Game Preview: 8 keys to a Lions victory over the Bills on Thanksgiving

The Detroit Lions (4-6) are back home at Ford Field for a Thanksgiving Day matchup with the Buffalo Bills (7-3).

Let’s take a closer look at the key things the Lions need to do against the Bills in order to keep their winning streak going. Check out the odds for this game courtesy of our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.

Bills’ base schemes

On offense, the Bills’ are led by offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey, a former NFL quarterback, who took over for Brian Daboll after he left for the New York Giants head coaching job. As a journeyman quarterback and coach, Dorsey has a plethora of experience in different systems.

As a result, Dorsey’s wide-scope approach, along with quarterback Josh Allen’s expansive skill set—allows the Bills to scheme 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 another way. They can pass to all levels featuring receivers, lean on the tight end as a safety valve, go power in the run game, shift to a speed-rushing attack, or get Allen involved on the ground with his wheels.

Basically, there’s no singular way to stop them. You have to be able to adapt with them.

On defense, the Bills’ defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier runs a 4-2-5 pretty much the entire game. The Bills have built a team that lives in nickel sets—they run more nickel than any team in the NFL—and have the personnel to adapt to whatever offensive sets are in front of them.

They can afford to live in this base nickel defense all day because of the versatility of their safeties. If an offense puts a man in motion to determine if the defense is in zone or man, the defense may adjust/shift showing a zone look, only to have the safety pick up the receiver in man coverage. This ability to disguise their intentions in the secondary is a staple for Frazier and it has multiple benefits.

The first benefit of confusion in the secondary is that it often leads to turnovers, as is the case this season, where the Bills’ 13 interceptions lead the NFL. Secondly, as quarterbacks are readjusting their focus based on the secondary’s movement, it affords their attacking defensive front extra time to be aggressive and get pressure.

Because the Bills will adapt throughout the game, our weekly “4 keys” probably isn’t enough, so instead, let’s double that number and do “8 keys” to victory this week.

Get Alim 1-on-1 and let him wreck stuff

One of the biggest catalysts from last week’s defensive effort was Alim McNeill taking another step towards his full potential. At 325 pounds, McNeill’s game has always prioritized power, but he was able to tap into his above-average athleticism (Race: 8.52) on his way to a 10-pressure afternoon against the Giants.

Buffalo’s left guard Roger Saffold—a 325-pounder himself—is coming off a Pro Bowl season with the Titans, but has fallen short of expectations in his 12th NFL season (PFF grade: 50.0). He will be the one primarily tasked with slowing down McNeill but help from the center is always an option. Unfortunately for Buffalo, their starting center Mitch Morse is dealing with elbow and ankle injuries and has not practiced at all this week. If Morse plays through his injury, he could have problems with McNeill’s power. If Morse can’t play, he’ll likely be replaced by Greg Van Rotten, who currently has a pass-blocking grade of 39.2 from PFF.

Discipline gap

If the Lions can generate interior pressure, it’ll be important for the rest of the defensive line to maintain their gap discipline. This skill has been an intricate part of the Lions’ success in recent weeks and has helped them slow down opponents’ rushing attacks, including holding the NFL’s leading rusher (entering Week 11), Saquon Barkley, to just 22 yards on the ground.

Maintaining gap integrity is not only necessary for corralling running backs but also mobile quarterbacks, which has been a problem for the Lions. Bills quarterback Josh Allen is big (6-foot-5, 240 pounds), mobile, and always a threat to leave the pocket if his passing options are taken away.

Attack but don’t compromise your gap.

Prioritize stopping the run

As lethal a duel threat as Allen is, he is dealing with an injury to his throwing elbow, and it has disrupted him early in games in recent weeks. The thing that has gotten him on track has often been the Bills rushing attack, which has allowed him to settle in and execute their offense.

“They leaned on it,” coach Dan Campbell said of the Bills run game last week. “Those backs did a good job and when you incorporate that with this quarterback it’s a whole other element. And so, I know that they’ve traditionally thrown it, but we’re anticipating they’re going to try to run it. I mean, that was a good recipe for them. And so, I would think that they’ll try to do a lot of those things because they did have success against Cleveland. Now, I still say this quarterback’s obviously a huge part of everything. He is 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, it could give them a chance to take advantage early on.

Alternate Jerry Jacobs and bracket coverage on Stefon Diggs

With injuries in the Lions’ secondary—most notably Jeff Okudah—they are going to have to play team defense on the back end. The Bills will throw the ball all over the field and will target any and all of their players, but the player they need to keep track of is Stefon Diggs.

