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Film Review: Will the defensive line be okay without Haloti Ngata?

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Don’t make Cornelius Washington mad again, people.

Carolina Panthers v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Who can possibly fill these shoes?

For a unit that has already sent Jordan Hill and Kerry Hyder to injured reserve in the preseason, there is really no sugarcoating the loss of Haloti Ngata at the heart of the defensive line for the Detroit Lions. It is a tremendous setback both in terms of the level of play that the 12th-year veteran was turning in as well as his on-field leadership presence. From the moment he joined the Lions, Ngata has been a great example for the younger defensive tackles to emulate.

Although the elder statesman of the defensive line had great faith in the “frickin’ beasts” the front office had been acquiring to succeed him down the line, the team was doing marvelously with Ngata in the lineup. The question now becomes who can step in ahead of schedule and take his place right now? How does the defense replace a guy who could someday be in the Hall of Fame? Papa Jim recognizes the challenge, but is optimistic:

That process began in the second half against the Carolina Panthers. Right around the two-minute warning in the second quarter, Ngata left the game with what we now know was a season-ending biceps injury. Up to that point, the Lions kept pace with the Panthers for a 10-10 tie, but the Haloti-less defense then surrendered a touchdown to end the first half and another touchdown to open the second half.

Trailing big at home with an offense unable to maintain possession of the ball, the defense needed answers to keep Detroit in the game and it needed them quickly. Once Ngata exited the game, the Lions were left with just three active defensive tackles: 91 DT A’Shawn Robinson, 98 DT Jeremiah Ledbetter and 97 DT Akeem Spence.

Although 69 DE Anthony Zettel and 90 DE Cornelius Washington are versatile and have played defensive tackle in the past, they are necessary pieces to get a good pass rush rotation on the outside. The usual pair rotation of A’Shawn-Spence and Ngata-Ledbetter in the middle could no longer work. Spence, Ledbetter, and Robinson would have to shoulder heavier snap loads to fill the void.

Run defense: two for one trades

We start with some looks at run defense, where the Detroit front shut down Carolina to the tune of 28 yards on 28 carries. Yes, that would be one yard per carry. Most of the tackles and big plays came from 40 MLB Jarrad Davis and company shooting gaps to pick up tackles-for-loss, but the big men up front played a bigger role than the stat sheet may suggest. Specifically, they ate double-teams to occupy blockers and create opportunities for all the gap shooting that was going on.

2017 Week 5 CAR, 3Q (15:00). First-and-10 at the Carolina 25.

Carolina lines up with two tight ends to their left and brings 22 HB Christian McCaffrey in motion to fake the jet sweep action the same way Detroit does it with 15 WR Golden Tate. The play call is inside zone against a three safety defense. On the right side, 60 RT Daryl Williams will block 94 Ezekiel Ansah on the edge while 82 TE Chris Manhertz will sort of chip/get in the way of Zettel on the other edge.

The real action for our consideration is in the middle, where 75 LT Matt Kalil and 68 LG Andrew Norwell will double-team Ledbetter in front of them, and 69 C Tyler Larsen and 70 RG Trai Turner will double-team Spence at the point of attack.

As 1 QB Cam Newton turns with the ball to hand off to 28 HB Jonathan Stewart, the interior engages. All of the linebackers and safeties for the Lions are clean and mobile, able to flow to holes and watch the play develop.

At the mesh point where Newton gives the ball to the back, look at the clear lanes of attack for the defense. The play picks up a paltry two yards because the second level defenders are free of blocker interference.

In the broadcast angle, you can see Stewart hitch up and stop his forward momentum when he sees Tavon Wilson flying in from the outside. Akeem Spence controls Turner with just his left arm and throws him off to his left, keeping the guard off Jarrad Davis (who ended up sharing credit for the stop with Zettel).

2017 Week 5 CAR, 3Q (10:35). First-and-10 at the Detroit 23.

The above screenshot is the play immediately after 9 QB Matthew Stafford fumbled the ball back to the Panthers. Originally, Dickson was wide right but shifted into a H-back spot inside against the Lions’ two-high look so Stewart can hit it up inside with a six-on-six box. The defensive line is angling to their right, which messes up the offense’s ability to attack the wide gaps in the alignment.

At the point of attack, Ledbetter is combo blocked by the left guard and center, but is able to ride the double-team long enough to allow Jarrad Davis behind him to flow wide and keep control of the play side B-gap. Big A’Shawn Robinson rides the right guard into the area vacated by the center, taking away the A-gaps as a first cut-back option for Stewart. That forces the ball-carrier to stop and run laterally for a very wide cut-back, buying time for the second level defenders to move up and make the stop.

In the panel at the top, we have the slanting gap control in purple and Dickson moving up to wall off 59 LB Tahir Whitehead to try and open a hole. The play takes so long to develop that 32 S Tavon Wilson (yellow arrow) is able to rush the hole and drop Stewart for a loss.

That negative play set up unfavorable long-yardage situations for the Panthers: a deep incompletion to McCaffrey down the right side on second down and a negative-yardage screen to 17 WR Devin Funchess to the left on third down. A disastrous turnover deep in Lions’ territory yielded merely three points thanks in part to strong first down run defense.

2017 Week 5 CAR, 3Q (7:38). First-and-10 at the Carolina 32.

Later in the third quarter, Carolina sent in a variation on split zone with Manhertz setting the edge against Tavon Wilson while allowing Jeremiah Valoaga to rush past him only to be slice blocked by Dickson coming across the formation. The intent is to have combo blocks in the middle with Matt Kalil releasing to wall off Tahir Whitehead and open the C-gap for Stewart to flow through. The problem for the play was a combination of Akeem Spence gobbling up blockers and Jarrad Davis’ amazingly quick run diagnosis and explosion into the backfield.

