The Detroit Lions are taking on the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in Week 4, and if the Lions are going to take control of the NFC North, they’ll need to execute the keys in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.
The Lions opened the week as 1-point favorites and since then, the betting line has increased to Lions -1.5 points. You can check out the updated odds for this game courtesy of the folks over at DraftKings Sportsbook.
Packers’ base schemes
On offense, the Packers base scheme is influenced by head coach Matt LaFleur and his time as an assistant coach under Sean McVay (Rams) and Mike Shanahan (Washington). You can see McVay’s influence in that passing game, as they use a lot of West Coast concepts that stem from play-action (which you can also see in the Lions scheme). The ground game is influenced by Shanahan’s outside zone scheme and relies on athletic offensive linemen and backs that can decisively get downhill in a hurry.
While the concepts are the same as they have always been, there are some subtle changes with Jordan Love now under center instead of Aaron Rodgers.
“I feel like there’s a lot more system, if you will, more than probably alternatives—audibles, checks at the line,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said earlier in the week. “I mean they’ve got plenty of that, believe me. They’re going to get in the right play, but I think there’s a little bit more ‘it’s this or that and here we go, here’s the look and let’s run it.’ That way (Love) can play fast and do what they do well. But certainly, they (also) want to run the ball. Everything starts with the run with them.”
Packers base defense:
Packers’ defensive coordinator Joe Barry—who was the Lions DC in 2007-08—is entering his third season with Green Bay. Barry’s defense scheme is based on 34 concepts, and he alternates between two and three-man fronts (depending on if they are in nickel situations), with two stand-up outside pass rushing linebackers, two off-the-ball linebackers, with a secondary that spends most of its time in man-coverage with single-high looks from the safeties.
“They’ve got new wrinkles,” Lions quarterback Jared Goff said of the Packers defensive scheme. “They have a pretty good identity of who they are and what they want to be.”
Here’s one of their common looks, a 2-4-5 subpackage set:
“I think top to bottom it’s a pretty good roster,” Campbell said. “(Rashan) Gary certainly brings some juice on the perimeter, but I can’t ever say enough good things about (Kenny) Clark. I’ve got a lot of respect for that player. I think Quay Walker is playing outstanding and I just think they’re pretty tough across the board. Jaire (Alexander), we’ll see what happens, see if he plays (listed as questionable), but he’s an outstanding corner and so they’ve got a lot of nice pieces over there and they run multiple fronts, they set edges, they mix up their coverages and so this will be a good challenge for us.”
Key 1: Create pressure without the blitz
As Campbell alluded to, Love basically runs the plays called by LaFleur, and overall, that has resulted in some low-percentage throws and the inability to consistently sustain drives.
Through three games, Love has dropped back to pass 107 times and thrown the ball 96 times with just 51 completions (53.1%). When given time to throw, Love has connected on 47 of 80 throws with a 7.2 yard per attempt average, and a PFF grade of 71.0 overall. But when he has been pressured, he has been sacked three times, scrambled on four attempts, thrown 16 passes, completed just four (25%) with a 4.9 yards per attempt average, and a 46.0 grade from PFF.
So, no surprise, like most quarterbacks, pressure leads to errors, but his drop-off is pretty significant—roughly cutting his production in half.
That being said, Love had done very well, when defenses have blitzed him. So far, he has faced 34 blitzes and while he has completed only 13 of his 30 passes, his efficiency shows no drop-off: resulting in 7.2 yards per attempt and a PFF grade of 73.9 overall.
Bottom line: If the Lions' defensive line can get pressure without relying on the blitz, that’ll spell trouble for the Packers.
“Population to the football,” Campbell said of his defensive line. “It’s all about the hustle, it’s all about the hit, it’s all about working as one unit, all these things. And so, I think when you refocus that and you get back to the basics, those guys (can) really hone in on (creating pressure).”
Key 2: Be prepared for the deep shot
“He’s making some of these shot throws,” Campbell said of Love. “He’s pretty accurate downfield, and if it’s not that, then he’s giving his receivers a chance to make a play or draw a penalty. So, it’s pretty accurate downfield. He’s a good enough athlete in space to make things happen with his feet. So, I just think he’s running the ship pretty good.”
While Campbell is being very generous with the compliments for his opponent, his point about deep shots leading to penalties is spot on. As Jeremy Reisman pointed out on Twitter, “The Packers offense has already gained 154 yards on pass interference penalties,” good for first in the NFL and more than double the next-highest team.
To make matters even more concerning, the Lions have given up 64 yards in defensive pass interference penalties, which is fourth most in the NFL.
The Lions will have to be keenly aware—and it sounds like they are considering Campbell’s comments—of staying disciplined when the Packers go deep, as the refs tend to let the flags fly in Lambeau.
Key 3: Focus on Aaron Jones,
In recent years, every time I have previewed the Packers, I have used the subtitle, “focus on Aaron Jones, not Aaron Rodgers”, as a way of suggesting that the running back has been the Packers’ best offensive player. And now that Rodgers is in New York, I think there is little argument that Jones is Green Bay’s primary weapon on offense.
