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Film breakdown: How to beat Teryl Austin’s defense for big plays

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The Colts and Titans have unfortunately provided the rest of the league a nice blueprint for getting chunk yardage against the Lions.

NFL: Tennessee Titans at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Second verse, same as the first

After the wild Week 1 shootout at Indianapolis, we posted an article that examined the four long pass plays by 12 QB Andrew Luck against Teryl Austin’s defense. The working hypothesis was that an opposing offense needed to take 27 FS Glover Quin out of the equation and then pick on whoever was in single coverage against the route cutting underneath the one pinning Quin in place. In Week 2 against Tennessee at home, the Lions were hit for big gains by 8 QB Marcus Mariota on four pass plays as well.

Ignoring the 22-yard HB angle route by DeMarco Murray against blown coverage by Thurston Armbrister, we have three plays to consider: a 32-yard completion to Delanie Walker in the first quarter, a 20-yard completion to Rishard Matthews near the end of the third quarter, and the 30-yard touchdown to Walker on the first play of the fourth quarter. All of these plays feature two key elements: play action and something to prevent Glover Quin from providing deep help.

Interlude: Why is Quin’s freedom to read the QB so crucial?

Before delving into the ugliness, let’s show what happens when Quin is allowed to roam and make plays. Here’s an example of the difference he can make over the top when the opposing quarterback tries to throw deep.

2016 TEN, 3Q (3:58). First-and-10 at the Tennessee 42.

This is the standard play-action Z Cross that I love, being run from a double tight end set by the Titans. The packed formation draws the Lions’ defense up into the box, and it looks like Mariota is going to get one-on-one coverage on both wideouts: 24 CB Nevin Lawson at the top working against 19 WR Tajae Sharpe on the cross and 18 WR Rishard Matthews against 23 CB Darius Slay at the bottom on an out and up double move clearout. 32 SS Tavon Wilson is up in the box while 53 SLB Kyle Van Noy is on the edge setting up to blitz.

The Titans keep max protection, with Murray staying in to block Van Noy on the edge, 80 TE Anthony Fasano helping push the right side of the line, and 89 TE Phillip Supernaw slicing back across the formation to protect the passer as he comes out of the play fake. Now, this is almost a bootleg play — and Mariota can turn it into a run if the field is open — but this is not a naked bootleg play. The “naked” modifier comes from the fact that many bootleg plays feature the quarterback keeping the ball with no lead blocker accompanying him in the counterflow. Here, Supernaw is acting like counterflow protection for Mariota while simultaneously helping sell the play as a split zone run to the left.

In any case, the Titans are working with formation and run action to get the defense to come up and let the wide receivers work. Consider the following screenshot immediately taken after the fake as the quarterback pulls up to set for the throw. The footwork is synced to the out and up route by Matthews so that the set to throw happens as the out break happens. That’s a good design element. The problem in the design and execution of this play against the Lions lies in the fact that Quin is left unchallenged and can sit back to read the quarterback the whole way.

What’s going on? How is Quin able to get such an early break on the route, which has not even turned into a vertical yet? Watch the following GIF of the play from the All-22 footage taken behind the Titans offense two times. First time through, ignore the entire defense and simply watch Mariota’s head. He locks in on Matthews and telegraphs the entire thing, never bothering to even look at Sharpe. Second time around, ignore the entire offense and watch Quin from start to finish near the top of the GIF. He keys Mariota for the duration of the play and takes a great angle to the ball in the air.

Quin is in position to move up to hit Sharpe if Mariota checks back down to the crosser, but it’s unnecessary; the Titans are throwing deep come hell or high water here. Generally speaking, Glover Quin forces opponents to check it down and take the shorter completions. Had the throw gone to Sharpe coming open against Lawson, that’s a pretty easy 20 yard completion. When quarterbacks try to force the issue against Quin roaming free deep, this is what happens.

Shot play trigger: Run routes at Quin

Recalling from last week when the Colts ran receivers almost directly at Quin to push an assignment in his face, we had another example of that producing a big play for the Titans. During the offseason, Nevin Lawson needed to work on coverage call awareness and know when he needed to switch off on receivers as they passed out of his area of responsibility. Failure to pass a man off in a deep cover-3 shell by Lawson produced one of Tennessee’s biggest plays of the day.

2016 TEN, 1Q (11:23). First-and-10 at the Tennessee 31.

Tennessee again comes to the line with two tight ends, initially lining up in an I-formation and then shifting to this bunch set. Detroit has countered the personnel with base 4-3 (three linebackers) and has a zone blitz with a 3 deep shell behind it. 61 DE Kerry Hyder is dropping off the line to the top while Van Noy has the wide underneath zone at the bottom. In the deep thirds we have Lawson at the top, Quin in the middle, and Slay at the bottom.

Before we look at how this plays out, let’s flash back to the 51 yard bomb from Luck to Dorsett in Week 1:

While not identical, the similarities are pretty obvious. The opponent is in a run heavy formation, the Lions are blitzing while dropping a lineman into coverage (this time Hyder instead of Ziggy), and there is a double inside breaking pair of routes from one side packaged with a crossing route from the opposite side of the field. Someone is running a route at Glover Quin, and the quarterback is looking to attack the route being shielded (this time Walker) by the one pinning Quin (this time Sharpe).

At the snap, Lawson carries Sharpe down the field but doesn’t realize how far laterally he is drifting to the inside. Sharpe runs him into Quin, inducing a switch that only one of the two defensive coverage players handles right: Quin gets in position to take over Sharpe, but Lawson has no idea Walker is being handed off to him. Just look how open Walker (boxed in blue above) is.

