After a triumphant return to form for Sean McVay’s squad, the 10-7 Los Angeles Rams enter the Wild Card Round against the 12-5 Detroit Lions, who are 3-point favorites at DraftKings Sportsbook. Who’s ready for an encore performance of Matthew Stafford vs Jared Goff? This time with actual stakes on the line!
It has been a season worthy of Hollywood hype for both teams, yet only one will have a chance at a storybook ending. Leading up to what should be a thrilling playoff bout, I interviewed Ryan Mathews from SB Nation’s Lions blog Pride of Detroit.
Q - This has been a game 30 years in the making for Detroit. The Lions enter Wild Card weekend with a 12-5 record and won their first divisional title since the 2002 realignment. Quite a special season indeed, so could you break down how the team was able to build off their 9-8 campaign last season and what do you think is the Lions’ ceiling?
A - Truth be told, the Lions capitalized in a big way by making the most of their draft capital and building their core through the NFL Draft. Ironically enough, it’s been their most recent class, the one most maligned by draft evaluators across the board, that has pushed them to these 12 wins–tied for the most regular season wins in franchise history.
Sam LaPorta is a Pro Bowl tight end after joining Ja’Marr Chase (2021), Michael Thomas (2016), and Odell Beckham Jr. (2014) as the only pass-catchers in NFL history to record at least 80 receptions, 800 yards, and 9 receiving touchdowns. Jahmyr Gibbs recorded 1,261 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns. Brian Branch led all cornerbacks in stops on run defense (18) per Pro Football Focus, posting the eighth-best run defense grade (83.6), and tied for 16th in passes defended (13, including three interceptions). Even linebacker Jack Campbell finally started to settle in place as a playmaking fixture in Detroit’s run defense–since Week 12, Campbell is 14th among linebackers in run defense grade (78.4) and t-12th in run defense stops (13).
And before that, it was hitting on foundational pieces like Penei Sewell, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Aidan Hutchinson in previous drafts. It was getting Jared Goff–a player many thought was a “throw-in” component to the Matthew Stafford trade–who ended up being a capable starter to help push this offense along. Add in guys like Alim McNeill, Derrick Barnes, Kerby Joseph, Ifeatu Melifonwu, and Josh Paschal, and it’s clear how an effective scouting and drafting process has helped build something pretty special here in Detroit.
Dan Campbell’s role in turning around this organization will never be understated, and there have certainly been a staff of coaches and ownership supporting his vision. His approach to accountability with players, getting them to trust that the guy next to them will do their job, and seeing how that has created an environment where guys are pulling in the same direction at the same time. Detroit still lacks some horses on defense, particularly another player who can consistently pressure the quarterback and a top-end cover corner outside, but their offense can hang with just about any other team in the NFC. Still, they sit below the tier of elite teams expected to be in their respective conference championship games (Baltimore, San Francisco), and they have some things to prove before being put in the same breath as Buffalo, Kansas City, and Philadelphia–no matter their recent struggles.
Detroit could very well make the NFC Championship game and it wouldn’t be surprising in the slightest–especially after the way they played in Dallas a couple weeks ago–so that feels like the ceiling for this team in what’s been a very memorable season.
Q - Head coach Dan Campbell has done a remarkable job in the Motor City. The Lions have recorded back-to-back winning records after winning only three games in his first year. Campbell is known across the league for being aggressive, sometimes being too aggressive for his own good. What is behind MC/DC’s reasoning for almost always electing to go for it and how sustainable is his overly aggressive approach moving forward?
A - Originally, Campbell’s aggressiveness felt like it was borne out of playing without the fear of losing. He was throwing everything and the kitchen sink at teams because the level of talent on that 2021 team dictated that sort of decision-making. Detroit led the league in fourth-down attempts (41) that year, and people were curious to see how Campbell’s aggressiveness on fourth down would look like once his team was better positioned with talent and expectations. The following year, the Lions were third in the NFL in fourth-down attempts (37), so it became pretty clear that Campbell’s penchant for rolling the dice was part of his DNA rather than a reflection of the team.
