tie Baltimore for the sixth lowest mark allowed) — illustrating the strong improvements this unit has made across its last five games. Matchup should never be a major concern when it comes to Todd Gurley and one of the most well-designed run offenses in the NFL, but matchup is at least worth noting for the highest-priced player on the slate.
Rather quietly, the Rams have played six one-score games in their last eight (with a 10-point loss to the Saints and a blowout win over the 49ers their only other games in this stretch), so we have not seen in quite some time how the Rams plan to deploy Gurley in the fourth quarter with a big lead. In their Week 7 blowout win over the 49ers, Gurley ended up playing only 36 of 61 snaps (59%), while Malcolm Brown piled up 25 snaps and 14 touches.
None of this should be perceived as putting Gurley at risk of being a “bad play,” as he has five to seven targets in all but three games this season, and he has the most red zone carries, the most carries inside the 10, and the most carries inside the five in the NFL. He remains one of the safest plays on the slate, but his chances of hitting a score you “have to have in order to win” are lowered in this spot.
LIONS PASS OFFENSE
On a per-pass basis, the Rams have been perfectly average defending the pass this season — allowing a roughly league-average aDOT, catch rate, and YAC/R rate; and with the Rams controlling the clock this year to force the fifth fewest opponent plays per game, they rank middle of the pack in pass attempts faced in spite of constantly playing with a lead. As such, this team has allowed a below-average number of wide receiver receptions and only a slightly above-average number of wide receiver yards — but the Rams have continued to struggle in the red zone, ranking 25th in red zone touchdown rate allowed and giving up the most wide receiver touchdowns in the league.
Aqib Talib is expected to return this week, and he should see plenty of the Lions’ only real threat in Kenny Golladay. With all factors considered, this cannot be deemed more than an average matchup for Golladay (and if Talib returns at full form and takes on Golladay even 40% to 50% of the time, it will prove to be a slightly below-average matchup) — but on the plus side, Golladay has 13, 15, and eight targets across his last three games, and even with defenses piling most of their attention onto him in this stretch (he has managed to haul in only 19 of these 36 targets — “good” for a 52.8% catch rate), he has been able to go for 78 or more yards in each of these spots, while adding a pair of touchdowns. The guaranteed volume helps to raise Golladay’s floor, while his skill set raises his ceiling. The Lions will take a few shots with Golladay, but they are also likely to run him on plenty of shallow crossing routes to simply get the ball into his hands, adding to his floor.
Behind Golladay, the only relevant pass catcher (before we get to the backfield) has been Bruce Ellington, who played 54 out of 66 snaps last week after playing only 33 of 65 the week before while attempting to pick up much of the offense on the fly. Ellington has 16 targets in two games so far, with only two of these targets coming more than six yards downfield (and with none coming more than 10 yards downfield) in what has become an entirely horizontal offense outside of the occasional downfield shot to Golladay. This thins out ceiling for Ellington outside of hoping for a touchdown, but the volume for a solid price-considered floor should be there once again this week.
T.J. Jones has seen only two targets in two games since Marvin Jones went down. Brandon Powell has not played since Marvin went down. Michael Roberts played 23 of 65 snaps last week and saw six targets, but he has topped 16 receiving yards only one time this year.
LIONS RUN OFFENSE
The Rams’ run defense ranks 31st in yards allowed per carry — allowing an increase on the league-average YPC rate of over 17% — making this a disappointing week for exciting rookie Kerryon Johnson to miss. In Kerryon’s absence last week, LeGarrette Blount operated as the clear lead “yardage and touchdown” back — playing 33 out of 65 snaps (50.8%), seeing 19 carries and only one target. In that same game, Theo Riddick operated as the clear “pass-catching only” back, playing 29 snaps and seeing seven targets (7-48-0 through the air), but taking only two carries. Riddick played 26 out of his 29 snaps in the backfield — his highest rate of backfield snaps since Week 1. After playing 14 and 29 snaps at receiver in Weeks 9 and 10, Riddick has dropped to eight and three such snaps the last two weeks with Bruce Ellington emerging as a viable option in the slot. Blount has a quality matchup but will be at risk of a complete dud if either A) the Rams jump out to a big, early lead, or B) he fails to score. Riddick has seen six to eight targets in four consecutive games and should be involved through the air once again in a game the Lions are likely to be trailing. Somewhere in the range of 5-40-0 is a fair median projection for him, with upside for a big play or a score from there.
The only big concerns on the Rams’ side of the ball is the fear that they run away with this game against the soft Lions defense and the non-aggressive Lions offense. As long as volume is there for Cooks and Woods, they will have opportunities to produce as two of the top price-considered plays on the slate, while Goff will have an opportunity to join them. Gurley is also hampered a bit by the volume concerns — which are more of a concern for me than the matchup. As always: I expect a strong score from Gurley, though his chances of going for “a score you have to have” are a bit lower than normal in this spot, making him more appropriately priced than underpriced.
Behind these guys, Reynolds, Higbee, and Everett are all in the conversation as salary savers with upside. This offense will flow through Gurley, Woods, and Cooks first, but there will be a few opportunities for these other three to get involved.
It’s difficult to get too excited about a Lions passing attack that has become one of the least downfield-oriented units in the league, with only a couple downfield shots to Golladay each week separating Matthew Stafford from Sam Darnold. With that said: it is all but guaranteed the Lions will have to pass in this spot, which will pile up floor opportunities for both Golladay and Ellington, with Golladay being given some shots for ceiling as well. Ellington could pop for ceiling with a busted play or an unpredictable touchdown. Each guy is very much in the conversation this week.
I am hopeful I will not end up scraping around in the Lions’ backfield, as Blount doesn’t carry a comfortable floor, and Riddick has yet to show any significant ceiling. Blount is best saved for large-field tourneys, where his ownership is sure to be low even after his two touchdown game on Thanksgiving, and where he does still carry multi-touchdown upside. Riddick is a floor play with only a thin shot at ceiling, making him viable but not particularly attractive.