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The Honolulu Blueprint: 9 keys to a Lions victory over the Rams in the Wild Card

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the Los Angeles Rams in the Wild Card round of the 2023-24 playoffs.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Detroit Lions will host the Los Angeles Rams for the Wild Card round of the 2023-24 NFL playoffs, the first-ever postseason game at Ford Field. The Lions (12-5) opened the week as favorites over the Rams (10-7) 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.

The Lions are coming off a 12-win season—which tied an organizational record set in 1991—but if they want to keep their season going, they’ll need to follow the keys to victory laid out in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.

Rams’ base schemes

Sean McVay’s modified West Coast offense:

While Mike LaFleur (brother of Packers coach Matt) is the technical offensive coordinator, Rams coach Sean McVay is the orchestrator of LA’s offense. McVay comes from the Mike Shanahan coaching tree and his roots are formed in a West Coast scheme—which he has modified this season with great success.

At its core, McVay’s offense leans on 11 personnel (over 90% of the time), pre-snap motion, play-action, end-arounds, screens, outside-zone runs, and a lot of condensed formations. Over the last three weeks, the Lions have faced Vikings coach Kevin O’Connell’s (a McVay disciple) West Coast offense twice, which should help Detroit’s defense identify some familiar concepts, though McVay’s approach is still unique.

It’s the new wrinkles that McVay has implemented that have helped the Rams achieve success this season. The most notable changes include faster snap-to-throw operations for quarterback Matthew Stafford, less play-action to keep that speed up, more shotgun and pistol quarterback sets, as well as more GAP and DUO blocking schemes for their rushing attack—which could be attributed to LaFleur’s influence from his days as the Jets OC.

The end result of the changes has been less explosive plays, but more consistent efficiency and sustained drives.

Raheem Morris’ Cover-2 defense:

Morris gained experience in Tampa Bay operating a Tampa-2 scheme that he learned from Monte Kiffin and Rod Marinelli. Morris was given his shot to be the Buccaneers' head coach a few years back but only lasted three seasons before he was relieved of his duties. Morris has been with the Rams for the past three seasons and his success has resulted in him getting some head coaching interviews again.

Morris hasn’t strayed too far from his roots, still leaning on Cover-2 concepts with two deep safeties, but he has made alterations to how the Rams’ front operates this season.

The Rams’ front starts with Aaron Donald, who is arguably the best defensive player in the last decade and builds out from there. The strength of the Rams defense is down the middle, where Donald is joined by rookie defensive tackle Kobie Turner, along with MIKE linebacker Ernest Jones and safety Jordan Fuller (who is injured and may miss this game) giving them a strong core.

Getting pressure has been an issue for the Rams this season—which has strained the edges and outside corners—but the Rams have adapted their front to try and disguise intentions, while also positioning themselves to stop the run. As a result, you’ll often see the Rams deploy five players at the line-of-scrimmage, and if it’s a run play they have bodies, but if it’s a pass then one of those players will drop into coverage—as you can see in the picture below:

Key 1: Stop the run

After amassing just 139 rushing yards during his rookie season, Rams running back Kyren Williams has burst onto the scene as a second-year player, rushing for 1144 yards in just 12 games and making the Pro Bowl. The Rams lean on him a ton for production and he has been dominating offensive snaps down the stretch, seeing over 90% of offensive snaps in three of the last five games.

“He’s tough. He’s powerful,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said of Williams. “He has this stiff arm that’s effective and we’ve got to understand that. So, we have to make sure that we wrap up and have population to the ball with this player.”

The Rams run the ball roughly 43.4% of the time, which is above the league average—for reference, the Lions run the ball 44% of the time, 11th most—and are averaging 120.3 rushing yards per game, 11th most in the NFL. They also check in at sixth in DVOA offensive rushing and have leaned on this aspect of their offensive approach in order to help alleviate pressure on their passing game.

The Lions have made stopping the run a priority this season. They are only allowing teams to rush for 88.8 yards per game on average, the second-best mark in the NFL, and holding backs to just 3.7 yards per attempt, third-best in the League. Over the last three games, things have been even more impressive, as the Lions have only allowed teams to rush for 55.7 yards per game and it has resulted in them being the top-rated rushing defense in the NFL, per DVOA.

