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The Honolulu Blueprint: 5 keys to a Lions victory over Chargers

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 10.

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Las Vegas Raiders v Detroit Lions Photo by Mike Mulholland/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are on the road in Week 10, traveling to SoFi Stadium to take on the Los Angeles Chargers. The Lions opened the week as road favorites and you can check out the updated odds, as well as player prop odds for this game courtesy of the folks over at DraftKings Sportsbook.

If the Lions want to continue their winning ways, they’ll need to follow the keys to victory laid out in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.

Chargers’ base schemes

Kellen Moore’s West Coast offense:

After moving on from former Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, the Chargers signed former Lions backup quarterback Kellen Moore this offseason. Moore has been an OC in the league since 2019 with the Cowboys, but mutually agreed to depart Dallas last offseason and was quickly scooped up by Los Angeles.

Moore runs a West Coast offense that features a lot of similar traits you’ll see in Detroit’s offense, such as pre-snap motion, play-action, and multiple wide receiver sets, coupled with quick passes and deep shots. In fact, Moore tends to lean on his receivers more than traditional offenses, deploying three on the field around two-thirds of the time. This leads to more pass heavy situations and a less complicated approach to offense.

Unfortunately for the Chargers, they have lost both their starting outside receivers—who are also their deep threats—Mike Williams and Josh Palmer to injured reserve, which has led to some minor tweaks to their offense, most notably, shifting to more 12 personnel (1 running back, two tight ends, and two receivers) sets.

Their run scheme is mainly focused on zone blocking, with one back allocated to rushing outside, and another in between the tackles.

Brandon Staley’s 34 defense with Fangio shell coverage:

Derrick Ansley is the Chargers defensive coordinator, and has an interesting resume—bouncing between the NFL and Alabama/Tennessee the last six years—but make no mistake, this is head coach Brandon Staley’s defense.

Staley comes from the Vic Fangio school of defense and that means a modified 34 front with a Fangio coverage shell behind them. Like most modern defenses, the Chargers live in subpackages the majority of the time, which means lighter boxes with two down defensive linemen, two pass rushers, and two off-the-ball linebackers.

The Fangio shell in the secondary uses two deep safeties and a cushioned zone from the corners. This coverage scheme's main purpose: Don’t get beat deep.

The Lions have faced a Fangio shell already this season (Carolina Panthers) and saw it multiple times last season, and their style of offense matches up well against it.

Key 1: Force Herbert to find options beyond Allen and Ekeler

The Chargers offense is one of the most efficient passing units in the NFL. They check in at No. 8 in DVOA and score 25.1 points per game (8th in NFL). But what really separates them is the fact that they don’t take many penalties (5.6 per game, 8th), don’t turn the ball over (6 on the season, 2nd), convert on third-down (41.4%, 12th), and score touchdowns when they get in the red zone (69.23%, 2nd).

The main reason they have been so efficient is because of the play of quarterback Justin Herbert and a solid list of skill players, most notably receiver Keenan Allen and running back Austin Ekeler. With Williams and Palmer on injured reserve, Allen and Ekeler are the main weapons in the Chargers offense.

“He’s a big, physical, athletic quarterback (Herbert) with a huge arm that will sit in the pocket,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “He will take a hit and still deliver the ball and deliver it with accuracy. And usually, when you have guys like that, they’re going to have good careers [...] we’ve got to stop this Keenan Allen. I mean obviously, (Herbert)’s looking for (Allen), just look at the number of catches that he has and everybody else has. I mean it’s pretty out of whack, but if I had him, I would throw it to him all the time too.”

Allen most operates out of the slot, which affords him cleaner releases and typically open windows over the field. But with the lack of deep threat, those windows will close and the Lions should be able to make life tougher over the middle. But, despite the advantage, Allen will still likely find production due to his veteran skill set.

“Very smart, understands coverage, his ability to come in and out of routes as a guy that big is special, and his change of speed,” Glenn identified Allen’s strengths. “I mean he has a pace the way he plays that he’s in tune with the quarterback that you don’t see a lot of people have.”

