Let’s take a closer look at the key things the Lions need to do against the Cowboys in order to get their second win of the season. Check out the odds for this game courtesy of our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.
Cowboys’ base schemes
The Cowboys offense is orchestrated by former Lions quarterback turned offensive coordinator Kellen Moore. Moore doesn’t have one schematic faction that he adheres to, instead deploying a variety of concepts: no huddle, play action, RPO, 5-wide, multi-tight end, power, motion, etc.
The scheme-less approach can be difficult to defend, but the run game is the motor, and without it, the rest of the concepts can struggle. More on that later.
On defense, they run a base 43 (which is really a 42 because they’re in subpackages basically the entire game) and they will alternate how their front lines up, shifting between four and five players. The catalyst that drives this variety is rising defensive star, Micah Parsons.
Here’s a look at their base with Parsons lined up as a stack linebacker:
In this scenario, Penei Sewell will be across from their best defensive lineman, Demarcus Lawrence. But when they shift Parsons around, the Lions offensive linemen's assignments change.
In this look (which will flip to the other side as well) Parsons stacks the defensive end, forcing the offensive tackle to adjust and getting their edge player one-on-one with a guard. In the above look, Sewell is responsible for Parsons and Evan Brown would be asked to man-up Lawrence.
This brings us to our key matchup:
Key Matchup: Penei Sewell needs to prove he was the right choice over Micah Parsons
“It starts upfront with them,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said of the Cowboys defense. “11 (Parsons), might be the best defensive player in the NFL right now. It’s not just him though, all across the front, I think 90 (Lawrence) is playing at a really high level. He might not have the sack total right now or over the last few years, but he’s getting pressure on the quarterback, he’s showing up in the run game.”
The Cowboys will have an advantage if they can get Lawrence matched up with a guard when they can, which likely means we will get some head-to-head battles between 2021 first-round picks Sewell (picked 7th) and Parsons (12th).
The Lions, desperate for a linebacker in 2021, were interested in Parsons, and according to him, they planned on drafting him... until Sewell fell into their laps—a move even Parsons said made sense:
“So, days before the draft, word got out that the Bengals were going to take Ja’Marr (Chase) instead of Penei (Sewell),” Parsons said. “So the Lions was like, ‘If Penei is here, he could be a generational lineman.’ So, you gotta take him to protect the quarterback, which makes a lot of sense, because linemen have a lot more value than linebacker if you only playing one position.”
Those last four words, “only playing one position” are key, because, in Detroit, he most likely would have been a stack linebacker that might have rushed the passer on occasion, but probably not at the frequency he does in Dallas. The Cowboys put him on the line of scrimmage about two-thirds of the time, even if he’s not rushing, he is still a threat too.
“It’s just honing in on what he does best, and I think (Cowboys Defensive Coordinator) Dan Quinn and them have done a great job with how they’ve used him,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “There again, he’s a rare talent. He’s got rare ability, and he’s dynamic now off the edge. He can do multiple things, but you put him on the perimeter and let him go, that’s where he really, really excels.”
This is where the Lions offensive line needs to be sharp. When the Cowboys’ front threatens with five on the line of scrimmage, Detroit needs to be flexible and communicative. And when Parson does rush, Sewell needs to be the monster, top-3 NFL right tackle he is capable of being.
“He is a very smart player, and really, all those guys upfront are very smart players, which allows us to be as multiple as we’ve been so far this season,” Johnson said of Sewell. “But his (Sewell’s) mindset, his mentality, his demeanor as he approaches not only the game but his week of practice and preparation, it’s beyond his years. For a young player, I think some of them have some growing pains in terms of what a professional looks like. To me, he’s really made those strides in terms of how he enters the building, how he watches film, how attentive he is in meetings, and then that same intensity you see on game day shows up in practice as well.”
While the Cowboys highly successful pass rush presents a difficult challenge for the Lions offensive line, their run defense is just average and bodies can be moved, especially up the middle.
Get back to establishing the run
The Lions rushing attack has not been as explosive of late and most of that is due to the absence of D’Andre Swift, but with him on track to return from injury this game, Detroit needs to double down on re-establishing their ground game.
“Without giving away too much, yeah, we’re looking to attack them multiple ways”, Johnson said of the Lions offensive approach. “Yeah, and listen, Coach (Campbell) said it I believe, it always starts with the run game for us, each and every week. It doesn’t matter who we’re facing, so that’s our starting point as we’re starting to gameplan, and then we build it out from there. But I guess, take it that way, but yeah, the offensive line for us is a strength, and we’ll continue to focus on what they do well and highlight that.”
