How Chiefs-Lions might break down, from Patrick Mahomes feasting on man-to-man to Detroit's own plan of attack

NFL kickoff has finally arrived. Here's how Chiefs-Lions might break down in the opener. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)
NFL kickoff has finally arrived. Here's how Chiefs-Lions might break down in the opener. (Amber Matsumoto/Yahoo Sports)

The 2023 NFL season is upon us! List season is over! We’re here! Congratulations everyone. We did it.

And the schedule makers rewarded us with a doozy to kick off the year — and it’s one we don’t have to fair catch inside our own 25-yard line to get going. They even made the opposing teams' colors red and blue to help us all out. We have the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs with the reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes versus the upstart Detroit Lions and their brutally efficient offense.

In my new weekly column The Overhang, I dove into key facets when both sides have the ball. And how will some absences on the Chiefs' side might affect both teams. Plus, my betting pick for the game and a couple of prop bets that I like.

Let’s get to it.

When the Lions have the ball

How Detroit moves on offense

Despite trading away their starting tight end T.J. Hockenson midseason and their first-round wide receiver Jameson Williams playing only a handful of games, the Lions' offense still finished among the league’s best in 2022 thanks to a strong offensive line, fantastic play-calling from offensive coordinator Ben Johnson and the hyper-efficient play of quarterback Jared Goff and wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Detroit finished in the top seven in points, offensive success rate and EPA (expected points added) per play in 2022. And while Williams will be out for the opener because of a gambling suspension, the Lions attempted to add more juice to their offensive weapons by selecting running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta in April’s NFL Draft, and also replaced the NFL’s supreme touchdown vulture in Jamaal Williams, who left for the New Orleans Saints, by signing David Montgomery from the Chicago Bears.

The Lions move the ball through a balanced attack behind their talented line with three legitimate All-Pro caliber players in center Frank Ragnow, left guard Jonah Jackson and — the crown jewel — right tackle Penei Sewell. This offensive line, one that I consider among the league’s best, along with Goff’s well-roundedness as a processor and thrower of the football allows the Lions to use various dropback and play-action concepts, and they also feature a diverse run game to put themselves in the best positions no matter what the defense is throwing at them.

According to Sports Info Solutions, the Lions were the only offense in the NFL last season that had 40 or more run plays in four different types of run schemes. Most offenses will have a fastball that they lean on in the run game with a couple of changeups to sprinkle in, but the Lions chose to order every type of run off the call sheet menu on a weekly basis. Instead of sampling everything in appetizer-sized portions like they’re taking a trip to Applebee’s, the Lions wanted a slab of everything like at a Brazilian steakhouse:

The Lions drafted Gibbs and signed Montgomery to full take advantage of all the yards available to them behind this offensive line. And both will be better equipped to take advantage of the run lanes available to them than D’Andre Swift (whose lack of vision often left meat on the bone and often frustrated Lions coaches) and have more juice than Williams. So look for the Lions to take advantage of the Chiefs' interior DL depth and try to use motion and moving parts to distract the Chiefs' talented, but at times overly aggressive, linebacker pairing of Willie Gay and Nick Bolton.

Chiefs' defense might have a giant Chris Jones problem

The 2022 Chiefs defense was the best unit that Steve Spagnuolo has had since taking over as defensive coordinator in 2019. And it looked like a legitimate top-10 unit in the second half of the season. After KC's bye in Week 8, the Chiefs finished fifth in defensive success rate and top seven in both rushing and passing success rate. And they did this while blitzing less frequently than they ever had under Spagnuolo, a far cry from his “blitz first and ask questions later” past that led to more soundness and consistent play, lowering their explosive play surrendered rate and making offenses work for their first downs and big plays.

Stopping the run, especially against heavier offensive personnel groupings, has been a thorn in the Chiefs' side under Spagnuolo. And the improved play of linebackers Bolton, Gay and emerging second-year player Leo Chenal, as well as solid tackling (the 2022 Chiefs had the lowest missed tackle rate as a unit in the four years of Spagnuolo’s tenure), helped limit the damage whenever things did get leaky. Chenal can be a great equalizer if the Lions trot out heavier personnel on offense.

But there is still a gaping hole in the Chiefs' defensive front. And that hole seems to be the exact size of Chris Jones, the defensive tackle who is currently in the middle of contract negotiations with the Chiefs and missed all of training camp and preseason. Jones is one of the most disruptive forces in football right now, and he is still the ace on this unit. And potentially not having him against a very good Lions offense has surely kept the Chiefs' defensive coaches up at night.