“He’s one of those special backs,” Campbell said of Jones. “He’s got the ability to take it on the perimeter, he has home run ability, he’s an inside runner, he’s a gadget guy, he’s pretty good out of the backfield as a receiver. There’s just really nothing that he doesn’t do well and that certainly is the challenge. It just brings another weapon to their offense and that’s what’s always going to make it more difficult.”
Jones was injured in the opening week of the season and has missed the past two games while recovering. While Jones only played a little over a half of football in 2023, his stat line illustrates how effective he is: nine rushes for 41 yards and a touchdown, as well as, two receptions for 86 yards and another touchdown.
With the Packers' dedication to the run, and the backup running backs significantly underperforming, returning Jones could be just the answer they need to get the offense on track for sustained drives.
Meanwhile, Detroit has heavily focused on stopping the run in 2023 and the results have been noticeable. Through three games, the Lions have been top five for run defense across the NFL. They have only allowed a total of 216 yards on the ground and they have allowed fewer rushing yards in each game of the season, opening the season by giving up 90 rushing yards to the Chiefs, 82 to the Seahawks, and 44 to the Falcons. It’s worth pointing out that the Falcons and Chiefs have top 10 ranked rushing offenses, while the Seahawks check in at No. 16, even with their subdued rushing attacks the week they played Detroit.
Expect the Lions’ focus to remain on Jones and the run game.
Key 4: Take what’s there, don’t force things on offense
Last week, the Falcons' aggressive front seven opened up gaps short to intermediate parts of the field and Goff took advantage, peppering his slot options throughout the game. In fact, while he did throw outside the numbers, his targets were exclusively skill players who make most of their noise over the middle: Amon-Ra St. Brown, Sam LaPorta, Kalif Raymond, and Jahmyr Gibbs.
“Yeah, not part of the game plan,” Goff said of only targeting the above four players in Week 3. “It was kind of abnormal to see that, especially for us. Just the way it happened. Some of the balls that Gibby (Gibbs) got were check-downs, he wasn’t the primary, just ended up getting to him. And same thing with Sam (LaPorta). Sometimes it happens like that, but I don’t think that’s ever our intention.”
The Lions were still able to be successful with this approach because of their veteran outside receivers, Josh Reynolds and Marvin Jones Jr., staying involved on every play.
“Yeah, I think those two guys get it,” Goff said of Reynolds and Jones. “They’re veterans, they know it comes and goes. Some weeks it’s like it was this past week and some weeks they’re getting a hell of a lot. So, it comes and goes, and they do a great job of being great teammates and doing their part when they’re asked to.”
It was far from a perfect offense outing in Week 3, but it was effective enough to put the ball in the end zone twice and win the game by two touchdowns. I know people around the league are waiting for the Lions offense to break out, and while that would be awesome to see it happen, it’s also acceptable to take what's given, especially if it helps the team get a victory.
The Lions don’t have to be overly aggressive to win this game, but if they do have some tricks up their sleeve, this would be the perfect week to break some of them out.
Key 5: Set ‘em up with new wrinkles on old plays
One of the staples in a Ben Johnson offense is his ability to set up defenses with an expected look and then hit them with an unexpected play. Johnson will often run a play showing the defense a design. Then, later in the game (or the season) show the defense that exact look, then zig when they zag.
We saw a few examples of this in Week 1, mostly in the run game, where the Lions would run a play that countered a previous one to catch the Chiefs off guard. And it worked, especially late in the game when they were grinding out the win.
This week, we could see more of the same. Some plays executed early in the game should return later on in the contest with a new goal. It also wouldn’t be out of character for Johnson to pull a successful play from last season's games against the Packers, run a variation of it again this season, and get the Packers thinking about it.
For example. LaPorta’s 45-yard touchdown score last week was actually a variation of the play from last year’s game against the Packers in Week 18, when Goff hit Raymond on a 43-yard bomb.
Sam LaPorta's 45-yard touchdown (in Week 3) is very similar to the 43-yard bomb the Lions threw to Kalif Raymond in Green Bay in Week 18 last season.— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) September 27, 2023
That'll be there again for the #Lions this week.
(H/T: @NextGenStats for graphics) pic.twitter.com/DldjF56q3t
Now, the Packers saw this play firsthand last season, then surely saw it again in their film review, and if Johnson has a third variation of that play, it’d be the perfect time to catch them looking.
For example, a bait-and-switch option that could work is to adjust Raymond’s route at the top of the cut and have him pull the safety to the other side of the field. That would still leave the same deep right part of the field open and would set up another opportunity. Adding in a Gibbs wheel route would be a chef’s kiss on the play.
“But Erik”, you say, “will they get this defensive look from the Packers?”
Well, you’ll notice in the above play the formation the Packers are in is very similar to the one I profiled at the top of this article. It’s a variation of their nickel base. Basically, in this formation and positioning, I’m not sure the Packers would have a clean answer for Gibbs’ speed on a wheel route.
Now, this is just an example of something the Lions could do, but with this division game having some extra importance, you’d have to think Johnson’s been cooking something up.