Not an easy fix
The Lions have been bad at running the ball for a long time, and suddenly 34 HB Zach Zenner has found success between the tackles to end the 2016 regular season. What gives? Is there something to this Zenner kid that is magically making miracles happen? Well, some of it is due in part to the former Jackrabbit’s run style—which we will revisit in the offseason, I promise—but a good deal of it has to do with everything else going on around him: the blocking. When the offensive line and tight ends win the battle in the trenches, the Lions are finding success. Conversely, nearly every time you see a Detroit run for little to no gain with Zenner carrying the ball, it is due to a missed block or great defense.
This is infuriating for fans because we have heard this “excuse” in the past:
“We’ve got a lot of time left. I really do believe, without question, everybody thinks it’s an easy fix. It’s not an easy fix. It’s not that simple,” Caldwell said. “It takes work and I think we’re on the right track. I just think that we obviously, we’re just kind of missing a little bit here or there which is kind of enough to slow us down.”
“Well, what I think is that it still boils down to execution, to be honest with you,” Caldwell said. “That’s where I think our issues lie.”
That was back in 2015 when Joe Lombardi was still the offensive coordinator and Joique Bell was averaging 1.1 yards per carry. This is not the magical explanation everyone wants to hear, but sometimes there really is nothing more to it. All players have a job on each play, and all are important to the success of the team. We now consider the successes and failures in the run game from Sunday night’s loss to the Packers.
Success: No Rogues
The Lions barely ran the ball in the second half, but that was mostly due to the clock and scoreboard situation. Remember, the first time the home team got the ball in the second half, it was already under 10 minutes left in the third quarter. Two sustained drives by the visitors meant the Lions offense only ran eight plays in the third quarter compared to eighteen for the Packers. This is why all examples presented are from the first half, and there was really no rushing game to analyze in the second half.
The key to the running plays that picked up four or more yards? Everyone did their job and played proper technique. Or, as one rookie might say, nobody went rogue:
Taylor Decker had an interesting response.
"I mean, when we get out there, we just have to do what we're coached to do," the rookie left tackle said. "As a group, we need to hit our ending points and use the technique we've worked so hard in practice.
"When you get out there in the game, you can't go rogue and do something crazy. So, all correctable things. But we've obviously got to execute better."
2016 GBY, 1Q (6:19). First-and-10 at the Detroit 11.
The initial screenshot presented here is immediately after the snap (you can see the ball about to hit 9 QB Matthew Stafford’s hands) in order to show the defensive movement. Green Bay showed two high safeties and rocked 42 SS Morgan Burnett down into the box and 21 FS Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix back to the deep middle at the snap. Both cornerbacks immediately bailed, so this was likely man free with six men in the tackle box and defenders in space (Burnett to Detroit’s right and 33 CB Micah Hyde over 80 WR Anquan Boldin in the slot to Detroit’s left) protecting the flanks.
The play called by Detroit is its standard split zone run with 82 TE Matthew Mulligan coming back against the grain on a slice block to the back side. 52 LB Clay Matthews is left unblocked by the offensive line for Mulligan to pick up, and he does just that. NBC had a nice overhead replay from the wire camera to show the inside blocking develop:
Across the line, we have 68 LT Taylor Decker releasing to block 47 OLB Jake Ryan, walling him off from an inside position. On the inside combo block, 72 LG Laken Tomlinson gets way over and does a fantastic job getting inside position on 76 DT Mike Daniels with an assist from 60 C Graham Glasgow. To the right, Glasgow gets a nice second level release onto 48 LB Joe Thomas while both 75 RG Larry Warford and RT 70 Corey Robinson take their assigned defenders out.
When Burnett moves up into the box, he has two possible holes to fill: one develops in the play side B gap when 95 LB Datone Jones pushed up the field against Robinson and a second possible gap is up the gut in the back side A gap where Glasgow and Tomlinson are splitting the middle of the formation.
Burnett picks the outside hole closer to where he is lined up, and Zenner takes the straight ahead hole for 15 yards. Mulligan does not make an all-universe block here, but it is effective in sealing off Matthews from the back side to ensure Zenner can hit the hole untouched. Everyone on the blocking did a solid job here, and the running back made a good cut to an open lane.