If Chris Jones doesn't end up playing in the opener, it complicates things for the Chiefs' defense. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann, File)
If Chris Jones doesn't end up playing in the opener, it complicates things for the Chiefs' defense. (AP Photo/Reed Hoffmann, File)

While on/off splits can have some noise around them based on situation and the personnel that’s on the field, the on and off splits with Jones are stark. In 2022, the Chiefs ranked fourth in overall pressure rate (39.5%), fifth in pressure rate with only four pass rushers (37.1%) and seventh in average time to pressure (2.45 seconds, just ahead of the Eagles, who finished with 70 sacks) on the 583 dropbacks they faced.

On the 131 opponent dropbacks with Jones not on the field? The Chiefs ranked 29th in pressure rate (30.7%), 32nd in pressure rate with four pass rushers (22.9%) and 31st in average time to pressure (2.68 seconds).

Yes, there is noise with these numbers. But it also shows what a force of nature Jones is when he’s on the field. He has taken over Super Bowls and wound up with 15.5 sacks and 17 TFLs last season on his way to finishing third in Defensive Player of the Year voting. He’s a megastar whose absence leads to a lot of curiosity of how exactly the Chiefs are going to attack this efficient Lions offense.

Does Spagnuolo blitz more frequently against the Lions? Hoping to heat up Jared Goff and daring the Lions to live in a gash-or-be-gashed world?

There’s a give-and-take with that type of plan. Goff will dice defenses when not pressured, especially in Johnson’s grab bag scheme. Goff ranked fourth among all quarterbacks in 2022 in success rate when not pressured, with 56.1% of his dropbacks resulting in positive plays for the offense. (For perspective, Patrick Mahomes led the entire NFL in passing success rate at 52.7%.) When pressured? Goff’s success rate dropped to 27.8%, which ranked 21st last season, sandwiched between rookie Kenny Pickett and two QBs who were benched in Carson Wentz and Matt Ryan.

But it’s not like the Chiefs can just blitz and that solves all the issues. Goff was very good against the blitz last season and has historically been above average. His success rate against the blitz ranked ninth in 2022 and his EPA per dropback ranked fourth. Between his ability to find the right throw and the Lions' extremely sound protection scheme, it can leave aggressive defenses frustrated as the ball gets out before they can get home for a sack:

Do the Chiefs double-team St. Brown (something Spagnuolo will often do against talented pass-catchers) and dare another player to beat them through the air? Or does he trust players like second-year defensive back Trent McDuffie to hold his own in the slot? Do the Lions pound the rock until the Chiefs start throwing extra bodies at the problem? Do the Lions target the running backs through the air? Can George Karlaftis and Felix Anudike-Uzomah, the Chiefs' two most recent first-round draft selections, pick up some of the slack in the absence of Jones and free-agent addition Charles Omenihu, who is out due to a suspension? It’s a big ask of young players against a talented group.

This side of the ball has left me with a lot of questions. With the absence of Jones leading to potential exclamation points for the Lions' offense.

When the Chiefs have the ball

Patrick Mahomes, Kansas City can feast on Lions' fastball

This has the potential of an unstoppable force against a very moveable object. The Chiefs have the reigning MVP and best player in the world at quarterback with Patrick Mahomes. That's a great place to start for any team, but especially when facing a Lions defense that ranked near the bottom at various metrics, albeit one that did attempt to invest in shoring up parts of its weaknesses.

The Chiefs' bread and butter on offense is the Mahomes-to-Travis Kelce connection. But with Kelce potentially out or at the very least hobbled with a hyperextended knee, the focus turns to the remaining supporting cast and how it stacks up against a Lion defense that was not intimidating in 2022.

Second-round rookie safety Brian Branch (32) could be a difference-maker in the Lions' man-heavy defense. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)
Second-round rookie safety Brian Branch (32) could be a difference-maker in the Lions' man-heavy defense. (AP Photo/Duane Burleson)

Even if Kelce were playing, a real thing to focus on is whether the Lions stick with their fastball in coverage: playing man-to-man. And playing man-to-man a lot. No defense ran Cover 1 more frequently in 2022 than the Lions, a trend that continued as they topped the leaderboard again during this preseason, doubling the league average rate.

Who covers Kelce when the Lions are in man coverage? They added various defensive backs through free agency and the draft. (I am quite high on second-round selection Brian Branch.) But will that be enough to live singled-up with Mahomes knowing that you are in man coverage?

The Chiefs faced more dropbacks against Cover 1 than anyone last season because they chose to face it. While their 205 dropbacks easily led the NFL (the league average in 2022 was 128 dropbacks) and finished third in passing success rate, they ranked seventh in total plays against man coverage, with a run-pass ratio on those plays that would make Hal Mumme blush. The Chiefs threw the ball on an astounding 80.1% of their snaps against man coverage last season, nearly 20% higher than the league average and well ahead of the second-place Dolphins at 71.3%.

