The Detroit Lions are taking on the undefeated Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field in Week 3, and if the Lions are going to get their first home win of the season, they’ll need to execute the keys in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.
The Lions opened the week as 4.5-point favorites and since then, the betting line has dropped to 3 points with all the injuries Detroit is dealing with. You can check out the updated odds for this game courtesy of our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.
Falcons’ base schemes
Falcons 12 personnel offense:
The Falcons offensive coordinator is former quarterback Dave Ragone, who also acts as the team's quarterbacks coach. Ragone can afford to spread his time out between roles because head coach Arthur Smith is the one who is calling the offensive plays on game day.
Smith’s offense is a run-first, power-based attack that leans on play-action in the passing game. They are tight end heavy and will deploy two at almost all times, occasionally adding a third for more power in their rushing attack. They have a pair of running backs that are truly 1A and 1B. Which ends up with the most carries at the end of the game depends on who has the hot hand. That typically leaves room for just two wide receivers on the field.
Falcons’ Hybrid 4-2-5/5-2-4 base defense:
The Falcons moved on from Dean Pees this offseason and hired Ryan Nielsen to take over their defense. Neilson was the Saints' defensive line coach from 2017-2022 and also held a co-defensive coordinator job last season. So, it’s fair to say both Lions head coach Dan Campbell and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn are intimately familiar with Nielsen, as the trio worked together for four seasons.
You’ll notice some familiarities with the Falcons' defense as well, as both he and Glenn have adapted some of the concepts they used in New Orleans. The Falcons are a man-heavy coverage team with two-high safeties and are aggressive with the blitz, typically unleashing their linebackers. The Falcons base is a 4-2-5 and they run it very similarly to the Lions 4-2-5, when Aidan Hutchinson and John Cominsky are the edge rushers.
Let’s take a look at how they line up in the 4-2-5:
But the Falcons will also deploy a five-man front—something the Lions incorporated this offseason—when they add a stand-up pass rusher (Often Charles Harris or James Houston in the Lions scheme) and remove their nickel defensive back.
Here’s an example of the 5-2-4 look:
Key 1: Population to the football, gap integrity, and proper technique
The Falcons' potent rushing attack works for several reasons, and like with most teams efficient at moving the ball on the ground, it starts up front with their offensive line.
“This offensive line is pretty good,” Campbell said earlier in the week. “They run off the football. They do a good job on the backside cuts. They’re very athletic. They’re a pretty nasty group.”
But the Falcons also have two legitimate starter-level running backs in Bijan Robinson—the No. 8 overall pick in the 2023 NFL Draft— and Tyler Allgeier—who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season.
“This No. 7 (Robinson) is – he’s an elusive back,” Campbell continued. “He’s a big – looks like a power back, but he’s really got excellent feet. You give him a lane, give him space and that’s where he’s pretty dangerous [...] And then they bring in Allgeier, and man, that guy, he’s power. Now that guy, he’s about running through your face. And so, it’s a one-two punch, totally two different styles and we’ve got to be ready to adapt quickly with the way they do it.”
The Lions are expecting the Falcons to focus heavily on the run, and rightfully so. In Week 1, they rushed the ball 26 times, but last week, they ran the ball 45 (!) times.
“They’re going to try to run the ball more than 30 times,” Campbell said. “I mean that’s really what they want to do, so. They’re not going to be discouraged by what goes on. They’ll continue to hand it off. So, man, it’s going to take all the way through the fourth quarter. That strain, that discipline, that effort, that finish, that population of the football, you’ve got to do it time in and time out. Over and over and over because it only takes one to get you.”
Population to the football and gap integrity will be paramount in this game. One of the consistent mistakes defenders make against the Falcons rushing attack is they get anxious and overpursue. Which you absolutely can’t do against an athlete like Robinson. In the clip below, Robinson lets the Packers overpursue and cuts back on the three times in one play.
we really did try to tell ya about Bijan Robinson, folks pic.twitter.com/bPUUyoyhgS— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) September 19, 2023
“They do a really good job with this wide zone blocking, so we have to do a good job with our hands,” Glenn said on Thursday. “We have to do a good job of making sure we don’t get cut off and our guys are really studying that.”
So, how do you corral the Falcons run game: Stay disciplined, hold your gaps, use proper technique, and trust that the man next to you will do his job.
