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

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the Denver Broncos in Week 15.

Carolina Panthers v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are back at home in Week 15, hosting the Denver Broncos in a Saturday night showdown in primetime in front of a national audience. The Lions (9-4) opened the week as favorites over the Broncos (7-6) 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 need to follow the keys to victory laid out in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.

Broncos’ base schemes

Sean Payton’s offense:

Broncos coach Sean Payton is one of the more creative offensive minds in the NFL and for years he has been the brains behind successful offenses in the league. His ability to adapt to his personnel is a huge part of what makes him successful and he does a terrific job of staying within his parameters—while also adding unique concepts.

For the Broncos, Payton has implemented a run-first (primarily zone concept) committee approach that leans on quick, short to intermediate passing targets, play-action, and screens to keep defenses honest. He does call for the occasional deep shot, which has started to be more successful as the season’s progressed.

Former Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is the Broncos technical OC, but this is Payton’s offense. That being said, you can still see some of Lombardi’s influences show up in their approach—being conservative on early downs and putting themselves in 3rd-and-challenging situations—which can lead to opportunities for the Lions.

Vance Joseph’s 34 defense:

Joseph—who was the Broncos head coach in 2017 and 2018—returned to Denver with Payton and implemented his 34 scheme, which meshed well with their previous personnel and his philosophies. While he runs a true 34 base, like most NFL teams, he will sacrifice an interior defensive lineman when shifting into subpackages, which you can see in the picture below:

The outside linebackers work almost exclusively out of a standing position, which can leave some openings in defending the run. To counteract that, the Broncos use a variety of methods to attack, most notably blitzing from all over the field, so that they can get one-on-one blocking matchups.

In coverage, the Broncos typically use a Fangio-type shell coverage when in zone and single-high looks when they’re in man coverage. A big part of their success of late is that they lean on their ability to bring pressure with the blitz and disguise coverage intentions, which has led to trouble for quarterbacks and opportunities for turnovers.

Key 1: Win the turnover battle

Priority one—with an exclamation point.

“We emphasize it, we drill it. Unfortunately, over the last four weeks, we haven’t done a good enough job with our ball security,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said earlier this week.

Over the course of the season, the Lions are 20th in the NFL in turnovers, giving away an average of 1.5 per game. But as Johnson pointed out, over the last four games, the Lions have turned the ball over 10 times which is hopefully the apex of this trend.

Unfortunately for the Lions, things don’t get any easier this week as the Broncos are the best team in the NFL in creating turnovers, as their defense forces 1.8 per game on average over the season.

“In traffic, they really emphasize with their guys to punch at the football, strip it out,” Johnson said of Denver’s success with turnovers. “You can tell that they’re harping on it. Vance (Joseph) does a heck of a job with those guys. They’re playing very hard, they’re rallying to the ball, there’s traffic around the ball, there’s population, and so, we have to counter that by not only protecting the football in traffic but having our own population come to the party as well.”

While protecting the ball has been an emphasis for the Lions, taking the ball away from offenses has also been a focus of the defensive game plan since the bye week.

The Broncos give the ball away an average of 1.4 times per game, which ranks 17th in the NFL. Meanwhile, the Lions average just 1.1 turnovers forced per game which is 26th in the League.

Unfortunately, the recent results for the Lions have been less than ideal. Over the last four games, the Lions have only forced three turnovers (below their season average) and when you combine that with their 10 turnovers on offense, you get a -7 turnover differential.

Look no further than this -7 turnover stat to understand why the Lions are 2-2 over those four games.

If you look at the Broncos’ last seven games, when they turned their season around, they’re a +11 over that span. In fact, their only loss over that stretch was against the Houston Texans, when the Broncos were -3 in turnover differential.

This could be where the game is won or lost.

Key 2: Have a blitz plan

Beyond targeting the ball on punch-outs, the Broncos have been successful in getting stops and forcing turnovers because of how they blitz.

The Broncos blitz on 31.9% of defensive plays, seventh most in the NFL, and will bring the heat on second and third downs. But it’s not just the frequency that is helping their defense, they often blitz multiple players, bringing a defensive back from the slot and a linebacker up the middle. This forces offensive line and pass protecting skill players (running backs, tight ends) to have their communication and diagnosis skills on point.

