Game Preview: 8 Keys to a Lions Victory over the Bills on Thanksgiving
The Detroit Lions (4-6) are back home at Ford Field to take on the Buffalo Bills (7-3) on Thanksgiving Day.
Let’s take a closer look at the key things the Lions need to do against the Bills to continue their winning streak. Check out the odds for this game courtesy of our friends over at DraftKings Sportsbook.
Bill’s basic schemes
On offense, the Bills are led by offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, a former NFL quarterback who took over from Brian Daboll after taking the job as head coach with the New York Giants. As a journeyman quarterback and coach, Dorsey has a wealth of experience across multiple systems.
As a result, Dorsey’s wide-ranging approach, coupled with quarterback Josh Allen’s extensive skillset, allows the Bills to make plans for their opponent as well as change their concepts on the fly and adapt to what’s working. If you stop the Bills in one area, they will simply move away from that approach and try a different route. You can go to all levels with receivers, lean on the tight end as a safety valve, use power in the running game, switch to a fast-paced attack, or involve Allen with his wheels on the ground.
Basically there is no single way to stop them. You have to be able to adapt to them.
As far as defense goes, the Bills’ defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier has been running a 4-2-5 for most of the game. The Bills have built a team that lives in nickel sets — they have more nickels than any other team in the NFL — and have the staff to adapt to any offensive sets that come before them.
They can afford to live in this nickel-based defense all day because of the versatility of their safeguards. If an offense puts a man in motion to determine if the defense is in zone or man, the defense may adjust/shift and show a zone look just for the safety to man mark the receiver. This ability to disguise her intentions in the secondary is a staple for Frazier and has several benefits.
The first benefit of confusion in the high school is that it often leads to turnovers, as is the case this season, where the Bills’ 13 interceptions lead the NFL. Second, since the quarterbacks readjust their focus based on the secondary player’s movement, it buys their attacking defensive line additional time to be aggressive and apply pressure.
Since the bills will adjust as you play, our weekly “4 Keys” probably won’t be enough, so let’s double that number instead and this week’s “8 Keys” lead to victory.
Get Alim 1-on-1 and make him break stuff
One of the biggest catalysts in last week’s defensive effort was Alim McNeill taking another step toward his full potential. At 325 pounds, McNeill’s game always prioritized strength, but he was able to capitalize on his above-average athleticism (RAS: 8.52) on the way to a 10-pressure afternoon against the Giants.
Buffalo left guard Roger Saffold — himself a 325-pounder — is coming off a Pro Bowl season with the Titans but underperformed (PFF score: 50.0) in his 12th NFL season. He’ll be the one primarily tasked with slowing McNeill down, but help from the center is always an option. Unfortunately for Buffalo, their starting center Mitch Morse is struggling with elbow and ankle injuries and did not train at all this week. If Morse plays through his injury, he could have trouble with McNeill’s power. If Morse is unable to play, he will likely be replaced by Greg Van Rotten, who currently has a 39.2 pass blocking score from PFF.
If the Lions can generate internal pressure then it will be important for the rest of the back line to maintain their discipline in the gaps. That ability has been a key part of the Lions’ success over the past few weeks, helping them slow opponents’ rushing attacks, including keeping the NFL’s leading rusher (coming into Week 11), Saquon Barkley, to just 22 yards on the ground.
Maintaining gap integrity is necessary not only for corralling running backs, but also for mobile quarterbacks, which is a concern for the Lions. Bills quarterback Josh Allen is tall (6ft 5, 240lbs), mobile and always a threat to leave the bag if his passing opportunities are taken away.
Attack but don’t compromise your gap.
Prioritize stopping the run
As deadly as a duel as Allen is, he’s dealing with an injury to his throwing arm that has bothered him early in games in recent weeks. The thing that set him on the right track was often Bills’ rushing attack, which allowed him to settle in and run their offense.
“They leaned on that,” coach Dan Campbell said of the Bills’ running game last week. “Those backs did a good job and when you combine that with this quarterback, it’s a whole different element. So I know they traditionally threw it, but we assume they will try to walk it. I mean that was a good recipe for her. So I think they’re going to try to do a lot of those things because they were successful against Cleveland. Well, I still say that this quarterback is obviously a big part of everything. He’s the biggest part, but I mean we’re ready for whatever they throw at us.”
If Allen gets off to a slow start and the Lions can slow the Bills’ rushing attack, they could capitalize on that early on.
