The Detroit Lions (1-1) are traveling to Minnesota in Week 3 to take on the Minnesota Vikings in a battle of 1-1 NFC North teams. The Lions lost a close game to the Eagles in Week 1, then handled the Commanders in Week 2, while the Vikings easily took care of the Packers in Week 1, then followed that up by taking a beating against the Eagles.
Let’s take a closer look at the key things the Lions need to do against the Vikings in order to get their second win of the season.
Key matchup: Lions’ gap run scheme vs Vikings’ new 34 defense
The Vikings have a new coaching staff and with it comes a new defense. Gone is Mike Zimmer’s blitzing 43 and in its place is a more modern 34 base front run by Ed Donatell. Before joining the Vikings, Donatell spent the last three seasons as the Broncos defensive coordinator under then-head coach Vic Fangio. Fangio is largely credited with designing and executing the modern-day 34, which has been copied throughout the NFL because of its adaptability and ability to disguise. Donatell has followed suit, implementing this scheme in Minnesota.
Last May, The Athletic’s Ted Nguyen wrote a very thorough article breaking down the concepts of Fangio’s scheme, calling him the most influential defensive coordinator in the modern NFL.
“The popularity of the outside zone system that stems from Kyle Shanahan and Sean McVay has led to more teams employing a Vic Fangio-style defense, which asks defensive linemen to play slower and take on a gap-and-a-half, rather than fly upfield and play only one gap,” Nguyen wrote on Thursday. “Theoretically, the defense can live in light boxes and invest more personnel in defending the pass as long as its front can slow down ball carriers long enough for the secondary to help.”
But here’s where things get fun for the Lions.
“(Fangio’s scheme) works well against zone runs because offensive linemen move laterally, but the Lions like to run right into the teeth of defenses with authority,” Nguyen continued. “They want their offensive line, one of the best in the league, firing off vertically and punishing defenders.”
In Nguyen’s thorough breakdown of the Lions rushing attack—which is an absolute must-read—he highlights a ridiculous amount of things that make it so difficult to defend, and the positive results that come from their execution. The most impressive stat arguably is:
“the Lions lead the league in yards before contact per rush (3.79)”
Essentially, what that means is, the Lions offensive line is getting so much push upfront that they are blocking holes large enough for the running backs to gain nearly 4 yards per carry before they are even touched by a defender. Scary.
When you examine the Lions running backs’ yards after contact stats, things get even more impressive. D’Andre Swift is averaging 5.35 yards after contact, Craig Reynolds is at 4.33 yards, while Jamaal Williams has 1.96 yards, though he has typically been used in short-yardage situations. Double scary.
On top of the Lions positive rushing stats, the Vikings rushing defense has been picked apart through two weeks. Against the Packers and Eagles combined—admittedly two solid rushing teams—the Vikings have allowed 274 yards on 52 carries and three touchdowns. That’s an average of 5.27 yards allowed per rush, which ranks 28th in the NFL.
Bottom line: this may be the Lions biggest advantage and they need to continue to funnel their offense through the trenches.
Make it rain under the umbrella
Another staple in Fangio’s scheme was on display during the Vikings-Eagles game on “Monday Night Football”: The Fangio Shell.
Here’s a look at a basic 1st and 10 at mid-field for the Eagles:
Essentially, the Vikings are trying to disguise their coverage by shifting around the underneath players with an umbrella concept over the top. This keeps the play in front of the defenders, allows them to attack, and takes away some traditional zones you would find in basic Cover-2 (like the famous turkey-hole).
The Eagles rarely strayed far from this basic design because they wanted to reduce the chances of getting beat on the big play, as well as corral Jalen Hurts if he scrambled.
Here’s how the above play went:
The Vikings corners are respecting the Eagles receivers’ speed and giving a huge cushion—averaging 9-yards throughout the game—which allows Hurts to take the easy option and find his guy for a quick five yards. But look at the middle of the field, where the Eagles have two skill players running free at the first down marker. A little bit more patience, or scanning, by Hurts and he could’ve taken a bigger shot. But Hurts took the easy completion because frankly, it was there all night.
