Standing at 1-3, the New England Patriots are still alive in the race for playoff positioning — there is a lot of football left to be played this season. That said, they need to show some urgency especially now that they are heading into the supposed easier stretch of their schedule.
That stretch is kicked off with a game against another 1-3 team, the Detroit Lions, on Sunday. The Lions and Patriots do not meet often — their last game took place in 2018 — but New England’s Week 5 opponent is an interesting one, as head coach Bill Belichick himself put it earlier this week.
“This is an interesting team to look at,” he said. “We haven’t seen them in several years here. It’s a very talented team. They are explosive, aggressive, and they really play that way consistently.”
The Lions are interesting for other reasons than their explosiveness and aggressiveness, though.
On offense, they are ranked first in the NFL with an average of 35.0 points scored per game. Defensively, meanwhile, they are on the opposite end of the spectrum: Detroit’s defense is ranked 32nd in the league, giving up 35.1 points on average. If they keep up their pace, they would become the first team since the 2000 St. Louis Rams to lead the league in scoring on offense while also ranking dead-last in the same category on defense.
Of course, a four-game sample size is still a relatively small one in the grand scheme of things. The Lions have potential to improve on defense, just like their standing as the top scoring offense might not be permanent either.
That all said, let’s focus on this week’s game and how the Patriots can find success against Detroit. Knowing what we know about the Lions, here is our best-guess estimation what New England will try to do on both sides of the ball to come away victoriously and live up to its status as 3.5-point favorites (via DraftKings Sportsbook).
Patriots offense vs. Lions defense
The Lions defense, as noted above, is ranked last in the NFL in points allowed. There are several factors contributing to this, but one thing can be said with some certainty: the unit is struggling against both the pass and the run.
As a consequence, the Patriots should be able to find some favorable matchups. The question, however, is how aggressive they will be going after them. New England, after all, will again be without regular starting quarterback Mac Jones and instead rely on fourth-round rookie quarterback Bailey Zappe in his first ever NFL start.
Zappe already saw extended action last week against the Green Bay Packers, when he entered the game in the late first quarter after Brian Hoyer suffered a concussion. The youngster had his moments, but it was obvious that the Patriots scaled back their offense quite a bit with him in the lineup: New England relied on its running game, with the only real threat of downfield passing coming in the form of play-action concepts.
In order to take advantage of the Lions’ insufficiencies in coverage, however, Zappe will need to have a longer leash. If New England’s coaches do feel comfortable letting the rookie be aggressive against certain matchups, there will be opportunities versus Detroit’s Cover 1-heavy scheme.
There have been several examples of teams exploiting 1-on-1s on the perimeter
Bailey Zappe wasn't afraid to go downfield outside vs 1-on-1 coverage in the preseason.— Taylor Kyles (@tkyles39) October 8, 2022
If NE feels comfortable letting the rookie be aggressive against certain matchups, there will be opportunities vs the Lions' Cover 1-heavy scheme pic.twitter.com/FLsTdD2VHv
While the Patriots’ passing game as a whole remains a work in progress — even more so with Bailey Zappe taking the snaps rather than Mac Jones — it would not be a surprise to see some downfield shots if the Lions’ perimeter cornerbacks are left on islands. New England also has the personnel to exploit these matchups if they present themselves.
DeVante Parker, for example, is a big-bodied target who might be able to out-box defenders. Likewise, Nelson Agholor and especially Tyquan Thornton — if he is active one day after returning off injured reserve — have the speed to stress Detroit’s defense deep.
When it comes to creating favorable matchups in the passing game, Patriots wide receiver Jakobi Meyers might be a player to watch. Meyers is expected to return to the lineup after missing last week’s game with a nagging knee injury, and he might see several targets come his way again — especially if he goes up against Lions nickel/slot cornerback Mike Hughes.
Calling Hughes a liability would be overstating it, but the 25-year-old has been given up quite a few explosive plays in coverage already. Per Pro Football Focus, he has allowed 16 receptions on 20 targets for 240 yards and a touchdown — resulting in a passer rating of 133.3 when targeted.
Given that he lines up primarily in the slot, the Patriots should be able to create 1-on-1s that are advantageous from their perspective. Hughes, after all, has had particular issues against crosser and corner routes.
Take the following play against the Washington Commanders in Week 2:
Hughes (23) is playing eight yards off at the snap, and while he anticipated his man — Terry McLaurin (17) — to break to the inside he is not fast enough out of his back-pedal to reach him before he makes the 18-yard reception. Obviously, Jakobi Meyers lacks the same straight-line speed that McLaurin has but he has proven himself a crafty receiver on these types of routes.
This, in turn, might give him an advantage over Hughes. The same is also true for the aforementioned Nelson Agholor and Tyquan Thornton. Both are faster than Meyers and while not as refined as route-runners could also be able to challenge the Lions out of the slot.
Zappe might just find his opportunities to take deep shots, either down the sidelines or on crossing patterns. Neither he nor the Patriots should be afraid of attempting them.
