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

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Week 17.

Detroit Lions v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Stephen Maturen/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions and Dallas Cowboys will face off in Week 17, and with both teams already securing a spot in the postseason, this game could end up having a huge impact on NFC playoff seeding. The Lions (11-4) opened the week as underdogs to the Cowboys (10-6) 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.

At home, Dallas has been a juggernaut this season. They’re 7-0—the league’s only undefeated team at home—average 39.9 points per game, have never scored less than 30 points, have a +171 point differential over their opponents, and are +10 in turnovers. They have quite simply been dominant.

But the Lions have played the spoiler role over the last 25 games. They’re 5-0 in primetime games over the last two seasons. They went into Lambeau Field and beat the Packers, keeping them out of the playoffs in Aaron Rodgers’ swan song game. They went into Arrowhead and beat the Chiefs on Banner Night when they were supposed to celebrate their most recent Super Bowl. They beat the Packers in Lambeau a second time on Thursday night in Week 4, while also confidently dispatching the Raiders and Broncos at home.

If the Lions want to remain undefeated in primetime and stay in the hunt for the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds in the NFC, they’ll need to follow the keys to victory laid out in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.

Cowboys’ base schemes

Mike McCarthy's “Texas Coast” offense:

While Brian Schottenheimer is the technical offensive coordinator, it’s head coach Mike McCarthy who has designed the offense and calls the plays. At its core, McCarthy’s “Texas Coast” is a variation of a West Coast offense that leans on play-action, pre-snap motion, screens, quick outlet passes, YAC (yards-after-catch) from their skill players, targeted deep shots, ball protection, and efficiency.

The pure stats tell you that the Cowboys pass the ball around 58% of offensive plays, which is about the League average, but their rushing numbers are a bit inflated as they have been in some blowouts and leaned on the run more in those games to run out the clock. In reality, they pass the ball at a top 10 average, using their short passing game and YAC to supplement the run game.

Dan Quinn’s 4-2-5 defense:

Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, who is in his third season in this role with the Cowboys, has developed a scheme that utilizes their hybrid players to play matchup with their opponents.

While hybrid edge rusher Micah Parsons is arguably the best and most versatile defensive player in the game right now, he is joined by plenty of other players capable of flexing between or operating at non-traditional roles, including edge rushers capable of kicking inside and several defensive backs capable of playing at the linebacker level.

Quinn prioritizes pass rush and pass defense and will often go with lighter athletes at certain positions to increase the athleticism on the field. That can lead to the ability to generate pressure, while also dropping into coverage with their base unit on the field. Additionally, the increased athleticism allows them to blitz more (roughly 30.7% of defensive snaps, ninth in the NFL) as well as using stunts along the defensive line to force the offense to adjust and match in the trenches.

But there is a downside to the Cowboys approach, and that leads us to our first key to victory.

Key 1: Attack with Gap-Power All-day long

Currently, Dallas is not only living in nickel and dime packages in their secondary, but their linebacker unit only relies on one traditional role player: Damone Clark. The other spot is occupied by Markquese Bell, a 205-pound former safety who is good in pass coverage but can be overwhelmed against the run. That often leads to the Cowboys having six or seven players on defense that are essentially defensive backs.

As a result, when you have a defensive line that likes to stunt and a lighter box behind them—both in quantity of players and size of players—it can lead to poor gap discipline against the run.

It makes them particularly vulnerable to teams that lean on a Gap-Power rushing attack and like to bully opponents in the trenches, like the Buffalo Bills and the Detroit Lions.

If you’ve watched the two most recent Cowboys games, you see two very different approaches to offense by their opponents.

Miami focused in on their passing attack and ran a lot of outside-zone runs. With the Cowboys athletes on defense, they were able to string out runs to the sideline and held the Dolphins' very good run game under 100 yards rushing. When the Dolphins did run a gap scheme, they found success, but that was few and far between because Miami did what they do most weeks and tried to out-athlete Dallas.

The week prior, Buffalo found early success in a gap-power rushing attack and leaned on it, hard. They learned very quickly that they had the ability to control the trenches and they bullied Dallas’ front, rushing the ball 49 times for 266 yards on their way to a 31-10 victory. Running back James Cook led the way with 25 rushes for 179 yards and a touchdown on the ground, as well as two receptions for 42 yards and a touchdown through the air. Additionally, Buffalo held the ball for 35 minutes in that game and kept the Cowboys' impressive offense on the sideline.

Detroit will have their starting offensive line and rushing attack at full strength for this game, and they’re one of the best teams in executing a gap-power blocking scheme. Look for the offensive line to try and stunt the Cowboys attacking front by trying to be bullies in the trenches.

Rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs—who is very stylistically similar to Bills’ Cook—has been on a tear of late. Last week against the Vikings (No. 9 rushing defense in DVOA), Gibbs rushed for 80 yards and two scores while also adding another 20 yards via the passing game. The week prior, he rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown, as well as eight receiving yards and a score, against the Broncos. Then, the week before that, against the Bears (DVOA: No. 3 run defense), Gibbs registered 66 yards and a touchdown, as well as 16 receiving yards.

Meanwhile, Gibbs’ running mate, David Montgomery, had 69 all-purpose yards and a touchdown against the Vikings, 85 rushing yards against the Broncos, and 75 all-purpose yards against the Bears.

