In Week 14, The Detroit Lions are hosting the Minnesota Vikings in a divisional showdown with playoff implications.
Let’s take a closer look at the key things the Lions need to do against the Vikings in order to keep their winning streak going. Check out the odds for this game courtesy of our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.
Vikings’ base schemes
We’ve already talked about the Vikings’ schemes this season in our Honolulu Blueprint from Week 3, but a quick refresher wouldn’t hurt.
On offense, coach Kevin O’Connell is a descendant of the Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay's coaching tree, so a healthy dose of a west coast offense with built-in pre-snap movement will be on the docket. Play-action, end-arounds, screens, and outside-zone run concepts are all staples, but we have seen the Vikings find some success running some gapping scheme concepts when they want to assert some power with their running backs.
On defense, coordinator Ed Donatell runs a modified 3-4 that is based on the common adaptation of Vic Fangio’s concepts—Donatell spent three seasons as Fangio’s defensive coordinator in Denver before joining the Vikings.
While it’s technically a 3-4, it operates more in a 2-4-5 subpackage with a “Fangio shell” coverage scheme behind a four-man rush.
Because they typically drop seven into coverage, covering the field laterally, and deploying a bend-don’t-break philosophy, their biggest weakness is a light box that is susceptible to offensive lines that like to bully people.
The Lions' offensive line's advantage was the biggest contributing factor to the No. 1 key in Week 3’s Honolulu Blueprint, a game plan that still holds up 11 weeks later.
Repeat Week 3 game plan
While the Lions have seen some drastic changes—specifically on defense—since these two teams last met, the Vikings are pretty much operating the same way. And to be honest, they’re winning, so there has been little reason to change.
“They’re still winning, so I would say it’s a better version of what they were because they’ve continued to win,” Lions’ coach Dan Campbell said on Monday. “This is a winning team. They found ways to win, that’s what they do. And those are the hard teams because they’ve done it against multiple opponents, different ways. Special teams, offense, defense, they’re finding ways to win.”
In Week 3, the Lions were in control late in the game, with an opportunity to win, but a coaching gaffe that we don’t need to revisit, created an opportunity for the Vikings and they capitalized, securing the win.
Coaching mistakes aside, the original 5 keys approach to attacking the Vikings remains a solid plan and should be deployed again:
Key No. 1: Lean on offensive line’s gapping approach in rushing attack
Even with an injured D’Andre Swift in Week 3, the Lions still managed to put up 139 yards rushing, and with the run game starting to find its rhythm, hitting the century mark on the ground again should be the floor expectation.
New wrinkle: Get a now-healthy D’Andre Swift involved early. Swift can be a difference-maker when he gets comfortable, and early touches will help facilitate that.
Key No. 2: Attack the seam under the Fangio shell coverage
All three starting wide receivers were also injured during the game in Week 3, but the trio still managed to put up 215 yards through the air. The Lions actually spent more time throwing to the sidelines than I would have liked in Week 3, and a refocused attack over the middle would be preferred—especially with how Amon-Ra St. Brown has been carving up defenses there of late.
“To me, it’s hard for defenses to take away a slot receiver,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said on Thursday. “I really do believe that, especially with how much we move (St. Brown) around and try to generate some matchups for him, but just his skill set, it is unique. He is well-built. He’s strong, he’s got quickness, he’s as good as anybody we have on the team getting in and out of breaks to create separation at the top of the route. No, it’s awesome, and he’s got elite hands to go on top of it, so he can make some contested catches also, so it’s a fun little toy to play with as we go into the gameplan session.”
New wrinkle: The Lions need to use DJ Chark and Jameson Williams’s speed to stretch the shell coverage, which will only open up more room for St. Brown to cook.
Key No. 3: Stop the run first, pass rush second
Stopping the run will remain a priority, and per DVOA, it’s the only place in their metric in which the Vikings have an advantage (Vikings rush DVOA: 16, Lions run defense DVOA: 25). If the Lions can slow down Dalvin Cook, who ran for 96 yards in their last meeting, they can force the Vikings into uncomfortable situations.
New wrinkle: Setting the edge was a problem last meeting, but the Lions have shown improvement in this area, especially with changing the personnel on the edges—moving Aidan Hutchinson to open end and elevating John Cominsky/Josh Paschal to closed end.
Key No. 4: Bracket coverage on Justin Jefferson
The Lions’ pass defense has made leaps and bounds over the last five weeks and their pass defense DVOA sits at 17th best (Vikings’ pass offense DVOA is 19). Despite their improvement, the Lions need to keep some of their coverage concepts surrounding Justin Jefferson in place.
The Lions used Jeff Okudah in man coverage, while also strategically leaning on bracket coverage with a safety over the top in specific spots (keep in mind, things changed a bit after Tracy Walker was injured in that game). The strategy worked and the Lions held Jefferson to a career-low 14 yards receiving.
“I will tell you this, it’s hard to try to hold that player (Jefferson) to that now,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. said. “I mean, he is a player that I really, really respect on a number of different levels. Just my own opinion, I think he’s – if not the best receiver, he’s one of the top two. And the reason I say that is not just because of the production. I think he’s – he embodies everything I think a football player should be about. I think he’s tough, I think he’s competitive. Man, you see him take some hits and he gets right back up and gets ready to play. So, he’s an Aaron Glenn type of guy, but we have to get after him just like we did last time.”
New wrinkle: Holding Jefferson in check to that level again is unrealistic, but the concept worked and should be a part of the game plan in specific spots. The Vikings will be looking for the Lions to take this approach again, and they’ll surely have a counter, so Glenn needs to disguise his intentions pre-snap and keep them off guard when he uses bracketing concepts.
Key No. 5: Make Kirk Cousins uncomfortable with the blitz
Cousins remains a highly efficient passer with his biggest weakness being when teams blitz him. Now, as a veteran, he will adapt if the Lions go to the well too often, but Glenn if can get creative, it can lead to incompletions and turnovers.
New wrinkle: Bring the blitz from unique positions and in uncommon spots. If Glenn simply blitzes at common times, Cousins will be ready for it, so creativity and timing will be required.