If the Lions can continue to shut down the run, it’ll force the Rams to become more one-dimensional and allow them opportunities to bring pressure.

Key 2: Unleash the blitz and be ready for quick throws

As mentioned above, the Rams have adjusted their offensive scheme to get the ball out of Stafford’s hands quickly and into the hands of the playmakers. This has resulted in a higher level of efficiency on throws and fewer pressures resulting in sacks.

However, Stafford’s protection is susceptible to breaking down, especially against the blitz, and 10 of his 30 sacks on the season have come in his last four games played. Most notably, the Giants sacked Stafford four times with their blitzing scheme, a blueprint the Lions could follow.

Over the last month, the Lions have installed a more complex blitzing system and it’s resulted in 13 sacks, with 11 coming over the last three games.

If the Lions do blitz—which they should—the secondary will need to be on their toes for the quick pass. If Stafford holds the ball, because of his mobility declining in recent years, the Lions will have a chance to get home.

Key 3: Make Stafford pay for misses, punch the football

While Stafford has been very efficient in the Rams' new scheme, he’s still a bit of a gambler at heart and he will take chances. He hasn’t turned the ball over much this season, just 11 interceptions and no fumbles, but two of those interceptions came in his last game played.

While Stafford has been solid, the Rams offense has still turned the ball over six times in the last four games. Meanwhile, the Lions' defense has been rolling in creating turnovers, forcing nine turnovers in the last four games.

In the last six games, the Lions have won the turnover battle in four of them, all resulting in wins. In the games they lost or broke even in turnovers, they’ve lost both games. Expect the Lions to stay aggressive and look to generate turnovers, as it’s been a key catalyst in their recent defensive success.

Key 4: Make your tackles

One of the reasons the Rams' quick passing offense works is because their skill players are terrific at gaining yards after the catch. Kyren Williams averages 1.5 yards after contact this season, while Puka Nacua leads all receivers with an average of 2.3 yards after contact.

“Listen, I think we’ve been a pretty good tackling team, for the most part,” Glenn said. “But when you see players like, Puka (Nacua), you see players like, Williams, man we just have to emphasize that and let it be known. [...] So I want to make sure that’s emphasized and show these clips. Listen, look at these guys now. Just because (Williams) is a smaller-stature guy, man he has a strong lower body, same thing with Puka, a strong lower body. And everybody that I’ve talked to, that’s the number one thing that they say is, ‘Man don’t be surprised by the way that these guys break tackles.’ And it shows up on tape.”

Key 5: Make your kicks

Kicking has been an adventure for the Rams this season. Brett Maher started the season kicking for LA, but after missing six field goals and one extra point in seven games, he was released. The Rams signed Lucas Havrisik for the next nine games but he missed five field goals and three extra points, leading to LA releasing him and going back to Maher. In his one game since re-signing with the Rams, Maher did not attempt a field goal and he went one for two on extra points.

Michael Badgley has successfully made all four of his field goal attempts with the Lions after being re-signed four games ago, but he has missed two of his 15 extra point attempts, including one last week.

“He mishit the ball,” Lions special teams coordinator Dave Fipp said of Badgley’s miss. “It wasn’t a good strike on the ball by him, obviously. I definitely don’t like that, but I would be more concerned if it was something that I saw repeating itself over and over, then I would be much more concerned about it. And then one thing about him is that’s really why we went with him—he’s just been so consistent in how he strikes the ball, practice, game, all that stuff for us.”

In a game where every point will matter, the Lions need to make sure they're getting their chances between the uprights.

Key 6: Get the running game going early

The Lions are coming off their second-lowest rushing output of the season, gaining just 70 yards on the ground against Minnesota.

“Last game wasn’t quite where we wanted it and then the week before against Dallas was a little bit disappointing,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “For the second half of this season, really since the bye week, we’ve been trending in the right direction. Last two games were not what we want. Last week, we were mis-targeted and our communication was off too much, and so we’re looking to fix that right now.”

