In so many ways, football is about routine. Each game may be a beautiful and unique snowflake, but the preceding six days couldn't be any less so. Teams manage their weekly schedules down to the minute. You have your film sessions at this time, on this day; the same goes through your walkthroughs, your travel days. The importance of the routine, of repetition, is built into franchise mantras: Do Your Job. Keep Chopping Wood. Teams go as far as bringing their own toilet paper abroad to ensure that even players' rectums are not bothered by the unfamiliar.
Fans tend to mirror this obsession. We watch games in the same places, with the same people. We wear the same attire. A certain irresponsible POD writer and his brother shoot the same liquor after Lions touchdowns. Even the writing itself can become a matter of routine. For the past four weeks, you may have noticed a pattern emerging in ‘Things of that Nature.' As the Lions continued to provide very little to write about (on the field, at least), each article followed a general formula: "Here is the Lions' next opponent. Here is a possible weakness in that opponent. Can the Lions take advantage of that weakness? Maybe, but the Lions are pretty bad!"
And then, something like Week 10 happens. It jars you out of an apathetic stupor. It shatters the never-ending gloom that has been the 2015 season. For a week, the routine is cast asunder, and so it shall be for this article. All of this is just a grandiose, overblown way of saying that we finally get to talk about something positive with the Lions this week!
After weeks and weeks of listless, uninspiring play, the Lions defense showed up to Lambeau and turned in what was likely its greatest performance of the season. The secondary in particular was borderline unrecognizable, covering like men possessed and preventing Green Bay's wide receivers from creating separation for most of the game. What the hell happened?
It's nearly impossible to have this discussion without beginning with Darius Slay. As this morning's Lions Notes um, noted, Slay has been an absolute demon in coverage for the past month. At this point, any wide receivers matched up against ol' Slayer should know that Hell awaits; their afternoons will feel like seasons in the abyss. And, although many of us are anticipating a battle between Slay and Amari Cooper this Sunday, that will ultimately depend on how the Oakland Raiders choose to deploy the prodigious rookie, if the Lions' use of Slay last week is any indication.
The Lions played a staggering amount of man-free coverage against the Packers last week. The Packers showed plenty of 3 x 1 sets on offense, and for the vast majority of the game Slay found himself isolated against the ‘X' on the single-receiver side. Though not always the case, this mostly happened to involve James Jones.
Slay, as you assumed from the previous paragraph, is lined up against Jones at the top of the image here. Glover Quin is the single-high safety (no surprise there), with Nevin Lawson on the outside and Josh Wilson in the slot. (Also of note: the Lions line up with five defensive linemen, which they did a few different times during the game.) Aaron Rodgers' pass is admittedly just off-target against Wilson, but anything less than a perfect pass falls incomplete here, as all four DBs are sticky in coverage. But just for a second, I'd like to get back to Slay. Watch how fluid he looks in matching Jones' breaks. For the entire afternoon, it was as if he knew the routes before they happened.
Again, you'll see Slay at the top of your image. Watch him match Jones stride for stride, stutter step to match his break, and continue upfield on the double-move, all without taking his eyes out of the backfield. It's hard to say too much more about it; that's just incredible coverage.
Aside from Slay, this play represents one of the Lions' more common, and more effective, defensive tactics of the day. As Justin Rogers over at MLive wrote this week, the Lions had surprising success when blitzing Rodgers. One way they were able to accomplish that was through the play call you see above. On a number of occasions, Teryl Austin sent the slot corner on a blitz and had the strong safety jump up in at the last minute to account for the abandoned receiver. This is the opposite of the effective zone blitzes Austin used against Seattle; instead of bringing pressure from unexpected spots while dropping pass rushers into coverage, Austin effectively put his cover men on their own respective islands and asked them to hold up until the pressure hit home. And hold up they did. In particular, this tactic asked a lot of Isa Abdul-Quddus, who had to stay deep pre-snap and disguise his coverage until the last possible minute. As his PFF grade can attest, the young strong safety was more than up to the task:
Look at Abdul-Quddus fly from 15 yards deep to make this tackle. I realize that overreaction is par for the course in the NFL, but this feels like a play that James Ihedigbo doesn't make. Honestly, it feels like a play Ihedigbo isn't even asked to make.
Even when Rodgers escaped pressure against the slot blitz, the secondary was able to hold up in coverage:
Naturally, in situations in which Austin didn't bring added pressure and leave his back seven in man, the coverage held up spectacularly:
Look how much time Rodgers has to find someone on this play. That's normally a death sentence. Instead, it ended in a 2-yard gain. It's hard to overstate how well the Lions covered for huge stretches of the game.
And really, that's the crux of the argument on how the Lions defense was so effective last week. Certain things had to go in the Lions' favor, of course—Rodgers played far from a perfect game, and I'm not sure the secondary holds up as well if Jordy Nelson is healthy. But that's football. Every team needs breaks along the way. The Xs and Os of the sport are infinitely complex, and endlessly fun to dissect, but all they can do is put players in a position to make plays. And, after years and years of watching unheralded no-namers turn into world-beaters against the Lions, it was nice to see the shoe on the other foot. Nevin Lawson made a number of huge plays. Even Quandre Diggs got in on the action.
I have to assume Jason Jones' day off on Wednesday was due to his sore calves from getting elevated on this play on one of Austin's zone blitzes:
Things don't get much easier for the Lions this week. Derek Carr isn't Aaron Rodgers, but he's still very much a force to be reckoned with, and has a better receiving corps than Rodgers does at the moment. And, even with the revelatory play of the Lions' secondary, Week 10 was nearly pyrrhic for the unit—Wilson is done for the season, and Lawson's status for Sunday is up in the air. Who knows if last week was a blip on the radar, or a sign of things to come. But, in what is still likely a lost season, we got flashes of not only competence, but excellence out of a unit. In doing so, the Lions wiped out the most annoying streak in sports. I'll take it.