The Los Angeles Rams are set to play the Detroit Lions on wild card weekend. It will be Matthew Stafford’s return to Detroit, the city where he played the first 12 years of his career. While the Rams are the lower seed in this game, with how they’ve been playing, it can certainly be argued that they’ve been in better form and been the better team. However, it will also be Detroit’s first home playoff game in 30 years. Here are five keys to victory for the Rams against the Lions.
1. Blitz Ernest Jones to Generate Interior Pressure and Take Away Gibbs
The Rams absolutely have to generate interior pressure in this game. This will be a strength on strength matchup that Los Angeles will have to win. Frank Ragnow is arguably the best center in the NFL. Graham Glasow is very good, but has allowed the sixth-most pressures this season among guards. On the other side, the Rams interior defensive linemen between Aaron Donald and Kobie Turner generate the most pressure in the NFL.
Not all pressure is created equally and that’s especially the case when it comes to Jared Goff. Unlike some quarterbacks that the Rams have faced this year, Goff doesn’t have the escapability that other, more mobile quarterbacks possess. The Rams have to be able to disrupt the pocket and force him to bail. Goff with a clean pocket has the second-highest pass-rating in the NFL. When he’s under pressure, that drops down to 17th.
Cover 3, big nickel (Pola-Mao, Moehrig, Epps). Marcus Peters keeps his eyes on QB, jumps this throw into flat. Goff initially wants the hitch up top but Moehrig (curl/flat) undercuts route. Interior pressure from Jenkins.#RaiderNation pic.twitter.com/eJWMbQhVyH— Ryan Holmes (@Rholm22) November 1, 2023
The key to this will be Ernest Jones. Raheem Morris has brought Ernest Jones 133 times this season which is the third-most for any linebacker. His win percentage of 19.5 percent ranks second and he leads all linebackers in pressures. Meanwhile, Jahmyr Gibbs has the fourth-lowest pass-blocking grade among running backs, allowing the fifth-most pressures and second-most hurries. David Montgomery is just average.
Morris has done a great job this year when it comes to scheming pressure with Jones at the second level to match him up with the running back. The Rams essentially took away Alvin Kamara against the Saints using this tactic. Cody Alexander from the Match Quarters Substack broke down this matchup. Said Alexander,
“In the passing game, Morris wanted to eliminate Kamara completely. In the Saints’ offense, the RB is frequently used in the route concept. In weeks 1-15, Kamara had a direct release into a route on ~31% of the snaps. That number plummeted to ~16% against the Rams...If the Rams could keep the running back in, it would change the math for the secondary and eliminate a key wide receiver...Morris and the Rams devised a simple way to manipulate the protection and get Kamara to stay in to protect, thus eliminating him from the routes... Morris used Aaron Donald as a lever to get the protection away from the running back and then used Earnest Jones as a blitzer to occupy the RB and create pressure.”
Against the Saints, the Rams limited Kamara to five receptions for 16 yards. That was his fewest output with at least five receptions since Week 9 of 2020. Kamara and Jamaal Williams also each gave up two pressures which which led the NFL in Week 16 and they both had two of the seven worst pass-blocking grades.
Gibbs has 53 receptions this season. Ben Johnson and the Lions will likely look to get him involved in the passing game at some point or at least use him as an outlet for Goff. If the Rams can eliminate that outlet with Jones and generate interior pressure, they could make things difficult for the Lions quarterback.
2. Stick With The Run Game and “Duo”
There will be a lot of strength on strength matchups in this game. From Weeks 12-17 the Rams rank third in rush offense EPA per play and for the season Kyren Williams leads all running backs in EPA per rush. For the season, the Rams rank sixth in run offense DVOA. On the flip side, the Lions rank first in run defense DVOA, fourth in EPA per rush allowed, and third in yards per carry.
With that said, there is a twist here and The Athletic’s Nate Tice who writes “The Overhang” for Yahoo Sports broke it down.
“In 2023, the duo run concept, a former auxiliary run play for the Rams, has become a main player...The Lions are pretty poor in defending the duo run concept, allowing the fourth-most EPA per play against it.”
Guess what the Rams run a lot of? Duo. In fact, they have 20 more duo runs than any other team in the NFL.
The Rams pounding the rock on the first nine plays of their opening drive against the Ravens.— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) December 14, 2023
A healthy mix of Duo and different types of Zone runs plus a Jet Sweep to Puka Nacua. All out of a similar formation structure featuring shift & motion galore. pic.twitter.com/AYk7PDtpGt
While it is true that the Lions have one of the best run defenses in the NFL, the Rams’ primary run concept is something that Detroit has struggled to defend. This game is going to be about Matthew Stafford and exploiting a secondary that ranks 25th in dropback EPA and 28th over the back-half of the season. However, Kyren Williams is still going to play a key role in the Rams’ offensive success.
3. Mitigate Damage of Explosive Plays
The biggest thing for the Rams defense in this game outside of being able to generate interior pressure will be to mitigate damage on explosive plays. The Lions rank 2nd in explosive plays this season while the Rams defense ranks 19th in explosive plays allowed. It’s the explosive plays that have been crushing for this Rams defense. While they rank 12th in explosive run-rate allowed, their 8.4 percent explosive pass-rate allowed ranks 20th. These are the plays that have allowed teams back in the game late over the past few weeks, specifically the Saints and Giants games.
