What makes me so sure? Well, it was something that occurred late in the first quarter of the Chiefs game last week. The Lions had been gashed on the ground in the first quarter, when the Chiefs piled up a 132-76 lead in total offense.
That Chiefs yardage barrage was accomplished by their strong run game. Even after the departure of RB Jamaal Charles (ACL injury), Thomas Jones and Dexter McCluster continued the rushing assault on the Lions until the Lions made a simple adjustment that slashed those rushing yards in half.
Simply stated, the Lions threw out the defensive playbook for the Chiefs game. By returning to their base 4-3 base defense and playing base-zones, the linebackers were able to accomplish what an entire week of scheming couldn’t: They shut down the run, making the Chiefs a one dimensional team.
Up until the adjustment, the Lions were crowding the box, filling gaps, and showing blitz on almost every play. Once a ball carrier found a lightly defended gap, the Lions were toast against the great zone blocking of the Chiefs.
Lions defenders, especially the linebackers, were seldom in position to make a play.
Running backs read those zone blocks and choose a gap. The major advantage of zone blocking is that it doesn’t matter what the defense is (4-3 vs. 3-4), or does (loop, stunt, blitz). The blockers are assigned zones, rather than defenders. By doing this, a single blocker can often neutralize two defenders.
By going zone, the linebackers were able to pursue laterally, and team tackle at the point of attack. Justin Durant, Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy have great downhill speed. Using their speed to it’s best advantage forced running plays outside, where only one LB had to be beaten.
Of course, the downside of running outside the tackles is that the secondary has time to close on the play.
So, the Lions were able to negate the Chief’s strength (run game) and make them more one dimensional (passing). How does this apply to the Vikings?
The Vikings are another team who plays the zone blocking scheme (ZBS). An inherent defect of the ZBS is that blockers have difficulty blocking in the second level (linebackers).
The Lions linebackers will have full freedom of movement laterally, and can quickly close on the point of attack. In addition, playing zone allows the OLBs to diagnose screen plays without worrying about being out of position.
This is how the Lions will successfully defend against Adrian Peterson.
Finally, I want to say that I have been an outspoken critic of LB Justin Durant since the day that he was signed. I would have preferred a LB with even average coverage skills over Durant.
During training camp, the preseason, and even Week 1, I just never saw Durant make a play. Not even one. In fact, Durant played only 21 snaps against the Bucs.
When the Lions changed up the defense against the Chiefs, they stumbled onto a scheme where Durant flourished. His 11 total tackles led the team in Week 2.
Durant’s play was so solid that the Lions eschewed taking him off the field by playing the nickel, where they seem to be weak.
Durant has arrived. He has, in one week, won me over in a big way. I have to assume that the Lions coaching staff was every bit as surprised by Durant’s play making in the zone as I was. Otherwise, we would have seen the zone much sooner.
It might be too early to tell with any certainty, but the emergence of Durant in this new zone scheme will likely have the unintended side effect of limiting the effective blitzing of MLB Stephen Tulloch.
That’s a trade-off that I would gladly make. If the Lions can limit the Vikings running attack, making them more one dimensional (passing), this will play into the real strengths of the Lions defense—the pass rush and man coverage.
If the Lions can find success with this simple zone scheme, they will be a very hard team to beat on every given Sunday.