Against the Eagles and Commanders, the Lions rushing attack, led by Swift, put up 181 and 191 yards on the ground respectively. They averaged 128 rushing yards in the three games Swift was either hobbled or unable to play. Getting Swift back in the mix opens up a lot of options for how the offense operates because he is such a dynamic player.
But success on the ground means more than just putting up yards: they need to win in critical situations, something the Cowboys have not been very good at defending.
Win in power situations
According to Football Outsider’s DVOA, the Lions are struggling on “power” runs—situations in which the offense rushes the ball on third or fourth down, and/or with less than 2 yards to go. Heading into this game, the Lions rank 29th in power runs per DVOA.
“To me, that’s the disappointing part of it is the short yardage because we take a lot of pride, particularly in our run game, of being able to get a yard when we need a yard,” Johnson said. “And so, when you look back at it I think a lot of it stems back to execution on a lot of levels. It’s little details that are slipping through, and so starting this week we’re going to put a little bit more emphasis on it. Not that we weren’t before, but I think the guys are feeling the heightened awareness here on third-and-1, fourth-and-1.”
If the Lions are going to get back on track, this may be the week to do it. In defending power runs, the Cowboys rank dead last (32nd) per DVOA, and teams are converting in those situations 90 percent of the time.
With Campbell likely to stay aggressive in his coaching style, these situations will arise in this game, and the Lions need to take advantage of their opportunity.
Disrupt Dallas running rhythm
While the Lions should be working to establish the run, they also need to disrupt the Cowboys rushing attack. Most of the media has been focused on the return of Prescott this week, but the Cowboys offense finds the most success when they can run the ball and when they struggle, it can look disjointed.
Unfortunately, the Lions are not stopping the run well at all right now, landing at 32nd in DVOA. But they are hoping that the bye week afforded them the opportunity to help correct that problem. The biggest issue plaguing their success in this area right now, according to defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn: “Missed tackles.”
“Missed tackles,” Glenn explained. “Missed tackles, that’s usually what you get when you get explosive plays. Missed tackles and missed assignments, those are the things that we really looked at like all week to make sure we cleaned that up.”
So how do the Lions correct this?
“I would say (its) more physical,” Glen continued. “Not wrapping up, shoulder tackles, not vice tackling, things like that, which are really correctable and that’s the good thing about it... we worked on that this week. Yesterday was a physical practice for us and we needed that. We needed it.”
If the Lions can disrupt the Cowboys rushing attack, it opens up the opportunity to get home in pass-rushing situations. While the Cowboys have only given up nine sacks on the season—5th best—their DVOA adjusted sack rate has them at 28th best—meaning they give up a lot of opportunities for sacks.
Shift Aidan Hutchinson to rush end
The Cowboys lost their star left tackle Tyron Smith to injury and shifted 2022 first-round pick, Tyler Smith, to Prescott’s blind side. The original plan was to use the rookie at left guard and create a formidable left side, but the injury forced him outside and Connor McGovern back into the starting lineup.
Smith has played well at tackle, and most weeks would be lining up against Charles Harris, but the Lions injury situation—both limited and returning players—presents an opportunity to shift Aidan Hutchinson around.
With Harris not practicing this week, he may be ruled out, creating a hole at their rush end spot. Last game (which Harris missed), the Lions started Austin Bryant at rush end opposite Hutchinson who was at his traditional big defensive end spot. Bryant played well against the run but didn’t offer much as a pass rusher, which is required in the rush end role.
This week, the Lions could potentially return two of their big defensive end options: John Cominsky and possibly Josh Paschal (who may be activated from PUP). Cominsky played in the Lions first two games, was stout against the run, and generated 10 pressures, which led the team at that time. Paschal was drafted in the second round for this specific role.
“We’ll get some guys back,” Glenn said when discussing ways to improve the pass rush. “Cominsky will be back. Paschal will be ready. Being able to use Aidan (Hutchinson) in other spots, allowing him to have some freedom to do some things also. And then, always man, we’re trying to scheme up our guys for the best matchup. As long as we can continue to do that, as long as we continue to utilize each player in that magnitude, I think those things will always help us.”
If Cominsky and Paschal are able to hold down the big defensive end role, it would afford the Lions the flexibility to move Hutchinson to the rush end role—getting him one-on-one with the rookie left tackle. But the Lions won’t be limited to just that. Having more defensive ends at their disposal will allow them to shift Hutchinson inside as well, and Glenn will surely be looking to test McGovern with the second-overall pick.