Patriots take away what opponents do best, but Lions may have the answers for it

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions tried doing things the “The Patriot Way” for 2½ years in the Bob Quinn-Matt Patricia era.

Lions fans know all too well how that turned out.

While it wasn’t emulated well in Detroit, Bill Belichick’s style has been widely successful in New England, resulting in six Super Bowl victories since 2001. One of the pillars of his system is a simple philosophy: “Eliminate ‘Option A.’ ”

“They’re never going to let the best player beat you, on either side of the ball,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said. “That is 100%, whatever you do well is what they’re going to try to take away, first and foremost.

“If you can find a way to win it without that, then OK; (Belichick) is playing the odds.”

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Fortunately for the Lions, figuring out what they do best on offense is a difficult task — they’re doing just about everything well through the first four weeks. The attack paces the NFL in points (35) and yards per game (436.8) while remaining balanced, ranking fifth in average passing yards (272.8) and sixth in average rushing yards (164).

Injuries to the Lions’ key skill position players also complicate matters: running back D’Andre Swift and wide receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and DJ Chark — all of whom missed Week 4’s 48-45 loss to Seattle due to injury — would normally be Belichick’s targets.

Wednesday afternoon, however, Campbell said St. Brown and Swift are “a little bit better” but remain day-to-day and their status for Sunday is undetermined.

So it’s up to the offensive staff, including tight ends coach and passing game coordinator Tanner Engstrand, to figure out the best way to counter New England’s expected plan of neutralization.

“They’ve done a great job for a long, long time and their recipe has been pretty steady,” Engstrand said of the Patriots. “It will be a challenge to get those playmakers in the right positions to get the ball, whether it’s — I don’t know if we need to disguise a few things this week, or who knows.

“But we know who the playmakers are, and that’s who’s probably going to get featured.”

Firmly on that list of playmakers for the Lions is tight end T.J. Hockenson. The fourth-year Lions isn’t an unknown commodity — the No. 10 overall pick in 2019 is the longest tenured Lions pass-catcher.

But prior to last week, his season was off to a slow start, with just 10 catches for 82 yards and a touchdown entering last Sunday.

He obliterated that in one afternoon against the Seahawks: eight catches for 179 yards and two touchdowns.

“It’s always good to have a standout performance like that,” Engstrand said. “I think it showed that he’s the same guy we expect him to be day in and day out, and the threat of that is still there.

“He’s the player we know he can be and is.”

Hockenson, however, missed practice on Wednesday (as did Chark, St. Brown, Swift, Josh Reynolds and Quintez Cephus); Campbell called it a “rest day” for several players.

The Lions are expecting at least some of them to play this weekend, but even if it’s not as many as hoped, quarterback Jared Goff proved last week he can produce with even a banged-up receiver group.

He completed 26 of 39 passes for 378 yards, four touchdowns and one interception without Chark, St. Brown and Swift, his top three weapons. Campbell said the offensive line, specifically tackles Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell and center Frank Ragnow, has been the anchor of the offense.

But Goff’s ability to spread the ball has made the Lions’ attack potent.

“The more the merrier,” Engstrand said. “The more (weapons) you have the harder it is for a defense. If you have a handful of guys that are threats and make big things and get explosive plays, then it does make it a challenge I think for the defense.

“So we will try to continue on our way of getting those and creating those explosive plays.”

The Lions have nine players with at least one “explosive play” this season — defined as a gain of 20 yards or more — with St. Brown and Swift recording them both receiving and rushing.

But Campbell anticipates the Patriots will focus on the Lions’ ground game, leading the NFL with 5.9 yards per carry.

“I would say the run game, certainly,” he said. “They have the ability to play multiple fronts out of the same personnel and they can mix it and shift it. So, there’s things that they’re going to be able to do to just mix it up, and I know this, you have too much stuff in, with all that they can do defensively, and it can really cloud you up and get you stuck a little bit. … Inevitably, he’ll do some things that we haven’t seen yet. He always does.

“So we have to be able to adapt and hit it on the run, make good adjustments.”

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