Is it really this bad?
Our Justin Simon led his latest “10 things” article with concerns about the way Cleveland and Chicago ran roughshod over the Detroit defense in the last two games. Compared to the fantastic performance posted by defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s unit against the run early in the year, the numbers are undeniably ugly:
This is a terrifying trend for the #Lions defense heading into Thursday's game against the #Vikings. The Lions run defense has been horrible since Ansah and Reeves-Maybin have been out of the lineup. Not sure how likely they are on a short week either. pic.twitter.com/8nP8FvW2in— Justin Simon (@justincsimon) November 20, 2017
Heading into the bye during Week 7 of the regular season, stopping the run was the strength of the team, if one were to use Football Outsiders’ DVOA as the yardstick. While the offense slumped and the pass defense merely plugged along, the one thing the Lions could do consistently was contain opposing rushers.
After being shredded for two bills on the ground at Soldier Field, Papa Jim brought out the usual chestnuts to explain what was going wrong on defense:
Jim Caldwell blames run defense woes on consistently poor tackling and run fits.— Prater of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) November 20, 2017
Is this a distracting non-answer or is there really something to this? What does it mean for the defense if it is true? We will look at two important drives that relied heavily on rushing production to score second half touchdowns against the Lions to sort this out.
Letting Cleveland back into the game
Coming out of the locker room at halftime, the Lions held a 17-10 lead over the Browns. That lead was preserved by some savvy play at the end of the half to kill the clock before the visitors could get another play off at the Detroit 2-yard line. Another successful stand to get the ball back without surrendering any points would give the Lions control of the game and an opportunity to go up by two scores. Instead, the defense played for the pass and a drive ending in four straight run plays for 45 yards evened up the score for the Browns. Here are the final plays of the drive.
2017 Week 10 CLE 3Q (12:07). Second-and-4 at the Detroit 39.
Cleveland has 11 personnel on the field with the majority of the receiving threats to 7 QB Deshone Kizer’s right. The lone back, 29 HB Duke Johnson, is offset to Kizer’s right. Detroit, for whatever reason, is looking for the pass, and has an edge blitz by 59 OLB Tahir Whitehead called. The coverage behind the five-man rush is man-to-man across the board with 27 FS Glover Quin as the single high safety. 32 S Tavon Wilson starts high pre-snap, but moves up to play 87 TE Seth Devalve.
Unfortunately for Detroit, the play call is a draw to the right side away from Whitehead’s blitz path. It is the perfect play against the defensive call: Wilson follows Devalve into the middle of the field away from the draw play’s run direction. The tight end blocks 40 MLB Jarrad Davis, who was matched up on the running back. That means Wilson has to switch off when he sees his man start blocking and look for the run.
Nobody else in coverage sees this happening because they are all turned and running with their receivers; only Quin, Davis, and Wilson are looking in the right direction to see the draw develop. By the time Wilson turns around to look for the ball-carrier, Johnson is through the second level and off the races for 19 yards.
2017 Week 10 CLE 3Q (11:38). First-and-10 at the Detroit 20.
Hurrying back to the line, the Browns go with a quick substitution of 34 HB Isaiah Crowell for Johnson and line up slot left shotgun with Crowell to Kizer’s left. In the top panel, we can see the natural one-gap run fits for the pre-snap alignments. The play call is power to the right, with 75 LG Joel Bitonio leading for the ball-carrier through the offense’s right C-gap.
When Bitonio pulls, he essentially takes the two gaps on his left and right with him and inserts them back into the line in a different spot. Everyone on defense must adjust and see the unplugged gaps and fit themselves into the new puzzle. 78 LDE Jeremiah Valoaga now has the gap between the tight end Devalve and the puller Bitonio. 99 DT Khyri Thornton is doing a nice job in the lower panel controlling the space between the right tackle and right guard (what would have been the right B-gap). When Bitonio inserts into the line, a new gap forms between him and the right tackle: that’s what Whitehead should squeeze into.
In fact, Tahir Whitehead plays it beautifully and spills Crowell to an unblocked Tavon Wilson on the outside. As long as Wilson makes the tackle, this run is completely blown up.
Tavon misses the tackle, and Valoaga from the inside cannot slip a second block to make it, either. Even though the diagnosis and run fits were good at the point of attack, Crowell gained 14 yards instead of being stood up at the 20-yard line for no gain. One item of possible concern is the pink arrow pointing at a cutback lane with no Jarrad Davis sitting in it. Instead of filling a gap of his own, Davis followed the ball and stacked behind Thornton in the same gap.
2017 Week 10 CLE 3Q (11:06). First-and-Goal at the Detroit 6.
The Browns go no-huddle this time, lining up with the tight end to the left and Crowell to Kizer’s right. The play call is a basic power run to the left, this time pulling 70 RG Kevin Zeitler to lead block around the end of the line. The end man on the line of scrimmage for the Lions is 35 S Miles Killebrew.
