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Film Review: What happened in the red zone against Pittsburgh?

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Was play selection or execution more responsible for Detroit’s failure to punch it into the end zone on Sunday night?

Pittsburgh Steelers v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

This is not the Cooterball I signed up for

At the conclusion of “Sunday Night Football,” we wondered along with everyone else how Matthew Stafford could have thrown for so many yards against such a good defense but no touchdowns. The Pride of Detroit PODcast crew was pretty mad about the way the offense collapsed whenever it got near the goal line against the Steelers. Our Jeremy Reisman broke down the numbers for the Lions in the red zone immediately following the game, and they were quite fugly:

17 total plays

12 passing plays

5 rushing plays

12 passing plays

Matthew Stafford: 2-11, 6 yards, 1 sack

5 rushing plays

Dwayne Washington: 4 rushes, 6 yards

Theo Riddick: 1 rush, -2 yards

The very first comment on that article was a request by dmule2413 to go into more detail by digging into the tape. Let it be known that we here at Pride of Detroit give the people what they want!

Trip 1: Swanson holding penalty

Several minutes into the second quarter, the Lions advanced the ball down to their opponent’s 10-yard line on a leaping sluggo by Marvin Jones in the right cover-2 hole. On first down, a shotgun draw by Ameer Abdullah for two yards was negated by a takedown penalty on Travis Swanson, pushing the team back to the 20. The follow-up playcall was a swing pass on the right to Theo Riddick which was pounced on immediately for just one yard.

2017 Week 8 PIT 2Q (9:27). Second-and-Goal at the Pittsburgh 19.

Facing second-and-goal from a ways out, the Lions ran a vertical clearout play to isolate Golden Tate in the middle of the field. TJ Jones, Marvin Jones and Eric Ebron all carry their cover men deep while Theo Riddick looks to chip and release to the flat. The defense crowds the line but drops almost everyone and simply rushes four.

On the left side of the screenshot, we have two underneath defenders in good position to crush Golden Tate on the shallow cross, and the deep coverage is likewise positioned well to take away TJ and Ebron down the seam. Stafford looked left at the snap at Ebron to influence the deep safety boxed in pink. The best throw available was a 50-50 ball to Marvin in single coverage in the right corner of the end zone, away from that influenced safety. Stafford took that throw and it fell incomplete.

The next play was four verticals, and nobody was open. Stafford ended up chucking a decent attempt to TJ Jones for a toe drag on the left edge of the end zone, but there was not enough space to drop it in bounds. The Lions ended up with a big penalty, ineffective screen, and two incompletions for this trip, settling for a 37-yard Matt Prater field goal.

Trip 2: End of half vertical-fest

With under 60 seconds to go in the first half, Glover Quin recovered a fumble to give the Lions a literal last-minute chance to take the lead into the locker room. Completions to Marvin for 18, TJ for 34, and then Tate for 11 put the offense at the Steelers’ 16-yard line. At this point, Jim Bob Cooter went into Madden mode and called shot after shot to the end zone—or did he?

When looking at these plays, remember the Lions began the drive with all three timeouts and took their second to stop the clock when Tate was downed at the 16. To be very clear, they still had one timeout left.

2017 Week 8 PIT 2Q (0:31). First-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 16.

The next play should look pretty familiar since we just looked at its mirror image. This time, the stem-crosser pick setup is on the right side instead of the left side, and Riddick again releases to the flat behind the single receiver on the right side. Stafford again tries to look left then hit a vertical on the other side of the field, this time Darren Fells up the seam:

Now look at Tate crossing under Fells. As the camera pulls back, it is apparent how much room there was for the YAC monster to do his thing. Now, the throw by Stafford was on the money and Fells could have come down with the touchdown right here. But considering this was first down with a timeout in hand, dumping the ball to the best receiver on the team running full speed across the field to possibly get out of bounds or do his YAC monster thing into the end zone seems like a better choice.

2017 Week 8 PIT 2Q (0:22). Second-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 16.

The next play is the exact same one in the exact same sequence as last time: clearouts with crosser right into four verticals again. The play actually does “work,” and Darren Fells has a chance on the bender if Stafford leads him with a well-placed ball.

The throw is behind Fells, however, and falls harmlessly to the ground.

2017 Week 8 PIT 2Q (0:22). Third-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 16.

The call on third down looks like it was probably also four verticals, with TJ Jones breaking off his route when 25 CB Artie Burns corner blitzed. TJ actually jumped up and down waving his arms, hoping to get Stafford’s attention, but 28 S Sean Davis rotated over very quickly to take that away.

