The Detroit Lions are on the road in Week 5, traveling to Foxborough to take on the New England Patriots in a battle between 1-3 teams.
If you like rushing offenses, this is the game for you. The Lions’ fourth-ranked DVOA rushing offense will be up against the Patriots’ 31st-ranked DVOA rush defense, while the Patriots’ first-ranked DVOA rushing attack will be up against the Lions’ 32nd-ranked DVOA rush defense.
Let’s take a closer look at the key things the Lions need to do against the Patriots in order to get their second win of the season. Check out the odds for this game courtesy of our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.
Patriots’ base schemes
On offense, the Patriots want to run the ball, and they’re doing so with tremendous success. Currently, they have the No. 1 DVOA rushing attack and are averaging 128.5 yards per game (10th best in the NFL) behind a quality tandem of Damien Harris and Rhamondre Stevenson. They deploy a combination of outside zone and gap power (similar to what the Lions run) concepts and have found success in each.
In the passing game, the Patriots keep things simple and short. They have a lot more deep-ball success with quarterback Mac Jones, as opposed to rookie Bailey Zappe, who only threw the ball more than 10 yards five times last week. If the rookie gets the start again, the Lions can adjust to a shorter field with their safeties. Neither quarterback deals with the blitz very well.
On defense, this is a scheme Lions fans will know very well, as it’s the same scheme Matt Patricia brought with him during his tenure as Lions coach. They deploy a hybrid scheme that utilizes a pass-rushing linebacker (JACK) and presents as a four-man front. In the secondary, they lean heavily on man coverage with a single-high safety over the top and work to keep things in from of them. This bend-don’t-break concept allows them to be open to possible turnovers and essentially waits on the offense to make mistakes.
“I know his (Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick) defenses are always, man, they’re opportunistic,” coach Dan Campbell said on Wednesday. “So, they’re grabbing balls, they’re punching them out, shoot they had a pick and a punch out—pull out, really by the same player. But they do it, it’s all over the tape, they’ve always been that way, find a way to get the turnovers. And they’re going to make you beat yourself. They’ll play the long game here and make you make a mistake, and then capitalize on it.”
Key Matchup: Get downhill in the running game
This is a no-brainer. The Patriots run defense is struggling right now and are coming off two games where they surrendered 188 yards (7.23 average per attempt) to the Ravens and 199 yards (5.69 average per attempt) to the Packers.
Meanwhile, the Lions rushing attack hasn’t missed a beat despite D’Andre Swift missing last week and the majority of the week prior. With Swift expected to miss again, the Lions will once again turn to Jamaal Williams, who just happens to be leading the NFL in rushing touchdowns. Over the last two weeks as the lead back, Williams has rushed for 195 yards on 39 carries (5.0 yards per rush average) and four touchdowns.
The Lions offensive line has been working with two or three reserves on the interior and while they’re still banged up, there’s a chance for them to get healthier this week. If the Lions are able to get Pro Bowler Jonah Jackson back, it would give a big boost to an already impressive unit.
With their defense shedding points, the Lions would be wise to run the ball and control the clock.
Control the clock, limit possessions
Through four games, the Lions offense is averaging 11.75 possessions a game and scoring on 47 percent of them. The problem is, their defense is allowing teams to score on 45 percent of their 11 possessions.
“I think the head coach (Dan Campbell) sees the big picture and once again, on Fridays and Saturdays we’ll sit down and we’ll talk about anything specifically if we need to call the game differently,” offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said on Thursday. “But always from my perspective is every time we have a possession, we’re looking to score a touchdown, point-blank.”
Bottom line here is, slow everything down and trust your No. 1 scoring offense in the NFL to continue converting.
Attack the seam with T.J. Hockenson
When Patriots coach Bill Belichick discusses the Lions top players on Wednesday, he named nearly all the starters, but it surely wasn’t by mistake that the first name out of his mouth was T.J. Hockenson’s:
“Offensively, kind of the numbers speak for themselves. Those guys are very explosive. There’s a lot of big plays. They can run it and throw it. They have good backs. Obviously, a great tight end, Hockenson.”
Hockenson is coming off a game in which he set several career marks. Against the Seahawks in Week 4, Hockenson caught eight passes for 179 yards (career-high)—including 81 yards on a single play (career-high)—two touchdowns (career-high), and a two-point conversion.
The Patriots should be concerned about Hockenson and it’s not just because of his last performance. As many Lions fans surely remember, under coach Patricia, Detroit’s defenses consistently struggled to cover tight ends. It’s been a problem for this style of defensive scheme and 2022 is no different. So far this season, as pointed out by Jeremy Reisman, the Patriots have allowed five touchdowns to tight ends this season—the most of any team in the NFL.
Focus on stopping the running attack
The Patriots two-headed rushing attack of Harris and Stevenson is legit. Both are very no-nonsense running who attack downhill and make smart choices in the hole and gain positive yards. Each is averaging 4.6 yards per carry through four weeks and making life difficult on defenses.
When asked what the top thing the Lions need to focus on taking away from the Patriots, Campbell’s immediate answer was: “I would say the run game, certainly.”
Now, stunting this rushing attack is going to be difficult. The only game they failed to break 124 yards rushing was in Week 1 against Miami’s No. 4 DVOA run defense, and each week their yardage totals increase.
The Lions are surely going to shed yardage on the ground, but they shouldn’t be deterred from prioritizing limiting the run. That’s because if they can get a stop on first or second down and put the Patriots offense in unfavorable passing situations, they don’t have the firepower to break out of too many holes.
Put them in poor passing situations early
The Patriots quarterback room is currently working its way through injuries. As of this writing, Patriots starting quarterback Mac Jones is dealing with a high ankle sprain, and while he has gotten in two limited practices this week, he has had a noticeable limp at practices. His backup Brian Hoyer, suffered a concussion last game and was placed on injured reserve on Thursday. The only healthy quarterback on the active roster is fourth-round rookie, Bailey Zappe, who saw his first NFL action last week.
Jones’ status seems very much up in the air this week, and while he can still play, several Patriots beat writers have said most signs point to Zappe getting the start this week.
While he was thrown to the wolves last week, Zappe played well, though there were some noticeable weaknesses in his game. First, he is still learning the offense, and on a few plays, he either missed his hot read or failed to see a pass catcher uncover. Second, his release was slow. Now, some of that could be him working through the playbook, or even being overly cautious, but on screens and quick outs, his delayed throwing motion allowed the defense to read the play and blow it up early. And third, his cautious approach often resulted in him taking the safe, quicker option, which meant throwing short of the sticks.
Now, a week of working with the starters will surely help Zappe improve in all these areas, but one area that was a consistent problem—and will be a lot harder to adjust to—is when the Patriots offense needed to throw out of “and long” situations, they struggled to convert.
Here’s a look at the key plays that ended each of the Patriots’ drives with Zappe at quarterback:
- 1st drive: third-and-8, incomplete pass
- 2nd: second-and-12, incomplete pass
- 2nd: third-and-12, 2-yard pass
- 3rd: third-and-8, 7-yard pass short of the sticks
- 4th: fumble
- 5th: First-and-15 (clear missed delay of game), resulting in a touchdown
- 6th: no “and long” situations
- 7th: Third-and-15, 6-yard pass
- Overtime: Third-and-5, incomplete pass
In total, the Patriots were just 3-of-11 on third down on the day.
The Lions won’t have to completely shut down the Patriots running game, but if they can stall it at certain key times, specifically on early downs, they’ll have a good chance to get off the field.