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The Honolulu Blueprint: 5 keys to a Lions victory over the Saints

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the New Orleans Saints in Week 13.

Detroit Lions v Los Angeles Chargers Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints will face off in Week 13, with each team looking to stay at the top of their respective divisions. The Lions (8-3) opened the week as road favorites over the Saints (5-6) 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 stay ahead of the rest of the NFC North, they’ll have to follow the keys to victory laid out in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.

Saints’ base schemes

Saints offense:

Pete Carmichael was hired by Sean Payton in 2006 as the Saints quarterbacks coach. He took on the title of passing game coordinator the next two seasons, then was promoted to offensive coordinator in 2009, where he has remained for the last 15 seasons—though he didn’t start calling plays until 2022 when Payton stepped away.

While the Saints remain creative on offense, there may not be a better coaching staff in the NFL in anticipating what they may do than Detroit’s. Lions coach Dan Campbell knows Carmichael’s offense intimately because he coached in this scheme from 2016 to 2020, while Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn coached against this offense every day at practice over that same time frame.

Saints 43 base defense:

The Saints' defense is run by their head coach Dennis Allen, who has been with the organization for 14 seasons; from 2006 to 2010, then briefly departing for five seasons, only to return in 2015 as the team’s defensive coordinator. He was promoted to head coach in 2022, taking over from Payton. This is the same scheme Allen ran when Glenn was his secondary coach for five seasons.

The Saints run a base 4-2 defense with the option to go to a natural 43 when the situation calls for it; typically in run-stopping situations. Here’s a look at their base scheme:

“I’ve got a lot of respect for Dennis Allen,” Campbell said of the man he has known for almost three decades. “Certainly, I coached with him, I played with him at A&M (back in 1995), coached with him for five years at the Saints. He’s a heck of a coach. Very detail-oriented, tough-minded and the team plays that way. And there’s a number of coaches on staff that I was with that I have a lot of respect for.”

Key 1: Win the turnover battle

With seven turnovers and a -6 turnover differential over the last two games, the Lions' biggest problem is an obvious one. Not only are the Lions handing over possession of the football, but the untimely nature of when the turnovers are happening is throwing the offense out of rhythm.

“There’s some things we want to establish early in games and that varies week-to-week,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “The last couple weeks, we really haven’t been able to do (those things) and so it’s taken us a little while to get going. Fortunately, last week, our guys responded in a big way out of halftime, that was our best series coming out of halftime all year, and so hopefully we can continue that trend as well. But establishing that rhythm is really important to what we do on offense.”

Of the seven turnovers, six of them have fallen on the shoulders of quarterback Jared Goff. And while you can’t put 100 percent of the blame on him alone, there’s a reason the Lions were focusing on ball-protection drills with their quarterbacks at practice this week.

“He touches the ball every play, so he knows he has to take care of it,” Johnson said of Goff. “It’s one of the first things we do every springtime with him is we go through the uncomfortable act of watching the turnover, the bad play cut up, sacks, fumbles, interceptions, why did they happen? How can we learn from it so it doesn’t happen again? And listen, the ones that we’ve had over the last two weeks are not entirely his fault. Some of those interceptions, that’s the cost of doing business. [...] There were a couple plays last week where he’s holding on the ball longer than we wanted to—and they had a good defense compared to our call as well—so that’s on me also trying to help him. [...] We all have a hand in it, but he’s certainly taken ownership of it and we’ll see some dividends paid here soon.”

Unfortunately for the Lions, the Saints defense has forced 20 turnovers through 11 games this season, which is the third-best average (1.8 average per game) in the NFL.

In an attempt to break this cycle and avoid giving the ball over to the Saints, the Lions are planning on making some tweaks in their approach.

“Might be the style we play a little bit,” Campbell said about fixing the problem. “There’ll be some things we do (that will) pretty much (be) what we’ve been doing, but I think we can do a couple things that help the O-line, that will, in turn, help Goff.”

Key 2: Offensive line needs to rebound

The Lions offensive line is the foundation of their team and when it is running smoothly, they’re the best in the NFL. Even when one player struggles, the collective body of players is typically good enough to overcome. But when multiple players struggle, the line collapses and the results can be extremely problematic.

Fortunately, an all-systems failure is an anomaly for Detroit and coaches are confident this unit will bounce back strong this week.

“I know our guys, they’re going to respond really well,” Johnson said of the offensive line. “It was not the best game up front that we’ve had, really in the last year and a half it’d be on the bottom end of that. They know that. And really, it showed up I think more on critical situations. Some of those fourth downs, Jared (Goff)’s getting hit, third downs, Jared’s getting hit, and clearly, we don’t want any of that, so we’re going to clean that up, up front.”

Keeping Goff clean will be a priority, and while the Saints certainly have players who can bring pressure, their sack numbers are near the bottom of the league. Heading into this game, the Saints are only registering 1.6 sacks per game, which is 31st in the NFL. For reference, the Lions defense is registering 2.1 sack per game, 26th in the NFL. If the Lions can keep Goff from getting pressured and hit, his confidence will grow and he will have a better chance at making some noise against the Saints stingy pass defense.

