The Detroit Lions are on the road again in Week 7, taking on the AFC North-leading Baltimore Ravens. The Lions opened the week as 2.5-point underdogs and you can check out the updated odds for this game courtesy of the folks over at DraftKings Sportsbook.
“We’ve been playing really good defenses. I mean I feel like every week we’re getting tested here and this is the next one,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said earlier in the week. “Coach (John) Harbaugh’s done an unbelievable job for a long period of time here. I’ve got a ton of respect for what he does. His teams are always physical and disciplined (on) both sides of the ball, all three phases and they don’t make mistakes. [...] They have skill on the outside, plus the tight end (Mark) Andrews, the O-line is a solid crew in there, and this defense is, as always, an aggressive defense. They have rushers, they have cover guys and these two (line)backers are really good. So, we’ve got our hands full.”
If the Lions want to keep their winning streak alive, they’ll need to follow the keys to victory laid out in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.
Ravens’ base schemes
Ravens “new” offense:
The Ravens made a change at offensive coordinator, hiring Todd Monken away from the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs after Greg Roman stepped down this past offseason. Monken got his coaching start back in 1989 at Grand Valley State, made his way to the NFL in 2007 with the Jaguars, and held two other NFL offensive coordinator positions (Bucs in 2016-18 and Browns in 2019), before joining the Bulldogs in 2020.
While Monken’s roots are based in Air Raid, he strives for a more balanced offense in the NFL and deploys an outside zone rushing attack, a preference of head coach John Harbaugh. There are some changes in the overall scheme—lots of pre-snap motion and quarterback Lamar Jackson staying in the pocket more—but there are still staples in the scheme that have carried over, like RPOs and zone-reads.
While balance is preached and the goal of the offense, the Ravens are still a run-heavy team and currently lead the NFL in rushing attempts (203).
Ravens 2-4-5 defense:
The Ravens defensive coordinator is Mike MacDonald, who was also a coach at Georgia before joining the Ravens in 2014. MacDonald started his NFL coaching career as a quality control coach, moved to defensive backs, then linebackers, before taking a one-year hiatus from Baltimore to join Jim Harbaugh (John’s brother) as defensive coordinator at the University of Michigan.
MacDonald ran the same 2-4-5 scheme at Michigan and was the first coordinator to have Lions superstar edge rusher Aidan Hutchinson pass rush from a standing position, in turn, further unlocking his potential.
In 2022, MacDonald re-joined the Ravens, this time as defensive coordinator, and while he was replacing Wink Martindale, MacDonald didn’t alter the scheme too much (Martindale was a mentor) but instead made it more dynamic and flexible. They still lean on the blitz—just not as blitz-heavy as they were under Martindale—and will bring linebackers (Roquan Smith and Patrick Queen) and defensive backs (Kyle Hamilton) from creative angles.
Fortunately for the Lions, having just seen a Buccaneers defense that runs a similar system, which will surely help with familiarity. At the same time, they need to be conscious of the fact that the Ravens are more flexible and adaptive than Tampa, and will disguise intentions, changing coverage schemes from what is anticipated.
Key 1: Defensive contain won’t be enough, Lamar needs to be pressured
The Ravens have made an effort to reduce the wear and tear on Lamar Jackson this season. He’s no longer being asked to be Baltimore’s primary running option, though he still leads the team with 327 rushing yards through six games. That being said, his 53 yards-per-game average is at least 10 yards fewer than in the past three seasons and 25 yards fewer than his most run-heavy season.
“He is dangerous,” Campbell said of Jackson. “They don’t ask him to do as much as he did before with his legs, but there’s plenty of it still in there and he’s throwing it pretty good. They’ve made a concerted effort to do a little more dropback with him and he is, he’s throwing the ball well. And he’s got guys that are making plays for him, but if it’s not there, he’ll take off and he gets up the middle, he gets the edge and he’s going to hurt you [...] so that focal point will always start with him, especially defensively.”
So the answer for most defensive strategies when playing the Ravens is to play contain-and-squeeze up front, then try and be sticky in coverage as long as you can.
“The reality is, you need more people around that player,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “And every team tries to do that. And even when you have that many players, he can escape every now and then. So, when you’re deep, you stay deep and you protect deep. When you’re around that player, man you play leverage football knowing that you have your buddy inside of you, or outside of you to help you. As far as containing that player, we expect to do that.”
The Lions played contain football last week against the Buccaneers and it worked well against Baker Mayfield. The Lions kept him contained, squeezed the pocket, and forced some uncomfortable and inaccurate throws.
That won’t be as easy against Jackson. While Baker is a better player outside the pocket, Jackson is playing his best football while staying in the pocket. In an unusual twist, Jackson is actually worse when flushed. But there is the rub. As a defensive line, you want to force Jackson off his spot, while also not allowing him to get loose as a runner.
So how do you contain a player who you also want to move off his spot? Blitz.
The Lions have historically been a blitz-heavy team under Glenn, but this season they’ve backed off as their front-four have been able to generate pressure without the extra guy. And hey, if they can do that again, great. But also it’s worth noting that Jackson has been very susceptible to the blitz this season.
