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Lions 5-2 Defense Could Present Problems

Anzalone Brockers Lions
Jeff Nguyen/Detroit Lions
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On the face of it, given the plethora of Ravens’ vulnerable knees, this is the worst possible time to be playing Dan Campbell’s knee-biting squad. 

No, I won’t stop using that reference as a joke.

In truth, the Lions are a potential trap game for the Ravens but one which they should win in Motor City on Sunday afternoon at a relative canter. Here’s how:

Offensive Keys 

Flip the script on 1st Down

Let’s get this out of the way, because praising Greg Roman isn’t the most popular opinion amongst Ravens fans, but Monday night was Roman’s Sistine Chapel. A masterpiece of play-calling, the likes of which we are unlikely to witness again. He kept the Chiefs defense, a defense I might add that had his proverbial number both times Spagnuolo has faced Roman, off-balance and guessing all game. Let down by execution on occasion, Roman stuck to a masterful game plan that involved a heavy dose of running the ball and his calling card: unfathomable variety in the run calls that leads to a monster day on the ground.

Going into Detroit is an entirely different task. The Lions’ Defensive Coordinator is Aaron Glenn, who came from New Orleans with new Head Coach Dan Campbell in the off-season. The Saints defense has been in the top five, in terms of efficiency in stopping the run, the last three years running. They have done this with a heavy dose of 5-2, which lines up five Defensive Linemen at the line of scrimmage, when not in sub-packages. 

While the Saints, playing in an often pass-happy NFC South, moved into four-man fronts in sub-packages, the Lions and Glenn employed the 5-2 with regularity in Week 1 against the 49ers. I do envisage a similar approach from Glenn and the Lions against the Ravens on Sunday, given the two teams’ similarly heavy usage of the run game. The Ravens should still be able to run the ball… but more on how to do that later.

What I think the Ravens will need to do on Sunday, perhaps frustratingly for many fans who’d like to see Roman run the ball every down, is flip the script somewhat and build in plenty of tendency-busters to catch the Lions with the absolute wrong personnel to stop the Ravens passing game. The Lions will have serious respect for the Ravens rushing offense, as they did for San Francisco’s. They will prioritize stopping the run first and make Lamar Jackson beat them with his arm. 

I say, let them.

I say, lean into it. Come out throwing on first down. Run play-action and get Mark Andrews and Marquise Brown going early against this defense. The big 5-2 front is not predicated on getting up field quickly and is more interested in keeping everything inside, so play action should works all day. I’d like to see Andrews matched up on Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone in coverage. This Lions defense is hurting and their Linebackers are not built to stand out in pass coverage. 

The Secondary, specifically, is a mess. Jeff Okudah is gone for the year and he was their brightest star, albeit still rough around the edges, in a largely below-par defensive backfield. I liked Amani Oruwariye coming out last year but he is not the guy you want as your number one CB, one week into a long season. With Ifeatu Melifonwu now on IR, we don’t know who will likely partner with him in the top CB tandem, with A.J. Parker in the slot, but the Lions will roll out UDFAs that they like, in Jerry Jacobs and Bobby Price too. Corey Ballentine and Nickell Robey-Coleman offer veteran possibilities but even so, this is a pass defense that the Ravens need to shred, should they have any hopes of a deep postseason run. 

In addition to working play-action, look for the Ravens to get the ball into their playmakers’ hands on short throws, hopefully continuing the Sunday night trend of Lamar taking what the defense gives him. I’ve mentioned the likely mismatches we are to see when the Ravens receivers face off against their counterparts but I also think a five-man rush with lane discipline will likely keep Lamar in the pocket more often than not. If he can get the ball out quickly, the other challenge the Lions have had, is tackling. The Ravens aren’t the most prolific YAC team but their playmakers have the chance to pad their stats this Sunday afternoon. 

One extra thing to keep an eye on, courtesy of Cole Jackson, is stunts and games against the Offensive Line. With a five-man front, the Lions can get creative with this, despite significant improvement against the Chiefs, this OL has not yet shown a consistent ability to deal with this.

