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Film breakdown: How will the Lions defense look with Miles Killebrew?

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Miles Killebrew is the starting strong safety now. What will that look like?

Detroit Lions v Minnesota Vikings Photo by Adam Bettcher/Getty Images

Miles Killebrew has had a somewhat underwhelming sophomore season with the Detroit Lions. Towards the end of 2016, Killebrew seemed to take on a bigger role with the defense, setting himself up for a breakout year in 2017.

It hasn’t worked out that way. Though he is playing significantly more than his rookie year (averaging 29.9 snaps per game vs. 8.75 his rookie year), he still hasn’t assumed the role that many thought he may.

Instead, that role has belonged to Tavon Wilson, who started in nine of 11 games this season. But on Thursday against the Vikings, Wilson reaggrivated his shoulder injury and will spend the rest of the season on injured reserve.

So whether he’s ready or not, it’s time for Miles Killebrew to assume the starting role. What can we expect for Killebrew in this newfound role? Well, let’s look to the tape of the second half against the Vikings to see how the Lions used him and how he performed.

How the Lions used Killebrew in Wilson’s absence

Wilson left the game midway through the third quarter. In the 25 snaps that followed, Killebrew played in every single one. There is no safety controversy, Killebrew is their guy.

As for what they asked Killebrew to do, the answer is really everything.

Shortly after Wilson left the game, the Lions didn’t really treat Killebrew like a strong safety to Glover Quin’s free safety position. They really treated them both as equal safeties: with Killebrew almost exclusively lining up on the defense’s left and Quin on the right.

Often times, their responsibilities would change based on the offensive formation. If a receiver or tight end motioned to the defense’s left, Killebrew would come down into the formation, giving Quin the single-high safety assignment. But if a player motioned to the right, the Lions felt comfortable with Killebrew in that single-high look.

As a result, we saw Killebrew just about everywhere on the field in the third (and early fourth) quarter.

But that all changed in the fourth quarter. When it became apparent that the Vikings were trying to run out the clock, the Lions mostly abandoned any two-high safety looks, and it was evident which safety they preferred in the box. In total, Minnesota had 20 offensive snaps in the final quarter (not including kneel downs). Here’s the breakdown of where Killebrew was lined up:

  • Within 5 yards of the LOS (in the box): 12 (60%)
  • Two-high safety looks: 6 (30%)
  • As the single-high safety: 2 (10%)

In other words, when the Lions went with one deep safety, they chose Quin to be that guy six times as often as Killebrew, while it was much more even earlier in the game.

So to summarize, early in the game, the Lions felt comfortable putting Killebrew in just about any situation, treating him much more as a safety than a strong safety. But when the Vikings became a little more predictable and were clearly trying to run the ball, the Lions reverted to using Killebrew more as a strong safety/hybrid linebacker.

So, how did he do?

The Lions defense managed to only give up three points after Killebrew took over, and while I’d like to say that the young safety played a big part in turning the defensive performance around, the truth is he didn’t get all that many opportunities to make plays.

Still, there were some plays, both positive and negative, that stuck out.

On the positive side, Killebrew is a solid tackler. We’ve known this since we all drooled over his grainy highlights from Southern Utah. What was particularly impressive was Killebrew’s ability to immediately take the ball-carrier down. There will seldom be any yards after contact when Killebrew is involved.

On the play above, Killebrew—located at the bottom of the screen almost as a fourth linebacker—does a good job quickly recognizing the run. Not only does he help set the edge, but he gives Latavius Murray—who, mind you, has 10 pounds on Killebrew—a nice pop at the line of scrimmage, sending Murray onto his back for just a 2-yard gain.

In coverage, Killebrew was not targeted once. His man-to-man coverage was solid, mostly lined up against backs or tight ends. Here he is blanketing Kyle Rudolph:

However, there were a few points of concern. Let’s start with the one big play Detroit gave up in the fourth quarter:

Let me preface this by saying this is not an easy play for Killebrew. Because the Lions are sending Tahir Whitehead on a blitz here, that leaves the cornerback at the top of the screen (Darius Slay) and Miles Killebrew as the only two players who can stop this screen play. With two lead blockers on two defenders, it would take a savvy play from either defensive back to blow this play up.

It doesn’t happen. Darius Slay gets put on his heels originally, opening up the opportunity to get blocked by Adam Thielen. Killebrew, on the other hand, takes too long to recognize the play, then hesitates. That allows the left guard, who Killebrew should be able to beat to the receiver, to take out the Lions safety at the knees, and Stefon Diggs is off to the races.

Admittedly, that’s an extremely tough play for Killebrew to make. That sort of awareness and instinctual play will hopefully come with time.

That play doesn’t concern me. This one does:

Did you catch it?

Look at the top of the screen. There was a clear miscommunication between Killebrew and cornerback DJ Hayden, and it could have resulted in a disaster:

While it’s impossible to be certain, I believe the Lions were in cover-2, meaning Killebrew had deep-left responsibility on this play. Hayden clearly is expecting over the top help from Killebrew, but the young safety’s eyes are locked on Case Keenum the entire way, and he lets Jerick McKinnon slip by him unimpeded. It’s possible that the Lions were in quarters coverage (4-deep) and that was Hayden’s responsibility, but that’s not how I read it.

Thankfully, some well-timed pressure from Ezekiel Ansah forced Keenum to throw on the run and the ball fell harmlessly incomplete. Still, this tape is out there now.

So it was a mixed day from Killebrew. He basically showed us what we already knew. He’s a fearless tackler that has the athletic ability to play man-coverage. When it comes to more complex reads, however, he is still very much a young player capable of making mistakes.

The good news is that the Lions’ schedule plays to Killebrew’s strengths. Of their five remaining opponents, only one has a pass offense ranked in the top half of the league in DVOA (Buccaneers at 13th). Instead, the Lions will need Killebrew to replace Wilson’s ability to stop the run. And from what we’ve seen so far, he’s more than capable of doing so.