Staring at Burns coming free and no good option on the left side, Stafford launched another corner shot to Marvin. Coverage was good across the board, and the ball once again fell to the ground without effect.

Trip 3: Pounding sand

Late in the third quarter, the Lions finally got the ball up on the doorstep for a true goal line series. As opposed to the previous smorgasbord of vertical shots, everything here - both run and pass - was all up in the gut from heavy formations lining up tight.

2017 Week 8 PIT 3Q (5:52). First-and-Goal at the Pittsburgh 4.

The first play from inside the five-yard line slammed the ball with Dwayne Washington behind TJ Lang from a double tight end pistol formation. Jared Abbrederis decoyed wide but then shifted back inside to really extend the line super far to the right. Look at the motion and formation above, because it will be relevant later on.

At the snap, outside tight end Michael Roberts blocks the man to his right, and Abbrederis awkwardly scooted around him to pick up the deep man in the hole. How awkward? It’s not clear if Roberts was really supposed to do that kind of exchange with Abbrederis or if the receiver actually expected that both he and the tight end would block straight ahead.

Based on the way Fells and Roberts are trying to widen the right D-gap, it is probably a designed switch with the receiver leading through the hole. Although pulling Abbrederis to lead block in the hole sounds like a terrible idea in the abstract, this is the play where Washington’s forearm came down just a foot short of the goal line.

2017 Week 8 PIT 3Q (5:10). Second-and-Goal at the Pittsburgh 1.

On second down, Jim Bob Cooter gets cute with everyone brought in close and both tight ends in H-back spots for a heavy single back line. The best pure runner on the team, Ameer Abdullah, is in the game. Of course this means the Lions are not going to run the ball.

You can see in the above screenshot how well the defense has this scouted out. Although they are paying no respect to Abbrederis as a threat at the top, look at 20 S Robert Golden hanging out deep on the painted “S” in the end zone to guard Marvin Jones over the top. That lets 21 CB Joe Haden play extremely aggressive at the line, taking away any easy release because he knows Golden can help on a fade or corner route.

Immediately after Stafford comes up from the play-action fake, it is obvious that none of the Steelers bought it. Both Abbrederis and Marvin are covered tight, and Golden is in great position to pick up the outside release. Abdullah, meanwhile, gets caught up in traffic inside and cannot even get to the goal line to turn around on his delayed route. With nowhere to go with the ball, Stafford tries to buy time by rolling right and eventually ends up slinging a high risk pass that was defensed by 50 LB Ryan Shazier.

Indeed.

2017 Week 8 PIT 3Q (5:10). Third-and-Goal at the Pittsburgh 1.

The follow-up to that cute play-action pass is as far from cute as can be: full house three tight end set with Nick Bellore in at fullback. This is Jim Bob Cooter giving the offensive line the go-ahead to do their thing. Unfortunately, the right side of the line did their thing but the left side did not:

Both Graham Glasgow and Brian Mihalik failed to impede their assigned men on the back side of the play at all. Travis Swanson is backed up, but walling his man off fine, and that front side of Lang, Wagner, and Fells are killing it at the point of attack, but Washington has no chance against the two unblocked guys at the line.

Both of the players boxed in pink are supposed to be on the ground with Mihalik and Glasgow. Michael Roberts, ironically, is the only player here who has successfully cut blocked his man on the back side. If those two pink boxed defenders are out of the way, we can imagine Washington bursting it along the cyan line across the goal line before his momentum is stopped by 233-pound 98 LB Vince Williams (standing on the “N” in Jeremy’s cut block tweet). Instead, he ran into 305-pound 79 DT Javon Hargrave backed up by 295-pound 97 DE Cameron Heyward, who stood Washington up with no trouble at all.

Yep.

2017 Week 8 PIT 3Q (4:31). Fourth-and-Goal at the Pittsburgh 1.

Suddenly, a wild Aggressive Papa Jim appeared, and the Detroit Lions were going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line! As mentioned on the broadcast by Cris Collinsworth, Stafford is most likely looking to run the ball from the get-go here. I believe this is a designed quarterback draw from the 2-point conversion part of the playbook.

After briefly holding the ball and hitching up to let Washington run through the hole on a route up the middle, Stafford tucks and tries to bolt for the end zone. The route by Washington is a decoy designed to draw away whatever underneath defender might be lurking where Stafford will run the ball, and in a sense acts like a lead block. In this play, it really does get Shazier to commit and flow away from where the run is going.