RPO and True Triple Option

There are a wealth of casual references to the option offense, all of which, disturbingly blasé about referring to a giant cross-section of football strategy under one umbrella term. The term often used for this is RPO. Football verbiage isn’t often helpful and different coaches use different terms to refer to the same concepts. Where we can be clear though, is that the Ravens run mostly the Veer Option, which is when the Quarterback reads defenders to decide which of the optional ball-carriers in the offense, usually just himself or the Running Back, ultimately carry the ball. 

The Lions will be well set up to counter the Veer Option with their five-man defensive front. This front was actually devised in the 70’s to counter the proliferation of option football and the horizontal stretching of the field. This would mean it would be surprising if we see the more traditional Veer Option play that we are used to seeing the Ravens run with Lamar pulling the ball at the mesh point and running to the outside. There is always the Lamar Jackson factor though, so you might see an early Veer Read to test whether Flowers or Okwara can live with Lamar around the edge. 

It might also be surprising if the handoff to the RB on the Veer Read or the QB keeper on the Inverted Veer works as well in this game, as it’s predicated on the defense having to respect the threat of the outside run, which is less of a stress to a five-man front with boxing Defensive Ends. 

What could work though is the true Triple Option, which the Ravens don’t run quite as much. This means the option for Lamar to keep the ball, the option for Lamar to give the ball to the RB at the mesh point, and the option for Lamar to pitch the ball to another back when working out of a two back set, or to a WR in motion, looping around the backfield. The advantage of this play against the 5-2, is that you are able to option both the 5-technique Defensive End and the 9-technique. 

The true RPO also, which the Ravens also don’t run nearly as much, could be a staple of this game. The Lions didn’t face it too much against the 49ers, but on the few occasions Trey Lance saw the field, the RPO showed the potential to be dangerous for Detroit. 

A virtually entirely new Defensive Back (rookies) and Linebacking corps (Anzalone) found communication difficult and their commitment to stopping the run left them staggeringly vulnerable to play-action but also to the RPO. Bob Wylie, long time Browns OL coach once said, “80% of the game is communication.” The mesh-point between Lamar and his new stable of Running Backs looked far more solid in Week 2, and they even had a couple of successful dress rehearsal RPOs against the Chiefs. The Ravens could feature it more heavily than usual in Detroit. Important to say that there won’t be a total abandonment of the Veer Option – it’s too much a staple of the offense – but perhaps a dialing down of it relative to a dialing up of the RPO attack. 

The Numbers Game

Against the 5-2 front already mentioned, it’s a numbers game, so it’s likely we are going to see heavy use of pre-snap motion involving potential blockers. Pat Ricard and the Tight Ends brought in motion or even an unbalanced line might give the Lions front a difficult time. The 5-2 is a symmetrical front with more down lineman than usual so it’s hard to get an overload on one side of the box with more blockers than they have defenders. It’s for this reason that we could see the Ravens move their blockers around more pre-snap which could be especially challenging for a team just starting to embed this system.

The other way in which you can attack this front with the running game is with a heavy dose of pulling linemen in the power run game. A staple of the Ravens offense anyway, Ravens fans are used to seeing linemen pulling on several plays a game. In this one I’d expect to see two pullers, more often than the Ravens normally do. Pulling the Offensive Tackle and the Offensive Guard and running behind them would ensure a much heavier numbers advantage in one half of the box. 

The other advantage to this, is that it allows the other linemen to make an easier down block instead of having to block their man head-up as usual. This series of down blocks could be particularly effective if Ben Cleveland is in the lineup as much as he was on Sunday – there is no other word for it: he obliterates people on down blocks. 

These power runs with pullers could also work with Lamar on designed QB keepers. The QB run game also helps with numbers, as there is an extra blocker to account for that you ordinarily wouldn’t have to – good when facing off against a five-man front.

If the Ravens do want to run inside without pullers, there are other ways they could accomplish that. Spreading the Lions defense out with 3×1 or 2×2 packages on early downs would get the interior second level players for the Lions (whether LBs stay on the field or whether an extra Safety subs in) concerned with the threat carried from players outside the tackle box. This then means that if the Ravens OL win their one-on-one battles up front, the middle of the field will be more open for an inside run. This is also another reason why the pass might set up the run in this game, rather than vice versa. 

