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The Honolulu Blueprint: 10 keys to a Lions victory over the Bucs in the Divisional round

Identifying the key things the Detroit Lions can do to secure a victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Divisional round of the 2023-24 playoffs.

NFC Wild Card Playoffs - Los Angeles Rams v Detroit Lions Photo by Ryan Kang/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions will host the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the Divisional round of the 2023-24 NFL playoffs at Ford Field. The Lions opened the week as favorites over the Bucs 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 their first postseason win in 32 years 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.

Bucs’ base schemes

A recap of Bucs West Coast offense (from our Week 6 keys to victory):

“First-year offensive coordinator Dave Canales [...] deploys a West Coast offense that leans on multiple receivers, play-action, pre-snap motion, and a zone-blocking run scheme.

“One of the biggest wrinkles that Canales incorporated into the Bucs’ scheme is a lot of play designs that require mobility from the quarterback position. That plays to Baker Mayfield’s strengths and is a significant reason why he is having a career resurgence in Tampa.”

A recap of Todd Bowles' defense:

“While the Bucs still lean on 34 concepts—like standup pass rushing outside linebackers—they only use a true 34 base personnel on a third of their defensive snaps, instead spending the majority of their time in subpackage looks, and adjusting to a 2-4-5 scheme.

“The Bucs have always been a heavy blitzing defense under Bowles and this year is no different, as they’re currently blitzing on 39% of their defensive snaps (finished season at 40.1%), fourth most in the NFL. But a new wrinkle for the Bucs this season is their ability to successfully drop edge rushers Joe Tyron-Shoyinka or Shaquil Barrett into coverage, allowing them to blitz off-the-ball linebacker Devon White, and in turn, causing problems for offensive lines in picking up their blocking assignments.

Here’s an example from Week 6 of how the Bucs use unique blitzing angles to confuse offenses, starting pre-snap with the base look:

At the snap they slant pressure right to occupy the left side of the offensive line, drop the right side edge rusher and off-ball linebacker into the flat with a Cover-2 shell behind it, then blitz the linebacker and slot defensive back into the B-gap, forcing running back David Montgomery into a difficult spot.

There are two weaknesses in the Bucs defense here. The first is to Jared Goff’s right side—where the blitz is coming from—where he has two options against a dropping corner and a linebacker that has to cross the field to get to the flat. The second is getting Amon-Ra St. Brown matched up with a safety dropping into a cover-2 shell—which is the option Goff takes, converting for a first down.

Quick hits: What’s changed since the Lions and Bucs played in Week 6?

  • The Bucs have won seven of their last eight games, while the Lions have won four of their last five, and that single loss comes with some controversy after the debacle in Dallas.
  • Quarterback Baker Mayfield had one of his worst games of the season in Week 6—fourth-worst by PFF standards—but over the last month, he has been great, including achieving a perfect passer rating in a Week 15 win over the Packers in Green Bay.
  • From an offensive scheme standpoint, they’ve been more aggressive, have taken more deep shots, and have converted at a higher rate on these shots as well.
  • On defense, the Bucs have only allowed 15.3 points per game over their seven-game stretch.
  • From a defensive schematic standpoint, not much has changed. Bowles’ defense is what it is, and has been all season.
  • For Detroit, their game day roster will be very different. Lions players missing from Week 6 include Jahmyr Gibbs, Jonah Jackson, Brian Branch, C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Josh Paschal, and James Houston. David Montgomery left the game with an injury in the second quarter, while Amon-Ra St. Brown, Sam LaPorta, Taylor Decker, and Frank Ragnow were all nursing injuries. Additionally, this was Jameson Williams’ second game back following his suspension and Ifeatu Melifonwu was only playing on special teams. That’s around half the Lions’ current starters.

“This is a better team than when we faced them,” Campbell said about the Bucs. “They’re playing better football, but we’re better too. That’s the way it should be. Here we go man, we’re in the divisional (round) against an opponent that only improved all year and so did we.”

Let’s review Week 6’s keys to victory to see what worked and what didn’t.

Key 1: Keep the Bucs run game under wraps

Did it work? Yes

The Lions focused on their opponent's running game early—as they do every week—and after 12 attempts in the first half, the Bucs only managed 34 yards. After being behind in the game and having little success on the ground, the Bucs only attempted four second-half rushes, producing 12 yards—giving them just 46 rushing yards for the game.