And again, this season was no different. Detroit finished second behind the Carolina Panthers in fourth-down attempts (40), and converted 52.2% of them (15th). Whether or not it’s “sustainable” is really a question of how the team responds in the aftermath of those plays, whether it’s a success and the offense ends up scoring or the defense is able to get a stop or mitigate the damage after a failed attempt to convert. While there’s certainly an offseason deep dive into play-by-play logs to figure out just how successful it’s been to be so aggressive on fourth down, this team’s strength is its offense. Keeping them on the field is in the best interest of this football team winning games, so the approach often feels justified regardless of the outcome.
Q - The third quarter has indeed been the “turd quarter” for the Lions in 2023, having been outscored by 38 points in the frame. The coaching staff really hasn’t had an explanation as to why Detroit has been so awful in the third quarter compared to the other three. Why might the team struggle so much in the third quarter and what moves have been made to try and correct their woes?
A - The “turd” quarter trend for this team is a mystery and will remain a mystery for the rest of time. It’s inexplicable. There’s no understanding it, only bracing for it to happen.
As you mentioned, the coaching staff is aware of the issue, but whatever they’ve tried just isn’t getting the results they’re looking for. Before the Week 5 game against the Carolina Panthers, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson acknowledged how persistent the third-quarter issues have been and how they’re working to fix them. After the loss to the Chicago Bears in Week 14, Dan Campbell mentioned how the Lions have tried different things to get going, but to no avail.
In those first four weeks of the season, the Lions first-down rate was an abysmal 12.5%–only nine first downs total in four games during the third quarter–and a single score by way of a four-yard run from David Montgomery. What’s interesting from this stretch of games is the play-calling split: 59% pass, 41% run for a team that’s largely ground oriented. After those comments from Johnson through Week 14 against the Bears, Detroit became more balanced–54% pass to 44% run–but not a drastic shift. They did, however, see their first-down rate increase to 23%, and they were averaging 4.8 yards per play versus 3.3 through those first four weeks of the season.
Is that enough to say the Lions need to stick to the ground game on offense coming out of the break? Who knows, but there is something to this offense staying on schedule and getting into more third-and-manageable situations rather than asking them to convert third-and-longs, and often that’s done with early down runs.
Q - The Rams obviously know QB Jared Goff well given he spent his first five seasons in LA. Goff has played well in his third year with the Lions, passing for 4,575 yards and 30 touchdowns. Despite that, turnovers have been a major issue for him in the second half. What would be the ideal defensive gameplan for the Rams to slow down Goff and the Detroit offense to have any chance at an upset?
A - Pressure, pressure, pressure. Moving him off of his spot is the key to rattling Jared Goff because there’s not much to his game when he’s out of rhythm and left creating out of structure. Teams that can generate that push from the interior can especially make life very difficult for the Lions passing game.
From Week 11 through Week 14, Goff turned over the football nine times (five interceptions, four fumbles), and it was a product of pressure. In 2023, Goff finished t-8th in turnover-worthy play rate (5.4%) when under pressure, and the seven quarterbacks ahead of him aren’t the kind of company you want to keep: Mac Jones, Desmond Ridder, Gardner Minshew, Trevor Lawrence, Joshua Dobbs, Sam Howell, and Jake Browning. Goff’s six touchdowns to nine interceptions when under pressure sit in stark contrast to the 24 touchdowns and just three interceptions when kept clean.
But before you can get to Goff, you need to slow down the Lions dynamic rushing attack of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs, two players who each accumulated over 1,100 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. If the Rams struggle against the run, where they ranked 20th in DVOA, they’ll have less opportunities to get after Goff in the third-and-long situations they’d prefer to put him in.
Q - The Lions are 3-point favorites with an O/U of 51.5 at DraftKings Sportsbook. How does the Lions defense slow down a red-hot Matthew Stafford-led offense that was averaging over 31 points in his last six starts to advance to the Divisional Round?
A - You’d think since Stafford spent 12 years of his career in Detroit, the blueprint to stopping him should be somewhere in our subconscious, but the truth is, he’s one of the greats. Stafford consistently played great football in Detroit, and at his worst, he was a guy who forced the football in attempts to win games–oftentimes because he was trying to outscore what his defense was hemorrhaging on the other side of the ball.
The problem is that Stafford finally has a dependable and consistent rushing attack, and while Detroit is one of the best teams in the league at defending the run (1st in run defense DVOA), Stafford’s ability to make Big Time Throws (33, 6th in the NFL) per PFF is seriously going to test a Lions secondary that’s ranked 26th in pass defense DVOA since Week 11.
We might be in for a shootout on Sunday night…