The other way to attack the 5-2 front is the Duo run play. Duo gets two double teams inside on bigger bodies before one player on each double team overtakes this block and the others move to the second level. The double teams will be necessary as Detroit’s interior run defenders have looked good through two weeks, especially Alim McNeill in his rookie year and new acquisition (and former Raven, or at least, potential former Raven, for a week) Michael Brockers. These two double teams followed by the move to the second level can target the play-side five technique and the Nose followed by the two Linebackers in the 5-2 front. The back-side five technique would be blocked by the Offensive Tackle.

Duo is always run to the TE side, and the key to this play working against the Lions would be the ability of Eric Tomlinson or Andrews to fan block the 9-technique Defensive End to the play-side and Pat Ricard, if used as a wing TE, traveling to the back-side of the formation to kick-out the 9-technique. The Lions do bring the Safety down into the box at times and so accounting for him with, for example, a Sammy Watkins would be important too. 

The Ravens have rarely used Duo so far this season, but we do know it’s in Roman’s playbook.

Battle Plans

Defensive Keys 

Let Wink Off the Leash

In the Week 2 Battle Plan for defeating the Chiefs, I implored Wink to curb his enthusiasm and stay well off his usual heavy dose of the blitz. Patrick Mahomes is a master of carving up the blitz; the more exotic the blitz, the harder the challenge and therefore the more Mahomes relishes facing it. It’s a big reason why the Chiefs have had such success against this Ravens defense that can give others fits. Of course, the Chiefs still moved the ball, but Wink controlling his usual urges, in favor of a more conservative gameplan, paid off big on Sunday night.

As a reward, Wink and the defense get the Lions on Sunday in what will hopefully be a satisfying get-right game for them. He should be able to send blitz after blitz until his heart’s content. 

You only need to go back to 2019 for evidence of why this is a viable strategy against the Lions. They do have a savvy veteran Center in Frank Ragnow, but we saw how important the QB is in identifying blitz packages in Week 1, when Derek Carr taught a masterclass in nullifying Wink’s attacking style from the Quarterback position. Unfortunately for the Lions, when the Ravens faced the Rams in 2019, Jared Goff proved that he finds this particular blend of defensive football very hot to handle. 

On that night the Ravens forced pressure and turnovers, and played their part in a one-sided rout of an otherwise impressive Rams team. Goff now returns with far less viable weapons at Wide Receiver to bail him out. He does have a surprisingly competent Offensive Line, even without Taylor Decker, as Penei Sewell has looked good alongside Jonah Jackson on the left side (though I’d like to see Martindale test him with Odafe Oweh early). Matt Nelson on the right side has struggled and could well be the weak link that the Ravens scheme up creative ways to attack. 

The Ravens should not be remotely sufficiently frightened of the Lions’ receiving threats outside of T.J. Hockenson and their Running Backs. Through two games, very few of the Lions completions have been beyond ten yards from the line of scrimmage and after attempting to assemble a worse Wide Receiver room than the Ravens have had in recent years, it’s not surprising to see an anemic passing attack so far. 

Given the lack of downfield threats, I’d expect to see the Ravens attack the line of scrimmage hard with their Safeties. Hopefully DeShon Elliott makes it out of the concussion protocol, as his attacking style would be a boon against this defense. The Ravens do need to watch out for the threat of D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams out of the backfield, and will need to tidy up their tackling deficiencies from the last couple of weeks. If this Lions team cannot complete balls down the field, then making them work hard for every yard in YAC is a must. More on Hockenson later. 

Occupy the Double Team

I wrote a piece just before the season on Defensive Assists, and how the Ravens have many unsung heroes who stop the running game of the opposing offense thanks to unselfish play that doesn’t end up on the stat sheet. One such example of this would be occupying a double team to allow others to run free and make plays. Truly occupying a double team is one of the hardest things a Defensive Lineman can be asked to do, but the Ravens have some masters of it. 