Ahkello Witherspoon likes to play from the trail, but this can lead to him getting beat vertically. Teams know this as his average depth of target of 15.8 yards ranks seventh in the NFL. His 14.9 yards per reception allowed is also the ninth most. Derion Kendrick lacks speed and isn’t much better. Teams know that they can attack the Rams vertically.
Goff’s deep-passing this season hasn’t been great, but he’s still the sixth-most accurate quarterback on passes of 20 yards or more. However, the Lions also don’t stretch the field often. Only 7.6 percent of Goff’s passing attempts are 20 yards down the field which is last in the NFL.
Still, they are a threat in this area. They will attack defenses over the top off of play action. Jameson Williams’ 46.7 yards per reception on deep passes ranks fourth in the NFL and his average depth of target ranks fifth. Ben Johnson and the Lions are doing more to get the ball into his hands, especially vertically. Whether it’s on an end-around or vertical in the passing game, Williams is the x-factor in the Lions offense.
Fully expect Jameson Williams to get his number called on a very similar concept 2-3x on Sunday night. Ben Johnson won’t hold back with this kind of stuff against the Rams’ defense. pic.twitter.com/tSoTCCZku1— Rams Brothers (@RamsBrothers) January 12, 2024
The Lions offense is going to create explosive plays. That’s who they are. The key here is mitigating the damage. Can the Rams defense turn a 40-yard pass into a field goal or empty possession instead of a touchdown? Those are momentum-changing plays on both sides.
4. Be Ready For the Blitz and Don’t Get Reckless in Passing Game
The last time the Rams offense took the field, they struggled against a heavy-blitzing New York Giants defense led by Wink Martindale. In that game, Stafford threw two interceptions that sailed high. The Rams quarterback didn’t mention it as a reason, but there’s a chance he felt rushed with how the Giants were bringing pressure.
Against the blitz this season, Stafford has the 14th highest passer rating and is completing just 57.7 percent of his passes which ranks 23rd among 28 qualifying quarterbacks. This is night and day compared to 2021 when Stafford was the second-best quarterback against the blitz, throwing 14 touchdowns to just two interceptions.
The issue here is that the Lions have gone from a team that didn’t blitz a lot to one of the blitz-heavier teams in the NFL. Detroit has gone from the 17th-highest blitz-rate to fourth-highest blitz-rate in the second half of the season. On third and fourth downs, the Lions blitz at a rate of 35 percent which is only behind Martindale and the Giants.
Look for the Rams to line up in pistol and use motion to counter-act this. According to Tice,
“Pistol and motion are great ways to defang an aggressive defensive coordinator, which matters when going against a defense such as the Lions...Against the blitz-happy Martindale in Week 17, the Rams aligned in pistol 11 times on early downs, with nine resulting in efficient gains.”
Ten snaps of the Rams offense using Pistol against the Giants, with all ten snaps resulting in successful plays for the Rams. Including the first three plays of the game. pic.twitter.com/TmXMGxgHIe— Nate Tice (@Nate_Tice) January 10, 2024
Stafford can’t get reckless throwing against the blitz either like he was against the Giants. Two turnovers in this game would be detrimental and likely ends up in a Rams loss. The Lions secondary has 16 interceptions on the year. Brian Branch is fifth in pass-breakups and Ifeatu Melifonwu is fifth in forced incompletion percentage. CJ Gardner-Johnson is back. This is a secondary with active hands and if Stafford isn’t careful, that could lead to interceptions.
5. Discipline in the Secondary and Take Away Middle of the Field
There have been times this year where the Rams have allowed a receiver in motion get open on the backside of the formation. It happened with Isaiah Likely against the Baltimore Ravens and other times this year.
LAMAR JACKSON TO ISAIAH LIKELY 54 YARD TOUCHDOWN!!!!!!— Sideline Daily (@sideline_daily) December 10, 2023
Ravens lead the Rams 7-3
It would not be surprising if Johnson drew up something similar to Gibbs, James Mitchell, or Sam LaPorta if he’s healthy. Johnson is going to try and create conflict in the Rams secondary. It will be up to the Rams defensive backs to remain disciplined in their rules.
Raheem Morris will also need to take away the intermediate-middle area of the field. That’s where Goff is at his best. Rams need to take away that area of the field much like they did with Derek Carr in Week 16.
Rams have to take away the intermediate-middle area of the field from Jared Goff. Have to force him to attack the boundaries within 10 yards. pic.twitter.com/XFACQ5fJuK— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) January 12, 2024
That area of the field is where players like Amon-Ra St. Brown and LaPorta will hurt a defense. 56 percent of Goff’s throws in his career have come over the middle of the field. That’s where he is the most comfortable throwing the football, especially out of play action.
The Rams will be relying a lot on Jones and Quentin Lake in this area. Jones will need to come up big in coverage which is an area of his game where he can be exploited at times. Lake ranks fifth in yards per snap in the slot and fourth in yards allowed.
Two of Goff's worst games this season came in Week 11 against Chicago and Week 7 against Baltimore. MacDonald and Eberflus forced the Lions to attack the boundary. They kept him outside the hashes. pic.twitter.com/SJ3xsg06gV— Blaine Grisak (@bgrisakTST) January 12, 2024
If Jordan Fuller is unable to play, his presence will certainly be missed. When the Lions do attack the boundary, they will likely look to attack vertically or get favorably matchups with Michael Hoecht in coverage. Again, it’s about staying disciplined and following rules in coverage. The Lions are a top offense in the NFL for a reason and are going to get their production. It will simply be important for the Rams defense to make them work for their points. That starts with playing smart by not giving up penalties and disciplined on the backend in the coverage rules.