Key 2: Force third and long situations
While the Falcons can certainly run the ball, if you can hold them for short gains on early downs, they struggle on third downs, especially third-and-long. On the season, the Falcons have only successfully converted on 32% of their third down attempts—which ranks 26th in the league—and last week, they only converted two of their 10 third down attempts.
So why do the Falcons struggle in these situations? Basically, they use very conservative play-calling, which likely stems from their lack of trust in quarterback Desmond Ridder. If you simply look at the box scores, Ridder's end-of-day stats are respectable, but when you watch him play, he is often inconsistent with his decision-making and passing accuracy. Far too often he locks in on his target and can telegraph his reads.
Expect the Lions to sell out early and try and make Ridder beat them.
Key 3: Don’t forget about Kyle Pitts
If Ridder is going to make some noise, it could very well be via the hands of Pitts. The freakishly athletic tight end had over 1,000 receiving yards as a rookie, then spent the majority of his sophomore season on injured reserve. Year three has gotten off to a slow start: Through two games he only has four catches on eight targets for 59 yards.
“I think it’s only a matter of time when (Pitts) does break out,” Glenn said. “Not against us, but that guy’s a really good player and (there) was a reason why he was drafted the way he was drafted (No. 4 overall in 2021). There’s a reason why he did the things he did when he came in as a rookie, so man, he’s a good player and we’re aware of him.”
Pitts does seem like he is due for a breakout game, and with the Lions' defense currently allowing the most receiving yards to the tight end position through two games (175 yards), they’ll need to make sure they account for him on every play.
Whether it’s marking him with Brian Branch, Wil Harris, or Tracy Walker, the Lions will need to have a game plan in place for if they stop the run and have to deal with Pitts.
Key 4: Unleash Gibbs with outside zone
With running back David Montgomery potentially out for this matchup, the Lions will need someone to run between the tackles and keep the Falcons front honest. That task could be handed to Craig Reynolds or recently promoted Zonovan Knight, but Lions coaches insist that rookie Jahmyr Gibbs can also tote the rock between the tackles.
“Yeah, Gibby can do anything,” offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “So yeah, we’ll see what all we ask him to do, but we feel very comfortable with him doing anything that our running backs need to do.”
While Gibbs has shown that he had more power in his game than given credit, the Lions may be better served by playing to his strengths and running more outside zone concepts than they typically do.
The Falcons have a solid defensive front, but all three interior players are at least 30 years old—Grady Jarrett and David Onyemata are both 30, while Calais Campbell is 37—and the lateral movement of outside zone should wear on them. Now, the Falcons do rotate their defensive linemen on the regular, but the reserves are nowhere near the quality of players as the three starters.
Key 5: Keep feeding Amon-Ra St. Brown and Sam LaPorta
The Falcons like to blitz their linebackers, and if the Lions’ offensive line can hold up, there will be space in the middle of the field behind them. That screams opportunity for St. Brown and LaPorta to continue to produce both in volume—the pair account for 44% of Jared Goff’s completed passes—and in yards after catch.
“He’s very smart,” Johnson said of LaPorta. “He’s very mature and so he’s been, for a young player, a rookie, he’s been very professional. He’s diligent in notetaking, in meetings. He applies it in walkthrough. He works hard in walkthrough and then it carries over to the practice field which in turn, shows up on game day for us.”
While the Falcons like to play two-high safeties, they will drop Jessie Bates down into the short middle of the field (Robber role) to try and take that vacated spot away. And if that happens, the Lions will need their outside receivers to deliver. It may be tough sledding for Josh Reynolds, as he will likely draw A.J. Terrell. But the starting outside spot opposite Terrell will either be Tre Flowers—who has had a tough start to the year—or Jeff Okudah, who appears to be returning from injury. Okudah had a good (but brief) training camp in Atlanta, and will have revenge on his mind after being traded away from Detroit, but the Lions staff knows his weaknesses better than anyone, so they’ll know how to put him in bad spots.
Personally, I’d like to see a heavy dose of St. Brown or Kalif Raymond up against Okudah, as it would be the most advantageous situation for the Lions. Then in turn, as the safeties drift back to help, the middle will open up again for the Lions volume pass catchers.