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Know the Opponent, Week 1: Must-Know Facts About the Lions

The Chiefs’ title defense officially begins in Week 1 with a Thursday night duel against the upstart Lions. What’s worth knowing about Detroit?

It’s of great irony that the 2023-24 NFL season will open with a matchup featuring, perhaps, the two teams who closed 2022-23 on the best terms. By default, the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs enter Thursday with a red-and-gold bullseye on their chests. The first team with a target to aim: the celebrated-yet-uncrowned Detroit Lions, boasting their first winning season since 2017.

For fans of both Detroit and the underdog, the hope is that a red-hot 8-2 finish from 2022 is merely an appetizer. Pro Bowl quarterback Jared Goff proved excellent over the final nine games, sporting zero turnovers and the NFL’s No. 2 QBR.

Take your wildest guess on who No. 1 was.

The last time Goff and Patrick Mahomes shared a stage, they "only" put on the third-highest-scoring game in NFL history, an all-time great TV viewership and a Scorigami to boot. And while there’s no guarantee that they’ll again approach said historic numbers, a thousand other reasons remain to tune in. Here’s what’s worth knowing ahead of the Chiefs’ title defense:

Detroit's offense has enough to put Kansas City on “upset watch”:

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From tying for the NFL lead for 30-point games (8) to their willingness to fight you even if you have “one asscheek and three toes,” — as their head coach eloquently framed it — the Lions aren’t your average 9-8 team. Unlikely as it may be, Detroit has enough ammunition to pose a threat to the Chiefs, particularly under the pretense that Kansas City plays without two All-Pro talents.

Detroit opens 2023-24 as odds-on favorites to conquer the NFC North for the first time since 1993. Expectations are that they look less like the team that, at one point, was on pace to be NFL history’s worst in points allowed and more like the group that finished No. 5 in offensive DVOA under Ben Johnson and held offenses to just 20.2 points (11th-best) from Week 9 to Week 18.

If for no other reason other than the fact that they are the Detroit Lions, they remain difficult to trust defensively. They’ve got the art of lighting up scoreboards covered, though, rostering a quarterback with the NFL’s best touchdown-to-interception ratio, fifth-longest pass attempt streak (324) without an interception, an elite line and a top receiver in Amon-Ra St. Brown.

Fittingly nicknamed “The Sun God,” St. Brown aligns at the epicenter of Detroit’s attack with the NFL’s No. 1 finishes in slot targets (122) and receptions (90). If a route can be run from an inside alignment, everything from slant routes to hitch routes to running newspaper routes and setting up internet routers was up for attempt with Detroit's Pro Bowl wideout.

Kansas City struggled against slot wideouts and in-breakers last season, but Trent McDuffie’s versatility and L’Jarius Sneed’s elite ability to mirror pass-catchers evokes confidence. This chess match may not decide the outcome, but it could dictate how stressful Thursday is for Steve Spagnuolo and Co.

Speaking of Spagnuolo’s group: when the Chiefs' defense lines up, you're likely to notice that gaping hole in the middle that measures at about 6-foot-6, 310 pounds. Consider the night-and-day difference in the Chiefs' resistance with and without their All-Pro defensive lineman.

Anchored by Pro Bowlers in Penei Sewell and Frank Ragnow, few teams are built to exacerbate that issue with traps and counter runs quite like Detroit. They should benefit immensely from not having to scheme protections centered around stopping Jones.

Exhibit Z of Detroit’s willingness to “zig” where others “zag” came in drafting a first-round running back with No. 12 selection Jahmyr Gibbs. Inking David Montgomery — who broke more tackles (23) than all of Detroit's backs in 2022 (21) — shows both a philosophical adjustment and an underrated pickup.

On Tuesday, Campbell kept answers to the test close to the chest regarding Gibbs’s usage. Campbell did, however, elaborate on his biggest key: eliminating Arrowhead’s crowd. The best way to do that? Ensure that No. 15 and his supporters are doing the same thing: sitting in a seat, observing Detroit’s offense.

The Chiefs have been elite here, allowing the seventh-fewest rushing yards. But without No. 95, adequately nicknamed “Stone Cold Jones,” they could be on the wrong end of a “stunner” or two as they attempt to hold off Detroit.

How the Chiefs' offense can dish it right back:

Lions Defense

For as successful as Detroit's defense was post-Week 9, the fact remains that the NFL is a 17-week obligation. Late-season Improvements be darned, they hemorrhaged 82 plays of 20-plus yards. With an impending date against the team that led the NFL in completions of 25-plus yards (49) in Kansas City, Thursday Night Football’s tilt could provide quite the litmus test.

If there’s one area where Kansas City should smell blood in the water, it's likely the run game. For everything great about Detroit's 8-2 finish, it shouldn’t be forgotten that their postseason hopes were dashed, quite literally because D’Onta Foreman and Chuba Hubbard dashed past them, each setting career-highs on the way to a combined 290 rushing yards in Week 16.

One couldn’t help noticing how much of what Carolina did looked similar to what the Chiefs specialize in: motioning, well-timed trap blocks, gashes up the middle and second-level blocks on linebackers with their physical line.

Detroit's approach was proactive, snagging Jack Campbell at No. 18 and Alabama's Brian Branch, who missed just four tackles over a three-year run. Both should someday help resuscitate a run defense that allowed 5.2 yards per carry, the NFL's third-worst. 

But in Week 1, particularly if Kelce's injury forces more reliance on the ground game, the only question worth asking might be: did you enjoy Isiah Pacheco's new touchdown dance?

One factor to watch:

Around this time a year ago, the Arizona Cardinals produced one of those “don’t-touch-the-stove-or-you’ll-get-burned” moments. Against both their better judgment and four years' worth of evidence, they blitzed Patrick Mahomes at the highest rate of his career. Out of respect for the state of Arizona, the results of said game won’t be rehashed. It does, though, introduce an intriguing tug-of-war relating to Detroit.

As you'd expect from a coach who has talked publicly about “biting kneecaps,” Detroit has embraced approaches of ambitious man-to-man defense and heavy blitz rates. They owned the No. 1 blitz percentage (53.5) on third-and-long per Brett Kollmann of Bootleg Football.

Will the tigers — or in this case, the Lions — change their stripes on that approach against the quarterback with a PhD in dissecting blitzes? Mahomes’ otherworldly brilliance against pressure is well-documented. But don’t just take this writer’s word for it:

Detroit relies heavily on its speed and youth on blitzes from that aforementioned young talent — see here and here; reinforcements are certainly upcoming. Nevertheless, it feels like a hefty ask for such a youthful group against the NFL’s best offensive mind. Despite a bright-as-ever future, if one had to predict, Campbell's plans to "bite kneecaps" might be better suited for Week 2.

Score Prediction: Chiefs 33, Lions 25