Whenever a team acquires a new offensive skill player, writers and broadcasters often describe the move in terms of a quarterback getting a new "toy." Besides being kind of dumb, that analogy always strikes me as incomplete. No one bothers extending similar terminology to the offensive line, even though there's a perfectly reasonable option out there: the OL provides the quarterback with a "playpen." Quarterbacks need a safe space to play with their toys; otherwise, they might as well be throwing the ball in the middle of a busy intersection. Unfortunately for the Lions, that wasn't too far from the truth during stretches last week, when Matthew Stafford's playpen appeared to be constructed mainly of chicken wire and shattered 40s of Busch Ice. What happened?
I don't need to rehash every grisly detail from Sunday's loss. You watched the game. You read about the Lions' PFF grades. There's a reason every offensive lineman scored negatively in pass protection. Each of them suffered at least one bad loss in a man-to-man situation. Riley Reiff got caught off balance and driven backward into Stafford for an incompletion. Travis Swanson had his hands ripped aside by a defender en route to another. And, as POD Supreme Chancellor Jeremy Reisman noted, Laken Tomlinson had his own issues. There's no shortage of blame to go around. But, if all I'm saying is that the OL has to do a better job of winning individual battles (which they do), that's not particularly instructive. Besides, when it comes to such things, I think those players will all be fine. What does concern me, however, is the pressure that the San Diego Chargers achieved without even having to win those one-on-one matchups.
I spent a lot of the third quarter on Sunday loudly wondering why the Lions weren't adjusting to San Diego's blitz packages. On multiple occasions, extra defenders came unabated at Stafford, often with disastrous results. As it happens, the Lions couldn't have blocked the extra defenders, because they weren't "extra" at all. The Chargers simply used the threat of the blitz to mess with the Lions' protection calls at the line.
This is from early in the second quarter of Sunday's loss. Prior to the snap, San Diego brings two linebackers down over the A-gaps on either side of Travis Swanson. Stafford, after accounting for their presence and delaying the snap, walks up to the line and calls out an adjustment.
This is where I include two quick caveats. First, trying to guess protection calls is by rule a risky proposition, akin to making assumptions about coverage responsibilities. It's possible to assign blame where it isn't warranted. Second, as a general rule, centers handle this duty in the NFL, but Swanson is only in his second year, and only his second start at center. It's not inconceivable that Stafford makes the protection calls. (And according to the Detroit News, that is indeed the case.)
With that said, whatever this call was, it didn't work.
Both linebackers drop into coverage at the snap. Reiff, perhaps expecting Swanson and Tomlinson to block any A-gap pressure, slides inside to block the 3-tech, and ends up doubling him instead. With Joique Bell on the opposite side in the backfield, no Lions player engages Kyle Emanuel, who comes untouched to the quarterback and picks up a 13-yard sack. Odds are you've seen a screen shot of this already.
This wasn't the only time that the perceived threat of A-gap pressure gave a San Diego defender free release to come at Stafford.
In the second half, the Chargers showed another similar pre-snap look, this time with Eric Weddle constituting a third presence over center. Again, Stafford steps up to the line to adjust the protection call; again, the linebackers (and Weddle) drop into coverage; again, the offensive linemen away from Bell's side both account for the 3-tech. You can guess how that worked out.
An extra defender coming free on a blitz is one thing. San Diego is only rushing four on these plays. That means seven defenders in coverage, limited throwing windows, and no open receivers. The identical mistakes by Reiff and Cornelius Lucas make me assume they're blocking their assignments according to the protection call, but regardless, this exact mistake happened in consecutive quarters. You have to adjust to this sort of thing in order to prevent your quarterback from being ritualistically sacrificed.
Obviously this failure isn't ideal in any scenario, but it's even less so for the Lions going into Week 2. Why? Because, if you didn't happen to catch Trent Dilfer SCREAMING it at you this past Monday night, Mike Zimmer loves him some A-gap pressure looks. His propensity for "sugaring the A-gap" during his brief tenure as coach of the Minnesota Vikings is well-known enough that it has inspired lengthy articles. If we're talking about the Lions' failure to block this on POD, Zimmer's staff has been scheming around it for days, and with what I'd argue is a better front seven than the one the Lions just faced.
The best trait that any offensive line can have is continuity, and right now, the Lions don't have it. That comes with such a young group of starters. The problem is that, once the line and Stafford figure out these protection kinks—and rest assured, they will—defenses can just start actually sending those defenders through the A-gaps (or from the outside). To even get to that point, the line calls and blocking execution have to improve dramatically by Sunday.
Jim Caldwell made a point to talk about Stafford's toughness this week. That's great, Coach, but we already know Stafford is tough. The Lions should make sure he doesn't have to be.