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Scouting the Lions: Patriots Readying for a Throwback Sunday in More Ways Than One

The Lions top-ranked offense features an old-school focus on the running game.

Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams (30).
Detroit Lions running back Jamaal Williams (30).

The Patriots rocking their red throwback jerseys for their Week 5 matchup against the Lions isn't the only old-school element about Sunday's game. 

Although it could just be an opening month mirage, scoring is at a five-year low across the NFL (21.9 PPG), and the Detroit Lions somehow lead the league in scoring. Yes, the Jared Goff-led Lions have more total points than Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, and all the star quarterbacks who were supposedly taking over the league. The biggest question is how? 

Based on current trends, scoring is down because passing efficiency is also trending downward. With NFL defenses built both schematically and personnel-wise to limit the passing game, the Shanahan and spread systems are being slowed by an uptick in two-deep safety coverages and the Fangio-style system (cover-two, quarters, cover-six).

With things geared toward defending the pass, some offenses are pivoting to running the ball. If you play out of lighter boxes with lighter personnel, we will run it down your throats. As a result, rushing effectiveness is also up league-wide through four weeks. 

Running the football is back in style like Pat Patriot, and this week's matchup is very fittingly pitting two of the best rush offenses that the NFL has to offer in the Lions and Patriots. 

By turning back the clock, Detroit head coach Dan Campbell, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, and assistant head coach Duce Staley are orchestrating a throwback offense that's bullying defenses on the ground.

Table inside Article
EPA PER RUSH +0.098 (2ND)
DVOA 12.5% (4TH)

The Lions are leading the league in yards per rush attempt (5.9), are second in expected points added per rush (+0.098), and are third in yards before contact (279), meaning an offensive line with three first-round picks is making huge rushing lanes for running backs D'Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams.

As for the Patriots, they're third in expected points added per rush (+0.095), and their 51 percent rushing success rate is the best mark in the NFL. Plus, Detroit and New England rank fourth and tenth in early-down rushing frequency (excludes the final two minutes of each half).

Both teams go about running the football effectively in slightly different ways. The Lions are an under-center, downhill, gap-scheme bully. Detroit is under-center at the third-highest rate (48.9%) and is second in yards per play from under-center this season (6.6).

"They do a number of things well. They use an extra offensive lineman probably as much as any team in the league. Their backs are good. They run a lot of gap schemes. They marry up the runs and play-actions well. So, if we stop the run, it's hard to stop the play-action. They do a good job at marrying those together. They do a good job at hitting across the board the width of the running game. Outside, there are a lot of off-tackles plays. Inside, there are cut-back plays. Things like that. They have a good scheme with a good, balanced attack," head coach Bill Belichick told this week.

The Lions most frequent run-blocking scheme is either trap or long trap plays. In a trap scheme, the offensive line lets a defensive lineman through unblocked initially to either double-team or climb to the second level. From there, a puller comes across the formation to block that unblocked defender from the side angle and kick them out at the point of attack.

Here is a perfect example of why the Lions have been so successful on the ground this season. The Seahawks are in a two-high safety shell with only six defenders in the box. Detroit runs a long trap scheme where the right side double-teams on the line of scrimmage, and tight end T.J. Hockenson lets the defensive end through to climb to the linebacker. Left guard Dan Skipper executes the trap block on the unblocked end, and Williams houses it from 51 yards out.

With the running game setting up the pass in Detroit, quarterback Jared Goff has the fourth-best passer rating (119.1) and a five-to-one touchdown to interception ratio off play-action.

In a 45-point performance against the Seahawks last week, the Lions put Seattle's cover-three zones in conflict by flooding the deep zones with vertical concepts.

After allowing 388 rushing yards over the last two weeks, the Patriots defense is 31st in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric this season. New England brought in reinforcements by bringing back old friend Jamie Collins, suggesting that linebacker play is an area of concern.

Knowing the Lions downhill rushing attack will shred two-high safety structures, expect the Patriots to play with an extra defender in the box to load up against the run. Furthermore, seeing the Lions create big plays off play-action against zone coverage could lead to another man coverage-heavy plan, especially if top receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (ankle) can't play.

The Patriots run defense needs a big turnaround as it faces another formidable test, with the Lions visiting Gillette Stadium this week.

