ADVANTAGE: JETS OUTSIDE RUN GAME VS. LIONS RUN DEFENSE
First off, I’d like to point out that this Lions team is returning a mostly familiar roster from last season. 8 of their 11 projected defensive starters were with the team last year, while their starting QB, top three receivers, lead back, and four of five starting offensive linemen return. Going into Week 1, we can learn more about this team based off of last season than we can for most other teams.
The Lions allowed a league-worst 36.1% first down rate on carries outside of the tackles last season. The Jets already began adding a lot of outside zone runs into their offense last season - 24.7% of their rushing attempts last season were directed outside of the tackles compared to a league average of 22.3%. Now with a center experienced in such a scheme in Spencer Long, and a hopefully healthier group as a whole, the Jets should continue to trend up in this category.
Bilal Powell in particular could feast on this matchup. Powell picked up a first down on 14 of his 40 attempts outside of the tackles last season. That 35% first down rate led the 21 running backs with at least 35 such attempts.
DISADVANTAGE: GOLDEN TATE VS. BUSTER SKRINE
Golden Tate has emerged into potentially the top primary slot receiver in the game since coming over to Detroit. Tate has collected 4,224 receiving yards as a Lion, the 9th-highest total in the league over that span.
Buster Skrine is going to have his hands full with Tate. Skrine did have a handful of very good performances last year, coming against playoff teams such as the Patriots, Panthers, and Saints, but on the whole he remains a highly volatile player who could be solid or awful on any given week.
Tate caught 76.7% of his targets last year - the third highest single-season catch rate in NFL history among the 931 wide receiver seasons with 100+ targets since the stat was first tracked in 1992. The Lions make sure to get him the football underneath with high-percentage targets, and allow him to do his thing as one of the most elusive receivers with the ball in his hands in the league.
The version of Skrine that shows up in this game is going to be a huge determining factor in whether or not the Jets will be able to hold one of the league’s best passing attacks in check.
ADVANTAGE: QUINCY ENUNWA AND TERRELLE PRYOR VS. QUANDRE DIGGS AND NEVIN LAWSON
The Lions’ secondary is very hit or miss. There are some great strengths in this unit, but also some exploitable weaknesses.
In terms of the cornerback group, the obvious star is Darius Slay. Long and physical, Slay has become a top-ten caliber corner that teams have tended to avoid throwing towards. His league-leading 8 interceptions last season will only intensify teams’ fear of him.
In the back end, the Lions are highlighted by Glover Quin, one of the very best free safeties in the game. He is a proven playmaker (3 interceptions and 4 forced fumbles), a reliable protector of the deep part of the field, and great run defender. The Jets are going to want to keep him out of the box and away from the football.
In my eyes, the key to stretching out this defense is going to be the wide receiver group past Robby Anderson. I think the Lions are going to stick Slay primarily on Anderson - a matchup that will tough for Anderson to win.
With Jermaine Kearse out of the game, Quincy Enunwa is likely to work primarily from the slot, while Terrelle Pryor operates opposite Robby Anderson.
Enunwa will likely draw Quandre Diggs when he lines up inside. Diggs, smart and physical, was one of the top players in coverage from the slot last year. However, he is lacking in athleticism and size, standing only 5’9 with bottom-quartile combine numbers in most agility tests. Enunwa has a rare blend of size and speed for an inside receiver. If he’s fully healthy, which he appeared to be this preseason, I could see Enunwa doing a lot of damage underneath in this game as Sam Darnold looks to ease his way in with reliable throws.
The Lions’ #2 outside corner is Nevin Lawson. Lawson is undersized for an outside corner at only 5’9 and struggled last season. The Lions ranked 22nd in DVOA (efficiency) allowed to #2 wide receivers. This could be a tremendous opportunity for the 6’4 Pryor to make an impact on the outside. Pryor’s greatest strength in his breakout 2016 season with the Browns was his ability to work back to the quarterback on intermediate curls and comebacks, moving the chains with his ability to consistently open himself up on those types of routes. If he does happen to draw a 5’9 corner on a high portion of passing snaps, Pryor could quickly become a favorite of Darnold’s, as he’ll have the opportunity to be a frequent chain-mover in the intermediate range.
DISADVANTAGE: JAMAL AGNEW & THE LIONS PUNT RETURN TEAM VS. JETS PUNT COVERAGE
In 2017, Lions rookie cornerback Jamal Agnew took on the punt returning job and ran with it to a first-team All-Pro selection. Agnew averaged a league-high 15.4 yards per punt return, while taking a league-best 2 returns back for touchdowns. Even if you remove his 88 and 74 yard touchdowns, he maintained a punt return average of over 10 yards per return - which is very impressive.
Punt coverage has been a major issue for this special teams unit. The Jets allowed the 8th-most yards per punt return in 2017, and looked even worse this preseason as they allowed the 3rd-most yards per punt return. The Jets have not ranked in the top half of fewest yards allowed per punt return since 2011, when Mike Westhoff was the special teams coordinator.
Lachlan Edwards’ progression will be interesting to watch. His rookie season was frankly terrible - he ranked 30th of 30 qualifiers in net punting average and only 19th in total punts landed inside of the 20. He improved last season, jumping up to 19th in net punting average and 3rd in total punts landed inside of the 20.
The Jets can’t afford to have special teams issues plague them if they are going to pull off a surprise run at a playoff spot this year. Monday night will be as good of a first test for this unit as could be asked for. In addition to the production Agnew and the punt return unit showcased last year - keep in mind who the new coach of this team is. Matt Patricia. He comes from a New England team that has placed top ten in special teams DVOA every year since 2010. Brant Boyer’s maligned unit will be thrown straight into the fire.
What Lions position group worries you most?
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