The Detroit Lions are on the road in Week 16, taking on the division-rival Minnesota Vikings with a chance to clinch the NFC North. The Lions (10-4) opened the week as favorites over the Vikings (7-7) 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 clinch the NFC North for the first time in over 30 years, they’ll need to follow the keys to victory laid out in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.
Vikings’ base schemes
Head coach Kevin O’Connell’s offense:
While Wes Phillips is the official offensive coordinator of the Vikings, this offense is designed and run by coach Kevin O’Connell, who calls the plays and has the communication directly to his quarterback. O’Connell is a descendant of the Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay’s coaching tree, so you see a lot of West Coast offense influences, including pre-snap movement, play-action, end-arounds, screens, and outside-zone run concepts. The Vikings found some success running some gapping concepts last season, but the running game as a whole has struggled, forcing them to lean more on the passing game.
Brian Flores’ defense:
Flores got his start in the NFL as a member of the New England Patriots coaching staff in 2008, held multiple positions over 10 years, and became the Miami Dolphins head coach in 2019. Flores’ exit from Miami in 2021 is drenched in controversy, and despite his teams struggling to win, his creativity and defensive acumen remained high. In 2022 he joined the Pittsburgh Steelers as a senior defensive assistant and linebackers coach, then joined Minnesota as their defensive coordinator this past offseason.
In Minnesota, Flores has introduced an incredibly creative and complex defense, implementing concepts that set them apart from the rest of the NFL. For example, not only do the Vikings blitz more than any other team, but they also drop eight players into coverage more than any other team:
The Vikings are in their own world with how they play defense pic.twitter.com/iTlUePoh05— Dan Pizzuta (@DanPizzuta) December 16, 2023
The Vikings are constantly trying to play a game of confusion. They will frequently overload the line of scrimmage and then force the offense to guess if they’re bringing five, six, or seven players via the blitz, or only rushing two or three and clogging the passing lanes by dropping eight or nine players.
“Yeah, it’s the two extremes,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said of the Vikings approach. “In certain situations, offensively, we always talk about, ‘Hey, they’re either max-coverage or max-pressure,’ as a general philosophy. A lot of teams do that down in the red zone, but (Vikings Defensive Coordinator Brian) Flores has kind of taken that to a new extreme. At any time, at any moment. It’s been fun this week trying to dissect their defense. They do a lot and it’s hard, but our staff’s done a nice job trying to narrow down some things that we can key in on.”
In the two pictures below, you can see an overloaded front with six defenders on the line of scrimmage, and all of them attack at the snap. In this scenario, communication between the offensive line and any skill player staying in to block needs to be on point to pick up the blitz:
In the end zone view, you can see how the Bengals pick up the blitz, noting that the tight end (No. 89) will release into the flat and the running back (No. 28) will pick up the blitzing safety.
While the blitz can get the Vikings into advantageous matchups (see: EDGE vs. right guard) when picked up properly, this can leave them vulnerable. The hope for Minnesota here is that because of the pressure, the Bengals either take a sack or target the underneath crosser for a minimal gain—and you can see the defensive backs reacting to that at the bottom of the picture below. But with good enough protection, and with the single-high safety in the middle of the field, there is room in the “turkey hole” on the deep sideline:
But what makes the Vikings scheme effective, is that out of that same look, they will drop eight—including having an interior defensive lineman slide back into the shallow middle to clog up throwing lanes—and use zone coverage to take away the deep sideline, forcing the quarterback to adjust. In the picture below, you see the Bengals are caught in a play call that can’t beat the zone and they’re forced to check it down to a quick in-breaking route:
Key 1: Attack the Vikings blitz
It may not have seemed like a big deal when the schedule was released, but the Lions playing the Denver Broncos the week before they play the Vikings could be a blessing. While the Vikings are in their own category of defense, the Broncos take a very similar approach to blitzing, bringing a variety of players from multiple angles and multiple positions.
Last week, the Lions offensive line got a taste of what it’s like to face off against a heavy-blitzing team and they were up for the challenge. On the day, the Broncos generated 18 pressures and two sacks, with only 11 pressures and one sack being charged to the offensive line. That effectiveness in protection set quarterback Jared Goff up for success.
When blitzed by the Broncos in Week 15, Goff completed 14 of his 21 attempts for 178 yards and four touchdowns.
Goff’s trust in his pocket was evident last game, and when given an extra beat to hang in behind his offensive line, he was decisive and impactful. As a seasoned veteran, one of Goffs’s strengths is the ability to quickly diagnose the weak spots in a secondary—regardless of how many they drop—and he has proven this time and time again this season.
If the offensive line and skill players are on point in picking up their blocking assignments against the blitz—as they were last week—Goff should find similar success because of the Vikings' aggressive approach. As we saw in the above pictures, when offenses pick up the Vikings’ blitz, that leaves their secondary vulnerable and it leads to a high completion percentage.
In fact, the Vikings are allowing teams to convert 69.6% of throws, which is dead last in the NFL. Furthermore, according to DVOA’s coverage rankings, the Vikings are at their most vulnerable giving up passes over the middle, as well as to tight ends and running backs—which is where Detroit is at their best.
Key 2: Don’t back off the run
On paper, the Vikings run defense is very good and they have held a few solid rushing offenses to low outputs, the most notable being the win over the San Francisco 49ers. In that game, the 49ers only had 65 yards rushing (they average 140 yards per game) and Christian McCaffrey had just 45 yards on the ground (though he also had 51 receiving yards—that’ll be important later). As we have seen this season, if the Vikings run defense is at their best, it’ll keep them in games and it will give them a chance to win.