Alternate Jerry Jacobs and clip cover on Stefon Diggs
With injuries in the Lions’ secondary – most notably Jeff Okudah – they will have to play the team defense at the back end. The Bills throw the ball all over the field and take aim at all of their players, but the player they have to keep an eye on is Stefon Diggs.
“He’s a good player,” Campbell said of Diggs. “Listen, this is a talented team and a talented team that plays good football. They know how to win, they’ve been in big games, it’s an aggressive defense. Just by the way they play, it’s not a huge pressure team, no pressure, but it’s fairer — man, the kind of disorder they have. But as for that, yes they have receivers and it starts with Diggs. I mean he’s versatile, he’s tough, he’s competitive, he’s got a huge route tree. And yes, we cut our work out for ourselves.”
The Bills have too many guns for the Lions to return to bracket coverage — like they did with Vikings’ Justin Jefferson — but it’s still a tool they have to use in certain situations. Don’t be fooled into using it on third downs — that’s when Allen usually targets tight end Dawson Knox — but it has to be an option for certain down-and-distances.
While I don’t think the Lions should assign a cornerback to travel with Diggs, it would be best if they tried pairing Jerry Jacobs with him whenever possible. Jacobs, simply put, might be the only Lions player in the secondary school who has the speed and moxie to cause Diggs problems.
Stop running sideways, stick to the gaps
The Bills front is athletic and disciplined, and if you try to play them head-on, you’re making life difficult for yourself. Ranked 3rd in DVOA running defense, the Bills hold their own in the trenches by attacking quickly.
“We know this defense is a very good defense,” Campbell said of the Bills front. “They are very disruptive and hit the gaps.”
Add in the fact that the Lions will likely be leaning on their reserves’ backups at guard — the Lions are likely to start their fifth- and sixth-best guards this week — and setting up a running game might seem like a daunting task.
However, for the Lions offense to work, they need to establish the run, and if they play to their strengths, they will create an opportunity to get the ball moving on the ground.
Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson must continue to be aggressive with his creativity. Just blocking the player opposite is not enough; Johnson needs to pull his guards and create movement with his lineman to shift the running gaps. This downhill aggression is difficult to stop and will play to the strengths of the Lions Reserve Guards, who are much better at run blocking than pass blocking.
This attacking style also plays to Jamaal Williams’ strength in getting from north to south as quickly as possible. Right now it’s their most productive option and they have to embrace it. D’Andre Swift is the more talented defender, but his insistence on running laterally is to his own detriment and has little to no chance of working against Bills’ front. Expect running backs coach/assistant head coach Duce Staley to have little patience for Swift when he’s dancing instead of going downhill.
Use counters to balance the aggressive front
Many of the same counterattacks the Lions used against the Giants’ aggressive defense should be retained in the playbook against the Bills. Leaning on screens, ties and finals are all tools Johnson can use to slow the Bills’ aggression.
Last week, Johnson showed sharp instincts when he called those counters – see Calif Raymond’s end to seal the win – and he needs to get his instincts on point against the Bills.
Edit the slot and shoot down
Like most NFL defenses, the Bills can be vulnerable to in-slot production. Working through injuries in their secondary and bottom-down, the weakness tends to be in the seams. As is most weeks, Amon-Ra St. Brown should be a priority.
But they can’t just pepper the slot because Buffalo is adjusting their defense, so the Lions need to test the perimeter as well. When the Bills get aggressive with their front six and safeties, they leave their outside corners in one-on-one situations and the Lions have to test them with deep shots. With his workload expected to increase, this will be DJ Chark’s opportunity to show why the Lions have been chasing him freehand.
“I know he came out of the game feeling pretty good,” Campbell said of DJ Chark’s return from injury. So we think he can certainly handle a bigger load this week, which is good.”
Keep enforcing sales
Turnovers have been a big factor in the Lions’ last three wins — they’ve had seven in that span — and they’ll need to maintain that against the Bills if they’re to match.
“It’s huge,” Campbell said of forcing turnovers. “We will need them badly. We’re going to need them and see, that was part of the secret sauce for us. We’re getting her, and that means we’re turning a corner because we’re getting her out. So we have to continue that trend and if we can put him in a position where he feels he needs to get rid of the ball and we can get our hands on it. We have to capitalize, so it’s going to be big for us. It was big for us.”
As Jeremy Reisman noted in our game preview, the Bills have 18 season turnovers — the third most in the NFL — and tend to give the defense opportunities to secure takeaways. Detroit’s defense needs to keep playing with the ball, and their offense needs to turn those opportunities into points.