Vikings cornerback Cameron Dantzler was targeted eight times by Hurts, and he allowed five catches for just 31 yards. The rest of the secondary allowed 16 receptions on 16 targets for 205 yards. Meanwhile, the linebackers allowed just five of their seven targets but gave up 97 yards through the air. Hurts essentially just took what was there and moved down the field to the tune of 333 yards passing, completing 26 of 31 passing attempts.
With the Lions rushing attack being a potentially big problem for the Vikings, they may continue to try and deploy the Fangio shell against the Lions and keep the play in front of them. If they do, the middle of the field is the most vulnerable, and that means the Lions should focus a heavy amount of attention towards Amon-Ra St. Brown and T.J. Hockenson when they go to the air in this game.
Earn the right to rush the passer
“When we get (non-mobile) quarterbacks and we get an opportunity to pin our ears back, I think we have the capabilities of getting after quarterbacks,” Lions defensive line coach Todd Wash told the media this week. “But we have to do a good job on first and second (down). We did that last week. Like I’ve said, we’ve talked about, if you earn the right to rush, I think we will get there. But the thing we preach in there is we have to earn the right first and stop the run.”
The Lions coaches have constantly preached that good defense starts at stopping the run, and that means focusing on Dalvin Cook.
“The biggest thing with him (Cook) is–and we do have a lot of respect for him,” Wash said. “I think he’s one of the best backs in the league. We believe they’re going to feed him this week and try to get him going… So we’ve got to be disciplined with our gap accountability and stay in a little bit longer than we normally do, just to not allow a cutback.”
The Vikings handed the ball off to Cook 20 times against the Packers in week 1 and he gave them 90 yards on the ground. In Week 2, he only saw six carries for an underwhelming 17 yards.
The Vikings scheme—modeled after the Los Angeles Rams—tends to be more pass-heavy, to begin with, and they showed in Week 2, that if you take the run away, they have no problems leaving it behind and putting the ball in their quarterback’s hands.
Bracket Justin Jefferson
“There’s no doubt he’s one of the top five (receivers) in this League and he’s steady rising,” Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said of Jefferson. “He plays with a chip on his shoulder, he’s competitive, highly competitive. They put him in a lot of different positions, right, where they can give him the ball which I think is a credit to that staff.”
Against the Packers, they tried to man up Jefferson and he went off for 184 yards on nine catches and two touchdowns. The Eagles took a different, bracket approach, and limited him to 48 yards on six catches and Cousins also threw two interceptions when targeting Jefferson.
“They have guys play over top of them, so they didn’t want to get beat deep and they just played hard, man” Glenn discussed the Eagles’ approach. “They have a really good defense and they do things the right way, the way defense should be played. And I’ll look at every team’s defense and see how they operate and like any coach I think we’ll look and see if you can pick up tips of what they’ve done. But we’ll have our own plan, that we feel they’ll go out there and be successful against them, and that’s what we’re going to use.”
Ideally, that game plan will have more Eagles influences than Packers.
Dial up the blitz
The Lions have been racking up the pressures this season, and through two games, they have registered 50 to their credit per PFF, the most of any team in the NFL.
A big reason for this uptick in pressures this season is the willingness of Glenn to dial up the blitz. Per PFF, through two weeks, Glenn has called a blitz on 39 of the Lions 95 defensive snaps against the pass and they have produced 19 pressures.
That could be bad news for Cousins, who has struggled against the blitz this season.
Cousins has only been blitzed 19 times this season, and while collectively they only resulted in nine pressures, his PFF score drops from 69.2 (with a clean pocket) down to 33.7 grade. Last week, he was blitzed 12 times, and every time Cousins managed to get a throw away, but he only completed four of those passes (for 21 yards), and another two of them were intercepted.
The Lions should benefit from Glenn staying aggressive.