Obviously, though, the team will not overhaul its offensive principles just because the Lions defense is inviting a more aggressive approach. New England will still be a run-first attack, with the passing concepts primarily building off of it.
That does make sense, given the Lions’ defensive mindset. As Bill Belichick mentioned several times this week, the Lions defense is an aggressive one.
“Very aggressive team,” he said on Wednesday. “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.”
While aggressiveness can lead to some positive results, more often than not it has burned Detroit. As outlined above, the Cover 1 scheme has created opportunities for opponents. Likewise, play-action concepts or quick-hit pass plays versus the blitz might yield positive results as well.
The same is true for the running game: pairing an aggressive approach up front with an undersized linebacker group has led to some explosive runs outside — a big reason why the Lions are ranked 32nd in the league EPA per rush (0.163)
On this play, off-ball linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez (44) and Alex Anzalone (34) react to the pre-snap motion and flow to their right. They move aggressively up the field as soon as the ball is snapped, but suddenly find themselves in unfavorable angles to impact the play. With both unable to pursue from the second level, Seattle Seahawks running back Kenneth Walker (9) was able to gain 13 yards.
That play is emblematic for the Lions’ issues versus the run. The aggressiveness up front is too much at times, and can be exploited by misdirection concepts.
The same is also true in the passing game where Detroit is calling blitz at the third-highest rate in the NFL (37.6%), but is only ranked 17th in pressure rate (24.1%).
If the Patriots’ communication is on-point down in the trenches, Bailey Zappe should therefore not have to deal with too much pressure outside of aggressive blitzes. And if he and the team can set up its counters through quick concepts, misdirection or the run — and by targeting favorable matchups across the board — they should be fine.
Patriots defense vs. Lions offense
While it will be without its most productive running back — D’Andre Swift has been ruled out due to shoulder and ankle issues — the Lions running game is still a serious threat. Not only is it ranked first in the NFL in yards per attempt (5.9) and second in EPA per run play (0.098), it also will be going up against a New England defense that has had some major issues in this area as of late.
So, what will the unit be up against this week? A gap-based running scheme that has been able to create favorable angles and simply power people off the point of attack.
“They do a number of things well,” said Bill Belichick. “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. They set it up so that if you’re stopping one thing, you can’t stop the complimentary play that goes with it, whether it’s a complimentary run or complimentary pass. They execute well. Their backs are good. They make a lot of yards on their own; some of those plays are not blocked for the amount of yardage that they get.”
Belichick went on to mention that tackling will be key against the Lions, and for good reason. The aforementioned 5.9 yards per carry did not happen by coincidence.
Of course, it all starts with allowing the backs to get in a position to reach the open field and challenge opponents’ tackling technique. The scheme is a big reason for that, so let’s take a closer look at what a gap scheme actually is.
Our friends over at Mile High Report did a good job explaining it in simple terms, so we will just copy-paste what they said about gap blocking:
A gap scheme run is built around the principle that linemen will block down to use their leverage on a defender. On the vast majority of gap concepts, there’s a pulling guard creating a numbers advantage. On these concepts, the playside offensive linemen block down the line of scrimmage, making it look as though they’re blocking away from the gap where the ball carrier is running. This will leave a defender unaccounted for who is blocked by a puller from the backside. The goal is to create a hole between the puller and down blocks.
Here is what this looks like in action:
The Lions are executing their blocks to perfection here. Left tackle Taylor Decker (68) first chips the down-lineman before charging up the field to engage off-ball linebacker T.J. Edwards (57). With right tackle Penei Sewell (58) coming around the formation as a pull blocker, a whole is created for D’Andre Swift (32) to charge through.
So, what can the Patriots do to counter this kind of blocking? Gap integrity will be key for the defense, as will be taking sound angles against cut blocks. If New England — especially their off-ball linebackers — overruns the play just slightly, the Lions’ impressive O-line might be invited to simply move them away from the play ever so slightly to give the running back a chance to burst through a hole.
Detroit is also one of the NFL’s best teams in red zone and short-yardage situations, and top running back Jamaal Williams is a big part of that. He already has four goal line scores this season and six total, using anticipation and vision, efficient footwork, low pads, and great balance to find openings and finish runs.
Even with D’Andre Swift — the other half of the Lions’ prolific two-headed running back monster out — Detroit should be able to threaten the Patriots’
What the Lions are also doing quite well is taking care of the football. Detroit has turned the football over just four times, with Jared Goff tossing three interceptions and the team also losing one fumble. But while the team has been one of the most turnover-averse in the league this season, Goff has also gotten pretty lucky with some dropped interceptions.
He doesn’t always catch defenders in position to jump routes and has had some late reads result in turnover-worthy plays. From a Patriots perspective, the goal has to be clear: finish those plays and take advantage of potential interceptions coming the defense’s way.
A player such as rookie cornerback Jack Jones, who has been aggressive ever since coming aboard and has had a pick-six against the Packers last week, will be worth keeping an eye on. With Jalen Mills again questionable to play, Jones might get another shot at starting and him catching another INT would not be a surprise if he can bait Goff into targeting him.