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Film breakdown: A look at how the Detroit Lions’ secondary failed

Credit the Colts for adjusting their play calling to set receivers up in one-on-one match-ups they could win. In the absence of deep help, several Lions coverage players were exposed for huge gains.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Indianapolis Colts Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Attacking a defensive bullseye

As good a day as 9 QB Matthew Stafford had against the Indianapolis Colts, his counterpart may have had an even better outing. Former NFL coach Brian Billick had high praise for both passers: “Andrew Luck had a heck of a game as well — taking nothing away from the Detroit Lions — there wasn’t a lick of defense being played yesterday. I mean, there was over 80 passes, over 800 yards, 7 touchdowns, not a single interception. I think both these defenses are going to struggle going forward.”

Luck had four completions for 30 or more yards, and all four play calls shared a common element: the Colts ran a deep route right at the safety (usually 27 FS Glover Quin) to pin the deep help and targeted a trailing crosser in the vacated space. Whether 32 SS Tavon Wilson, 24 CB Nevin Lawson, or 28 CB Quandre Diggs, the Lions’ defenders were unable to win one-on-one without a safety over the top.

One way to think about this is like Bill Belichick’s so-called “bullseye” gameplans. Here’s NFL Films’ Greg Cosell on that philosophy:

In trying to get a handle on the Cruz matchup, I keep coming back to a concept Belichick has used effectively in the past. I call it the “bullseye” approach. Belichick targets a single player whom he feels is most critical to the success of the opposing offense, and he focuses his game plan on that specific player. The most celebrated illustration was Super Bowl 36, when Belichick zeroed in on Marshall Faulk and minimized his affect on the game.

A more detailed treatment of Belichick’s bullseye gameplan against Marshall Faulk can be found in Ron Jaworski’s book. What we had on Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts were some “bullseye” pass play calls designed to force defenders not named Glover Quin to make plays for the Lions.

2016 at IND, 2Q (1:37). First-and-10 at the Indianapolis 25.

The play call by the Colts is almost like a bent dagger combination: 15 WR Phillip Dorsett will bend across the face of Quin in deep center-field to hold his attention. At the same time, 13 WR TY Hilton as the shallow cross will pull any SCF/seam defender in an underneath zone out of the throwing lane that Luck wants cleared out. The true target is 10 WR Donte Moncrief on the outside, who runs down the field feinting the deep fade but rounds it off into the deep coverage hole Dorsett creates.

Overlaying the defense, we have a standard cover-3 sky call from Teryl Austin. Showing single-high with 31 SS Rafael Bush creeped up to the box in front of 83 TE Dwayne Allen. Both outside corners drop to deep zones and shift to man coverage if their outside responsibility goes vertical (which Moncrief does). Slot man 28 Quandre Diggs has a similar assignment to carry Dorsett if he goes vertical (he does). This modifies the called defense to something like this:

As Dorsett crosses the field, Diggs follows and Quin starts tracking him as the deepest attacking route. Meanwhile, Hilton underneath draws 59 MLB Tahir Whitehead up and away from his seam zone. Thus we have Diggs and Quin being pulled inwards and Whitehead being pulled outside:

Lawson on the outside must honor the possibility of the fade/fly up the sideline, and expects help to the inside from Quin (boxed in brown). The problem is that Quin is tracking Dorsett and can only help one of the two. The defense is being pulled apart to form a tunnel for Luck to fire the ball through to Moncrief. With max protection (both 34 RB Josh Ferguson and 83 TE Dwayne Allen held back to block 94 DE Ziggy Ansah to Luck’s blind side) in place, the Colts are taking a deliberate shot at Lawson with a play specifically designed to hit this one route.

While it did not help that Lawson missed the tackle—Moncrief picked up another ten yards before going out of bounds—we can see how safe and clear all of the space between Luck and Moncrief is. An excellent design, the play also featured solid quarterbacking: Luck even looked off Quin by tracking Dorsett before delivering a well-placed ball to Moncrief.

2016 at IND, 3Q (10:33). Second-and-20 at the Indianapolis 18.

Following a holding penalty on 74 LT Anthony Castonzo and an incompletion targeting Gore, the Colts were backed up deep and still trailing the Lions 21-10. Again, the call is max protect with 84 TE Jack Doyle and Gore held in to block after a token fake to Gore with only three men in the pattern. Moncrief has an underneath crossing route while Dorsett and Hilton to Luck’s right run a double post against Slay (over Dorsett).