2016 GBY 2Q (7:59). Second-and-3 at the Green Bay 33.
Again, taking a screenshot a split second after the snap to show the defense’s reaction, we can see this is essentially the exact same pair of calls. The defense has Clinton-Dix moving up into the box and both corners bail on loose man coverage with a single high safety up top. Hyde is over Boldin in the slot and the Packers have their six man box with flank defenders. Spread wide to defend the outsides, the Lions have a good call with split zone up the middle behind a slice block by 85 TE Eric Ebron (going left to right across the formation).
Right after the exchange between Stafford and Zenner, it is obvious that the Lions have this dominated from the start. Ebron makes a spectacular block on Jones, giving the play a chance to get out of the backfield. On the front side of the play, the offensive line (shaded in orange) has the defense walled off to form a nice running lane. On the back side, Ebron, Robinson, and Boldin get in the way of any pursuit.
Good blocking from everyone gave Zenner a chance to pick up big yards on a bread-and-butter play from the Lions’ playbook. This carry went for 13 yards and put the offense into the red zone.
Failure: For want of a nail
The tough part about blocking schemes is that basically everyone has to execute for the play to be successful. Any one player missing an assignment could cause a play to fail, even if it is away from the point of attack, and we must remember there are talented defensive players on the other side trying to defeat the play design.
2016 GBY, 2Q (10:12). First-and-10 at the Detroit 36.
We now have a play where Stafford audibled into a zone run to the right against what looked like a favorable alignment. From behind the formation, we can see why the Lions should have numbers and leverage to their right: there are four defenders to the right of Glasgow, and four blockers (including Glasgow) to handle them. Leaving 56 LB Julius Peppers unblocked on the back side allows the Lions to go six-on-seven, as Mulligan is lined up head-on with 53 LB Nick Perry.
On the back side, Decker and Tomlinson have tough jobs, and need to get over pretty far to seal the back side. Both will attempt cut blocks on 47 OLB Jake Ryan and 98 DT Letroy Guion.
As we can see, both Tomlinson (on Guion) and Decker (on Ryan) fail to take their assignments out. The two Detroit offensive linemen are on the ground, but the Green Bay defenders are still on their feet to pursue the play. The fact the Guion is still attacking inside forces Zenner to string the play out and hope the blocking wins at the edge (it does not). In the right panel, one could imagine if both of the cut blocks had been successful, that the ball-carrier may have had a shot at cutting it upfield across the face of Peppers.
Instead of having at least a chance to try and beat the free man to the cutback lane, Zenner is driven wide into a mass of waiting defenders. He has no chance, and the play is stopped for no gain.
2016 GBY, 1Q (4:55). Second-and-1 at the Detroit 35.
On second-and-short, the Lions try to blast it up inside right guard behind Warford; the alignment has the receivers all to the formation’s left side and the tight end Mulligan in-line on the right side. What happens here is everyone wins their block except one: Mulligan on 95 LB Datone Jones. First, look at the formation above to see where Mulligan and Jones start the play, then look below at what happens.
The hashmark is shaded in pink as a reference point to tell how far Jones penetrates to the inside. Knowing he has Burnett backing him as outside contain, Jones does not need to stay at home as the end man on the line of scrimmage; instead, he attacks inside aggressively off the snap. Mulligan is not able to get over in time to establish position, and gets beat bad. In the right hand panel, we can see the first down conversion would have been easy had Mulligan gotten any kind of a push on his man.
That is how the Lions fail on run plays trying to pick up a single yard: someone misses a block. This play was stopped cold in the backfield, and Zenner barely managed to get back to the original line of scrimmage.
Detroit’s offense does not run a huge array of running plays to complement the short passing game, so it all boils down to execution in its non-gadget rushing attack. There is some toss sweep, some split zone, a bunch of power, and the occasional draw or counter. That’s it. Some of it is run from a few different looks, but for the most part the plays are of sound design and battle tested.
When the players carry out their assignments well, the offense picks up big yardage like the 13 and 15 yard runs above. Against the Packers in the final game of the season, Zach Zenner gained four or more yards on nine of 20 carries. That is really nice, but on another five of the 20 carries, he was either stopped for no gain or lost yards. Those lost downs are the kinds of plays that can kill drives.
This ping-ponging between extremes is what is most troubling to me about the run game. Some plays we will see a magnificent block from Matthew Mulligan or Laken Tomlinson to spring a nice gain; then on other plays those same guys blow an assignment horribly and put the team in long yardage situations. While the overall yardage has been better lately, it would be nice to have less variability in the outcomes of each running play. It is hard to expect things to change at this point in the season, but maybe getting Travis Swanson and/or Riley Reiff back can make a difference in the Wild Card game at Seattle.