Adjustments? None, keep them one-dimensional

“I see the same team, I just see the execution a lot better for the most part,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said about the Bucs' offense. “It’s a team that wants to run the ball, that will run the ball. Now, are the yards per carry there as they want it? No, but the thing is they’re committed to it. If you look through the last, I think eight games, they’ve been running at least, like 31-32 times a game on average, and I think that says a lot of the commitment.”

Glenn is correct; on the season, the Bucs' yards per carry is not good. In fact, their 3.5 yards per carry average is dead last in the NFL. They rush for around 90 yards per game (second-worst in the League) and average 0.4 rushing touchdowns a game (third-worst). The Bucs are 28th in DVOA rushing offense on the season, only seeing a slight uptick over the last month, where they checked in at 27th in DVOA.

Meanwhile, the Lions' defense finished the season as the number one DVOA run defense, only allowing teams to rush for 3.7 yards per carry (third-best), and less than 88 rushing yards per game (second-best).

Stopping the run has been a priority all season, so don't expect things to change in the Divisional round of the playoffs.

Key 2: Stop the passing game at the source

Did it work? Not enough

Knowing that the Bucs had a distinct advantage with their offensive skill players matching up with the Lions' secondary, getting pressure on Mayfield was very important. On the game, the Lions' defense managed just 18 pressures and 1 sack—which was made by the recently released Julian Okwara.

In the end, the Bucs' explosive downfield plays were limited, not necessarily because of the Lions, but more so because Mayfield missed the shots he took.

Adjustments? Getting pressure will be paramount

The Lions were fortunate to get Mayfield at the start of a downward slide, but he’s rolling now, and Detroit will need to find a way to disrupt him. Outside of Hutchinson, the Lions have struggled to find players who can consistently get pressure, but the return of Alim McNeill has been huge, and the Lions are hopeful the return of James Houston can also help.

The Bucs offensive tackles are the strongest part of their offensive line, so Detroit will need someone to step up outside of Hutchinson or they’ll have to scheme up pressure with the blitz—which is not ideal, considering Mayfield’s success against the blitz this season.

Key 3: Introduce Aidan Hutchinson to Luke Goedeke

Did it work? No

Hutchinson only managed one pressure and one tackle in this game as he was held in check by Goedeke and Tristan Wirfs. According to PFF, it was Hutchinson’s third-worst performance of the season, but based on production, you could argue it was easily his worst performance of the year.

For perspective, Hutchinson has had at least four pressures in every other game this season and averages 6.8 pressures per game over the other 16 outings.

Adjustments? Hutchinson gets a second chance and is currently dominating

“He’s been doing a good job all year, and I think the numbers show that,” Glenn said of Hutchinson. “And it was just a matter of time until those things turned around for him and they end up being sacks. We talk about that all the time. I think sometimes on the outside we get so caught up in that, that we’re not looking at how hard the player is going out there, executing, and the things that he’s doing for other guys around him. Man, it’s just been fortunate for him for those to turn into sacks right now because that’s what he wants, that’s what we all want, but the pressures are what help a lot too. We’ve hit the quarterback quite a bit these last couple of weeks and we want to continue to do that because that’s an emphasis of ours every week.”

As Glenn points out, Hutchinson is getting things done at a high level and his sack production has finally caught up. Over the last three games, he has produced an impressive seven sacks and 23 pressures. While the Lions will need more than just Hutchinson to disrupt Mayfield, things get way easier for the rest of the defensive line if Hutchinson is forcing the offense to pay attention to him.

Key 4: Ground and Pound

Did it work? No

With Gibbs ruled out due to injury, and Montgomery getting hurt on his sixth rushing attempt, the Lions couldn’t find much success on the ground. On the day, they managed just 40 yards on 22 carries.

“I don’t think it’s any secret that Coach Bowles and that staff, they take a lot of pride in stopping the run,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “That’s something they’ve done there really since they got there in Tampa going back years (and) years. They’ve been top-10, top-5, even the top team in the League in terms of stopping the run. So, they take a lot of pride in it. They load the box up. They really condense you on in there and so it’s hard. It’s tough sledding and we did not rise to the challenge well enough as a whole unit. So, whoever we had up last time, we fell short of our standard.”

