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The Honolulu Blueprint: 5 keys to a Lions victory over the Chiefs

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure an upset victory over the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1.

New York Giants vs Detroit Lions Photo by Amy Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are taking on the defending Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1 of the 2023 regular season, a daunting task to start the year.

The Chiefs are currently 4.5-point favorites in this game—you can check out the updated odds for this game courtesy of our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook—but the Lions have constructed a complete team that is built to overcome obstacles and find success and should make this a fun contest for the national audience.

Chiefs’ coach Andy Reid has won his last eight openers and if the Lions want to break that streak, they’ll need to execute a lot of the keys in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.

Chiefs’ base schemes

Chiefs’ Shotgun Spread offense:

This offseason former offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy departed from the Chiefs for an OC/Assistant head coach job with the Washington Commanders. In his place, the Chiefs promoted former Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy to offensive coordinator, a position he held for two seasons before taking the Bears job. Nagy spent last season with the Chiefs as a senior assistant and quarterback coach, so he is intimately familiar with the organization.

Regardless of who the OC is, head coach Andy Reid is still the one calling the shots on offense and his Shotgun Spread philosophies play to the strength of quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

In 2022, the Chiefs lined up in shotgun nearly 80 percent of the time and were the top-rated offense, throwing outside the numbers and deep often. While most teams strive for balanced play-calling—trying to have the same number of run and pass plays—the overarching philosophy of the Chiefs appears to heavily lean on the pass early and try to get an early lead on their opponents. Once they get the lead, they shift to more balanced playcalling in the second half to drain the clock and force their opponents to take risks while playing from behind.

Chiefs’ 4-2-5 base defense:

The Chiefs’ defense will look similar to the one the Lions put on the field every week. They run a base 4-2-5, leaning on versatile defensive linemen to alternate the front. In their secondary, one of their safeties will often drop down into the box or slot to cover, while the other stays deep, often in single-high looks. Like the Lions, speed in their back-seven allows them to play sideline-to-sideline and blitz from different spots.

Key 1: Force turnovers/convert on third downs

Last Friday, coach Dan Campbell was asked what was the biggest thing the Lions needed to do in order to beat the Chiefs and he gave the following answer:

“We need takeaways,” Campbell said on Friday. “We’ve got to convert on third down on offense and we need takeaways on defense. I think that’s what we have to come away this game with, and I think we’ll say that all year long.”

Campbell will surely repeat this generic answer when asked this question again, but there is merit to it. One of the main staples of the Lions’ overall philosophy is to maintain possession and control the pace of the game through their offense. If they can keep finding ways to get the ball into quarterback Jared Goff’s hands, and he can then keep drives from stalling, that’ll be a big step on the path to victory.

Last season, the Lions finished +7 in the takeaway differential, and it was a huge part of their success down the stretch. This offseason, they have put even more emphasis on it with their player acquisitions—including adding last season's interception leader, C.J. Gardner-Johnson.

“Yeah, I feel very confident,” Campbell said of the Lions' ability to generate takeaways. “I do believe that we’ve got some playmakers back there on the backend. And so I think we’re much better suited than we’ve been.”

Key 2: Aaron Glenn needs to call the best game of his life

Glenn is one of the rising star coaches in this league—as evidenced by his head coaching interviews—but he is still only two years into calling plays on his own and is still learning. At times last season, Glenn would get stuck in a rut of play calling and didn’t shake things up until it was too late. Based on what we have seen in training camp, that issue may no longer be a problem with the versatile weapons at his disposal this season.

“Well, the game plan always starts about with who they have,” Glenn said when discussing the Lions’ defensive versatility. “And to your point, you’re right, because you want to put (your) guys in certain spots to be successful. And we as a staff know exactly what our guys can do. The thing is what their guys can do, and then being able to find the right matchups to put those guys in good positions so that’s the first thing we do when we start to game plan.”

The Chiefs return most of their offense from last season, with one glaring exception: they lost both starting tackles and replaced them with two players who are arguably not as effective.

This offseason, we have seen the evolution of the Lions' defensive line and their ability to shift between four and five-man fronts, as well as rotate through depth and keep players fresh. Keep an eye on how Glenn deploys Aidan Hutchinson because if he can get him one-on-one, the NFL may get an early look at his offseason development.

When looking beyond trying to pressure Mahomes, the next big thing will be to...

Key 3: Disrupt the Mahomes to Kelce connection

Mahomes and All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce are one of the most dynamic pairings in the NFL and step one for any defense will be exploring ways to slow the duo down.

Now, the recent news that Kelce suffered a hyperextended knee in Tuesday’s practice has put his game availability in doubt, but the Lions have already said they will continue to prepare as if he is playing. Better to be overprepared than under.

So like the Lions, we will operate under the assumption that Kelce may play and so it’s worth discussing a defensive strategy.

“Kelce is a really good player,” Glenn said on Saturday. “I would say this, it’s the IQ that really stands out on tape with this player, and really understanding where he has to be when it’s zone coverage and when it’s man coverage. That’s the one thing that really stands out about him and just the rapport that him and the quarterback (Mahomes) have with each other. I mean, it’s pretty special. You don’t see that often, only a few teams have it, but they’ve been doing it for quite a while. So, the thing that we’ve got to do a good job of is just making sure we’re on point with everything that we’re doing and go out there and out-compete these guys.”

The Lions have a few options in their defensive arsenal to use against the Chiefs' formidable duo, and Glenn may deploy them all. They could drop safety Gardner-Johnson into the box and let them duke it out. Starting nickel rookie Brian Branch will also likely be called upon—a ridiculously tough ask for his first NFL game, but if the Lions were going to call on a rookie to step up to this task, Branch is the one you’d want.

