Detroit Lions’ defense is not as much of a cakewalk for Zach Wilson as it might seem
On the surface, this seems like the perfect game for Wilson to return. Detroit’s defense is poor. It ranks 31st in points allowed per game (26.7) and 24th in defensive DVOA (+5.1%).
However, the Lions’ defense is not a favorable matchup for Wilson from a schematic perspective. Their tendencies are perfect for exploiting Wilson’s weaknesses.
Man coverage reliance
According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Lions rank second in man coverage usage at 42.9%. This is bad news for Wilson, who has performed much more respectably against zone coverage than man coverage.
Take a look at Wilson’s 2022 production against man and zone coverage (ranks out of 40 qualifiers):
- vs. Man Coverage (80 passes): 60.1 passer rating (40th), 5.4 yards per attempt (34th), -0.41 EPA per dropback (36th), 3.75% INT rate (35th)
- vs. Zone Coverage (109 passes): 81.8 passer rating (29th), 7.8 yards per attempt (11th), -0.04 EPA per dropback (24th), 1.83% INT rate (14th)
*EPA: Expected Points Added (Across all passes, the league average among QBs with 100+ attempts this season is -0.01)
Wilson is still quite subpar against zone, but against man, he is bad to a team-sinking degree. Detroit is built to exploit this disparity in Wilson’s game.
Facing a man-heavy defense will be especially troubling for the Jets this week considering they will be without wide receiver Corey Davis (concussion). Davis will be replaced by Denzel Mims, who is a complete non-threat against man coverage. Mims has caught 2-of-8 targets for 21 yards against man coverage this season. He is averaging 0.40 yards per route run against man coverage, which ranks 120th out of 126 qualified wide receivers. Davis has his own struggles against man (0.77 Y/RR), but he sure is better than Mims.
Zach Wilson must rely heavily on Garrett Wilson to defeat Detroit’s man coverage. Garrett is one of the NFL’s best man-coverage beaters, catching 25-of-37 targets for 344 yards against man coverage this season. His total of 25 receptions against man coverage ranks third-best among all wide receivers.
However, with no Davis, the Lions will feel plenty comfortable about keying in on Garrett, forcing Zach to focus on targeting other players who are not nearly as proficient as Garrett at winning in man-to-man situations. The rest of the wide receivers on the Jets’ roster have combined for only 19 receptions against man coverage all season.
Zach has to prove he can fit the ball into the tight windows that are created by man coverage. It’s something Mike White was doing well over the past three games. White ranks 10th out of 40 qualifiers this season with 0.14 EPA per dropback against man coverage. Can Zach replicate that, or at least come close to it?
The good news for Wilson is that the Lions are not great at man coverage despite playing a lot of it. They have allowed the 10th-most EPA per dropback while in man coverage (0.02 versus league average of -0.07). This is a good opportunity for Wilson to start making progress toward overcoming one of his greatest weaknesses.
If the Jets get the same old Wilson, though, the Lions are perfectly suited to pounce – regardless of their overall defensive woes this season.
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Cover 1 reliance
Regarding the Lions’ man coverage reliance, they specifically love to run Cover 1 Man. Detroit ranks fourth-highest in Cover 1 usage at 33.5%. The league average is 23.2%.
Wilson has a lot of trouble against Cover 1. Here are his numbers against Cover 1 compared to his numbers on all other passes:
- vs. Cover 1 (76 passes): 61.9 passer rating (36th), 5.7 yards per attempt (35th), -0.34 EPA per dropback (34th), 3.95% INT rate (37th)
- vs. Others (113 passes): 79.8 passer rating (35th), 7.5 yards per attempt (12th), -0.10 EPA per dropback (31st), 1.77% INT rate (12th)
Wilson remains poor on other passes, but against Cover 1, he is especially bad.
Much of Wilson’s struggles against man coverage and Cover 1 have come against the Patriots, who deploy very similar coverage splits to the Lions. New England is fourth in man coverage usage at 41.7% and first in Cover 1 usage at 36.9% – eerily similar numbers to Detroit’s 42.9% and 33.5%, respectively.
Obviously, the Patriots’ defense is far more talented and reliable than the Lions’ defense, but they operate similarly in a lot of ways. Wilson needs to prove he can succeed against a less formidable version of the same kind of defense that has caused his greatest nightmares.
High frequency of extremely aggressive blitzes
Detroit loves to blitz, which is another worrisome sign for Wilson. The Lions rank sixth in blitz rate as they send 5+ pass rushers on 34.1% of opponent passing plays. The league average is 27.0%.
In particular, the Lions love to send extremely aggressive blitzes: ones that include 6+ pass rushers. They do this on 11.2% of opposing passing plays, which ranks fourth-highest and is well above the league average of 6.3%.
Wilson completely folds against these all-out blitzes. When facing 6+ rushers this season, Wilson ranks 40th in passer rating (19.1) and 38th in EPA per dropback (-0.67). He has completed 4-of-11 passes for 65 yards, 0 touchdowns, and 1 interception while taking 3 sacks.
We are going to learn a lot about Zach Wilson
This matchup against the Lions is a mixed bag for Zach Wilson.
On one hand, Wilson gets to play at home against one of the worst defenses in the NFL – specifically, a defense that has the worst cornerback unit in the NFL.
On the other hand, the Lions are perfectly constructed to exploit Wilson’s weaknesses. Schematically, they are tailor-made to tear Wilson down.
Detroit’s overall lack of talent and production should make this a golden opportunity for Wilson to succeed. However, if Wilson continues falling into the same bad habits that plagued him over his first seven games this season, he is going to pay for it against Detroit’s scheme.
We will learn a lot about Zach Wilson on Sunday. If he has made any sort of progress since we last saw him, he will have a successful day against this bottom-of-the-barrel defense. If he is the same exact guy, his struggles will be amplified by Detroit’s defensive scheme.