“Yeah, when you look at them, they tend to play a little bit lighter than what your personnel group is,” Johnson said. “So, say we have two tight ends out there, they haven’t been much base defense so far this year, and so it gives that elusion that, ‘Oh, we should be able to run the ball,’ but boy, do they rally. [...] I think the combination of their big guys along with number 40 (linebacker Ivan Pace) and then the aggressive safeties, I think the combination of all that has made it really hard for teams to run the ball.”
For the Lions though, their rushing attack is a core part of what they do and a massive catalyst in how they control the game. In fact, since Week 8, they have achieved at least 140 rushing yards on the ground in all but one game—and still went for 115 on the ground in that contest. That “subdued” matchup was in their first meeting with the Bears who have a top three run defense by nearly every metric, and only allow just 79.8 yards on average this season. It’s also worth pointing out that in their second matchup with the Bears, the Lions ran for 140 yards.
The Lions need to stay the course here and work towards wearing down the Vikings front.
Key 3: Feed Jahmyr Gibbs
In exploring the ways the Lions hold offensive advantages over the Vikings, most roads lead to Jahmyr Gibbs because of his ability to contribute on the ground and through the air. Over the last month, he has averaged 70 yards rushing, and over the season, he has averaged around four receptions for 25 yards per game.
“I mean he’s been electric really since he stepped on the field for us,” Johnson said of Gibbs. “I don’t know if I’ve necessarily seen anything out of the ordinary (recently). I know he had the one 30-yard run last week, but I don’t think any of us were surprised by it. So, he’s been consistent. It’s the details for him, the landmarks in the running game, understanding in pass-pro who he’s responsible for. For not being a really big guy, he is more than willing and he continues to get better in that area. That’s probably the one department that we continue to see going up and up, but the run game has been pretty solid all year long.”
Gibbs could be a potential mismatch problem for the Vikings because of his explosive nature. He has 22 rushing plays that have gone over 10+ yards (fifth most in the NFL), but the fact that 10 of those plays have gone for over 20+ yards (most in the NFL) and four have exceeded 30+ yards (most in the NFL), makes him one of the most dangerous players in the league.
Key 4: Stop the run, make Vikings offense one-dimensional
The Vikings have struggled to run the ball all season, leaning on contributions from several players in games. Overall, they average less than 100 rushing yards per game this season (98.6, 23rd in the NFL), a 4.0 per rush average (20th), and are near the bottom in DVOA rushing (28th).
But many Vikings analysts believe the team has found their solution in Ty Chandler, who was recently named their starter. Last game, his first in a starting role, Chandler rushed for 132 yards on 23 carries (5.74 per carry average) and a score against the Bengals. And while that is a very nice showing for sure, for context, it’s also worth pointing out that the Bengals rank 29th in DVOA run defense, allowing an average of 128.3 yards (28th), 4.7 yards per carry (31st), and 1.1 rushing touchdowns a game (25th)—and they also lost D.J. Reader, one of the best interior linemen at defending the run (75.3 run defense grade, 9th in NFL)—just two snaps into last week’s game.
The Lions have heavily focused on stopping the run this season, landing fourth in DVOA for rushing defense, allowing less than 100 yards a game on the ground (95.9, fourth best) and just 3.8 yards per carry (sixth best).
Look for the Lions to continue their focus on stopping the run—it’s been their No. 1 priority all season—and force the ball into quarterback Nick Mullens’ hands.
Key 5: Don’t back off blitzing
The Lions found a way to unlock pressure against the Broncos by utilizing the blitz in a variety of new and inventive ways. The Lions blitzed on 18 of their 64 defensive snaps and that disruption caused some uncertainty for the Broncos front. In the end, the Lions generated 22 pressures, six quarterback hits, two sacks, and a fumble.
“I wanted to be aggressive in that, I knew the matchups that we had were favorable for us,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “When you go (Khalil) Dorsey out there—because Dorsey can run—and you guys have seen that on special teams. (Ifeatu Melifonwu) Iffy being out there—a former corner that can play—so man those guys allowed us as a defense to go out there and really be aggressive. And it was a fun game to call.”
Meanwhile, Mullens—who fits the Vikings' offensive scheme well but lacks the arm talent and decision-making of Kirk Cousins—put up very respectable numbers last week, throwing for over 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns. With the talent the Vikings have with their pass catchers, Mullens can absolutely rack up the yards in this scheme.
“Well, he’s been around this league for a little bit and he understands football,” Glenn said of Mullens. “You see he’s more the traditional pocket-passer. Totally different than (Joshua) Dobbs, alright. Dobbs is a guy that can run around and make some plays with his feet. The thing about (Mullens) is he understands—you can see him be able to progress and read and make those throws he has to make.”
And while Mullens is experienced and a scheme fit, there is also a reason he has only started one other game since 2020: “Mullens puts the ball in danger, like a lot,” NFL/Vikings analyst Arif Hasan said on our First Byte PODcast this week.
Here’s an example of what Hasan is referring to. Mullens had two interceptions against the Bengals last week but his second one was inexcusable:
That's a BJ Hill Interception in the second straight week!— Goodberry (@JoeGoodberry) December 16, 2023
BEND BUT DONT BREAK pic.twitter.com/rRWwhNeIBL
Instead of simply taking the sack and living to fight another day, Mullens forces a throw while just inches from the ground, and the ball literally falls in the defensive tackle's lap.
The Lions were on the positive side of the turnover battle last week and it helped them in their pursuit of victory. Mullens’ recent play indicates that they’ll have an opportunity to stay on the plus side of things against the Vikings, but they will have to take advantage when the opportunity arises.