The Detroit Lions are taking on the Green Bay Packers in Week 18, and because these two teams have already met this season, we already have the base idea of the keys the Lions may use to attack the Packers. So for this installment, we will revisit the original keys to victory from Week 9 to see what worked and add a few adjustments into the mix.
Packers’ base schemes
We went into more detail on the Packers’ scheme in the matchup’s previous Honolulu Blueprint, so we will just do a quick recap in this section.
“Packers coach Matt LaFleur bases his offense on two main systems he has experience with. His passing attack has influences from his time with Sean McVay and the Rams, while the rushing attack brings Mike Shanahan’s outside zone concepts from LeFleur’s time with him in Washington.”
“ Typically (defensive coordinator Joe) Barry leaves five defensive backs on the field at all times, then shifts the remaining players, alternating between 2-4 and 3-3 fronts. Essentially, because he deploys two pass-rushing outside linebackers and a MIKE off-the-ball linebacker at all times, the remaining three defenders are either all interior defensive linemen, or two interior defensive linemen, and then adding a second off-the-ball linebacker.”
With the Lions’ wide receiver group injured in Week 9—DJ Chark, Josh Reynolds, and Jameson Williams did not play—the Packers ran more 3-4 base looks in an effort to stop the run, and it worked. But with the Lions receivers all healthy, the Packers will likely revert back to more 2-4 looks, dropping a safety when anticipating run, which has been working for them of late.
Revisiting the original 4 keys from Week 9
Key 1: Establish the run
Did it work? Yes, but it could improve
With D’Andre Swift nursing an injury and limited to just two carries on 10 snaps, the Lions leaned on Jamaal Williams to carry the load, toting the rock 24 times for 81 yards. In all, the Lions out-rushed the Packers on the day, but it wasn’t the strong performance people expected against a Packers’ run defense that was, and is, near the bottom of the league in efficiency.
Adjustments: The offensive line needs to continue to open up holes for Williams/Swift
After the Panthers beat the Lions up in the trenches in Week 16, the offensive line responded in a big way in Week 17, clearing the way for 265 team rushing yards against the Bears last week. Williams was once again the bell cow and ran for a career-high 144 yards and is just six yards shy of breaking 1,000 yards on the season.
“We think extremely highly of (Williams), he’s been consistent for us as a runner, and (I’m) just really happy to see that run game pick up again last week,” offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “It was a lot easier as a play-caller to call that game. But for him there’s no doubt, I’m sure, 1,000 means a lot. That’s certainly the most he’s had in his career, and then against his former team, I’m sure that would mean something to him. But I think it’s really kudos to our O-line, our receivers, our tight ends, they’re doing a nice job opening up running lanes for him and he’s taking advantage of it.”
Not only is Williams on the precipice of 1,000 yards rushing, but he is also one rushing touchdown shy of matching the Lions’ record for rushing touchdowns in a single season (16, set by Barry Sanders in 1991). It wasn’t just Williams having a career day last week, Swift looked completely returned to form after struggling since returning from injury.
“He’s electric, certainly felt that last game,” Johnson said of Swift. “It felt back to where he was when he started the season. So, it’ll be great. Great to get that version of Swift again this week and it makes it, like I said, a lot easier for us calling plays and staying on schedule.”
If the run game can establish itself once again, it’ll open up the Lions' offense in several ways.
Key 2: Keep pressure on a frustrated Packers defense
Did it work? No
Despite the Packers' defense struggling at the time, the Lions' offense could only muster 117 yards on the ground and 137 through the air. Yes, not having Swift at full capacity hurt, as did not having three of their top four receivers—as mentioned earlier, Chark, Reynolds, and Williams were not available—but Jared Goff never really looked settled, despite throwing two touchdown passes.
And now, the Packers’ defense is struggling no more. They still rank near the middle of the league in overall efficiency, and their run defense is still bottom five in the NFL, but their passing defense is a top 10 unit.
Adjustments: Unleash their skill players
Simply put, this is a much different Lions’ offense than the Packers saw in Week 9, and while the Green Bay defense has improved, so has Detroit’s offense. The Lions’ offense is now ranked No. 6 in DVOA on the season, and as Jeremy Reisman pointed out earlier in the week, they rank No. 3 in offensive DVOA since the last time these two teams met in Week 9.
If the Lions can establish the run, they’ll be able to move the ball and put up points. But even if they struggle on the ground, this new version of the Lions’ offense has the skill players to keep things moving.
Last week, Goff threw passes to 11 different offensive skill players, and while the return of several high-profile wide receivers and running backs garner most of the attention, it’s been the tight ends group that has scored five of the last six Lions touchdown receptions.
“Every week we look at opportunities that we could have to attack the defense, so this week’s no different than any other week,” Johnson said about the Lions' offensive game plan. “But no, we feel like we might have some shots here or there, and we’ll see if we can dial them up at the right time.”
The Lions have been very creative in setting up big plays over the last two months, and Johnson surely has a couple gems he has been holding for this matchup.
Key 3: Focus on Aaron... Jones, not Rodgers
Did it work? Yes
The Lions held Jones to 25 rushing yards on nine carries (2.8 yards per carry)—his second-worst output of the season—while also holding the other half of the Packers’ running back tandem, A.J. Dillon, to 34 rushing yards on 11 carries (3.1 yards per carry). The lack of rushing success forced Aaron Rodgers to throw the ball 43 times, resulting in just one touchdown pass and three (!) interceptions.
Adjustments: None, roll it back
The Lions have made stopping opposing running backs a priority this season, and outside of the stinker in Carolina, they’ve been able to do just enough over the past two months to force the quarterbacks into rushing and passing situations.
But in order to prevent the Packers from doing what the Panthers did to them, they need to do two things: know their opponent and stay creative.
“This team is a challenge in itself especially with the two backs that they do have because they both give you something different scheme-wise,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said of the Packers running backs. “The thing is we know exactly what they bring to the table as far as that. Alright so, (Aaron) Jones is a good speedy back that can really hit it downhill. (AJ Dillon) 28 is a pounder, we know that so we have to get all hands on deck to make sure we get him down.”
One of the ways the Lions adjusted after the Panthers game is by removing a defensive back from the field and adding pass rusher—and current rookie of the week—James Houston. The last time these two teams faced off, Houston did not play, and he will be a new wrinkle for them to adjust to. Yes, they’ve scouted him on film, but as we have seen in each of the other games, there’s a difference between studying film on Houston and being able to adjust to his unorthodox bend/speed-to-power agility.
“(Houston)’s doing a really good job in practice and I’m going to continue to say this, you earn your keep and he has earned the right to play on first and second down,” Glenn said of Houston’s expanded role. “He’s earned the right to play on those third down situations and he’s continued to earn the right. Just like every other person on our defense. When you go out and practice the way you’re supposed to practice and you show that you know what’s going on, you’re going to play.”
Key 4: Don’t be scared of a shootout... just have the ball last
Did it work? No
A shootout, Week 9 was not. The Lions won 15-9, and when the game was on the line, it was Rodgers who had the ball last, but he came up short on fourth down as the Lions' defense closed out the game.
Adjustments: Let Jared Goff cook
Simply put, the Packers have the reigning MVP in Aaron Rodgers and the national attention is on Green Bay’s offensive improvement. But statistically, Goff has had a better season, is driving the No. 1 offense in expected points added, and if the game turns into a shootout, the Lions have the firepower to outlast.