The only problem is that 94 DE Tyson Alualu makes an outstanding play to spin off Lang’s block. The offensive line actually has this blocked very well, and Lang has nice control on Alualu with a huge lane up the middle cleared for Stafford. Had Alualu not chosen to try a spin move to the inside, this would have been pretty close and maybe a touchdown depending on Shazier’s closing speed (he is very fast).

Instead, this one went into the books as a sack for Alualu and we shall not speak of what the Steelers did three plays later. Moving on!

Trip 4: Backstreet’s Back

This drive is why we pointed out the double tight pistol with the shift with Abbrederis. On first down, the Lions ran the bootleg play-action pass where Michael Roberts was knocked down and Stafford tried to hit Ebron to salvage the broken play on the back line of the end zone. It was, at the least, something different even if it did not work. On second and third downs, though, we just need one GIF each with no explanation to express how we feel about the playcalling.

2017 Week 8 PIT 4Q (14:16). Second-and-Goal at the Pittsburgh 4.

Hmm.

2017 Week 8 PIT 4Q (13:41). Third-and-Goal at the Pittsburgh 2.

Seriously?

Trip 5: More of the same

At the end of the game, the Lions once again moved the ball down to the red zone and had four shots at a go-ahead touchdown. On first down, Stafford checked to a fade to Marvin Jones on the left side that failed to connect.

On second down, the Lions ran vertical clearouts with a Tate crosser for probably the sixth or seventh time in the game.

2017 Week 8 PIT 4Q (2:51). Second-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 11.

Defensively, the Steelers were guarding the goal line (and first down marker), but stood ready to pounce on Tate. An easy pitch and catch, but the play only managed to pick up half of the necessary yards.

2017 Week 8 PIT 4Q (2:51). Third-and-5 at the Pittsburgh 6.

Since we are running long here, we are going to refer folks to Tim Twentyman’s breakdown of the draw play. The only thing that seems questionable with his analysis is the second level blocking assignments. Stafford’s comment that “(w)e just didn’t execute it well and that’s on me to get everybody on the same page,” and Golden Tate looking confused at the end of the play seems to imply that he probably should have blocked 31 CB Mike Hilton (who ran free to make the tackle).

2017 Week 8 PIT 4Q (2:00). Fourth-and-7 at the Pittsburgh 8.

Coming back from the two-minute warning timeout, the Lions needed at least seven yards if they did not make it into the end zone. Spreading the field with the receivers, the offense held back Theo Riddick to help Mihalik on the edge and had Ebron chip before releasing to the goal line. That is where things went wrong.

As can be seen in the GIF above, Ebron shoves Heyward to help Rick Wagner get a good centered fit. Somehow, Ebron loses his balance and falls to the ground after delivering the blow. That threw off the timing, and when Ebron turned around he was still in the field of play at around the three-yard line.

From Stafford’s head angles, it looks like he was trying to go to Tate then Ebron, but ran out of time because Hargrave absolutely steamrolled poor Travis Swanson. Let us be clear: the Steelers dropped eight into coverage and the Lions lost at the line blocking six-on-three. Because Theo Riddick stayed in protection, there were only four players in the pattern. This was terrible protection, and somehow neither Lang nor Glasgow assisted the guy getting rocked backwards between the two of them.

Everything is not awesome

It is hard to pin this on anyone or any group of players in particular. It really was a team effort to perform this poorly in the red zone. In some cases you had bad blocking like the failed cut blocks by the left side of the line or the last play of the game, but in other places you have a dropped touchdown by Fells and Eric Ebron falling down after chipping. Even the star players were guilty, like Tate looking confused on the draw play, Marvin dropping a catchable fade, and Stafford missing Tate wide open on the crosser under his forced throw to Fells (or the bad throw behind Fells on four verticals).

We have to be honest and admit that the play mix was not good. How many times do the Lions have to run isolation pass plays designed to only get one player open with basically no hope of throwing to the other four guys in the pattern who are merely clearing out for the featured route? Does it have to be so obvious to pull Abbrederis in line to a double tight end pistol formation when we want to pound the ball? Where is the clearance for Stafford to check to a surprise QB sneak like the old days? The most disappointing part of it all is the fact that this came at home after a bye week, so the staff had extra time to prepare and this is what they went with.

The offense did move the ball well all day, though (I guess that’s where the extra prep time went?), and there were opportunities to score touchdowns in spite of unimaginative playcalling. It was really the combination of the play selection plus correctable execution problems that sank the red zone offense; Detroit needed both to fail that hard. The team is still playing well even if the record and scoreboard don’t reflect good outcomes, so Lions fans should keep hanging in there.