On the broadcast, the commentary team laid into Tahir Whitehead for getting bottled up inside instead of scraping across the top to get the outside. It is tough to fault him for the blown outside contain, though, because he was not the outside contain man. Watch Killebrew the whole way in the GIF: he starts on the outside and aggressively crashes the pile, getting sealed to the inside by Zeitler in the process. If he stays outside and keeps contain, Killebrew either has a good open field shot at Crowell or can force the ball back inside toward Whitehead and Davis.
Failing to put the Bears away
The Lions took a four-point lead into the final quarter and tacked on a 27-yard field goal to extend the lead to a touchdown. On the ensuing possession, the Bears marched 78 yards in eight plays to tie the game at 24-24. Remarkably, 10 QB Mitchell Trubisky only completed two passes on the drive, one of which lost eight yards. Aside from a 17-yard completion by Trubisky and penalty yards for roughing the passer, the other 54 positive yards were picked up by running the ball.
2017 Week 11 CHI 4Q (9:15). Second-and-8 at the Chicago 24.
In the initial alignment on second down, the Bears put 87 TE Adam Shaheen outside 70 RT Bobby Massie. Defensively, the Lions have their normal nickel personnel in the game (31 CB DJ Hayden off the left side of the picture, and 28 CB Quandre Diggs over 13 WR Kendall Wright). After getting a peek at the defensive setup, the Bears shift Shaheen to the left side off 72 LT Charles Leno’s outside foot.
The defense responds by rotating Quin down (off the picture to the left) as a box defender on the edge, and rotating Wilson up top. There will be a funky lane exchange inside by 91 DT A’Shawn Robinson and Tahir Whitehead stacked behind him. Robinson needs to end up in the offense’s left A-gap instead of the B-gap he is lined up over.
The Bears run outside zone to the left, against the grain of Robinson’s switch. Right before the handoff occurs, we can see things starting to go wrong. Look where A’Shawn is being blocked by 65 C Cody Whitehair. Instead of being to the left of the center in the left A-gap, Whitehair has him in the right A-gap. Consequently, Whitehead has shifted tracks and is more or less in the left A-gap. But the shift by one gap propagates down the defense, and Valoaga is in the left B-gap. Quin maintains outside contain in the left D-gap as his usual assignment.
But who is in the left C-gap? Nobody.
That C-gap is the space between Shaheen and Leno with no defender to fill it. That is what Papa Jim is talking about when he says there were problems with run fits. 24 HB Jordan Howard picked up 16 chunk yards through that huge hole.
2017 Week 11 CHI 4Q (8:31). First-and-10 at the Chicago 40.
There is no way to explain this better than Chris Spielman did on the broadcast:
This is a good job by Worrilow coming—believe it or not—watch, he’s going to force the ball to the unblocked player. And that’s Wilson, who’s a little slow to get to the hole. Watch Worrilow right here, see him turn it inside? Wilson is back too far. You have to read run and as a safety and a run supporter, you have to be coming flying toward that line of scrimmage and trust your keys knowing that Worrilow’s a smart guy and he will bounce the ball to you.
Chicago runs lead zone to the left here with 46 FB Michael Burton leading around end. As Spielman explained, 58 OLB Paul Worrilow takes out Burton and spills the play to Tavon Wilson. Unfortunately, Tavon whiffed on the tackle and Howard picked up 7 yards before Worrilow could peel off his blocker to make the stop.
2017 Week 11 CHI 4Q (5:09). Second-and-8 at the Detroit 15.
The key player on the touchdown pitchout to 29 HB Tarik Cohen is 69 DE Anthony Zettel on the outside. As the end man on the line of scrimmage, he has contain responsibility and has to guard the back side.
The rest of the front looks pretty good, and Burton is accounted for by Whitehead. The problem is Zettel crashing down the line instead of playing the contain assignment. Neither he nor A’Shawn Robinson have any chance of catching the speedster in the open field; Zettel completely wipes out and ends up on the turf after trying to reverse direction.
This is supposed to be good?
Those two series, which kept Detroit’s opponents in the game by allowing big plays on the ground, provide confirmation of what head coach Jim Caldwell said at the podium. Although the results were terrible, the one reassuring thing to take away is that these problems are indeed fixable. Missed assignments, poor run fits, breaking contain on the outside, and poor tackling can all be coached up.
Most of the players highlighted in this article are normally solid tacklers and good in the run game: Miles Killebrew, Tavon Wilson, A’Shawn Robinson, and so on. We know they are capable of playing well against rushing plays. Had the Lions been reading keys perfectly and all playing flawless assignment football and still giving up massive yardage because they were being blown off the line or simply could not defeat blocks and get clean to make plays, that would be a much more dire situation. That would have meant the Lions had a defense that simply could not compete.
A couple of bad outings does not make the defense a trash unit. Austin and the defensive coaches have proven their quality in the past, and can certainly address these correctable issues. Look for a renewed commitment to team defense against Minnesota, particularly outside containment at the edge and taking good positioning to create plays for each other.