Under the radar
In an interview for Sirius XM NFL Radio on Tuesday, Lions general manager Batman said he thought an interesting camp competition that may not be getting enough attention is at safety. Affirming the Lions have one spot locked down with Super Grover, Quinn pointed out the heated fatal 4-way between Tavon Wilson, Rafael Bush, Isaiah Johnson, and Miles Killebrew for the title of starting strong safety is a battle that fans should pay attention to. How did we get here?
Let’s turn back the clock to December 2014: "As a unit, the Lions safeties are tied for a league-high nine interceptions. They also lead all safety units with 19 passes defended." Following a convincing win over Tampa Bay, when asked about where Glover Quin and he ranked among the safety tandems in the league, James Ihedigbo boldly proclaimed thusly on NFL AM:
"You know, for me, you ask me without a doubt, I feel we're the best safety tandem in the NFL," the Lions safety told NFL Network's NFL AM on Monday. "I'm not talking about last year or years before that. No, this season we are the best safety tandem in the NFL. I give a lot of respect for those guys in Seattle and San Fran, and they do a great job, they play amazing ball. But for the production that we have -- our job on defense is to be playmakers, is to create turnovers, is to get the football. For us to be able to do that this year and be doing it at the level that we're doing it across the board, without a doubt, I guess what's the saying, numbers don't lie?"
An offseason contract dispute and a demotion less than a year later, James Ihedigbo’s time with the Detroit Lions was over. What looked like a strength before the 2015 season began turned into a critical roster hole: Isa Abdul-Quddus got some of the sweet Miami Dolphins Free Agency monies, leaving the Lions with no obvious successor for the spot.
What Teryl Austin wants out of a safety
The safety positions are two of the toughest positions to play in Austin’s scheme because they are asked to do a lot. They line up all over the place, play run support and pass coverage, occasionally blitz, and are counted on to not make mistakes:
"What that will do is cut down on the big plays. Cut down on the breakout runs. All those different things. Getting lined up wrong. Not getting a call. That's what they're working really well at right now."
Quin and Ihedigbo (known as Digs around here) are the quarterbacks on that defense and the last line of defense. They make a mistake and a big play is usually the result.
The Lions gave up way too many big plays in 2013, which ended up being a big reason they were 7-9.
Going back to film from the Baltimore Ravens in 2013, our own Jeremy Reisman warned us that Ihedigbo was a liability in pass coverage. This is a relatively longstanding reputation that has followed Ihedigbo around from his time with the Patriots, the Jets, and also the Ravens. Even in the epic 2014 playoff season where we had "the best safety tandem in the NFL," Ihedigbo’s play was actually inconsistent enough to warrant a benching just a few weeks after his bold statement.
The key to winning the starting strong safety position — whoever ends up getting it — will be avoiding mistakes that lead to big plays, especially in pass coverage. We now go to the tape to provide examples of why the Lions decided they needed a change from Ihedigbo in 2016.
2015 at SDO, 4Q (4:18). Third-and-19 at the Detroit 42.
This is the play that really sealed the deal against San Diego: late in the fourth quarter facing third-and-forever, the Chargers called a clearout play to 13 WR Keenan Allen, who had been embarrassing the Lions all day. With four minutes remaining on the clock and down less than a touchdown, a defensive stop here would have gotten the ball back for the Lions to at least attempt to come back and win the game.
Detroit’s defense is in a really odd alignment, which appears to be a one-off special blitz that Austin pulled out for this crucial situation. 58 DE Phillip Hunt, 92 DT Haloti Ngata, and 91 DE Jason Jones are the down linemen, with 42 S Isa Abdul-Quddus hovering near the line between Jones and Ngata. Standing up in the A gap lanes are 94 DE Ezekiel Ansah and 55 MLB Stephen Tulloch.
Everyone rushes except IAQ, who drops into man coverage on the seam post route. The coverage is also strange, like a half inverted cover-2: 31 CB Rashean Mathis drops to a deep half zone (27 FS Glover Quin on the other half) while 32 SS James Ihedigbo has man coverage on Allen. By the pre-snap alignment, you can already see the problem: Ihedigbo is lined up very deep to show a two high shell before swapping with Mathis, but that puts him very far away from Allen. Since Allen is not a typical deep threat receiver, this is a questionable alignment for Ihedigbo to take (he should probably have cheated up).