Patriots Offense vs. Lions Defense

Although starting quarterback Mac Jones (ankle) is "pushing" to start this weekend, the more likely scenario is that rookie Bailey Zappe gets the nod.

Top backup Brian Hoyer remains in concussion protocol, so it'll probably be Zappe with practice squad quarterback Garrett Gilbert as the backup.

With that said, the Lions defense plays an aggressive brand of football under defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn, and over-aggressiveness is why Detroit is ranked dead-last in Football Outsiders' DVOA metric (24th vs. pass, 32nd vs. run).

After playing for Bill Belichick in the 1990s, Glenn's coaching roots are with Saints head coach Dennis Allen. The Lions play over 40 percent of their passing snaps in man coverage, and dial-up cover zero at a league-high rate (20 plays). By today's standards, a man-blitz defense.

"Very aggressive team. A lot of pressure. It's probably as much or in the ballpark as Miami. From a percentage standpoint, they bring a lot of people. Secondary players, linebackers, and things like that," Belichick told reporters on Wednesday.

Last week, Seahawks quarterback Geno Smith exposed the Lions blitz schemes in a 48-point offensive explosion where Smith was 7-of-10 for 85 yards and a touchdown against the blitz. However, many of Smith's big plays came by throwing deep passes against all-out pressure.

With a rookie quarterback under center, the Patriots might want to go a more conservative route. Obviously, the Pats have a favorable matchup with their top-ranked rush offense against Detroit's last-place run defense that they'll try to use to their advantage. But, as we saw last week, eventually, Zappe will need to make a play or two with his arm to get a win.

Due to their overaggressive nature, Seattle made easy completions through play-action, and Smith's numbers off play-action were superb: 13-of-17, 139 yards, and two touchdowns.

Since the Lions like to bring pressure and are easily manipulated, the Seahawks moved the pocket with bootleg play-action rather than traditional drop-back play-action. Moving the pocket made it easier to keep Smith clean if Detroit did blitz and presented the quarterback with easy throws in the flats on "slide" routes where the misdirection and receivers do most of the work. It sounds like a good way to help out a rookie QB in his first career start.

Although play-action was successful for Seattle, they were even more efficient by spreading out the Lions defense and operating their passing game from the shotgun.

Expecting man-blitz schemes on third down, the Seahawks got easy conversions by running pick plays and involving their running backs out of the backfield against man schemes. Like with play-action, these rub routes were easy throws for the quarterback.

If the Patriots find themselves in a situation where Zappe needs to make a play, the Lions will test the rookie's ability to handle pressure, which was an issue for him in Green Bay.

New England needs to calm Zappe down when he feels the rush closing the pocket and giving him clean looks off play-action and man coverage beaters are ways to help.

Key Matchups

1. Pats S Kyle Dugger vs. Lions TE T.J. Hockenson

Hockenson is quickly becoming one of the league's elite tight ends. He has good vertical burst to run the seam, impressive deception and shiftiness in his routes, and is a plus-run blocker. One Patriots defender compared his receiving skills to Ravens tight end Mark Andrews. Depending on Amon-Ra St. Brown's status, it wouldn't surprise us to see Belichick draw up bracket coverage/double-teams on Hockenson in critical situations (third down).

2. Pats DT Davon Godchaux vs. Lions C Frank Ragnow

For the Pats defense to successfully slow down Detroit's rushing attack, the matchup in the middle needs to go New England's way. With a gap-heavy scheme comes interior double-teams, so Godchaux and company better absorb those blocks without much movement, or it'll be a long day. Ragnow is a terrific player with above-average athleticism and nastiness.

Second-year right tackle Penei Sewell is also among the best players at his position despite being just 21 years old. Sewell's explosiveness out of his stance to generate power and favorable angles in his pass sets is next level.

3. Pats RT Isaiah Wynn vs. Lions DE Aiden Hutchinson

This is less about being super impressed with Hutchinson and more about Wynn. The second overall pick has been fine, with 14 QB pressures and his three sacks coming in one game. He gets free a lot as an unblocked rusher, and they're weaponizing Hutchinson by moving him around some. But he mainly rushes over the right tackle. The clock is ticking for Wynn to turn this around, or Marcus Cannon will take his spot in short order.

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