As Newton turns to give the ball, the double-teams engage, and we can see Valoaga left unblocked at the front edge of the play. 13 WR Kelvin Benjamin completely misses Quin coming from the back side, but the really interesting stuff going on is the double-team on Spence. The right guard Turner is unable to establish control (we can see Spence trying to get skinny and almost splitting the combo down the middle), so the center Larsen has to stay on him and cannot release to pick up Davis.

In the bottom panel, as the exchange is about to occur, we can clearly see the rush lane open for Davis to attack up the field. Dickson has no idea Davis is coming free, but even if he had switched to trap Davis, that would have left Valoaga with a free shot at Stewart. Either way, Quin from the back side and someone (either Davis or Valoaga) was going to blow the play up for a loss.

Pass rush: collapsing the interior

The drive prior to his leaving the game, Ngata reminded us how much havoc could be caused by a strong push up the middle in passing situations. On what may be his final career sack in Detroit, Ngata drove the Carolina center Larsen backwards into Newton and wrapped up for a nine-yard sack.

2017 Week 5 CAR, 2Q (7:36). Third-and-10 at the Carolina 36.

What is really terrifying from the offensive lineman’s point of view here, is that Ngata covers half the distance to the quarterback with only his right arm pushing Larsen (his left arm is raised to swat any pass that might be thrown). This kind of collapsing of the pocket from the inside gets in the quarterback’s face and prevents the passer from stepping up away from the edge rush.

2017 Week 5 CAR, 3Q (0:27). Second-and-9 at the Detroit 27.

At the very end of the third quarter, Akeem Spence brought the power inside to crush a quarterback draw and set up a long third down for the Panthers. In the top panel, we have Spence lined up in front of the right tackle Williams and angled in towards right guard Turner. The middle panel shows the snap: Williams goes outside to block CornWash on the edge, while Spence fights up the middle against Turner. The center Larsen sets up in mock pass protection, and in the bottom panel provides a helping shove to Turner before releasing to run block.

Spence not only fights through the blocks from Larsen and Turner, he plows forward enough to clutter up the running lanes for Newton. That moment of hesitation at the 28-yard line is enough to let Spence get off his block and stop the play for a two-yard loss.

2017 Week 5 CAR, 4Q (15:00). Third-and-11 at the Detroit 29.

Facing third-and-long, the Panthers need to make the 11-yard line to keep the drive alive. The pattern mix is shown above, with Funchess at the top of the bunch to the far right of the formation, McCaffery as the middle receiver running the whip route shallow, and Dickson on the deep post in the center of the field. On the opposite side, Kelvin Benjamin has a mirror deep in route past the sticks as well.

The Lions go with Cover 3 and rush only front four. From left to right along the defensive line, this is George Johnson, Akeem Spence, A’Shawn Robinson, and Anthony Zettel. From the All-22 screenshot above, we can see all three routes deep enough for a first down are covered. Boxed in purple is Johnson coming around the edge from his left end spot to threaten a sack.

Cam Newton has to pull the ball down because there is nobody open. Evading Johnson, he tries to step up in the pocket, but finds no room to maneuver because Akeem Spence, A’Shawn Robinson, and Anthony Zettel have all walked their blockers back into the space Newton wants to move into. The 2015 most valuable player attempts to hop back away from Spence, but loses the handle on the ball and has to fall on it for an eight-yard sack. This was a huge play because it pushed Carolina back to make kicker Graham Gano’s field goal attempt a very difficult 55-yarder — which he missed.

2017 Week 5 CAR, 4Q (9:10). Third-and-12 at the Carolina 30.

Obviously sacks are great, but effective pressure does not necessarily need to result in negative yardage for the offense. A short bit of another third-and-long situation from later in the fourth quarter where interior line play made a non-stat sheet difference is shown above.

Akeem Spence from the left defensive tackle position and A’Shawn Robinson from the right defensive tackle position execute an inside stunt to try and give Spence a free rush lane up the gut. By design, A’Shawn angles from his spot to carry the center into the side of the right guard, but look how fast the pass rush descends upon Newton. A’Shawn does not simply take the center over into the guard, he just keeps churning until he gets to the quarterback to help rush the throw. Newton tries to dump it to McCaffrey on the same angle route the Lions run with Theo Riddick to avoid the sack, but the pass falls short.

These guys can get the job done

It seems like every time a well-respected veteran player leaves the Detroit Lions, there is a cycle of first lamenting the loss, then trying to think of a player to take their place, and finally realizing no single player needs to replace the superstar. Just as the defense adjusted to life without Ndamukong Suh and the offense adjusted to life without Calvin Johnson, so too can this unit adapt to life without Haloti Ngata.

Nobody on the roster is ready to carry that entire burden alone, but distributing the responsibility makes the situation feel a bit better. Already this season, we have seen the defensive line collectively perform at high levels when nobody else thought they could. What’s important is that it’s not just Akeem Spence that looks good. It’s not just A’Shawn Robinson that looks good. It’s the entire depth chart of guys that we never imagined would be major contributors: guys like Anthony Zettel and Jeremiah Ledbetter have already drawn a good deal of praise in 2017.

Adding veteran reinforcements — some of whom are already quite familiar with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s defense — will also help the transition. For example, George Johnson already has some chemistry with Akeem Spence from their time together in Tampa Bay, and he looked comfortable back in his old role against the Panthers. Do we look forward to life without Haloti Ngata? Of course not, but it is okay for Lions fans to not be afraid of it.