So how do they get back on track?

“Gameplan-wise, maybe it’s a little bit less complexity, and then volume certainly plays a part in that,” Johnson continued. “We feel like we have a good number going into each game and we’re just conscious if defense presents us with a lot of looks, maybe we need to scale back that number just a little bit. So as a coaching staff, that’s what we’re looking at. The guys up front, they’re pros. They take a lot of pride in being right and being targeted correctly each and every time. And so, it’s really on us, as a coaching staff, just to get the right mix.”

Despite the recent lag, on average, the Lions still rush for an average of 136 yards per game, have a top-five rushing attack in most statistical categories, and are fourth in DVOA’s rushing offense.

Look for the Lions to try and establish the run early and control the line-of-scrimmage, because a successful run game sets up the majority of what they want to accomplish on offense.

Key 7: Attack with speed on the outside

While the Rams are strong up the middle of their defense, they can be vulnerable on the outside, both against the run and the pass. That sets up well for the Lions to get Jahmyr Gibbs and Jameson Williams involved.

Gibbs’ ability to find holes and accelerate through holes should help the Lions run game, while his ability to catch passes in the flat and on screens could have big play potential every time he touches the ball.

Speaking of big play potential, Williams’ speed is custom-made to stretch the Rams’ Cover-2 scheme, and there should be opportunities for big shots downfield. Even the threat of those deep balls should back the safeties off, and in turn, create more room for Amon-Ra St. Brown (and Sam LaPorta?) to work in the intermediate levels.

Key 8: Quick decisions from Goff will help IOL

“Most of the guys we faced this year that were super dynamic, like (Aaron) Donald, were edge guys that would sometimes line up inside,” Johnson explained. “And then this week, it’s certainly, he’s at a three-technique quite a bit. Third down, they’ll move him around. But the combination of him with this rookie (Kobie Turner) has been, probably the best defensive tackle tandem we’ve faced all year.”

The Lions struggled with the Cowboys' quicker interior defensive line two weeks ago, and while the Rams present a similar skill set, they’re not as strong on the edge, which should allow the Lions' to be creative with their blocking schemes, allowing their skill players and offensive tackles to contribute in different ways.

“Feel good about the plan that we have going in right now,” Johnson continued. “And listen, you try to minimize his opportunities to get one-on-ones, but it’s hard, it’s hard. I think he feasts almost every week by getting one-on-one matchups and beating the guy across from him, so we will be very much aware of where he is on the field and try to adjust accordingly.”

Winning one-one-ones will be key for the Lions' interior offensive line in this game. Frank Ragnow will get a lot of opportunities to show Turner why he is a Pro Bowler, but the guards—Jonah Jackson and Graham Glasgow—will need to be on point against Donald.

While the Lions will want to work all levels of the field in the passing game, one of the ways they can help alleviate some pressure on their guards is to have quick outlets available for Jared Goff. This is another area where Gibbs can be a potentially huge factor in this game because he is a home run threat that the Rams will have to account for.

Key 9: Let Goff win you the game

This game has the potential to be career-altering for Goff.

Statistically, Goff is having his best year since he led the Rams to the Super Bowl in 2018, and easily his best as a Lion. His focus is on point, and his decision-making has been tremendous down the stretch.

The Rams' offense can be scary, and their biggest strength (passing attack) matches up very well against the Lions' biggest weakness (passing defense), so they’re expected to put up points on the scoreboard. But the Lions also match up very well in several key areas, including their Goff-led offensive passing attack against the Rams passing defense.

Both teams will look to run the ball, control the clock and the trenches, but at the end of the day, this game will likely be won through the air. While the game plan will call for a variety of approaches, including running the ball and having quick outlets, at some point, the Lions are going to have to put the ball in Goff’s hands and ask him to win the game.

Goff has downplayed the significance of this game all week—pushing the focus back on the team winning for the city of Detroit—but he will have an opportunity to exorcise his past demons against the coach who didn’t think he was good enough. This is Goff’s chance to make a statement about who he is as a player.

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