A ridiculously easy throw very much in the same mold as the stuff that worked for Indianapolis against the Detroit defense. This play went for 32 yards and was Mariota’s longest completion on the day.

Shot play trigger: Wait until Quin is not the deep safety

The next play we will consider is a demonstration of how poorly the Detroit defensive line has performed in one-on-one pass rushing. The Titans send out just two route runners into the pattern, and neither of them does anything fancy: both are simple curls, and Mariota still hits his man for a 20 yard gain.

2016 TEN, 3Q (1:40). First-and-10 at the Tennessee 25.

While the Titans are lined up with their normal double tight end package, the Lions counter it with an atypical eight-man box: Quin is the safety dropped down into the box rather than Wilson. Possessing neither the anticipation nor feel for playing the high safety spot that Quin is known for, Wilson conservatively drops too deep to make a play.

Now, there is a bunch of shady stuff going on in the tackle box with the blocking: 98 DE Devin Taylor is held by Fasano pretty much from the snap of the ball until Mariota threw the ball, both before and after his spin move, and Supernaw grabs the back of Van Noy’s helmet to stop his pass rush. Even if the blockers are cheating, the Lions cannot count on the referees to make the penalty calls; that bottom part of the merged picture with Matthews running free uncovered simply cannot be allowed to happen.

Those 20 yards were too easy for the Titans to pick up. Sadly, Glover Quin was completely wasted on that play in the flat near the line of scrimmage.

2016 TEN, 4Q (15:00). First-and-10 at the Detroit 30.

Still leading 15-3 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Lions’ defense was trying to hold the Titans to a field goal but were beaten on the first play of the period. Another double tight end formation, the Titans hold Fasano and Henry to block but send Walker on a wheel route solo left. The defensive personnel is the Lions’ three safety look: Wilson, Bush, and Quin are all on the field. Wilson blitzing off the edge gives the call a five man rush with man coverage across the board behind it. Playing the deep safety, though, is Bush instead of Quin.

Walker gets a one-on-one to the outside against Lawson and burns him with a shoulder fake to the outside near the 20 yard line. Cutting it back vertical at the numbers, his route is clear of Lawson but also too far outside for Bush to make it over in time.

Would it have made a difference if Quin was the deep safety instead of Bush? Hard to say, since Matthews in the slot ran a deep post; no matter who was playing deep safety, they had to remain relatively centered from sideline to sideline to be able to cover either deep route. What may have made a difference is that Mariota stared down Walker’s route. It’s possible Quin would have recognized that early (see above in the interception play) and gotten a better jump on the route, thereby making it over in time to help Lawson.

Where do we go from here?

The constant elements in big pass completions surrendered by the Detroit defense are some way to get Glover Quin out of deep coverage - whether by running a route at him or waiting for him to line up somewhere else on the field - and play action. For whatever reason, all four plays examined here (including the interception) involved play-action fakes of varying levels. Play action also figured heavily in the Colts’ offensive performance in Week 1.

This makes me wonder a potentially blasphemous thing: is it possible to be too committed to stopping the run? Here’s Ziggy from back in September 2016:

“I feel good about this team. Like I said earlier, we’ve worked way too hard just to start sloppy. Our main focus is to come out, stop the run and make our opponents one-dimensional. And that’s how we’ll be able to beat them.”

Austin himself has said the same. For example, the following quote from 2015:

On the importance of making teams one dimensional: "We go into every game and we want to do that. We want to stop the run and it starts with our guys up front who've been doing a great job this year. That's what we want to do because if we let teams run then the play action opens up, the drop back opens up, everything our guys don't rush because of the run game. It opens up a lot of things if you don't stop the run. That is our number one deal we go into the game and we want to make sure we stop the run and we do whatever we have to do to try and stop it that week."

Something seems wrong here. A strong focus on stopping the run should make linebackers and safeties more vulnerable to play action, shouldn’t it? I suppose it would not matter as much when you have freakishly quick linebackers with great recovery speed who can get back into coverage, but what happens when DeAndre Levy is no longer on the field? What if your linebackers with the most experience in the scheme are gone and are replaced by players less familiar with the scheme like Armbrister?

Does making the opponent one-dimensional make a difference if the defense can’t stop the dimension the offense is being forced into? Opponents are passing a lot, but the Lions’ pass rush has disappeared in the second half of each game and there seems to be no consistency in covering the intermediate passing game—especially tight ends (see Justin Simon’s 10 things article, item No. 2). If I were an opposing offensive coordinator, i’d look at what the Colts and Titans did and give the Lions more of the same.

  1. Come out in heavy personnel sets like 12 or 21 and bait the Lions into taking Quandre Diggs off the field, replacing him with someone who can’t cover as well (say, Bush or any of the healthy linebackers we still have on the roster).
  2. Use formation to get the defense thinking run.
  3. Serve up a ton of play action with elements designed to attack the deep safety.

None of this is any kind of secret; everyone expected the Titans to go to Delanie Walker a lot and he ended up their leading receiver in Week 2. It’s not clear what the defensive staff will do to turn this around, and injuries to important players like Levy, Ziggy, Van Noy (never thought I’d say that), and Taylor make the task even more difficult. If they don’t come up with something clever soon, we may be looking at similar big plays being surrendered each week with little changed except the uniforms being worn by the opponent.