The Lions have done well in keeping quarterback Jared Goff upright and have only allowed a sack on 5.3% of offensive plays, fifth best in the NFL. On top of that, the Lions have been accomplishing this with an offensive line that has been dealing with injuries and replacement players in starting roles all season. Furthermore, the Lions' offensive line is expected to have all five starters available, which should only help their efforts.

On the flip side, the Lions' defense blitzes around 25.3% of the time, 15th most in the NFL, but Detroit may benefit from increasing that number this week, especially on third down...

Key 3: Win on 3rd down

The Broncos have a bottom-10 offense in converting third downs with a 36.97% conversion rate. There are a variety of things that factor into their lack of success, including:

  • Offensive strategy. Targeting short to intermediate areas of the field on early downs and putting them in third-and-difficult situations.
  • A conservative quarterback. Russell Wilson would rather throw the ball away on third down than force a ball that could result in a turnover.
  • Blocking strategy. The Broncos will keep in extra blockers on early downs but will send out all five skill players on third down—which leaves them vulnerable to the blitz.

The Lions rank in the middle of the road for defensive stops on third down, allowing teams to convert 37.9% of the time, 14th best in the NFL. Targeted blitzing, especially in third-down situations, will be something Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn needs to call perfectly.

Meanwhile, the Lions’ offense ranks ninth in the NFL in third-down conversions for the season, getting first downs on 42.8% of opportunities. Things won’t be easy for them though this week, as the Broncos sport the No. 1 defense in third down stops, only allowing teams to convert on 32.3% of chances.

“They’re the number one third down defense in the NFL,” Ben Johnson noted. “So, they’re doing a great job stopping offenses when they get them in into that situation. So we’ve got to be on point here on third down this week. The good news for us, is we’ve been trending up in our third down conversion rate over the course of the season, so it’ll be a good challenge.”

While the first three “keys” have focused on overcoming things the Broncos do exceptionally well, the last two “keys” are about exploiting things Denver does poorly and Detroit does at a very high level.

Key 4: Establish the rushing attack

When looking at the stat sheet, the Lions rushing attack is one of their best offensive assets. They average 4.7 yards per carry and rush for 137.5 yards per game, both fifth-best in the NFL, and have the 4th best-rushing offense per DVOA. They’ll be facing off against a Broncos rushing defense that is 31st in DVOA, thanks to some gaudy games early in the season—the Dolphins (DVOA rushing offense: 2) ran for 350 yards, while the Jets (DVOA rushing offense: 32) ran for 234 yards.

If you haven’t seen Jeremy Reisman’s On Paper preview of the Lions vs. Broncos, it’s worth your time, especially the section on the Lions' rushing attack vs. the Broncos' run defense. In the chart below, Reisman illustrates how the Broncos defense has performed against the run.

To add some further context, let’s focus solely on the sections where the Broncos have been successful (highlighted green), and look at where those teams land in DVOA rushing offense.

  • Raiders DVOA rushing offense: 29
  • Chiefs: 9
  • Browns: 20
  • Texans: 28
  • Chargers: 25

Outside of their division rival Chiefs, the Broncos have only had success stopping the run against some of the worst rushing offenses in the NFL. And to make matters worse, some of those bad rushing offenses have still been successful, see Jets (32nd) and Vikings (30th) above. If you’re looking for a rushing attack that is comparable to the Lions, look at the Bills (6th) who ran for 192 yards at 7.4 an attempt.

If the Lions can play bully ball in the trenches and establish the run, they’ll get back to the foundations that their offense is built upon and could be the first big step in getting back to their winning ways.

Key 5: Feed Sam LaPorta

When the Lions go to the air, Sam LaPorta, their rookie tight end, could be the difference maker in this game. LaPorta is having a monster season, recording 66 receptions and 702 receiving yards, setting rookie and tight end records. Coming off his worst outing of the season in both receptions and yardage, this could be a bounce-back game for LaPorta.

Why? Simply put, the Broncos struggle to defend tight ends.

Here’s how the Broncos defense performs against tight ends:

  • Receptions per game: 6.15 (30th)
  • Yards per reception: 11.3 (28th)
  • Yards per game: 69.4 (30th)
  • Touchdowns: 6 (t-25th)
  • DVOA vs. TE: 30th

Take the over on everything LaPorta-related in this game.

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