This is because Andy Reid will often package plays together, either getting to the better choice of a run or pass concept (or choosing between two runs or two passes). The Chiefs use various formation and motion indicators to allow a quarterback who's already a cheat code get additional cheat codes as to what the defense is doing and allowing him to pick his favorite matchup. Step 2 is that he throws the ball, and Step 3 is profit.

If Kelce is still his game-wrecking self, does Detroit throw more bodies at the solution?

What adjustments will Detroit make?

If Kelce plays, the Lions would likely have game-plan adjustments in an attempt to have other pass-catchers beat them through the air. The Chiefs are working through various young wide receivers who are talented but mostly unproven. And this is something the Lions' defense has done before against elite pass catchers. They threw a smorgasbord of coverage looks in an attempt to cover Justin Jefferson in their matchups:

And against Tyreek Hill when they played the Dolphins (although Miami's answer was simply to throw the ball to Jaylen Waddle for a touchdown):

This will, again, open up opportunities for the other Chiefs pass-catchers to win their one-on-ones. They have several young, talented options in Skyy Moore, Kadarius Toney, Rashee Rice and (my personal favorite) Justyn Ross, along with several role-playing veterans.

Mahomes has had no issues shredding defenses when facing man coverage before. He could spread the ball around, picking on what he perceives to be the most favorable matchup on a given snap, but these wide receivers have to take advantage of the looks that they’re given. It’s still a question mark.

On the ground, the Lions announced that they are benching nose tackle Isaiah Buggs and instead likely going with Benito Jones in his place. And while they drafted linebacker Jack Campbell, they didn’t do much else to help their front that ranked 30th against the run in success rate (58.1%) in 2022 on first and second down.

That already-low rate dropped to 51.4% without Buggs last season, a number so bad it had me double-checking I was looking at the right number. Just for reference: Offenses were successful on 48.6% of their runs last season against the Lions without Buggs — and the Eagles' offense comfortably led the NFL in rushing success rate at 44.9%.

The Chiefs, as shown in their Super Bowl victory over the Eagles, have no qualms with leaning on their run game when opportunities present themselves. After Kelce, their next best non-Mahomes players are their interior offensive linemen (left guard Joe Thuney, center Creed Humphrey and right guard Trey Smith) that stack up among the league’s best trios. And this run game ranked sixth in rushing success rate on first and second down in 2022. It’s a talented and powerful group that also added splashy free agent Jawaan Taylor at right tackle and Donovan Smith, who's had good stretches but is coming off his worst professional season, at left tackle.

The Lions have a couple of players who can get after the passer. Aidan Hutchinson has all the makings of a perennial double-digit sack player. James Houston was a revelation as a designated pass rusher during his brief playing time last season as a rookie. What the Lions can get out of those other pass rushers, or if they end up blitzing — they were the sixth blitz-happiest defense last season, and they have some really talented blitzers at the defensive back position — and potentially take advantage of the Chiefs' new tackle pairing will be their best bet to create some chaos in this game and let their own offense control the game.

Oh, and in case you were wondering how Mahomes responds against the blitz: Since 2019, there have been 117 qualifying quarterback seasons. And three of the top five quarterback seasons against the blitz in terms of EPA per dropback were Patrick Mahomes seasons. The fourth Mahomes year during that time period was only sixteenth.

The Pick

Chiefs -4.5 (at time of writing)

With Patrick Mahomes as his starting quarterback, Andy Reid is 16-1 straight-up when the Chiefs have more than one week to prepare for a game and is 5-0 in Week 1.

Against the spread, the Reid/Mahomes combo sits at 10-7 overall, but 4-1 in Week 1. No Chris Jones is a huge loss for the Chiefs' defense, and Travis Kelce is, at the very least, not 100% heading into the game. But the Chiefs still have Mahomes and they still have their offensive line. The Lions will get their points, and would even if Jones were playing. But it’s hard for me to picture them being able to keep up with the reigning MVP and the Chiefs' efficient run game for four quarters.

The Prop

Mahomes over 17.5 rushing yards

In 2022, 6.9% of opponent dropbacks against the Lions resulted in a scramble, the highest rate in the NFL. And while the Chiefs do not use Patrick Mahomes on anything more than a handful of designed runs during the season these days, Mahomes is still one of the most devastating scramblers in today’s game, ranking seventh overall in scramble rate and third in EPA generated per scramble among quarterbacks with 20 or more scrambles.

With the Lions likely to live in man coverage — a coverage vulnerable to scrambles because of the lack of eyes on the quarterback — and potentially with Kelce out or hobbled. Look for the patented Mahomes scramble on a couple of third downs for the Bane-esque backbreakers.

And if you’re looking for something to tail on the Lions side? With Jones out, that 9% explosive run rate is staring at me. So sprinkling on something like Jahmyr Gibbs longest rush over 13.5 yards and wait for the explosive Gibbs to pop a big one on the ground on the Chiefs' potential weakness for the game.