As 17 QB Philip Rivers dumps the ball to Allen over the middle, Ihedigbo actually takes a pretty decent angle. But because he was so far away, he’s sprinting full blast to try and get over in time, leaving him susceptible to Allen’s ability to cut back inside the pursuit.
Allen gained 20 yards on the play to move the sticks. This first down conversion put San Diego well inside 2 K Josh Lambo’s range, but they picked up a touchdown anyway to seal the deal. The Lions would get garbage time yards and a touchdown to bring it back to 33-28, but could not get the onside kick.
2015 at SEA, 4Q (1:34). Third-and-2 at the Seattle 28.
This is the drive at the end of the game right after the batted ball incident. The game is not yet over, and Detroit has one last chance to stop Seattle and get the ball back. First, watch the confusion on the alignment to match up against Seattle’s shifts. Ihedigbo tries to get Mathis to widen against the motion, but the call has 30 CB Josh Wilson (next to Mathis) rushing and dropping to cover 40 FB Derrick Coleman if he releases. There is no way Mathis could cover both 15 WR Jermaine Kearse (already lined up in front of Mathis) and 88 TE Jimmy Graham (the motion man). At the last second, Ihedigbo dashes over, but does not have time to process who he’s supposed to be on.
The call by the offense is all curls. 3 QB Russell Wilson observes the panic and decides to call for the snap to take advantage: the above screenshot was taken as 62 C Drew Nowak’s arm is moving back to snap the ball. Look at Ihedigbo, who is not set and still trying to get aligned. The coverage here is pattern match man, and the post-shift assignments from the outside in will be Wilson on Coleman, Mathis on Graham, and Ihedigbo on Kearse.
The Lions pass rush almost sacks Wilson, flushing to Seattle’s right. All of Wilson’s receivers see him in trouble and start the scramble drill to help the quarterback out. In particular, one uncovered receiver: Kearse.
Instead of Jason Jones running down a hopelessly surrounded Wilson, the Lions gave up a 50 yard strike to Kearse, ending the game. Bad alignment and recognition led to busted coverage and a big play.
2015 MIN, 2Q (4:18). First-and-10 at the Minnesota 32.
The Vikings run play action here, with 48 FB Zach Line starting wide left and motioning back to a standard I-formation set. Ihedigbo is over in man coverage and follows, but for whatever reason abandons his assignment and keeps going to the opposite side of the field anticipating run:
There are simply no words. None. 49 yard gain by Zach Line.
2015 PHI, 4Q (3:02). Third-and-6 at the Detroit 24.
Late in the fourth quarter of the Thanksgiving blowout against the Eagles, 3 QB Mark Sanchez hit 81 WR Jordan Matthews for a garbage time strike on third down. Ihedigbo was in a cover-2 deep half with as good a defensive call and alignment he could hope for against this route. No other deep routes threatening his half meant he could play the corner route with no distractions.
Two things happen of note. First, Ihedigbo for some reason stops getting depth and pushes Matthews aside, as if passing him to deep help. Except Ihedigbo is the deep help. Who does he think is going to pick Matthews up? Second, Ihedigbo was flagged for illegal contact here for not even bothering to try and disguise the shove he gave Matthews at the break. Obviously, the Eagles declined and took the touchdown.
Who is going to step up?
As good as James Ihedigbo may have been against the run at times, his deficiencies in pass coverage were simply too big to ignore. Teryl Austin needs a box safety that can not only serve as a thumper against the run, but also as a competent cover man. Unless the second safety on the field can play decent coverage, the defense is limited in how it can use Glover Quin. While IAQ was better than Ihedigbo as an all-around safety, I don’t think he warranted the kind of money Miami gave him. Gratz to him for getting paid.
31 S Rafael Bush appears to have the inside track on the starting job, but "whatever happens, happens." 32 S Tavon Wilson is another possibility. Many fans are hoping newly drafted 35 SS Miles Killebrew can be the guy in the long run, but it sounds like he’ll need time to complement his thumping with knowledge of coverages in the Lions’ scheme. Regardless of who lines up next to Quin — whether Bush, Johnson, Wilson, or Killebrew — the defense needs to get better coverage from the guy getting the snaps.