Defensively, the Lions are sending Diggs and Levy but dropping Ziggy into coverage so it is a five man pressure scheme. Coverage behind the front is man free with Quin as the deep zone safety while Bush picks up Hilton (since Diggs is rushing the quarterback). When Doyle aligns in the backfield and stays in to block, his assigned man Whitehead drops into the middle hole as a zone player as well. Unfortunately for the Lions, this alignment played right into the hands of the Colts’ play design.

First, Hilton against a two-high look is going to try and attack what appears to be the deep safety to his half, bending inward to pull him to the hashes. Once Bush is moving toward the middle of the field, Dorsett’s post coming up behind the deep help and to the inside of Slay becomes a legitimate one-on-one shot for Luck to take. Quin (boxed in brown below), who would normally be the deep help, starts the play too far to the opposite side of the field to possibly get over in time to help.

The thing to pay attention to is the inside post by Hilton from the slot against Bush. Once he bends it in, you can see Bush follow (as he’s supposed to, in man coverage) and leave an empty spot for Dorsett to run into. Notice how Luck trusts the design of the play, anticipates the pull effect on Bush, and is already winding up to drop it in to Dorsett from above before Hilton even makes his break. Once again this is excellent design and a tremendous job of quarterbacking by Luck.

2016 at IND, 4Q (10:21). First-and-10 at the Indianapolis 39.

This play in the early fourth quarter is entirely on Tavon Wilson, who turned his hips when Hilton pushed off the line with an inside path. In the first seconds of the play after the snap, Wilson has already lost:

Dorsett’s route against the middle of the field is designed to hold the single-high safety’s attention, but it does not really matter. Wilson had no hope and was completely turned around at the top of the corner route. Ignore the throw and just focus on the coverage match-up here:

Considering I posted at length about how Wilson was supposed to be a good coverage safety, this was a huge disappointment to me. No doubt it was a disappointment to Papa Jim as well.

2016 at IND, 4Q (3:04). First-and-10 at the Indianapolis 41.

If this looks familiar, you are not imagining things. This is the same double post play as the 51 yard completion to Dorsett earlier except flipped left to right. This time, instead of throwing the deep post to Moncrief behind the safety help, Quin takes that away and forces Luck to throw the shorter post.

Notice how Diggs is isolated against Hilton because the initial token play action by Luck holds the run support shallow. By the time the ball arrives, there is roughly ten yards of green space between Diggs and the two underneath players (Bush and Levy). Quin can only help against one of the two post routes; he makes the right read but even the shorter route moves the ball 33 yards for the Indianapolis offense because Luck is sitting back there with all day to scan the field.

Bonus fun note — watch Ziggy get held by Doyle here:

Deploy countermeasures: Taylor, Ansah, Hyder, and Gilberry

Just one game in, it is probably too early to make definitive statements, but it really looked like Chuck Pagano’s staff figured out a great way to attack the Lions’ defensive scheme. Glover Quin is a very good free safety, but he can be neutralized by running a route directly at him (see: run plays directed at a great pass rusher). In our preseason predictions, I thought Quin was our most valuable defensive player because he dictates poorer options to opponents; it turns out opponents can flip the script and force feed “must assist” situations to Quin.

In each of the four chunk plays examined here, the Colts ran a pattern that pinned a deep safety (usually Quin) in the center of the field with a trailing crosser or post route behind it to the outside: Dorsett crossing Quin’s face to clear for Moncrief behind him, two double post combos, and a scissors post-corner combo with the post run at the deep safety. They yielded a total of 32 + 51 + 32 + 33 = 148 yards or nearly 40% of Luck’s total passing yards on the day.

What can Austin do to combat this? I agree with our crew on the PODcast that there needs to be more pressure from the defensive line. The lack of a significant pass rush for most of the game in Indianapolis meant extended plays where receivers needed to be covered for extra seconds, and Detroit’s defensive backs were not up to the task. All of the long throws were possible because Luck had the time to make the read and an unhurried delivery. Even if they are being held, the defensive linemen cannot count on the officials to call penalties and must still find a way to create pressure. Until the Lions rush packages can force quarterbacks to get rid of the ball before such deep routes can develop, we may see more teams scheming this way to erase Quin from the back end.

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