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How the Chiefs defense beats the Lions offense

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The Nerd Squad breaks down the Ravens offense — and a concept we might see on Sunday.

Baltimore Ravens v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

After facing a tough Baltimore Ravens offense in Week 3, the Kansas City Chiefs defense gets a more traditional offensive test. The Detroit Lions are an undefeated 2-0-1 after a surprising victory at Philadelphia last weekend. They have a talented quarterback, a strong set of weapons and a ball-control offense that should not be taken lightly.

We’ll dig into the Lions personnel and a concept we may see on Sunday, then discuss how the Chiefs defense can try to slow them down.

The personnel

Detroit Lions v Philadelphia Eagles Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Matthew Stafford is an 11-year veteran who is having yet another quietly successful year. He’s thrown for six touchdowns and two interceptions through three games, racking up 831 yards through the air. While he’s not as mobile as last week’s opponent, he’s seen just about everything a quarterback can see in this league and is a strong pocket passer.

Second-year running back Kerryon Johnson shoulders the load in the Detroit backfield. He’s rushed 48 times thus far this year at a 2.6 yards-per-carry clip. He hasn’t gotten it going yet this season, but he could find a rhythm at any moment with how many touches the Lions give him. J.D. McKissic is a dynamic back coming over from Seattle and could factor in on some passing plays. Rookie Ty Johnson out of Maryland should see some rotational snaps in this three-headed attack as well.

The Lions wide receiver group will be thin if Danny Amendola misses Sunday’s game with a chest injury, with only two receivers on the active roster with real experience. Marvin Jones Jr. came to Detroit in 2016 and has been a consistent performer on the boundary. He has the speed to test defenses vertically and sure hands underneath to come up with possessions in traffic.

Kenny Golladay is a huge target with 4.5 speed that is a problematic receiver for any cornerback to cover. His ability to high-point a ball in the red zone is difficult to cover. He can also stride out and eat up space in a hurry if unimpeded up the sideline. Marvin Hall got snaps last week with Amendola banged up, but has failed to record a catch. Tom Kennedy was promoted off of the practice squad on Friday.

Where the receiving corps may lack in depth, the tight end position does not. Jesse James was acquired this offseason from Pittsburgh. He’s a great blocker and a good receiver who typically draws linebackers in coverage opposite rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson.

Hockenson was drafted in the first round of the NFL Draft this year and has great size, speed, hands and blocking ability. He has already shown great route running ability and defenses are having to spin a better coverage defender down on him after just three weeks in the league. Former Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas is the third tight end for the Lions and he’s looked good in his implementation this season.

The Lions have a good left tackle in Taylor Decker, who has been a first-choice starter since he was drafted in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Opposite him is Rick Wagner, a former Baltimore Raven that has been the starting right tackle for the past three years in Detroit.

Frank Ragnow is the starting center for the Lions. An athletic first-round pick in the 2018 draft, Ragnow has started every game since he entered the league. Graham Glasgow and Joe Dahl round out the interior of the Lions offensive line. Glasgow started all 16 games for Detroit last year and Dahl is a new starter in the rotation this year.

The offensive concept: Mirrored routes in 03 personnel

Even with Amendola available this season, the Lions have leaned heavily on multiple-tight end sets. It makes sense to do so — Hockenson and James are both do-it-all players at the position, and it keeps the defense guessing.

The Lions are also not afraid to go with an empty backfield on third-and-long situations, and they’ll do it out of non-traditional personnel.

The above clip shows 03 personnel (no running backs, three tight ends, two wide receivers). Thomas and James are attached and Hockenson is in the slot with Jones and Golladay on the boundary. Since this is a third-and-10 situation, the Lions know they will need a longer drop for Stafford to push the ball down the field.

Both of the attached tight ends chip the Philadelphia Eagles defensive ends and release into the flat with the boundary receivers running curl routes. These mirrored route combinations stretch the defense while Hockenson has more space to work the middle of the field.

It’s well covered by the Eagles secondary, but the chipping tight ends allow Stafford the necessary time to let the route develop and place the throw in the right spot. Buying that extra time and still having the personnel to attack a secondary vertically could be key to the Lions offensive success this week.

The easiest way to force the Lions away from chipping the Chiefs defensive ends this week — and really, any week — is to create pressure up the middle. Whether that pressure comes from interior defensive linemen or through blitzing linebackers and safeties in interior gaps, Detroit will quickly rely on their hot routes to beat the blitz. Since the Lions could be leaning harder on their tight ends this week, those tight end chips may disappear to free up another hot route on third down.

Steve Spagnuolo can try to dial up some empty pressures like he did against Lamar Jackson last week, favorably with a little better execution. If a couple interior blitzes get home, he can start sugaring the A-gaps with pressure and drop into coverage, giving the Chiefs defensive ends better one-on-one matchups on the outside.

The bottom line

Matt Patricia is going to run the ball... a lot.

Speaking in a conference call this week, Patricia stated his desire to “keep Mahomes on the sideline.” Several Chiefs defensive coaches and players have referenced the New England Patriots matchup against these Lions from last year in which Detroit ran 33 times for 159 yards and left Tom Brady standing on the sideline.

The Chiefs were gashed on stretch runs against the Ravens, and this week could pose a similar problem. While they don’t have to contain a running quarterback, Kerryon Johnson has good vision and could abuse cutback lanes on the edge to spring for big yardage. The Chiefs defensive ends will have to set a good edge to help the linebackers behind them to fill gaps. In the multiple instances where the Lions pull a tight end across the formation to trap block a defensive end, Frank Clark and Alex Okafor will have to attack and set that block into the backfield, squeezing the play-side opportunities.

In the passing game, the Chiefs defense will face their sternest test of the season. Jones, Golladay, and Hockenson are all field-stretching players that can operate well underneath. Charvarius Ward could struggle with allowing some underneath catches and high-pointing the ball against Golladay. Bashaud Breeland could struggle with the double moves that Jones will go to several times this week. Juan Thornhill is going to have his work cut out for him in deep coverage if the Chiefs opt to run with Tyrann Mathieu on Hockenson this week.

Finally, because the Lions will utilize lots of heavier personnel, this is shaping up to be a heavy base defense week. That means that Chiefs fans could see more Darron Lee as the WILL linebacker with Damien Wilson at the SAM. Both will be tasked with aiding in defending stretch runs, and both will be tasked with covering shallow hook zones. That will likely put one on the second tight end and the other on the running back this week.

Big games out of these two players might make the difference between getting off the field early and putting Mahomes and the offense back on the field.