The Kansas City Chiefs open the NFL season by hosting the Detroit Lions on this week’s “Thursday Night Football.” While the Chiefs spent the offseason celebrating their Super Bowl championship, the Lions are coming off their best season since 2017.
In 2022, Detroit ranked fourth in total offense per play. While the team does have a stable of young offensive weapons, this success was — in large part — due to the play of its offensive line. On Thursday night, Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoulivaati Vaitai and Penei Sewell will be a mismatch for the Chiefs, one they will have to overcome to win.
Decker is the unit’s longest-tenured player. He’s remained a staple of the line as it has been rebuilt. Jackson is a former top-100 draft pick who played in the 2021 Pro Bowl. One of the league’s best centers, Ragnow was a second-team All-Pro team 2020 and played in last season’s Pro Bowl. Vaitai collected a Super Bowl ring with the Philadelphia Eagles before joining the Lions via free agency in 2020. Now entering his third season, Sewell was taken seventh overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. With elite strength and athletic ability — and only 22 years old — he is in the process of becoming one of the league’s best tackles in football. He made his first Pro Bowl in 2022.
Last season, this offensive line helped Detroit have a top-15 rushing offense and gave quarterback Jared Goff time to throw for 7.6 yards per attempt, which ranked sixth in the league. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has overseen this resurgence. His throwback scheme saw his team start fast, and leave opponents to pick up the pieces.
“Smash-mouth football” is the only way to describe the Lions’ running game. Fullback Jason Cabinda is just as much a part of the equation as the offensive line. He is the team's tone-setter.
The Lions running the ball out of 22. OL blocks zone left, the backside TEs slam and seal the edge + shallow box defenders. As 56 starts to read the run, flow to the outside. A big kickout block from the FB opens up a seam and it's a walk-in touchdown. pic.twitter.com/23Ip4dnIn4— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) September 3, 2023
Detroit runs a high percentage of 22 personnel — two running backs and two tight ends — which allows it to dominate box numbers and put its blockers in man-on-man situations. They primarily use zone, power and counter-running plays — but have also thrown in some trap and duo concepts. Against Kansas City, they could run any series of plays — and do so out of multiple formations and looks.
NFL defenses must account for “box numbers” to match run-blocking schemes and take away running lanes. While defensive box numbers are important, they can be exploited when an offense chooses to take different angles.
Offset zone to the weak side of the formation. Tremendous base block by Sewell. The double team from the C+RG creates movement and is on the angle to the LB. A gigantic hole opens up, and the safety has to make the play. Simple, physical football. pic.twitter.com/32u013MfKP— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) September 3, 2023
Here we see the New York Jets playing more linebackers to the strength side of the field — where the tight end and running back are lined up — and are prepared to stop that side of the line. The Lions counter with a zone run to the weak side of the formation.
This play can only work with a strong block by the weak side tackle — and Sewell executes the base block perfectly. The angles come into play when the center and right guard work in combination against the only linebacker on the play side of the line. A massive hole opens up — and the running back bursts ahead for a solid gain.
The Lions offensive line was excellent in pass protection in 2022. They allowed just 24 sacks, ranking second in the league.
Great protection from the Lion's front five. Sewell swats the hands and pounces on the edge. Decker gets help from Jackson who delivers a shot to the edge. C+ RG fight off a would-be T/N game and just stay sticky. Goff has all day, simple check down to the RB. pic.twitter.com/uoKYMaO51Y— Caleb James (@CJScoobs) September 3, 2023
Four-man pressures did not faze this unit — and its cohesiveness while working through attempted twists and stunts was impressive. This is arguably where the unit plays its best football. It elevated the play of the entire offense, giving Goff enough time to work through his progressions and become a top-ten passer.
What does this mean for the Chiefs?
The Lions' front five is entering its third year playing together. With Sewell looking more and more dominant, it is poised to once again be a top-five unit.
Since Kansas City’s star defensive tackle Chris Jones is continuing his holdout — and Charles Omenihu will begin his suspension on Thursday — this will leave the Chiefs’ defense thin up front.
The starting defensive line will likely be George Karlaftis, Derrick Nnadi, Tershawn Wharton and Mike Danna. Felix Anudike-Uzomah, Neil Farrell, Keondre Coburn, Malik Herring and possibly BJ Thompson will see time off the bench. If elevated from the practice squad, Danny Shelton could also see some playing time on running downs.
While this group has NFL experience, no single player can be considered the team’s “go-to” defender. Against such a formidable opponent, this could be a chance for one of these players to prove they can be the leader of the pack.
For Kansas City to find success, it will need to find a way to take away the run early in the game. This is where Detroit will set up other looks — not to mention play-action passing game in which Goff thrived last season.
The Chiefs would also be wise to throw in some simulated pressures to keep the Lions; offensive line on its toes.
For Kansas City’s defensive line, this will likely be one of the season’s toughest games. If it can find any kind of success, it will not only help to win the season opener but also set the table for some high-level play when Jones and Omenihu are back on the field.
It may be a cliche, but “next man up” is the only way the Chiefs’ defensive line can get this done.