Ekeler is also a terrific pass catcher and has a tremendous nose for the end zone, and the Lions will need to account for his whereabouts in addition to Allen’s. An early season injury is part of the reason the Chargers rushing numbers are below average—they’re 20th in DVOA and average just 3.9 per rush, which is 22nd in NFL. But Ekeler in space is a problem for defenses. He has had some uncharacteristic drops of late, but those should improve as he gets back in his rhythm with the offense.

“You can never forget about the running back,” Glenn said of Ekeler. “I mean not only can he run it, but his ability to catch these screen passes and make explosive plays, with screens and with check downs, that you have to be aware of where he’s at.”

The Lions have found a lot of success with zone coverage this season but have shown they’re not afraid to match up and shadow offenses' top weapons. We could see a combination of both in this game, with Cam Sutton following Allen at times, and Brian Branch accounting for Ekeler.

If the Lions can focus on stunting those two weapons, it’ll make life easier for the rest of the defense. They’ll still need to bring their A-game because the Chargers still have talent to throw to, but efficiency numbers drop when Herbert has to target players beyond Allen and Ekeler.

Key 2: Win the turnover battle

As mentioned above, the Chargers have only turned the ball over six times this season, and on defense, they have generated 15 takeaways (six interceptions and nine fumble recoveries) which gives them a +9 advantage and the top spot in the NFL.

Meanwhile, the Lions turnover to takeaway ratio is dead even, which has led to coaches wanting to focus on improving that stat over the back half of the season.

“For the most part, when we’ve had these turnovers, we’ve been able to overcome them,” coach Dan Campbell said following the bye week. “I mean, we’re sitting here at zero margin right now, which isn’t good enough. We’ve got to be better than that.”

Facing off against a Chargers team that is making the most of their turnover opportunities has been a big focus for Detroit this week.

“This team (Chargers) has proven that when they get these takeaways, they’re very dangerous because they have a potent offense and they have a defense that’s creating them. So, it’s going to be very important, particularly on the road. We’ve got to take care of the football, but not at the expense of being uptight—we still have to play our game—but, there again, it’s particularly ball security.”

With the Fangio Shell presenting the Chargers with an opportunity to attack the ball, Lions quarterback Jared Goff will need to make smart choices with the football. While Goff has only thrown five interceptions on the season, two of them have come in the previous two games—the Lions also fumbled twice during that time—, and that is certainly a streak that needs to end in Los Angeles.

On defense, the Lions have been steady, producing at least one turnover in all but one game this year (Seattle in Week 2) but they are also not planning on forcing the issue at the expense of abandoning their assignment.

“(We have to) continue to try to get these takeaways,” Glenn said. “And now, we’re not going to force them, and we’re not going to go out of our way to try to get them because we do know they come in bunches. Alright, it happened last year to us. We’re expecting the same things this year.”

Key 3: Slow down the Chargers 3-headed pass rush

The Chargers have one of the most formidable pass rushing trios in the NFL in Khalil Mack, Joey Bosa, and rookie Tuli Tuipulotu. The three have registered 19.5 of the team's 31 sacks, which checks in as the second most in the NFL.

“They get singled up, isolated and they just go to work,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said of Mack and Bosa. “They’ve got an array of pass-rush moves and really, yeah, you can talk about them in the pass rush game, but they’re really good run defenders as well. Mack I think has really made a name for himself over the years as a run defender. They’ve got one more edge guy, rookie (Tuipulotu) 45 that does a heck of a job for them also, so I do think that’s a strength for them.”

While the Chargers trio is going to be disruptive, there are ways for the Lions to work on slowing things down, like double-teaming and chip-blocking from skill players.

“You only have so many resources to go around to where you can help, so the more that you’re helping because of two edge guys, then the less you’re getting out into the routes,” Campbell explained. “Which is fine, that just means somebody’s going to have to win in the pass game and they’ve got to win fast”

An effective rushing attack will also slow down the Chargers pass rush, as the edge players would have to alter their attacks in order to account for runs.

“I feel like they have done a good job against the run,” Campbell continued. “I know that was an emphasis for them going into this year, so they do some good things, but we’ll have some things to try to attack them, certainly in the run game, and then build off of that.”

It’ll be important for the Lions to play their game, and while they’ll need a game plan to account for them, Detroit shouldn’t alter too much to compensate for the elite level of edge play because they match up very well in scheme and personnel.

