Allen Park — The Detroit Lions opened the season having to cope with the schematic wizardly of San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan. And on Monday, they were tasked with slowing reigning MVP and longtime tormenter Aaron Rodgers under the bright lights of prime time at Lambeau Field.
If you thought maybe, just maybe the schedule would start to ease up three weeks into the season, guess again. On Sunday, the Lions welcome the Baltimore Ravens to town, led by another former MVP, and arguably the greatest dual-threat quarterback the league has ever seen in Lamar Jackson.
There will be no rest for these weary Lions, facing an 0-3 start for the first time since 2015.
Through those first two games, the Lions surrendered 76 points. To be fair, that’s not all on the defense, but the unit does rank in the bottom half of the league in yards allowed and have been even worse on a per-play basis.
The Ravens, on the other hand, have racked up 887 yards and 63 points through two weeks and are coming off a thrilling, come-from-behind win over Kansas City, a popular Super Bowl pick in the AFC.
In that victory, Jackson did what he often does, throwing for 239 yards and rushing for another 107 yards and two scores. He fuels a Ravens rushing attack that’s paced the league each of the past two seasons and is averaging 48 more yards than the next-best team this year.
“This guy is a rare breed,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said, noting the closest thing he’s seen to Jackson was Michael Vick. “The fact he has the explosiveness and the speed that he has, and certainly being able to throw the ball. Because the minute you start trying to take all that stuff away — and you have to have a jump on it, you have to have a step where you need to be to get to your gap — that’s when they go right behind you.”
It’s obviously not just Jackson powering the Ravens’ ground game. The team also presents the challenge of a three-headed backfield attack, led by Ty’Son Williams, an undrafted free agent who spent his first season on the team’s practice squad.
With his first 22 NFL carries, Williams is averaging 6.5 yards per carry. Amazingly enough, he’s technically the team’s fourth option after they lost J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards and Justice Hill to season-ending injuries days before the start of the season.
Williams is complemented by veterans Latavius Murray and Devonta Freeman, a pair of recent additions necessitated by those backfield injuries. Murray has carried the ball 19 times the first two weeks, scoring in each contest, while Freeman broke free for a 31-yard gain on his first carry in a Ravens uniform last week.
Still, Campbell would prefer to see it in any of their hands over Jackson’s.
“All three of them have done a good job,” Campbell said. “But it does start with that quarterback. He’s dynamic and I think keeping him away from the open field — let’s find a way to force him to hand the ball off is really what you’re looking for.”
Against the Ravens, the defensive game plan will look significantly different than it did when the Lions played the Packers on Monday night. When defending Rodgers, the focus was on taking away the deep passing game. That meant playing a lot of Cover-2, with both safeties deep at the snap to provide over-the-top support for the team’s young cornerbacks.
Starting safeties Tracy Walker and Will Harris will be equally, if not more, important against the Ravens, but in an entirely different role.
“I think you have to play a lot of down-safety defense and you have to be gapped out, truly gapped out, where we know exactly where our (run) fits are at,” Campbell said. “… There’s a lot of eye candy (with their run game),” Campbell continued. “Man, I just think our safeties are going to be a huge part of this game for us to have success. They’ve got to be where they need to be and ready to fill (gaps).”
When preparing for the Ravens, many teams will utilize practice-squad receivers and running backs to simulate Jackson’s running ability, but Campbell wants a different focus. He’s more concerned about that “eye candy,” the shifts and motions the Ravens incorporate to create clearer runs lanes for Jackson and his backs.
With that in mind, the team will be leaning on backup David Blough to run the scout-team offense this week.
“Look, first you’ve just got to get the functionality of it,” Campbell said. “I know Blough can do all that stuff. He gets the shifts, the motions. It’s not just getting back there and simulating read-run. It’s like here comes these jet turbo motions, so by the time you try to orchestrate it with a receiver sometimes, it’s not all that, unless you know they’ve been an ex-quarterback and they’ve run that in college.
“Now, you can only do so much, but just to be able to functionally see it and react to it goes a long way.”
Speaking of Detroit’s offense, Campbell pinned Monday’s loss on the unit. After taking a 17-14 lead at the half, the Lions failed to score the final two quarters in the 35-17 defeat, turning the ball over four times, including twice on downs.
Going into that game, the coach placed an emphasis on the offense being a key part of the defensive game plan’s success, keeping ball away from the Rodgers and the potent Packers offense. This week, Campbell is echoing those sentiments heading into the matchup against the Ravens.
“The key for us, man, how do we get them in third-and-long,” Campbell said. “It’s easier said than done. I think our offense is going have a huge part of this. If we can find a way to get up on these guys and put a little more pressure on them, get them in third-and-long. If we can force them into more known passing downs, you know, that will help us.”
The Lions offense still has plenty of its own kinks to work out, but impressively showed an ability to move the ball efficiently in that first half against the Packers, scoring on three of four possessions.
And, if the Ravens have a weakness to start the season, it’s been their defense. Not only did they give up 35 to the Chiefs last week, but also 33 in a season-opening loss to the Las Vegas Raiders.
“I think our offense is every bit as important to this whole thing as our defense,” Campbell said.