In addition to being motivated to correct last week’s issues in pass protection, the Lions offensive line looks to be getting healthier, as starting left guard Jonah Jackson returned to practice this week and is on track to play on Sunday. His impact will surely be felt, especially in the run game...

Key 3: Establish the run early

If the Lions' offensive line—and thus offense—is going to get back on track quickly, it’s going to be on the ground where they are at their best: fourth best-rushing offense by DVOA, fourth best in yards per rushing attempt (4.6), and sixth best in total rushing yards per game (136.9).

Conversely, the Saints' weakest unit right now looks like their rushing defense: 22nd in rushing defense by DVOA, 27th in yards allowed per rushing attempt (4.5), and 23rd in total rushing yards allowed per game (124).

When you look at recent efforts from these two units, it favors the Lions even more. Over the last month, the Lions are averaging 5.37 yards per rush and 169.25 rushing yards per game. While the Saints are allowing 5.21 yards per rush and 168.25 rushing yards per game.

Taking this a step further, the Saints have been particularly susceptible to inside runs—both gap and zone—which is an area where the Lions thrive, especially with Jackson in the lineup at left guard. Look no further than the Saints game against the Falcons last week—Atlanta’s rushing attack is similar to Detroit's, though slightly less efficient (ninth in rushing by DVOA)—when they registered 228 rushing yards at 5.6 yards per carry against New Orleans.

The running game can cure a lot of ailments and the Lions are set up this week to take a healthy dose of medicine.

Key 4: Account for hybrid players in Saints rushing offense

The Saints have an offense full of players who can play multiple roles. Alvin Kamara is the prototype for pass-catching running backs in the NFL, tight end/quarterback Taysom Hill lines up all over the field in any situation, and the receiving core has exciting gadget players like Lynn Bowden.

The Lions enter every game focused on stopping the run, which will make Kamara—and former Lion Jamaal Williams—the first priority for the defense. The Saints rushing attack is a bit of a conundrum, as they are at the bottom of the league in pure numbers—3.8 yards per rushing attempt (28th) and 104.4 yards per game (19th)—but their efficiency numbers are on the opposite end of the spectrum—10th in rushing by DVOA and eighth in DVOA’s adjusted yard line.

One of the reasons for the confusion is that the Saints deploy a lot of different variables into their rushing equation. Kamara gets about half the team's rushing attempts and has the best efficiency, but they lean on their other options as well, with mixed results. Again, using the Falcons game as a reference, Kamara rushed for 69 yards (4.6 per carry) and Williams had six yards (3.0 per carry), while Hill had 26 yards (3.7 per carry) and Bowden had 40 yards on two carries.

Look for the Lions to prioritize stopping Kamara and Williams, as they would do on any given week, then turn their focus to Hill, as players who rush from the quarterback position have been a problem for Detroit this season.

“He’s a player that’s tough, he’s competitive, he’s faster than what some people think,” Glenn said of Hill. “He’s built different than what some people think because he’s a thicker-bodied player and he’s found a niche in this league where he can excel [...] But defending him, you really just don’t know where he’s going to line up a good amount of time, so you always have to be on cue on that, and have certain defense that we’re going to play depending on where he’s at. And we’ve got to be on top of that.”

The one thing that could swing in the Lions favor in defending Hill is, as a runner, he’s very traditional in his rushes, meaning he attacks gaps like a running back instead of an escape artist (like most quarterbacks like Justin Fields).

With the Saints having injuries at wide receiver, don’t be surprised if the Lions lean on rookie Brian Branch to match up with Hill. Branch is not only one of the best run defenders on the Lions defense, but when Hill splits out as a receiver, Branch is also one of the best slot defenders in the league—he is only allowing 0.71 yards per coverage snap in the slot this season, third best in the NFL per PFF.

Key 5: Hold Saints to 24 points or less

One of the biggest obstacles the Saints' offense faces is their inability to score once they get in the red zone. Currently, they are only scoring on 42.5% of their red zone opportunities (29th in the NFL) and are coming off a game where they failed to score a touchdown, instead settling for six field goal attempts and converting five.

On the season, the Saints are averaging just 20.8 points scored per game (19th in the NFL), have surpassed 20 points scored four times this season, and have only exceeded 24 points twice this year.

The biggest obstacle for the Lions will be the fact that they allow an average of 23.5 points per game (24th in the NFL) and are allowing teams to score touchdowns once they reach the red zone 68.57% of the time (30th in the NFL). Making matters worse is the fact that recently, they’ve allowed teams to score more than 24 points in four of their last five games.

The Lions will need to make stops in the red zone in this game because the magic number that keeps popping up is 24. If the Lions can hold the Saints to 24 or fewer points scored, Detroit’s offense should be able to outscore New Orleans. On the season, the Lions are averaging 26.7 points scored per game (seventh best in the NFL) and have exceeded 24 points six times, winning five of those contests.

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