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Giants vs. Lions, Week 11: What to expect when the Giants have the ball

Is the Lions’ defense as bad as it appears?

NFL: New York Giants at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The 7-2 New York Giants will host the 3-6 Detroit Lions in Week 11. The Giants are looking for a win before their quick turnaround leading up Thanksgiving’s game against the Dallas Cowboys.

It would seem on paper that the Giants have another golden opportunity against the Lions, a team that plays hard but has been overmatched throughout the first half of the season. Those who cover the Lions believe that they’re a “team on the rise”, and they certainly do play each of their opponents hard.

A big part of the Giants’ success this year has been to play disciplined football, exploit opponents’ tendencies, and do just enough on offense to come out on top in close games. So what can the Giants’ offense expect from the Lions’ defense?

What does the Lions’ defense look like?

Lions’ defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn spent six seasons coaching defensive backs for the New Orleans Saints under Dennis Allen. Those Saints teams relied heavily on four-man fronts and “man-match” schemes out of quarters coverage. The talent level on those Saints teams allowed Allen to be aggressive and creative in his scheming. The Lions, however, aren’t so thoroughly talented, and Glenn can’t use the same intricate schemes that Allen employed.

That said, we can see certainly his influence on Glenn.

The Lions are, almost exclusively, play out of a four-down front. That’s usually a 4-2-5 nickel alignment, though they do play some base 4-3 as well.

They also primarily play under Cover 1 shells, with Cover 3 as their primary alternative. The Lions will also mix in some Cover 2 and Cover 6 on occasion to help disguise coverages and take away downfield strikes.

The Lions blitz reasonably often, with the 11th highest blitz rate in the NFL and sending the 12th most blitzes overall. Their pressure rates are roughly in the middle of the pack.

The Lions have dealt with a fair amount of injuries over the first part of the season, but look to be getting healthier as we head into November. They could get linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, cornerback Ifaetu Melifonwu, and nickel back Chase Lucas back from injury.

Likewise, starting safety DeShon Elliott returned to practice after missing last week with a concussion. The Lions have also removed safety Kerby Joseph and edge defender Julian Okwara from their injury report entirely. There’s also the possibility that former Giants’ defensive end Romeo Okwara could return from the injured reserve this week.

The star of the Lions’ defense has to be 2022 second overall pick Aidan Hutchinson. Hutchinson seemingly got off to a bit of a slow start in 2022, as the Lions have faced a tough opening schedule and teams have consistently rolled protection his way. But as a player, he’s a threat for which teams absolutely need to account.

Anyone who watched Hutchinson at Michigan knows the kind of player he is — big, long, powerful, athletic, and with a motor that constantly runs white-hot. He’s already a handful for offensive tackles and is able to win with speed, power, or technique.

The Lions use Hutchinson on both sides of their defensive formation, pitting him against left and right tackles. They also, at times, bank on him drawing double teams to open up favorable matchups for other defenders. Hutchinson is frequently lined up in a Wide-9 technique, creating a very difficult angle for offensive tackles while allowing him to carry as much momentum as possible into the backfield. He’s a twitchy edge who wastes no energy exploding out of his stance, and has impressive leverage and bend for a player who’s half an inch shy of 6-foot-7.

Can the Lions stop the run?

The key to the Giants offense — and the key to stopping their offense — is running the ball and discipline.

If the Giants can run the ball and be more disciplined than their opponents, they’ve been successful. But by the same token, when the Giants struggle it’s largely because their opponents are playing disciplined football (not biting on misdirection, staying home, and maintaining cap discipline), and making secure tackles.

As it so happens, the Lions have generally been poor at defending the run on the season. They rank 30th in rushing yards per attempt allowed (5.3), 31st in total yards allowed (1448), and 32nd in defensive EPA against the run (-44.88). Part of their struggles are personnel related, and another part is schematic.

As noted above, the Lions frequently use wide alignments in their defensive fronts, creating natural running lanes if individual defenders don’t win their blocks up front. It’s an aggressive form of defense that balances risk with reward. They can be gashed on the ground, or come up with big plays if defenders are able to effectively shoot gaps or rally to the football.

The Lions have taken on the personality of head coach Dan Campbell, playing hard, fast, aggressive football. When they maintain their gap discipline they do a decent job of controlling blockers and rallying to the football. And much like the Giants, their aggressive play can create opportunities to generate turnovers in key situations.