“I certainly like our tackles,” Campbell said. “I like our o-line, but we’re going to have to have a plan for those guys.”

The Lions offensive tackles have been sensational this season. Right tackle Penei Sewell has yet to allow a sack and has only given up five pressures over eight games. Left tackle Taylor Decker has allowed just two sacks on 13 pressures, which again, is very solid production.

Like the Lions' defense, the Chargers do have play calls that get all three edge plays on the field at the same time, and in those situations, Tuipulotu kicks inside over the right guard. But waiting for him will be Graham Glasgow—who has, to no one’s surprise, officially won the starting job—who has allowed just one sack and 15 pressures, with only 10 coming while playing at right guard.

Bottom line: This is a strength-on-strength battle, and the Lions will have arguably the best offensive line the Chargers have faced this season.

Key 4: Stretch the Fangio shell with outside speed and runs in the gaps

Heading into this game, the Chargers are limiting opponents to just 89.8 rushing yards a game (6th best in the NFL) but allowing 286 passing yards (last in the NFL). And while the Chargers have emphasized stopping the run, the numbers can be a bit misleading.

Basically, a lot of the Chargers' statistical success against the run is because teams simply prefer to throw the ball on them. And that assessment is backed up when you look at their DVOA run defense numbers, where they are 20th against the run.

The Lions are fifth in rushing DVOA and are averaging 131.4 rushing yards per game, sixth in the NFL. Establishing the run is part of their identity and they’re going to test the Chargers—likely right up the middle of their defensive line.

Attacking, and finding success, against the middle of the Chargers line will be key for two reasons: first, it helps them stay away from their edge defenders, and second, it will cause the off-the-ball linebackers to pinch down.

Because of the Chargers’ deep coverage in the secondary, if the linebackers are forced to pinch to stop the run, it’ll open the gap in the middle of the defense behind them, and an opportunity for quarterback Jared Goff to attack the short to intermediate passing game with Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta. So far this season, the Chargers have been allowing that to happen too easily.

“Overall, the Chargers defense suffers from being too comfortable giving up short and intermediate yardage in order to prevent big plays over the top,” Arif Hasan told our Ryan Mathews in this week’s 5 questions. “That leaves a lot of space over the middle manned in part by an underwhelming Kenneth Murray.”

To keep the Chargers from countering and pinching their safeties down, the Lions will have to stretch the field with their speedy outside receivers and keep them honest because the Lions have shown, they can hit the explosive play. According to Colton Pouncy of the Athletic, on the season, the Lions average 14 plays of 10+ yards per game (third-most in the NFL) and average 5.13 plays of 20+ yards (second-most in the NFL).

Establish the run, threaten the zone with speed, attack the middle, and score points.

Key: Touchdowns, not Field Goals

While the Lions have averaged 25 points per game (9th in the NFL), their 390.6 yards per game checks in at second in the NFL, suggesting they are likely leaving points on the field. Look no further than “touchdowns scored in the red zone” to see why. Currently, the Lions are scoring a touchdown once entering the red zone on just 48.15% of plays, which ranks 24th in the NFL—which is why this was another key area of improvement pointed out by the coaching staff during the bye week.

“I think we all know red zone hasn’t been what it needs to be, particularly the last three games,” Johnson explained. “It’s something that we brought to (the players') attention. They’re aware of it, and so, certainly tonight we’ll come up with a good plan and tomorrow will be our red zone and we can tackle those issues.”

So what has been the problem?

“Just simple execution and doing what we’re supposed to do,” Goff told the media this week. “Yeah, I wish it was one thing that we could clean up and fix, (but) it’s not. It’s just execution and we know what the answers are and being able to do things a little bit better.”

The lack of execution has led to some negative results, as Johnson elaborated on.

“We’ve been going backward too much as opposed to going forward,” Johnson continued. “We’ve had too many negative plays, particularly when we get from the 12-yard line on in, I think we’ve had like 50 plays and 10 of them end up going backward. That’s really what’s killing us at the end of the day. So, we’ll get that solved and hopefully, we’ll find more success down there.”

Like with turnovers, scoring touchdowns in the red zone is easier said than done, but it will also be an important catalyst in securing a victory in a game that could see a lot of points scored.

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