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Sizing Up the Detroit Lions

An in-depth look at the Vikings division opponent- who the Vikings could face two or three times in the next month

NFL: Denver Broncos at Detroit Lions David Reginek-USA TODAY Sports

The Vikings face the division-leading Detroit Lions on Christmas Eve at US Bank stadium, in the first of potentially three games against them over the next month. The second game takes place two weeks later at Ford Field to round out the regular season schedule, and the third game could potentially take place the following week in the NFC Wild Card Round, depending on playoff seeding. As it stands now, the Vikings and Lions meeting for a third time in the playoffs is one of the more likely scenarios should the Vikings make the playoffs.

And doing so means beating the Lions, along with- in all likelihood- advancing in the post-season. So, let’s take an in-depth look at the Lions and their season so far.

After a Strong Start, the Lions Look More Vulnerable

The Lions started the season strong, winning six of their first eight games before their bye-week. Their only losses were an overtime loss to Seattle in Week 2 and a blowout loss at the hands of the Ravens in Week 7.

But since their bye-week, the Lions’ defense has been giving up nearly 28 points per game against mid-tier/mediocre opponents.


How the Lions have been playing over the course of the season is represented in the above graph, which shows rolling net EPA (bold line) along with offensive and defensive EPA trends. As you can see, following around Week 6 (play # 400 roughly), things started to go south for the Lions after a very strong start. Defensive EPA (negative is better) began to rise steadily while offensive EPA (positive is better) became worse and more erratic.

But the main trend is that the Lions’ defense went from good to bad. As it stands now, the Lions rank 23rd in points allowed and 15th in yards allowed. Their red zone defense ranks 29th in preventing touchdowns while their passing defense ranks 22nd in yards per attempt allowed. The Lions have been without two of their bigger off-season acquisitions- defensive backs CJ Gardner-Johnson and Emmanuel Moseley- and also pass rusher James Houston. Gardner-Johnson is set to return as soon as this week against the Vikings, while the others are likely out for the season. More recently, the Lions lost top defensive tackle Alim McNeil for the season a couple weeks ago, who was their second highest PFF-graded defender.

Still, the Lions managed to go 4-2 against middling opponents since their bye-week, four of which were one score games. Both losses came against division opponents- the Packers and Bears- leaving the division-leading Lions with a 2-2 division record. Overall, the Lions stand at 10-4 and a win over the Vikings on Sunday would give them their first division title since 1993.

The Lions’ Starting Roster: Not a Lot of Star Power or Weak Links

As you can see from the PFF player grade chart above, the Lions don’t have a lot of star players on their roster- particularly on the defensive side- but don’t have a lot of really weak links either.

Efficient Offense

Offensively, the Lions have one of the best offensive line units in the league, which allows them to get the most from Jared Goff. The Lions have two good backs in power back David Montgomery and the more athletic rookie Jahmyr Gibbs, which help setup 3rd and manageable situations where Goff can target top slot receiver Amon-Ra St Brown or rookie tight end Sam LaPorta, who’s having an excellent rookie season.

Overall, that setup has led to an efficient Lions’ offense, running the ball effectively and setting up the play-action pass game with Goff often making rhythm and timing passes over the middle to move the sticks and allow for some yards-after-catch, supplemented by occasional screens or dump-offs outside. Lions’ offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has done an excellent job of scheming and play-calling to keep ahead of the sticks. The only real weak spot for the Lions offense may be the outside receivers, which they’ve struggled to develop. Goff isn’t much of an outside-the-number passer either, with only 15% of his pass attempts going outside at either intermediate or deep depth.

But overall, Ben Johnson does a nice job of keeping the Lions- and Jared Goff- on schedule while the offensive line has done a good job of keeping Goff clean in the pocket and opening holes for their backs. The result has been a highly efficient Lions’ offense that ranks 5th in points and 3rd in yards, 4th in yards per attempt in both the run and pass game, 7th in 3rd down conversions and 5th in red zone touchdown scoring rate.

Inefficient Defense

The issue for the Lions is that their defense has really struggled since their bye-week and is one of the worst units in the red zone. That puts a lot of pressure on their offense to deliver. A big reason behind the Lions’ struggling offense is that they really don’t have much help for Aiden Hutchenson, either on the line of scrimmage or in the secondary. The loss of DT Alim McNeil doesn’t help matters, although the return of safety CJ Gardner-Johnson would help shore up the back end some. Brian Branch has had a good rookie year at slot corner, but Cam Sutton has been a bit disappointing outside and the loss of Emmanuel Moseley has made the other outside corner spot a weak link. The Lions are also not strong in coverage at the linebacker spot and are bottom third in tight end production allowed.