“I mean we knew (what he was capable of) when we drafted him, so it wasn’t a surprise the things that he’s done,” Glenn said of Branch. “We saw him do it at Alabama the whole time, so there’s a reason why we had him graded that high.”

A third option may be to give Kelce the Justin Jefferson treatment and bracket cover him with both Branch and Gardner-Johnson. Look for Glenn and the Lions to explore several options and try to keep the Chiefs guessing.

Key 4: Jared Goff needs to stay the course

The Chiefs have seen Jared Goff at his best. Five years ago, Goff (then with the Rams) faced off against the Chiefs on Monday night and led Los Angeles to a 54-51 victory. Goff completed 31 of 49 passing attempts for 413 yards and four touchdowns, while adding a fifth touchdown on the ground.

“Jared’s a good player, we know that,” coach Reid told the Kansas City media. “We had that one game with the Rams a few years back, and we have a lot of respect for him.”

While Goff’s career has changed since that game, he is very much back to his winning ways again, and that is something the Chiefs are keenly aware of.

“He’s won everywhere he’s been, so I know it’s gonna be a great challenge for us,” Mahomes said of Goff. “No matter if it was with the Rams or last year with the Lions, he’s always put up stats, he’s always won games… and that takes something. (To) be able to win a game whenever everything might not be going perfect… You have to have something inside of you that says, I can go out there and find a way to win, and he’s done that his entire career.”

Praise goes both ways on game week, as Goff broke down the challenges he will face against the Chiefs defense.

“You watch a lot of the stuff from last year and obviously it’s a little bit of a different team now, but I think overall, their coverage is pretty sticky,” Goff explained. “They do a good job staying close to the receiver. I think their linebackers are extremely athletic and I think up front, they’re pretty young and fast. I think they’ve got some guys that can do some good things, really at every level and it’s a challenge. That’s why they’re the Super Bowl champs last year. It’s because they’re good on every level, obviously, their offense gets a lot of attention with those guys over there, but their defense is no slouch and we’ll have our hands full.”

For Goff to find success, he needs to continue to do the things that made him so efficient down the stretch last season: Be smart with the football, accurate on short to mid-range throws, and execute the plan offensive coordinator Ben Johnson puts in front of him.

Key 5: Take advantage of a Chris Jones-less defense

Chris Jones has been holding out for a new contract all offseason and things have not been resolved at the publishing of this article. It’s a massive blow to the Chiefs' defense and in case you’re not sure how massive, ESPN’s Ed Werder tweeted this out as a reminder of how good Jones actually is:

“Last season Jones led all DT with 15.5 sacks despite being double-team(ed) at the highest rate in entire NFL.”

The Chiefs’ expected game plan adjusting without Jones, according to the good folks over at Arrowhead Pride, is likely to rely on 2020 UDFA Tershawn Wharton, who is coming off ACL surgery. Wharton is a solid pass rusher but not a good run defender. If they hope to boost their run defense, they may turn to sixth-round rookie nose tackle Keondre Coburn, but he offers little as a pass rusher.

Additionally, the Chiefs lost both starting defensive ends—Carlos Dunlap and Frank Clark—and only replaced them with internal options. George Karlaftis is a former first-round pick and should be able to hold his own, but the other edge spot will be occupied by former Central Michigan/Michigan graduate Mike Danna.

Bottom line, the Chiefs defensive line looks totally different without Jones.

Meanwhile, the Lions appear set to put their starting five offensive linemen on the field for a regular season game for the first time in over two years.

“I mean, those guys, they’re good, they’re special, they really are,” Johnson said of the Lions offensive line. “They’re one of the top units in the League and I think we’ve always felt that way inside the building. This year, we really need to come out and prove that to the rest of the League. And I think they understand that and they’re looking forward to it.”

If the Lions have one clear advantage in this game, it’s here in the trenches.

And that advantage should lead to opportunities for the Lions running back tandem of David Montgomery and rookie Jahmyr Gibbs.

“They are complementary backs,” Johnson said of the duo’s compatibility. “What (Montgomery) does well, Gibbs might not do as well, and vice versa. But I think they both are very versatile. So, we might use Gibbs in some ways that people don’t quite think we might or Montgomery the same way. I’m really excited to see what they can do out on the field here this week, but we’re going to use them all over the place.”

Gibbs has certainly gotten the Chiefs' attention and rightfully so. As the No. 12 overall pick in this past NFL Draft, expectations are very high for Gibbs, and he should be thrown right into the mix in this game. Making things even more difficult for the Chiefs, Gibbs only played a quarter of football this preseason, leaving them to go back to his college games for film study.

“You’ve kind of just got to go off of the little bit of tape you have from college, a little bit of preseason,” Chiefs’ LB Nick Bolton told the media earlier in the week. “When you watch the tape, obviously you can tell he’s dynamic—speed is definitely his friend. When he’s able to get the ball, he gets upfield, make one cut, and then it can be a house call. So, we understand the challenge up ahead of us. Again, there’s not much tape out there, so we don’t know how he’s going to be used or how they plan on using him early. So, they’ll have to get him a bunch of touches early, get him involved, and see what he can do with the football.”

I added the emphasis on the previous two quotes to illustrate what a mystery Gibbs is at this point in his career. The Lions were clearly holding back parts of their scheme during the preseason, and definitely holding back the wide range of ways they can use Gibbs.

But the wait is nearly over. If the Lions are going to have a chance to beat the Chiefs on their “banner night” in Kansas City, the offensive line and Gibbs could very well be the biggest keys to the game.

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