But it’s also true that the Lions are a young defense relying on first-, second-, and third-year players at key positions. They have seven players age 23 or under who have started multiple games for them, and that can show up in their play. Like other young, aggressive defenses, the Lions can be prone to biting hard on play-action and misdirection.

That would bode well for the Giants, and Saquon Barkley. And it’s entirely possible that we could see another game where the Giants lean on Barkley and only throw the ball to pick up the occasional third-and-long.

But, as usual in football, things are a bit more complicated than that.

That Lions have been pretty good defending the run since their Week 6 bye. They gave up 139 yards on the ground against the Cowboys in Dak Prescott’s return from injury. They gave up just 107 yards against the Miami Dolphins and 106 yards against the Green Bay Packers, and 111 yards to Bears not named “Justin Fields”.

The Lions’ 114 rushing yards allowed per game over the last four weeks would rank 13th in the NFL for the season, while the 108 yards allowed to running backs over the last three weeks would be tied for sixth in the League.

An important caveat is that Fields picked up 147 rushing yards against the Lions. The Giants made heavy use of Daniel Jones as a runner toward the start of the season, making relatively frequent use of read-option plays and designed QB runs. Recently, however, Jones has only averaged 5.6 carries per game in three of his last four games — and most of those were scrambles.

The Giants win over Jacksonville is the obvious exception, but it’s fair to wonder if Brian Daboll is easing up on using Jones as a runner to preserve his health. Or perhaps the Giants have used fewer quarterback run to avoid becoming predictable on offense.

Running quarterbacks prey on opposing discipline, and whether the Giants look to recreate Justin Fields’ success on the ground will be one of the biggest things to watch this game.

Will the Giants throw the ball?

The “why” behind the Giants’ offensive decisions is really a “chicken or egg” type question. Do the Giants not throw the ball because they’re good at running the ball? Or do they run the ball so much because they aren’t good at throwing the ball?

That’s probably more of a Rorschach test, and the answer will depend on how any individual observer views the Giants’ offense.

But quantitatively, the Giants have little interest in throwing the ball unless they have to do so.

Only three teams — the Atlanta Falcons, Tennessee Titans, and Chicago Bears — have thrown the ball less than the Giants. Only the Titans and Bears have fewer passing yards and only the Browns, Broncos, and Steelers have fewer passing touchdowns. As good as the Giants’ running game has been, their passing attack is hardly in august company.

We know the Giants are going to run the ball against the Lions, but forecasting their passing attack might be a bit more nuanced. On the one hand, as mentioned above, the Lions’ run defense has been downright bad on the season. On the other hand, two things might force the ball to stay in Daniel Jones’ hands.

The first is that, for everything else that’s gone wrong with the Lions’ defense, they’re sound tacklers.

The Giants have the best tackling in the NFL with just 26 missed tackles through nine games The Lions are tied for third with 33 missed tackles through nine games (Washington also has 33 missed tackles, but that’s for 10 games). They have also allowed the fewest yards after the catch of any defense in the NFL. If the Lions are able to stay disciplined and prevent explosive runs and force more longer late downs, Jones will be forced to throw more than the Giants want.

The other thing to note is something that came up against the Dallas Cowboys and Seattle Seahawks: The Lions have a pretty good offense.

The Lions are just outside the top 10 in yards and points per game. They’re also fifth in yards per play (5.9), while being ninth in passing touchdowns (15), sixth in net yards per attempt (6.9), ninth in rushing yards per attempt (4.8), and fifth in rushing touchdowns (11). They’re also third in explosive (20+ yard) passing plays with 36.

Detroit can move the ball and put up points, and they’re capable of generating chunk plays.

That plays into two of the Giants’ weaknesses. They feature a conservative (albeit creatively schemed) and methodical ball-control offense. While having one of the slowest offenses (29th, 3:04 per drive) in the NFL has helped them so far, it isn’t conducive to putting up points. Likewise, the Giants’ defense has proven vulnerable to explosive plays. If offenses can account for Wink Martindale’s pressure packages and coverage rotations, chunk plays have been there for offenses all season long. Likewise, runners who are able to get to the second level have gashed the Giants.

Nick Falato is previewing the matchup between the Lions’ offense and the Giants’ defense this week. But this is one of those weeks where we need to look at the opposing offense and their potential to put pressure on the Giants’ offense to keep up.

We know how the Giants want to play offense in 2022, but we need to recognize the possibility that the opposing offense might be good enough to force a shootout.