The Detroit Lions are back at home in Week 18, taking on the division-rival Minnesota Vikings to close out the 2023-24 regular season. The Lions (11-5) opened the week as favorites over the Vikings (7-9) 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.
Because the Lions and Vikings have already played this season, this week’s Honolulu Blueprint will look a bit different. As we have done each time the Lions have played an NFC North opponent for the second time, we will revisit the original keys to victory, look at what worked, what didn’t, and what the Lions need to alter their approach this time around.
If the Lions want to carry some positive energy into the postseason, they’ll need to follow the keys to victory laid out in this week’s Honolulu Blueprint.
Vikings’ base schemes
A recap of Kevin O’Connell’s offense:
Kevin O’Connell calls the plays and [...] is a descendant of the Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay’s coaching tree, so you see a lot of West Coast offense influences, including pre-snap movement, play-action, end-arounds, screens, and outside-zone run concepts. The Vikings found some success running some gapping concepts last season, but the running game as a whole has struggled, forcing them to lean more on the passing game.
A recap of Brian Flores’ defense:
In Minnesota, Flores has introduced an incredibly creative and complex defense, implementing concepts that set them apart from the rest of the NFL. For example, not only do the Vikings blitz more than any other team, but they also drop eight players into coverage more than any other team.
The Vikings are constantly trying to play a game of confusion. They will frequently overload the line of scrimmage and then force the offense to guess if they’re bringing five, six, or seven players via the blitz, or only rushing two or three and clogging the passing lanes by dropping eight or nine players.
Quick hits: What’s changed with Vikings since last meeting with Lions?
- The quarterback carousel has landed back on Nick Mullins, who will start this week.
- The Vikings placed TE T.J. Hockenson and EDGE D.J. Wonnum on injured reserve.
- They’ve declined in every DVOA category, except offensive rushing efficiency, where they climbed from 28th to 27th. Of note: they are declining in all raw rushing stats.
- They’ve dropped 10 spots in time of possession rankings, from 17th to 27th.
- Why? Last week the Packers held the ball for 37 minutes and 32 seconds, nearly as long as the Lions did the week prior (38 minutes and 22 seconds).
- Why such a decline in T.O.P.? The Vikings offense has turned the ball over six times in the last two weeks and both sides of the ball are failing on critical downs.
- Vikings offense is converting on third and fourth downs less, while the defense is one of the worst in the league in these areas. Currently, their defense is 28th in allowing opponents to convert on third down (42.6% conversion rate) and 31st in allowing opponents to convert on fourth down (69.6%).
- Allowing opponents to hold the ball more and convert on critical downs has led to more points scored against the Vikings' defense as well. While they allow on average just 20.8 points per game for the season, in the last three weeks, they have allowed at least 27 points in each.
Key 1: Attack the Vikings blitz
Did it work? Yes
The Lions did a fantastic job of identifying and picking up the blitz. They finished the game only allowing 14 team pressures, three quarterback hits, and just one sack. The offensive line looked ready, the skill players did a nice job of staying in and picking up blocks, and Jared Goff looked calm and poised in the pocket, standing tall and completing passes.
Adjustments? Be ready for more exotic blitzes
Typically, teams add more wrinkles into their scheme the second time they play them and the Lions are fully expecting Flores to continue to be creative with the Vikings defense.
“I know that they probably haven’t been as good the last three weeks than they have been the entire year,” Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson said. “So, they’ll continue to tweak and evolve and look to execute their defense. So that’s what we’ve got to combat here this week.”
Adjustments will be key in this game. Not only will the blocking scheme need to be on point and flexible, but Johnson will also need to be ready to adjust his playcalling as new obstacles arise.
Key 2: Don’t back off the run
Did it work? Yes
When these two teams last met, the Vikings sported the ninth-rated run defense in DVOA, were only allowing 92 rushing yards per game (fifth in the NFL), just 3.7 yards per carry against, and only gave up 0.6 rushing touchdowns per game.
Detroit rushed for 143 yards, averaging 4.2 yards per rush from their running backs, and scored three times on the ground. Even against elite run defenses, the Lions’ rushing attack has been dominant all season.
Adjustments? Continue to dominate on the ground
On the season, David Montgomery has rushed for 975 yards, while rookie Jahmyr Gibbs enters the final game with 915 rushing yards. Only five times in NFL history has an NFL team had two running backs each rush for 1,000 yards, with the last duo being Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams, who did it with the Panthers back in 2009.
The Lions duo is on the verge of etching their names in the record books, and yes, the Lions staff is aware of how close they are.
