The regular season is finally here.
As we have in past seasons, we will take an in-depth look at the Kansas City Chiefs’ opponents and discuss what it will take for them to come out on top. Every team provides a unique challenge and will require a different game plan.
First up are the Detroit Lions. Check out our offseason report about the Lions, where you’ll find information about their offseason moves and key players.
Chiefs' defense vs. Lions' offense
Dan Campbell is entering his third season as Detroit’s head coach. In 2022 Campbell appointed Ben Johnson as his offensive coordinator, who proved to be one of the brightest offensive minds in the NFL. Johnson elevated the Lions’ offense from 22nd overall in 2021 to fourth in 2022. The success of his offensive scheme begins with a diverse rushing attack.
Johnson wants to run the ball out of as many different formations as possible. He then re-uses those same formations to run play-action fakes off of. One of the keys to his success is pre-snap motion. Detroit used pre-snap motion 22 percent of the time last season, the ninth-highest in the league.
When defenders continuously see the same formations and motions over and over again, it becomes a guessing game whether or not the Lions will run or pass. It becomes even more difficult when they’re running the ball well, which the Lions absolutely can. They ranked 11th in rushing last season and have the fifth-best offensive line in the NFL per Pro Football Focus.
Detroit has a new-look backfield in 2023 with rookie Jahmyr Gibbs and veteran David Montgomery. Look for Montgomery to get early down work and Gibbs to be in on third down and passing situations. There could also be packages with Montgomery and Gibbs on the field together, especially near the goal line.
Perhaps Ben Johnson’s biggest success from last year was the resurgence of Jared Goff, who went from trending towards becoming a backup to ranking in the top 10 among quarterbacks in passing yards and touchdowns. Goff thrives off a successful running game and play-action.
Goff has a talented group of receivers to throw to, including Pro Bowler Amon-Ra St. Brown, Jameson Williams (who is suspended and will not play in this game), and Marvin Jones Jr. The Lion receivers are often trusted to run option routes, where they get to choose whether to break inside, outside, or settle in an open spot against zone coverage.
The K.C. defense will no doubt have its hands full against a now elite Lions offense. The priority for the Chiefs has to be slowing down Detroit’s running game. If the Lions run the ball at will Goff will have plenty of opportunities for big passes down the field off of play-action. It will also allow Detroit to control the clock and keep the Chiefs’ offense sidelined.
If the Lions’ rushing attack is contained, Goff will have to carry the offense with his arm during obvious passing situations. That would be a big plus for the K.C. defense, but there’s another obstacle it must overcome: being without Chris Jones.
Defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo must get creative with bringing pressure without his star defensive tackle. That could include using linebackers Willie Gay and Leo Chenal as defensive ends at times and blitzing them more often. Both players have exceptional speed to get to the quarterback.
Spagnuolo could utilize his famous NASCAR pass-rushing package more often, where he removes the defensive tackles and has only defensive ends and linebackers playing in the front seven. That creates a speedy and unpredictable pass rush, which could spell trouble for the immobile Goff, potentially leading to sacks and errant throws.
Chiefs' offense vs. Lions' defense
Despite Detroit finishing dead last in total defense last season, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn was not only retained, but he received a multi-year contract extension. The Lions invested a lot into their defense during the offseason, particularly in the secondary, adding defensive backs Cameron Sutton, Emmanuel Moseley, and C.J. Gardner-Johnson.
Glenn runs a base 4-3 defense, with his front seven playing a gap-and-a-half scheme. Gap-and-a-half is where the defense clogs the middle in order to bounce running plays to the outside, allowing the linebacker or box safety to make the tackle. If the ball carrier runs up the middle, he will almost certainly be swallowed up.
With that in mind, the natural counter to the gap-and-a-half scheme is outside zone runs. If the ball carrier can avoid the clog in the middle and get to the edge, he should have a wall of blockers to run behind as the offensive linemen kick outside.
This puts a lot of pressure on the linebacker or safety to shed blocks and make the tackle, which is why they invested in Gardner-Johnson and rookie linebacker Jack Campbell. Zone running is a staple of the Chiefs’ offense, so there should be opportunities for success. The Chiefs have an athletic offensive line that can kick out to the perimeter and clear paths for the running backs.
Aaron Glenn is also a heavy blitzer. The Lions had the seventh-highest blitzing percentage in the league last season and the second-most quarterback hurries, but ranked just 18th in sacks. We know by now that aggressively blitzing Patrick Mahomes is a death warrant for a defense, so it will be interesting to see if Glenn dials it down a bit.
Back in the secondary Detroit plays a lot of Cover-1, which features one deep safety and multiple defenders in man-to-man coverage underneath. With only one safety roaming in the back, the defense is susceptible to the deep ball. Glenn will be counting on the athleticism of his defensive backs to hold their own against the Chiefs’ receivers.
The Lions’ secondary may be revamped, but it hasn’t gelled yet. Expect Andy Reid and Mahomes to test the new Detroit defensive backs by stretching the field with double moves against man coverage, especially if the Chiefs’ offensive line is winning the line of scrimmage.