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The toughest challenge Lions’ offense will present to NY Jets

Penei Sewell, Lions, NY Jets, OL
Penei Sewell, Detroit Lions, New York Jets, Getty Images

New York Jets must be ready for Detroit Lions’ physicality

The Detroit Lions have an elite offense. They rank fifth in points per game (26.8 PPG) and seventh in offensive DVOA (+10.2%). Detroit’s offense has been especially electric in recent weeks, scoring 32.2 points per game over its past five games.

You would never know the Lions’ offense is this good if you just scanned Detroit’s depth chart at the skill positions.

The Lions have Jared Goff at quarterback, who was considered mediocre (at best) coming into the season. Their pass-catching unit is led by a star in second-year wideout Amon-Ra St. Brown, but they don’t have anyone else that scares you. Josh Reynolds is the team’s second-leading receiver with a mere 427 yards, which ranks 72nd in the NFL. They did have a top tight end in T.J. Hockenson, but he was shipped off to Minnesota a few weeks back and the Lions have not come close to replicating his production.

Detroit’s running back duo of Jamaal Williams and D’Andre Swift certainly stands out as impressive. Still, the bottom line is this: If you were asleep for the first 14 weeks of the season and merely gave a quick look at the names being utilized by Detroit at QB, WR, TE, and RB, you would never guess this is a top-5 scoring team.

What gives, then? How are the Lions so good offensively?

Simple: Their offensive line.

Detroit’s offensive line – featuring LT Taylor Decker, LG Jonah Jackson, C Frank Ragnow, RG Logan Stenberg, and RT Penei Sewell – is a formidable unit that embodies the blue-collar nature of head coach Dan Campbell. This unit’s excellence is what allows Detroit to be so productive offensively despite a skill-position unit that might not be the league’s most intimidating.

The New York Jets‘ defensive front must be ready for a physical battle in the trenches.

There is one area where Detroit’s offensive line generates particularly elite production: creating holes in the run game.

Thanks largely to the offensive line, Detroit is averaging 1.81 yards before contact per carry on rush attempts by non-quarterbacks. This ranks fourth-best in the NFL:


Few teams rely more heavily on their offensive line to produce rushing yardage than Detroit. Of the Lions’ 1,607 rushing yards by non-quarterbacks, 625 of them were gained before contact, which is a rate of 38.9% (NFL average: 32.8%). That is the third-highest rate in the NFL, telling us it’s the Lions’ blocking, rather than the running backs, that is primarily responsible for making the run game work.

The Jets’ defensive line will be charged with holding its ground at the point of attack to prevent Detroit’s offensive line from carving holes in the run game.

If the defensive line can remain disciplined, clog gaps, and hold sturdy to prevent the Lions from creating movement downfield, the Jets’ second-level defenders should be able to rally to the ball and consistently finish tackles against the Lions’ rushers. Detroit’s running back unit ranks 28th out of 32 units with a rate of only 0.139 missed tackles forced per carry (NFL average: 0.187). While these backs will take advantage of good blocking by hitting the hole hard, they will not create much offense on their own.

It’s not the running backs that should worry Detroit’s opponents. It’s the offensive line. Stop them, and you stop the Lions’ run game.

However, it will be tough for New York’s defensive line to survive this matchup if it has to operate without Quinnen Williams.

The Jets’ likely All-Pro defensive tackle has missed two consecutive practices due to a calf injury. His status for Sunday remains uncertain.

If Williams cannot suit up, it will be a massive blow to the Jets’ talent level in this very specific facet where Detroit thrives. Williams is a master at the dirty-working aspects of the run game: reading plays, eating up blocks, and holding his ground at the point of attack. His proficiency in these areas allows him to ensure his teammates have open lanes to rally to the ball and make plays. His presence makes stopping the run so much easier for the rest of the Jets’ defense.

Nobody on the Jets’ defensive line can match Williams’s prowess in those subtle areas of run defense. Most of the Jets’ other defensive tackles – particularly Nathan Shepherd and Solomon Thomas, who will see large snap-count boosts if Williams is out – are aggressive, gap-shooting defenders who struggle to do the dirty work against the run.

Opposing offensive coordinators often take advantage of Shepherd and Thomas’s aggressive mentality by calling gap-blocking concepts against them, which invite them to take themselves out of the play via their downhill pursuit; creating a natural running lane toward the spot where they initially lined up.

Here’s the bad news for New York: Detroit is well-equipped to call those gap-blocking plays that are perfect for punishing Williams’s replacements. The Lions are a gap-heavy team, employing a 56%/44% ratio of gap-blocking plays to zone-blocking plays, per Pro Football Focus. That is the ninth-heaviest lean toward gap-blocking plays in the NFL. The league average is 47%/53% in favor of zone.

Williams does not fall victim to these plays. He is patient, smart, and disciplined. Couple that with his elite-level power and technique, and the guy is just a brick wall at the line of scrimmage no matter what kind of concept you call against him. Williams might not rack up the most run-stuffing tackles individually, but that is because he probably leads the NFL in run-stuffing assists, as he constantly creates favorable opportunities for his teammates to make plays.

Sheldon Rankins will be the big X-Factor if Williams is out. Rankins is the only other defensive tackle on the roster who has been similarly good to Williams when it comes to the dirty work in the run game. He is not quite on Williams’s level, but he has still been solid in this area. New York will need Rankins to stay disciplined and tough against Detroit’s run game.

Beyond Rankins, the Jets will need Shepherd and Thomas to exceed expectations. If Williams is out, the Lions will be licking their chops at the opportunity to run a bunch of gap-blocking concepts at Shepherd and Thomas. These two have to be ready. It is essential that they put aside their usual aggressive ways and prepare to be disciplined in this contest.

Keep an eye on the run-blocking of Detroit’s offensive line this Sunday. It’s arguably the greatest strength of this elite Lions offense. If the Jets are going to shut down that elite offense and win this essential game, it will likely have to involve a good performance by the defensive line at limiting the amount of yardage before contact that is created by the Lions’ bullies up front.

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