“I have been a part of that before,” Johnson said of being part of a staff that calls plays to help players achieve milestones. “Absolutely, where you are aware (that) if a guy’s close to a certain milestone to try to help them get there and give them opportunities. And, ultimately, they’ve got to come through and make the plays on the field for you. But yeah, that’s something I’ve been around before. Everyone’s got team goals and also, individual goals, and we as coaches, we’re here to help them achieve both.”
Montgomery is close enough that he should surely hit the mark, but Gibbs certainly has some work to do. Gibbs would need to replicate his last performance against the Vikings, plus a tick more.
Key 3: Feed Jahmyr Gibbs
Did it work? Yes
Gibbs was terrific against the Vikings in Week 16, racking up 80 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries (5.3 yards per attempt) along with four receptions for 20 receiving yards. He also out-snapped David Montgomery 46 to 31, which was a deviation from their typical splits, where it’s much closer to even.
“It was really kind of just how it went,” Johnson said of the snap distribution. “I really don’t have a great reason for you to be honest with you. We were kind of moving along and talking with (Assistant Head Coach/Running Backs Scottie) Coach Montgomery, he’s like, ‘Hey, this will be Gibby’s series, this will be Gibby’s series,’ and that’s kind of how we came out.”
Adjustments? Feed him more.
Gibbs was a real problem for the Vikings last game and I’m not sure they have a clean answer for him. Give him the rock early and often in this matchup.
Key 4: Stop the run, make Vikings offense one-dimensional
Did it work? Yes
The Vikings struggled mightily against the Lions, gaining only 17 rushing yards in the game. With a paltry 1.5 yards per carry average, the Vikings elected to only attempt 11 rushes, while throwing the ball 36 times. Hardly the balance teams hope to achieve.
Adjustments? Don’t let up.
The Lions run defense has only gotten better with time and they currently sit as the third-best DVOA run defense in the NFL. They allow, on average, 88.8 rushing yards per game on the season (fifth-best in the NFL), but over the last three games, they have only allowed 53.7 rushing yards per game, which is the best in the NFL.
“Physical at the line, be attacking with our play calls,” Lions’ defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said of his defense’s ability to be aggressive at the line of scrimmage. “And also, when we are just playing true full-man rush. Just being attacking with our full-man rush and guys beating one-on-ones.”
The Vikings managed just 67 rushing yards last week against the Packers, and once again quickly moved away from it when things weren’t working, ending the game with only 16 rushing attempts.
If the Lions can attack them at the line of scrimmage and stop the run early, recent history shows us that the Vikings will bail on their ground game and become one-dimensional.
Key 5: Don’t back off blitzing
Did it work? Yes
Against the Broncos, the week prior to the Vikings game, the Lions unleashed a new style of aggressive blitzing and it’s completely changed their defense. Against Minnesota, Detroit registered four sacks and six quarterback hits, with the added pressure also leading to four interceptions.
This change was most noticeable in the Lions secondary where Ifeatu Melifonwu accumulated two sacks and an interception, Brian Branch had a sack and interception, while Kerby Joseph grabbed two interceptions of his own.
Adjustments? Stay aggressive
The Lions have unlocked something with their defense and Glenn’s options are only going to increase as defensive players—like C.J. Gardner-Johnson, Alim McNeill, and James Houston—return from injured reserve.
“The ability to blitz from different spots on the field,” Glenn said the Lions’ personnel and depth allowing him to incorporate new blitzes. “I mean you see (Alex Anzalone) Anzo, he blitzes from the interior, then he gets on the edge and blitzes. It’s the same thing with (Melifonwu) Iffy. Iffy had a couple blitzes from the interior. Tracy (Walker) had a blitz from the interior, but Iffy’s been making a lot of hay from blitzing off the edge now. So, just being able to do that, it allows us to give offenses different looks so they just can’t say, ‘OK, this is where this guy’s going to come from for the most part.’”
But the real game changer has been Melifonwu, whose arrival in the starting lineup coincided with this new approach.
“Iffy’s the type of guy that just has it,” Glenn said of Melifonwu. “And I will tell you this, he’s learning to understand exactly how to blitz on a (running) back because there are certain things that a back would do when you’re barreling right at him. You have to understand that, and you have to be able to read it quickly to be able to understand how to make your moves.”
With Gardner-Johnson expected to return this weekend, the Lions get even more options in the secondary. And while Glenn has said he plans on playing all of his top safeties, don’t expect the Lions to back off Melifonwu too much, because he’s too important to what they’re doing right now.
“Coming from corner to being a safety, man, that’s a transition and there’s a number of things that he has (had) to learn,” Glenn continued discussing Melifonwu’s success. “And I think he’s starting to really understand that position in totality. So, not only is he understanding from a backend perspective, but he also understands where he fits in the paint.”