On the season, the Lions' approach to offense has led to them also winning the time of possession battle. Through 15 games, they hold the ball nearly 32 minutes a game—second most in the NFL—, average 32 minutes and 30 seconds of possession in their road games, and are coming off a game where they had offensive possession for 38 minutes and 22 seconds.

Look for the Lions to let their offensive line and running backs go to work early and often in this game.

Key 2: Attack the safeties in the deep middle of the field

While the Cowboys passing defense has been their strength, Jeremy Reisman was able to poke holes in some of their recent play in his On Paper preview of this matchup, concluding:

“It’s as simple as this: against some of the best defenses, the Lions passing offense has still found success. But against the best passing offenses, the Cowboys defense has struggled.”

One of the areas of the field where the Cowboys have been the most vulnerable is over the middle and deep over the middle, where they rank in the bottom third in the NFL, per DVOA coverage rankings. The Cowboys like to deploy their safeties at different depths across the middle of the field, but this approach is more about muddying the waters than deploying them in coverage.

The Cowboys have leaned on former Lion Jayron Kearse of late in the deep third of the field, but his coverage grade from PFF is just 39.4 on the season. His safety partner, Donovan Wilson’s coverage grade from PFF isn’t much better (56.5), but he is also allowing quarterbacks to achieve a QB rating of 136.4 when targeting him in coverage—eighth worst in the NFL among safeties and third worst among safeties who have played at least 50% of defensive snaps, per PFF. Wilson also leads the Cowboys with six missed tackles.

This plays right into Lions’ quarterback Jared Goff’s hands. Goff is at his best when throwing over the middle:

  • Short-middle: 129 completions on 163 attempts, 110.4 passer rating, 88.6 PFF grade
  • Medium-middle: 52 of 68, 139.1 passer rating, 96.0 PFF grade
  • Deep-middle: 6 of 12, 84 passer rating, 85.5 PFF grade

In fact, Goff’s highest passer rating comes when he is targeting the medium-middle of the field, which should be no surprise considering that’s where his favorite passing targets—Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta—also find most of their success.

If Goff does have a weakness when targeting this area of the field, it’s been his touchdown touchdown-to-interception ratio of 20:8 on the season—though it’s worth noting that five of those eight interceptions came against one opponent (the Bears) and he’s been relatively solid otherwise.

But that leads us to the Lions' next key.

Key 3: Win the turnover battle

Outside of the two games against the Bears, Goff has not thrown an interception since the Lions' bye. Now, over that same time frame, Goff has fumbled the ball four times, but three of those came in one game against the Packers, and the other came against the Bears.

The point here is that Goff’s turnovers tend to come in bunches. Since the bye, he has nine turnovers in three games—which was certainly an issue that he has worked to correct—but he also has four games in which he kept a clean sheet, including the most recent two.

While winning the turnover battle could be an every-week key to victory, I’m including it in this week's breakdown because it’s been particularly impactful with these two teams.

In the recent three games in which Goff had multiple turnovers, the Lions lost two of them. Meanwhile, in the Cowboys' most recent three games, the offense turned the ball over three times (one in each) but failed to generate a turnover themselves in the last two and both were losses. In fact, their defense has forced a turnover in all but four games this season, and wouldn’t you know it, they lost all four of those games. In their fifth loss of the season, they did manage to generate a single turnover, but their offense let them down by turning the ball over four times.

Ball security will be huge in this game.

Key 4: Focus on CeeDee Lamb

If the Cowboys have a distinct advantage in this game it’ll be in their passing attack, where quarterback Dak Prescott leads the NFL with 30 passing touchdowns, and his favorite target, CeeDee Lamb leads the NFL in receptions with 109. Lamb is also second in receiving yards with 1424 and has nine touchdowns on the season, which is fourth in the League.

The Lions' biggest weakness right now is their passing defense where they rank near the bottom of the league in most categories. Because they don’t match up very well, they’ll need to default to more zone coverage as well as some bracket coverage vs. Lamb. Yes, that coverage didn’t restrict Justin Jefferson last week, but he also needed to make several difficult contested receptions, which is likely the best-case scenario against Lamb.

On the season, Lamb has faced 24 contested catch situations, per PFF, and he has successfully hauled in just 10 receptions in those situations.

In addition to trying to jam up the Prescott to Lamb connection with a layered coverage scheme, they’ll also need to force the issue with pressure up front.

Key 5: Aidan Hutchinson vs. Terence Steele

This sets up as the most advantageous matchup for the Lions' defense.

Currently, Aidan Hutchinson is second in the NFL in pressures with 87, per PFF, and he will more often than not, be squaring up against Cowboys right tackle Terence Steele. On the season, Steele has allowed 49 pressures—third most by any offensive tackle in the NFL—and will struggle to handle Hutchinson alone.

If the Cowboys shift their focus to Hutchinson and helping Steele, that leaves them vulnerable to the backside blitz, which Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn has been unleashing of late. Glenn’s creativity with the blitz has helped energize the Lions' pass rush and has led to six sacks in the last two weeks.

While the Cowboys have only allowed 37 sacks on the season—17th most in the NFL—they’ve struggled recently and have allowed 14 sacks in the last four weeks alone, which is sixth worst in the NFL over that timeframe.

Pressure up front and a muddy secondary behind them and the Lions can slow down the Cowboys' impressive offense. They’ll give up points in this game, but if the Lions can execute on offense, this is a game where they can once again play spoiler.

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