Where the Lions’ defense has been strong is against the run, ranking 6th in yards per rush attempt allowed. Still, like the Lions’ defense in general, they’ve gotten worse in that metric since their bye-week, allowing 121 rush yards on average per game over the past six games.

Lastly, the Lions have not been efficient in generating takeaways on defense, ranking just 24th in that metric this season.

How the Lions and Vikings Matchup

In general, it’s a strength on strength matchup when the Lions have the ball, and a weakness on weakness matchup when the Vikings have the ball. But overall, the Vikings matchup well against the Lions. Here’s why.

Lions’ Offense vs. Vikings’ Defense

The Lions operate best when they remain on schedule offensively, allowing Jared Goff optimal conditions and to maintain an efficient, balanced attack. When Goff has a clean pocket and when he’s not blitzed, he has elite efficiency this season. The issue with Goff is that efficiency drops dramatically when he’s under pressure and when he’s blitzed.

For example, when Goff has a clean pocket this season, his overall PFF grade is 92.5 and his passer rating is 113.8. But when under pressure, those drop to 51.8 and 64.4 respectively. Obviously every quarterback is better with a clean pocket, but the differential with Goff this season is unusually large. Similarly, Goff has a 90.3 overall PFF grade when not blitzed vs. a 61.0 grade when he is blitzed. His passer rating goes from 102.7 to 89.2 when blitzed.

Those numbers will doubtless be known to Brian Flores, whose blitz-heavy scheme presents unique challenges for Goff and the Lions’ offense. Goff has faced a Flores defense on two other occasions- and fared rather badly on both occasions. The first occasion was the 2018 Super Bowl, when Goff completed just 50% of his passes (19/38) for a 57.6 passer rating and a 49.1 PFF grade. He had an interception and was sacked 4 times. The Rams managed just 3 points in that game. The second time was against the Dolphins in 2020. Goff went 35/61 and a 65.9 passer rating, with 2 interceptions and 2 fumbles lost and two sacks in another losing effort and a 37.1 PFF grade.

So, given that history it wouldn’t be surprising to see Flores dial up a lot of blitz fronts against Goff- and bring that pressure often.

The Vikings have the best defense the Lions have faced since their blowout loss to the Ravens 38-6, and another matchup advantage for the Vikings is that they’ve been stout against the run, ranking 4th in yards per rush allowed. If the Vikings are able to limit the Lions’ ground game, that could force Goff into less favorable passing situations, subject him to greater pressure and get the Lions’ offense off-schedule. That in turn could lead to more stalled drives and perhaps a turnover or two- as has been the case with Goff in the past against Flores’ defense.

Vikings’ Offense vs. Lions’ Defense

The Vikings matchup fairly well against the strength of the Lions’ defense in that they have two good tackles (even with David Quessenberry) to matchup against Aiden Hutchenson, their best defender. The interior of the Lions’ defensive line is average at best without Alim McNeil, who is out for the season, so that makes it easier on the Vikings’ iOL group in pass protection. That should allow for mostly clean pockets for Nick Mullens, and with Justin Jefferson, Jordan Addison, and TJ Hockenson out running routes, there should be opportunities in the passing game. The Lions have the 3rd worst PFF team coverage grade in the league.

The key of course is to get competent play from Mullens without the turnovers. I suspect the Lions will be willing to take some chances to pressure Mullens- who doesn’t grade well under pressure- in key situations to force punts and/or turnovers. It would certainly make sense for the Lions- and any other defense the Vikings play the rest of the season- to focus on disrupting Mullens rather than defending one of the best receiver groups in the league. But in the matchup with the Lions, it’s doubtful the Lions’ pass rush will get to Mullens much without sending extra defenders. Kevin O’Connell and Mullens should have a plan in place to cover Lions’ blitzes, keeping in a back or tight end or two to help pass protect as needed against the blitz.

As mentioned earlier, the strength of the Lions’ defense is in stopping the run, but it will be interesting to see how often the Vikings choose to test the Lions’ run defense. Ty Chandler had a breakout game against the Bengals- who struggle in run defense- so it will be interesting to see how well he fares against the Lions and how many carries he gets. It wouldn’t be surprising if the Lions had light boxes to better defend against the Vikings’ passing game, but that could allow for more production on the ground- particularly with Alim McNeil out who was their best run defender up front. I also wouldn’t be surprised if the Vikings test 5’9” 185-pound CB Khalil Dorsey in run defense, who doesn’t grade well in that regard, whether with outside runs or bubble screens to his side of the field.

Lastly, it will be a matchup of weaknesses when the Vikings have the ball when it comes to turnovers and in the red zone. The Vikings haven’t been good with either, and neither have the Lions defensively. Which side can gain the upper hand in these areas may well determine the outcome of these games.

Stay tuned.

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What will the Vikings’ record against the Lions be over the next month?

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