Detroit hosts Cincinnati in a battle of first place teams on Sunday.
Where: Ford Field, Detroit
When: Sunday, October 20, 1 p.m ET
Watch: Fox, check local listings. Both teams are 4-2 and coming off Week 6 victories.
These two teams are very similar, especially on defense. Both utilize the Wide 9 technique from the 4-3 front often. Both feature very physical and talented defensive tackles bookended by long, athletically freakish ends.
Offensively, each team has a game-breaking wide receiver but struggles to get consistent production beyond its stars. Both have an effective running back duo with an open field dynamo and a hard-charging power back. Two tight end sets are common for both teams.
With those similarities, the difference in this matchup is likely to come down to the divergences between the teams. Here are three ways the Lions can seize upon those differences and send the Bengals home disappointed.
Get North and South
I’ve watched the last four Bengals games, and there is a very common theme in all of them: Run sideways against their defense and teams will fail.
Cincinnati’s defensive front seven is extremely quick from sideline to sideline. Beyond their speed, however, is their positional discipline.
The ends are very good at holding ground and stringing out runs. They seldom give an outside lane and are very good at leveraging blocks. Here’s a play from the Buffalo game that demonstrates the closing speed of the defense and the frivolity of trying to stretch a run outside.
The Bills have trips receivers bunched at the far right, out of the picture. The Bengals are in their nickel defense with a single-high safety rotating quickly over to the bunched receivers. Buffalo has designed this play to go off left tackle, which means the backside defensive end is not going to be blocked.
The Bills get the advantage they want off the snap. They have two linemen running free to attack the two Cincinnati linebackers at the second level. Left tackle Cordy Glenn has created an inside seam by successfully fanning out defensive end Michael Johnson.
From the end-zone camera, you can see the inside crease. The Bills are in good blocking position, but running back C.J. Spiller gets nervous at the linebacker crashing the hole from his right.
Spiller opts to ignore the crease and try to bounce outside. Bad decision. Johnson uses his length to separate from Glenn and easily close that option off.
The Bills blockers were set for the inside cut and lose their advantage when Spiller dances and tries to bounce it outside. Look at how quickly they swarm on the ball.
Had Spiller taken the inside lane when it was there, at minimum he gains three yards. If he can get past that first linebacker by accelerating hard and running strong, he is in the open field with one cornerback and an out-of-position safety between him and the end zone.
Reggie Bush, take note. When Bush has been successful this season, it has been when he attacks swiftly and decisively.
When he’s imitated Spiller and tried to bounce runs away from his blocking or too far outside, he’s absorbed precisely the sort of negative runs that the Bills got here. Cincinnati is too skilled and quick to run without authority.
Finish the Sack
One of the stranger facts about the Lions is that the team ranks just 25th in defensive sack percentage, which is the number of pass attempts divided by the number of sacks.
The Lions do not have a problem applying pressure to opposing signal callers. Pro Football Focus (subscription required for premium content) rates the Lions seventh in pass rushing defense. Their game charters credit Detroit with 87 QB Hurries and 25 QB Hits.
For all that pressure, the Lions have just 12 official sacks. That measly figure ranks 26th in the league.
By means of comparison, the Bengals rate just 19th in those same Pro Football Focus pass rush rankings, yet they are tied for seventh in the NFL with 18 sacks. Cincinnati is credited with 58 QB Hurries.
According to TeamRankings.com, their sack rate of 7.53 percent ranks 13th in the league, dwarfing Detroit’s 4.8 percent. As I noted above, these two defenses are very similar schematically and athletically. The Bengals simply finish a lot more efficiently.
How strange is it that Detroit can generate so much pressure but record so few sacks? The lowest-rated team in pass rush by Pro Football Focus is the Oakland Raiders, yet they have more sacks (16) and a better sack percentage (7.14 percent) than the Lions.
Because the QB Hurry stat is subjective and unofficial, there might be some fuzziness to its accuracy. But it’s obvious from watching every snap the Lions have played, in most cases several times, that the pressure is clearly there. They just don’t have the sacks to show for it.
There is no magic bullet as a solution. It’s not a matter of effort or ineffectiveness. The scheme to generate pressure is obviously working.
But here's one gimmick the Lions might want to try. One way to turn more pressures into sacks is for the line to work more in concert. I’d like to see more twists and stunts from the front. The inverted defensive line worked well last week.
With the ends rotating inside and the tackles lined up outside, it forces the offensive line to make more decisions. It also can isolate favorable matchups.
Here’s a play from the Cleveland game where the Lions inverted the defensive line. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are playing end, while Willie Young and Ziggy Ansah lined up inside.
Suh twisted inside and got a clean run at Brandon Weeden, forcing an incompletion. This might also be recognized as the play that resulted in a ridiculous fine for Suh.
Take Away A.J. Green
What Calvin Johnson is to Detroit, A.J. Green is to Cincinnati. Green might be even more integral to the Bengals offense than Johnson is to the Lions.
For the Detroit fans who watched the offense get completely bogged down minus Megatron in Green Bay, this might be hard to believe. Yet the numbers bear it out.
All target numbers are taken from the individual player pages at TeamRankings.com
Take a look at the pass distribution of the Bengals. Andy Dalton has attempted 215 passes through his first six games.
Here is how the Lions' targets break down to their top five receiving targets. Matt Stafford has 239 attempts this season.
Note that Johnson's figure is factored based solely on the games he played; I subtracted all of Stafford's 40 attempts from the Green Bay game when calculating Johnson's percentage.
Green leads the league in total targets. It often appears as if Andy Dalton's game plan on third down is to just throw the ball up the sideline and hope that Green comes down with it.
Last week, the Bills preyed upon that tendency and picked off a pass by using triple bracket coverage on Green. They essentially let the tight end and one other wide receiver proceed uncovered because they knew Dalton was locked onto Green.
The Lions must judiciously try this as well. DeAndre Levy is playing so well in coverage that he can certainly play some underneath "robber," which is exactly what the Bills used to get their interception.
Cincinnati appears cognizant of its reliance on Green. Four of its first five passes last week went to Marvin Jones, along with an end-around to Jones that gained big yardage.
Still, when the Bengals really need a conversion, or the half is looming, it's a fair bet they are looking to A.J. Green. This is when the Lions must abandon normal coverage principles and roll heavy on Green.
Dalton will force the ball to Green. When he does, the Lions need to make him pay.
If the Lions can do these things, as well as controlling the mental error penalties, they stand a very good chance of beating the Bengals. As always, turnovers play a major factor too.