The Lions Offensive Coordinator is Anthony Lynn, whose history in the league suggests he gets the best out of his offensive players and adapts his scheme to suit the strengths of the personnel at his disposal. In Detroit, this is undoubtedly the running game, which is where Lynn is most comfortable, having developed one of the best and heaviest run schemes in recent years in his one-year stint as Offensive Coordinator in Buffalo, in 2016. 

Game script will likely skew some of his tendencies to run the ball, but you would expect to see him lean heavily on Swift and Williams. In the first two games, the Lions have worked a LOT of Inside Zone. They also strategically use 21 and 22 personnel, utilizing both backs on the field at the same time. 

Inside Zone is predicated on getting two double teams inside and vertical movement to the Linebackers from the Offensive Linemen. The Ravens’ two-gap 3-4 defense is predicated on stopping vertical movement from the OL where possible. Brandon Williams is one of the best in the game at occupying and splitting the Double Team. If his neck injury isn’t serious, he will be crucial to the Ravens success on Sunday. I’d also like to see Derek Wolfe back, to be more effective stopping the Lions’ Inside Zone running scheme. You are only as good as your weakest link against Inside Zone, as the RB has the option to take the best running lane after pressing the line of scrimmage. Justin Ellis will also be an important contributor on Sunday. He is not as proficient at splitting the double team and making the play himself as is Williams, but Jelly is an efficient run defender and a big body who can occupy double teams all day.

Of course, occupying a double team is only half the battle, you still need to make a play on the ball carrier, so Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison will need to read their keys and make tackles on one of the more dynamic backs in the league in Swift. 

Put the Lock on “Hock”

The murderers row of Tight Ends that the Ravens face continues Sunday with T.J. Hockenson. However the Ravens have a distinct advantage on Sunday that they didn’t have when trying to stop Darren Waller and Travis Kelce in recent weeks: the Lions have few weapons outside of Hockenson about which to worry. 

When devising a game plan for Kelce, and even to an extent Waller, the Ravens had to be wary of the other ways in which those offenses could beat them through the air. While the Ravens haven’t been particularly successful guarding Waller and Kelce, they have, with differing degrees of success, been able to stop other weapons on those teams damaging them. The Raiders did enough damage with Waller and other receivers to win the game;  the Chiefs though, lost Tyreek Hill for huge sections of Sunday’s game. 

This time, the Ravens don’t have too much else to worry about. Kalif Raymond can be dangerous at times and Detroit has some other intriguing pieces on the outside such as Tyrell Williams and Quintez Cephus, but none of them should strike fear into the hearts of the Ravens secondary. The Lions lack a serious downfield threat to keep the Ravens honest. It means that they can focus on stopping Hockenson and can commit serious resources to the task. 

For a plan I would repurpose that used for slowing Waller in Week 1, but with some subtle adjustments. Waller is excellent on option routes and is especially dangerous across the middle of the field. Hockenson’s specialty is out-breaking routes and especially when he can be physical at the break-point to create separation.

I still think it’s important to get hands on Hockenson early and re-route him. Some of the layered rush that the Ravens employed against the Chiefs would be something we might see again this week, but I wouldn’t be playing any catch-man against Hockenson, if he is covered one-on-one after a chip. He seems to relish sucking in a Defensive Back and dominating him physically at the break point before getting outside in a hurry. 

Employing a heavy underneath zone could help in this regard, and I would also expect to see plenty of bracket or zone coverage on Hockenson, just with less of an emphasis on defending the middle of the field against him, with a robber or rat. 

Matchup to Watch

Marquise Brown vs Amani Oruwariye

Oruwariye has now had to step up as the Lions number one CB, with the season-ending injury to Jeff Okudah. The second-year player has shown flashes of potential but the secondary for the Lions is generally talent-poor. Marquise Brown has now strung together many good performances stretching back deep into last season, and he should have too much for the Lions secondary. If he’s getting open early and often, it could be a long day for the Lions defense. I’m particularly looking for him to use his speed in gaining yards after the catch in this one due to the Lions’ deficiencies in tackling on the back end and the Ravens’ likely use of the short passing game. 

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