“He’s a good player,” Campbell said of Diggs. “Listen, this is a talented team and a talented team that’s playing good football. They know how to win, they’ve been in big games, it’s an aggressive defense. Just by the nature of the way they play, it’s not a huge pressure team, no pressure, but it’s more just – man, the nature of the disruption that they have. But as far as that, yeah, they’ve got receivers and it starts with Diggs. I mean, he’s versatile, he’s tough, he’s competitive, he’s got a vast route tree. And yeah, we’ve got our work cut out for us.”

The Bills have too many weapons for the Lions to go back to bracket coverage—as they did with Vikings’ Justin Jefferson—but it’s still a tool they need to utilize in specific situations. Don’t be tempted to use it on third downs—that’s when Allen typically targets tight end Dawson Knox—but it needs to be an option on specific down-and-distances.

While I don’t think the Lions should assign a cornerback to travel with Diggs, they would be best served to try to match up Jerry Jacobs with him when possible. Jacobs, simply put, might be the Lions only player in the secondary that has the speed and moxie to give Diggs problems.

Stop running laterally, stick with the gaps

The Bills front is athletic and disciplined, and if you try and play them straight up, you’re making life difficult on yourselves. Ranked 3rd in DVOA run defense, the Bills assert themselves in the trenches by attacking with quickness.

“We know this defense is a very good defense,” Campbell said of the Bills front. “They’re very disruptive and they hit the gaps.”

Add in the fact that the Lions will likely be leaning on the backups to their reserves at guard—the Lions will likely be starting their fifth and sixth-best guards this week—and establishing a run game may seem like a daunting task.

That being said, for the Lions offense to work, they need to establish the run, and if they play to their strengths, they’ll create an opportunity to move the ball on the ground.

Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson needs to continue to be aggressive with his creativity. Just blocking the player across from you is not enough; Johnson needs to pull his guards and create movement with his lineman in order to move the run 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 style of offense also plays to Jamaal Williams’ strength of getting north-south as fast as possible. Right now, he is their most productive option and they need to lean into that. D’Andre Swift is the more talented back, but his insistence on running laterally is to his own detriment, and has little to no chance of working against this Bills’ front. Expect running backs coach/assistant head coach Duce Staley to have little patience with Swift if he dances instead of getting downhill.

Use counters to offset aggressive front

A lot of the same counters the Lions used against the Giants’ aggressive defense should be kept in the playbook against the Bills. Leaning on screens, draws, and end arounds will all be tools Johnson can deploy to slow down the Bills’ aggression.

Last week, Johnson showed keen instincts when calling these counters—see Kalif Raymond’s end around to seal the win—and he will need to have his instincts on point against the Bills.

Work the slot and take shots downfield

Like most NFL defenses, the Bills can be vulnerable to production in the slot. They are working through injuries in their secondary and on a down-to-down basis, the weakness tends to be down the seams. Amon-Ra St. Brown should be—as he is on most weeks—a priority.

But they can’t just pepper the slot because of how Buffalo adjusts their defense, so the Lions will have to test the perimeter as well. When the Bills get aggressive with their front six and safeties, they’ll leave their outside corners in one-on-one situations and the Lions need to test them with deep shots. With an expected increase to his workload, this will be DJ Chark’s opportunity to show why the Lions went after him in free agency.

“I know he came out of the game feeling pretty good,” Campbell said of DJ Chark’s return from injury. So, we think, certainly, he will be able to take a bigger load this week, which is good.”

Keep forcing turnovers

Turnovers have been a big factor in the Lions last three wins—they created seven over that span—and they’ll need to keep that going against the Bills if they want to keep pace.

“It’s huge,” Campbell said of forcing turnovers. “We will desperately need them. We’re going to need them and look, that’s been part of the secret sauce for us. We are getting them and that means we are turning a corner because we are getting them out. And so, we’ve got to continue that trend and if we can put him in a position to where he feels like he needs to get rid of the ball and we get our hands on it. We have to capitalize, so it’s going to be big for us. It’s been big for us.”

As noted by Jeremy Reisman in our game preview, the Bills have 18 turnovers on the season—third most in the NFL—and are prone to giving defenses the chance to secure takeaways. Detroit’s defense will need to continue to keep making plays on the ball and their offense will need to turn those opportunities into points.

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