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Play of the Game: Lions secondary communicating on a whole new level

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Everything is clicking with this Lions secondary right now.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Minnesota Vikings Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

For this week’s Play of the Game, I wanted to dig a little deeper than I usually do. I could easily pick one of the Detroit Lions’ three fumble recoveries or break down Matthew Stafford’s long connection to Marvin Jones Jr. in the first quarter, but I wanted to give the defense some credit for some every-down plays that they’ve been routinely making this season. Detroit’s secondary has played lights out through four weeks, and while the seven interceptions are what many are focusing on, it’s the plays that happen in between that makes them so good.

This week’s Play of the Game was one of five passes defended on the day, and it stalled a Vikings drive that could have tied the game up in the second half.

The play

The Minnesota Vikings were deep in the Lions’ territory, facing a third-and-8 from Detroit’s 21-yard line. Down seven, Minnesota was dangerously close to tying up the game.

The Lions throw a little misdirect in their initial formation. With two deep safeties—Glover Quin at the top and Charles Washington at the bottom—it looks like a fairly standard Tampa 2 play. If that were the case, the top linebacker on the play—who is actually Detroit’s third safety, Tavon Wilson—would be in an unfavorable matchup against tailback Jerick McKinnon.

Instead, Wilson drops back to play deep middle, while Glover Quin, a much more instinctive player, drops down into man coverage. But before we go on to what happened next in the secondary, let’s check in on the defensive line, where Detroit is only sending four men into pass rush on this crucial third down.

There’s a lot to digest here, so let’s just go from left to right. Cornelius Washington gets destroyed by the tight end and is completely out of the play. Akeem Spence and A’Shawn Robinson try to pull a stunt, but Spence essentially runs into Robinson and gets caught up in the mess.

The real focus here should be on Ezekiel Ansah, whose effective bullrush puts Riley Reiff directly at Case Keenum’s hip when he’s trying to throw. Keenum is completely unable to step into this throw—that will be important to remember later.

Back to the secondary. Keenum sees Tavon Wilson immediately back into a deep zone, leaving a whole lot of room in the middle of the field, where McKinnon is about to be. It looks like an easy third down conversion:

But what happens next is a true look at just how well this secondary is playing together. As you may be able to see from the still above, Quin is focusing on Adam Thielen at the top, not McKinnon. That’s because there’s a chance he and Nevin Lawson will be changing responsibilities. He’s waiting for a sign from Lawson and he gets it.

Notice how quickly Lawson diagnoses the play and points to Quin to signify he’ll be passing the receiver back to him. Then this is all about Lawson’s closing speed. When McKinnon makes his curl, Lawson is a good six yards away. But he closes that gap with incredible recognition and times his contact perfectly.

Now you may be wondering to yourself, “But isn’t Thielen wide open?” He is, as Quin is a little late to take responsibility, and color commentator Chris Spielman was right on top of it.

“I think Keenum had Thielen open in the corner of the endzone and he missed him,” Spielman noted.

However, there are two things to note. One is how the Lions baited Keenum into that read with Tavon Wilson dropping back into zone coverage. The other is that pressure from Ansah off the edge.

That corner route is one of the most difficult throws in football. If you underthrow it or don’t have a ton of velocity, that safety will not only undercut the throw, but will likely take it for six. Because of Ansah, Keenum doesn’t have the room to step into the throw and put enough power on the throw to ensure that Quin doesn’t close that gap between him and Theilen. He checks down to the safer throw and Lawson breaks it up.

The Vikings were forced into a field goal, and promptly missed it, holding Detroit’s lead at seven points. While this wasn’t the flashiest play by the Lions’ defense, it’s a perfect example of how Detroit is doing all of the right things defending the pass, and it’s not just about the turnovers. This defense is for real, because the secondary is playing on a whole new level.