Game preview: 8 keys to a Lions win over the Bills on Thanksgiving

The Detroit Lions (4-6) returned home to 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 to continue their streak. Check out the odds for this game courtesy of our friends at DraftKings Sportsbook.

Bill’s basic scheme

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

As a result, Dorsey’s wide-ranging approach, coupled with quarterback Josh Allen’s broad skill set, allows the Bills to scheme for their opponent, as well as change their concepts on the fly and adapt to what works. If you stop the Bills in one area, they will simply back away from that approach and try another way. They can switch at all levels with receivers, lean on the tight end as a safety valve, power up the running game, switch to a fast attack, or engage Allen on the ground with his wheels.

Basically, there is no singular way to stop them. You have to be able to fit in with them.

On defense, Bills defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier runs a 4-2-5 for virtually the entire game. The Bills have built a team that thrives on nickel sets—they handle more nickels than any team in the NFL—and have the personnel to adjust to whatever offensive set comes their way.

They can afford to live all day in this nickel defense base due to the versatility of their securities. If an offense puts a man in motion to determine if the defense is zoned or manned, the defense may rule/move by displaying a zone gaze, only to have the safety catch the receiver in man coverage. This ability to disguise one’s intentions in the secondary is a staple for Frazier and has multiple benefits.

The first benefit of fumbling in the secondary is that it often leads to turnovers, as was the case this season, where the Bills’ 13 interceptions lead the NFL. Second, because quarterbacks are readjusting their focus based on the movement of the secondary, it gives their offensive defensive front more time to be aggressive and gain pressure.

Because the Bills will adjust throughout the game, our weekly “4 Keys” probably aren’t enough, so let’s double that number and make “8 Keys” for the win this week.

Take Alim 1v1 and let it destroy things

One of the biggest catalysts in 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’s been able to draw on his above-average athleticism (RACE: 8.52) on the way to a Afternoon from 10 against the Giants.

Buffalo left guard Roger Saffold, himself a 325-pounder, is coming off a Pro Bowl season with the Titans but fell short of expectations in his 12th NFL season (PFF grade: 50.0). He will be the main task of 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 hasn’t practiced at all this week. If Morse gets over his injury, he could have problems with McNeill’s power. If Morse can’t play, he will likely be replaced by Greg Van Rotten, who currently has a pass blocking rating of 39.2 from PFF.

Gap discipline

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

Maintaining the integrity of the gap is not only necessary for locking up 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 stripped away.

Attack but don’t compromise your gap.

Prioritize stopping your run

As deadly a dueling threat as Allen is, he’s dealing with a throwing elbow injury, and has cut that short early in games for the past few weeks. The thing that got him on the right track was often the rushing attack from the Bills, which allowed him to settle in and execute their offense.

“They leaned into it,” head coach Dan Campbell said of the Bills game last week. “Those defenders did a good job and when you incorporate that with this quarterback it’s a whole other element. And so, I know they’ve traditionally launched it, but we anticipate that they’ll try to run it. I mean, that was a good recipe for them. And so, I think they’re going to try to do a lot of those things because they’ve been successful against Cleveland. Now, I still say this quarterback is obviously a huge part of everything. He is the most important part, but I mean we are 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, Jeff Okudah in particular will have to play team defense in the back end. The Bills will throw the ball all over the field and target all of their players, but the player they need to keep track of is Stefon Diggs.

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

The Bills have too many guns for the Lions to return to bracket coverage, as they did with the Vikings’ Justin Jefferson, but it’s still a tool they need to use in specific situations. Don’t be tempted to use him on third downs, which is when Allen typically targets Dawson Knox on tight end, but it should be an option on specific downs and distances.

While I don’t think the Lions should assign a cornerback to travel with Diggs, they’d better try to match Jerry Jacobs with him whenever possible. Jacobs, simply put, may be the only Lions player in the secondary who has the speed and moxie to give Diggs trouble.

Stop running sideways, keep gaps

The Bills’ front is athletic and disciplined, and if you try to play them straight, you’re making life difficult for yourself. Ranked #3 in DVOA run defense, the Bills establish themselves in the trenches by attacking with quickness.

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

Add in the fact that the Lions will likely be relying on backups from their reserves at guard — the Lions are likely starting their fifth- and sixth-best guards this week — and establishing a running game can seem like a tall order.

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

Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson needs to continue to be aggressive with his creativity. Just blocking the player in front of you isn’t enough; Johnson needs to pull his guards and create movement with his lineman to move the running gaps. This downhill aggression is hard to stop and will play to the strengths of the Lions backup guards, who are much better at blocking runs than blocking passes.

This offensive style also plays on Jamaal Williams’ strength to move from north to south as fast as possible. Right now, it’s their most productive option and they need to lean into that. D’Andre Swift is the more talented defender, but his insistence on running laterals is to his detriment and he has little to no chance to work against this Bills front. Expect running backs coach/assistant head coach Duce Staley to have little patience with Swift if he dances instead of downhill.

Use the counters to compensate for the aggressive front

Many of the same counters used by the Lions against the Giants’ aggressive defense should be kept in the playbook against the Bills. Leaning on screens, draws and final rounds will all be tools that Johnson can deploy to slow down the aggressiveness of the accounts.

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

Work the slot and make downward shots

Like most NFL defenses, the Bills can be vulnerable to production in the slot. They’re dealing with injuries in their secondary and on a down-to-down basis, the weakness tends to be along the seams. Amon-Ra St. Brown should be, as it is most weeks, a priority.

But they can’t just pepper the slot due to the way Buffalo sets up their defense, so the Lions will need to test the perimeter as well. When the Bills get aggressive with their front sixes and safeties, they will leave their outside corners in one-on-one situations and the Lions will need to test them with deep shots. With an anticipated increase in his caseload, this will be DJ Chark’s chance to show why the Lions have been pursuing 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’s going to be able to carry a bigger load this week, which is good.

Keep forcing turnovers

Turnovers have been a big factor in the Lions’ last three wins — they’ve created seven in that span — and they’ll need to keep it up against the Bills if they’re to keep up.

“It’s huge,” Campbell said of forcing turnovers. “We will desperately need it. We’re going to need them and look, this has been part of the secret sauce for us. We’re taking them and that means we’re turning a corner because we’re pulling them out. And so, we have to continue that trend and if we can get him in a position 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 will be great for us. It was great 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 a chance to secure takeaways. Detroit’s defense will need to keep playing the ball, and their offense will need to turn those opportunities into points.

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