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Film review: What happened to the Lions run defense in the fourth quarter?

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After dominating the ground game through three-and-half quarters, the Lions defense became a sieve on the final two drives. What gives?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Houston Texans Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions found themselves down 17-10 with 10:14 left in the game. Their offense had just finished a disappointing three-and-out and it was up to the Lions defense to give them another shot at tying up the game.

Up until this point in the game, the Lions’ run defense had been stellar. The Houston Texans had run the ball 18 times for just 28 yards (1.6 yards per carry). The way to beat the Lions appeared to be through the air, but the Texans would only throw the ball two more times in the game. Instead, they ran the ball down the throat of the Lions defense to the tune of 10 carries for 80 yards (8.0 YPC), and bled out the clock, killing any remaining chances for Detroit to pick up a victory.

So what changed? Why did the Lions go from one of their best defensive performances on the ground to one of the worst? Let’s dive a little deeper into those plays to see what happened.

Personnel

It’s always important to see who is on the field. After all, if one unit seems to be drastically under-performing compared to another, it’s easy to point to a problem. And who doesn’t like a good scapegoat?

Unfortunately, the Lions tried several different personnel groups during these final two defensive drives and none of them worked.

In the first nine-play drive that ate up 6:05 of the clock, the Lions started with this defensive line formation (from right to left): Armonty Bryant, A’Shawn Robinson, Tyrunn Walker, Kerry Hyder. After three rushes for 26 yards (8.7 YPC), the Lions switched to arguably their No. 1 unit (right to left): Devin Taylor, Khyri Thornton, Stefan Charles, Ezekiel Ansah. The result was no different: three rushes, 29 yards (9.7 YPC).

The final drive, the Lions tried a different combination on the defensive line: Ansah, Thornton, Walker, Hyder; four rushes, 25 yards (6.3 YPC).

At linebacker, the Lions were mostly in their base 4-3 formation with Tahir Whitehead, Josh Bynes and Brandon Copeland in the game. In nickel formations, it was just Whitehead and Bynes. On the final drive, they replaced Bynes with Antwione Williams, but saw no real improvement. The personnel just didn’t seem to matter much.

Execution

So if the personnel wasn’t to blame for the huge decline in play, it must have simply been the execution. The tape confirms this. Let’s compare two plays, shall we?

Here’s a play from late in the first quarter.

The key to this two-yard stuff is the play of the defensive tackles, Robinson and Charles. Both take on double teams and both make sure to occupy both linemen, allowing both linebackers—Whitehead and Bynes—to run freely through the gaps.

Lamar Miller has nowhere to go as safety Tavon Wilson comes crashing down to fill the final gap. Charles breaks free of his double team and combines with Bynes for the tackle on the short gain.

Now here’s a play from the Texans’ final drive:

Once again, the Texans deploy double teams for both defensive tackles—Thornton and Walker this time. But this time, the defensive tackles aren’t able to occupy both linemen to free up the linebackers. Both Texans guards are able to easily get to the second level:

The linebackers are essentially taken out of the play and Miller picks up an easy six yards to essentially put the game out of reach for the Lions.

It’s completely understandable for the defensive tackles here to have a hard time maintaining a double team late in the game. We’re deep into the fourth quarter and the defense is on their 60th snap or so. The Lions offense had not been giving them much of a breather, holding the ball for just 3:48 of the final quarter. By the play above, all of the defensive linemen were dead tired.

But there was another culprit in this poor run defense, and one far less excusable.

Poor tackling from linebackers

Yes, the much maligned linebackers were mostly responsible for the Lions’ lack of a run defense in the final two drives of the game. Not much to break down here, so I’ll just show you.

Josh Bynes:

Bynes again:

And my personal favorite: missed tackles from Whitehead, Bynes and Copeland all in one play!

So this may not come as a surprise, but the Lions linebackers are playing very poorly right now. Unfortunately, the return of Josh Bynes isn’t what Lions fans have been hoping for. Granted, this was Bynes’ first game back after being team-less and injured for the past two months. Still, the Lions have a lot of work to do on defense.