The Bucs’ run defense is only allowing 3.8 yards per rush (sixth best in the NFL), just 92.3 yards per game (fourth), and checking in with the eighth DVOA run defense on the season.

Adjustments? A healthy backfield will help, but the Lions need to be willing to adjust to the flow of the game

“The good news about where we are as an offense is we can shift and we can flow, and that doesn’t shut us down entirely,” Johnson continued. “If we can’t run the ball, then we have other ways to attack the defense as well. So, fortunately, that was the case the first time we played them. We are still built on the run though. I think our guys up front, they relish the opportunity to do that, and we’ve got really good backs that we need to get the ball, so hopefully we can have a little more success than the first go around.”

Gibbs, who didn’t play in Week 6, could be a difference maker in this game according to NFL Analyst Jon Ledyard, who appeared on this week’s First Byte PODcast. His shiftiness, explosiveness, and ability to contribute in a variety of ways could give the Bucs trouble.

It’s worth noting that while the Bucs are great against the run, they are also very stout against running backs in the passing game and have only allowed backs to produce 448 receiving yards this season, the fifth-fewest in the NFL.

Despite the Bucs' success against backs, running the ball is a foundational principle of the Lions' offense, and with Gibbs’ home run ability, expect the Lions to test the Bucs’ limits, both on the ground and through the air—but also be willing to adapt to the flow of the game.

Key 5: Keep stacking explosive plays

Did it work? Yes

The Lions quantify an explosive passing play as one that results in 16 or more yards gained. Against the Bucs, the Lions had several notable explosives, including Montgomery and LaPorta each having 19-yard receptions, Josh Reynolds had a 21-yard catch, St. Brown delivered a 27-yard touchdown, Craig Reynolds had a 28-yard catch, and Jameson Williams had a 45-yard touchdown.

Adjustments? Keep taking shots

While the Bucs are very fast laterally—which helps them defend running backs—they are vulnerable in pockets of their zone defense (as illustrated at the top of the article and the above distribution tweet) and especially across the middle of the field—a sweet spot for where Goff likes to cook.

This is also where St. Brown feasts on defenses, and in Week 6, he produced 12 receptions on 15 targets for 124 receiving yards and a touchdown—his third-best yardage output on the season. But the previous game is not an anomaly and St. Brown has also been on a tear of late. In his last five games, he has averaged 8.2 receptions, 112.4 receiving yards, and 0.8 touchdowns. Look for the All Pro to be a feature target once again.

Jameson Williams will also play multiple key roles. Not only have the Lions leaned on his speed to stretch zones and open the field up for St. Brown to thrive, but he has also been an explosive target downfield. Throughout the season, Williams had receptions that qualify as explosive plays against the Bucs, Raiders, Bears, Packers, Broncos, and Cowboys.

More quick hits: 5 new keys to victory

  • The Bucs blitz over 40% of the time, but the Lions offense has handled the blitz of late. After facing two other blitz-heavy teams—Broncos (35% blitz rate) and Vikings (51.5%)—in three of the last five weeks, the Lions’ experience has them well-prepared.
  • If the Bucs can’t create pressure, they could be in trouble, because Goff has been carving defenses up when given time to operate:
  • LaPorta vs LaVonte David could be a massive matchup. David is one of the best cover linebackers in the NFL, but the defense as a whole sheds production to tight ends. On the season, the Bucs’ have given up 102 receptions, 1077 receiving yards, and seven touchdowns to tight ends, all bottom five outputs in the league. If the Lions can get LaPorta in advantageous matchups—i.e. away from David—as they did against the Rams, he could have a big day.
  • Red zone scoring: Bad vs. bad. The Bucs have the third-worst offense in converting touchdowns in the red zone, while the Lions are bottom five in defending that area. The positive here is the Lions are coming off a game where they didn’t allow the Rams to convert any of their three red zone opportunities.
  • Red zone scoring: Good vs. good. The Lions’ offense is the second-best team in the NFL in converting once they reach the red zone, while the Bucs’ defense is the third-best in stopping red zone opportunities. The concerning thing here is that the Lions were unable to convert either of their red zone opportunities in Week 6. The positive is that the Lions converted on all three of their red zone opportunities last week against the Rams.

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