Small sample size caveat.— Aaron Schatz (@ASchatzNFL) October 18, 2023
Ravens pass offense w blitz: -16.1% DVOA, 4.9 yds
Ravens pass offense w/o blitz: 27.4% DVOA, 6.7 yds
Again, small sample size caveat because Jackson was better against the blitz than without a blitz in 2022.#RavensFlock #OnePride
So the goal is to contain Jackson in their bubble while also creating pressure in order to throw him off his rhythm. However they pressure, so be it, just find a way.
Oh course, that’s easier said than done.
Key 2: Continue to stop the run
On the season, the Ravens are still one of the most run-heavy teams in the NFL. Their 203 rushing attempts currently lead the league and their average of 144.8 rush yards per game is fifth best. Jackson is a big part of those statistics, but their rotation of backs are getting their share. While starting running back J.K. Dobbins is on injured reserve, they’ve been leaning on a thunder-and-lightning duo of Gus Edwards and Justice Hill.
The Ravens running style has adjusted some from previous seasons, but make no mistake, they want to put it on the ground and establish control.
The Lions currently possess the No. 1 run defense in the NFL and are only allowing offenses to rush for an average of 64.7 yards per game. They focus on it early in games and look to try and make offenses one-dimensional as quickly as they can. The faster the Lions can take away the rushing option, the faster the Ravens will struggle.
Key 3: Use Ravens aggressiveness against them
The Ravens are a confident defense and are loaded with talent up and down the defense. They have sideline-to-sideline speed, can stuff the run up the middle, and stretch it out on lateral runs as well. They drop into coverage and clog the middle of the field, while playing a shell coverage zone so they don't get beat deep.
Those skills and skill sets allow the Ravens to be very aggressive and on third downs, they’ll blitz you in almost every situation.
“They’ve got a heck of a blitz package here on third down,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “Coordinator (MacDonald) does a phenomenal job with that and they’re really well coached.”
While that aggressiveness can be intimidating, it can also be used against them. Jet sweeps, reverses, fakes, draws, are all ways offenses have schemed up successful plays against the Ravens this season.
You can bet Johnson will have a few tricks up his sleeve, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him try and throw the Ravens for a loop early, to try and make them think for an extra half-second longer—which could be a huge difference in how the game plays out.
Key 4: Adapt and adjust
Last week, after David Montgomery exited with an injury, the Lions rushing attack came to a screeching halt. The Lions adjusted by leaning on the passing game to help them gain first downs, which led to points on the board.
“I think that’s what was encouraging about last week is they did make us one-dimensional,” Johnson said of the Lions-Bucs game. “We did not run the ball well at all, a number of reasons for that, that we’re looking to clean up. But I thought our guys responded really well. We had to start throwing, heck, (in the) fourth quarter we’re up by a couple scores and we knew we wanted to produce a time-consuming drive and we had to do it through the air. [...] We are versatile, we can shape, we can go whatever direction we need to go because we have the players that can do it.”
And it may not just be the run vs. the pass. The Lions' strength is passing over the middle and the Ravens have done well in that area. That could mean more work for Josh Reynolds and Jameson Williams on the outside. Williams figures to be a weapon on offense regardless, even if it’s just stretching the Ravens zone to open up pockets for Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta.
And Jared Goff has shown all season that he is capable of adjusting on the fly. But this is the game where he will have to be completely flexible from the first to the last whistle.
Key 5: Weather the early storm
The Lions have been a first-quarter team this season and are averaging a league-leading eight points scored in the first 15 minutes. On the opposite side of the ball, the Ravens defense is only averaging one point allowed in the first quarter, also the best average in the NFL.
When the situations flip, the Ravens offense averages 6.8 points in the first quarter, fourth best, while the Lions defense is allowing an average of just 1.7 points, third best.
Translation: Both teams come out of the gate hot.
What’s interesting is that when you look at how these two teams perform over the entire game, broken down by quarter, you see some interesting patterns.
The Lions offense averages 8.0 points in the first quarter, 8.5 in the second, 3.5 in the third, and 8.0 in the fourth. A very consistent performance in three quarters, while they still have not found a solution for why they started so slowly in the second half.
The Ravens offense starts out averaging 6.8 points in the first quarter, 5.8 in the second, 4.8 in the third, then 4.7 in the fourth. Basically, there is a slow decline after the first few drives. This becomes even clearer when you look at yards-per-play averages.
The Ravens offense averages 5.1 yards-per-play (YPP) in the first quarter, 4.8 YPP in the second, 4.3 YPP in the third, and 3.2 YPP in the fourth. That is a much starker contrast in success—or lack thereof.
Translation: The Ravens are at their best early in games and then decline as the game progresses.
Therefore, it’ll be important for the Lions to fight through the early battles and not give in to the high levels of pressure the Ravens will apply early.
“The core group here, this is what they’ve been bathed in,” Campbell said of the Lions’ ability to be successful in high-pressure situations. “So, we talk about it, we’ve preached it, we’ve lived it. [...] That’s when your heart rate should start to level out when the perceived pressure goes up and it’s high stress, your stress levels should go down and focus on the moment. And our guys have done a good job of that, man, they believe in that. And I think it’s one of the reasons we’re having success on the road.”
If they can weather the storm, and stay calm under pressure, they’re ability to play a complete game should pay off for them in the end.