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Film review: Why can’t the Lions run the ball?

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Is it the blocking or the running backs?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Tampa Bay Buccaneers Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Do we really need to get into this AGAIN?

Yes, we really do. The Lions are still awful at running the ball by pretty much every metric imaginable. Through Week 14, they have the league’s worst rushing offense and are the only team that has gained under 1,000 rushing yards. According to NFL Matchup on ESPN’s twitter account, Detroit has the second fewest rushing yards after contact, third fewest rushing yards before contact, and are so terrible at moving the ball on the ground on first down that they were listed twice in the bottom five teams at doing so:

Nobody knows when the Lions will finally have a running back surpass the century mark in a game, and it is hard to be sure if a run game coordinator would make much of a difference. What we can show with the tape from the New Sombrero is that the 19 run calls by the Lions (including penalty-negated plays) were mostly horrible. And yes, that includes Theo Riddick’s 18-yard touchdown, but we will save that for another time.

First, let us take stock of what the Lions tried to do in the running game. There were 19 run plays called, of which at least one appeared to be an audible at the line by Matthew Stafford. Three runs (including the audibled draw play) resulted in holding penalties.

Week 14 Run plays against Tampa Bay

Quarter Clock Down Position Yards Play Notes
Quarter Clock Down Position Yards Play Notes
1 14:55 1-10 DET 20 2 Riddick inside zone right, bad cut back instead of pressing
1 13:50 3-1 DET 29 0 Green crack toss right, missed cut block by Swanson
1 11:09 1-10 DET 26 5 Riddick inside zone right, good cut
1 10:51 2-5 DET 31 2 Riddick power left, Lang leading - Riddick put head down instead of taking outside lane
1 8:10 1-2 TAM 2 2 (TD) Riddick dive to left A gap, good peel off combo block by Swanson
2 15:00 1-10 TAM 40 Holding Green outside zone left, holding by Robinson on missed pass off from Lang. 12 yard run negated.
2 13:47 2-13 TAM 43 Holding Riddick inside draw on audible, bad bounce outside induced holding by Decker
2 10:57 1-10 TAM 46 5 Green outside zone left from pistol, good plant and burst
2 10:25 2-5 TAM 41 1 Green motion dive right from 2TE pistol
2 2:22 1-10 DET 48 3 Green motion dive, bad cut back into traffic instead of taking left B gap
3 11:46 1-10 DET 47 -3 Riddick outside zone left pressed wide instead of cutting back inside
3 5:36 2-14 DET 45 3 Riddick double guard pull right
3 4:32 1-10 TAM 35 Holding Zenner split zone left, good cutback with weak holding call on Lang
3 3:18 1-10 TAM 18 18 (TD) Riddick motion dive left, blown gap fills by defense
4 13:35 1-10 DET 17 9 Golladay reverse left from right slot
4 12:55 2-1 DET 26 6 Green outside zone right, balanced 2TE
4 5:55 1-10 TAM 39 -3 Riddick split zone right, missed slice block by Ebron
4 2:00 1-10 50 2 Riddick split zone right, no release by Swanson on combo block
4 0:34 3-1 TAM 27 -1 Zenner outside zone left, Glasgow thrown aside by DL

The Good

Not all is unambiguously terrible: mixed in amongst the wreckage are three plays demonstrating stellar execution, all resulting in 5-yard gains (yeah I know about the holding penalty against Lang - shut it). We highlight these at the start to remind everyone what a competent run game from the Detroit Lions could look like. They provide nice examples, in order, of a finely blocked inside zone play, a bread and butter split zone play, and the advantage of a patient runner who knows when to stick his foot in the ground and go.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 1Q (11:09). First-and-10 at the Detroit 26.

The play call is a staple inside zone run with six blockers on the line (87 TE Darren Fells is in-line on the left of 68 LT Taylor Decker). At the snap, Fells seals the back side while all five linemen step to their right. In the interior, there will be two combo blocks: Decker and 60 LG Graham Glasgow on 93 DT Gerald McCoy between them and 64 C Travis Swanson plus 76 RG TJ Lang on 90 DT/DE Chris Baker in the right A-gap.

In the top panel above, the natural gap fills for the linebackers are pretty obvious: the left A-gap and the right B-gap. Whoever has best position on the combo blocked down linemen take them, and the other peels off to take the second level fill players whether they are linebackers or safeties. In this case, we expect to see Glasgow come off and occupy the left A-gap and Lang to come off and occupy the right B-gap to maintain the zone flow.

The defense maintains outside leverage in each lane, resulting in a widened left C-gap behind Decker’s back. Reading the play side and seeing no crease open up, 25 HB Theo Riddick plants and goes vertical just inside of Decker’s back foot.

This is great blocking across the board and a solid read by Riddick on first down. The next play we want to look at is a split zone carry by 34 HB Zach Zenner in the second half. While the gain was canceled by a poorly thrown holding penalty on Lang, it shows what we want to see in a very common run call that offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter likes to use.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 3Q (4:32). First-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 35.

Again, it is a zone run with the same kind of idea as a standard inside zone play: one player seals the back side (here, 85 TE Eric Ebron coming across the formation at the snap) while the regular offensive line all moves as a unit play side to block whatever is in front of them. Due to the alignment of the Buccaneers’ front, there are no necessary combo blocks, and every lineman simply goes for his man.

Zenner starts left at the exchange in the middle panel, but we can already see the crease appearing in the right B-gap between Lang and 70 RT Corey Robinson. The linebacker scrape exchanged over to take the outside lane, so Robinson positioned inside to wall him off, establishing a widened lane for Zenner. That there is no designated hole to attack and the ball-carrier has to read for defensive overpursuit is what makes these plays tough to both execute (on offense) and stop (on defense).

Zenner sees the hole and slants back between Lang and Robinson, avoiding direct hits from the gap fillers. In the past, Zenner’s usual straight-ahead style resulted in devastating hits that could have beat him down. The other reason to prefer angles by the backs that avoid such crushing blows is that it maintains their forward momentum, dragging defenders for extra yards at the end of the run.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 2Q (10:57). First-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 46.

Here we have an outside zone play to the left with 38 HB Tion Green following his line and looking for a hole to punch it up into. With a wider aiming point on the play, the line leaves the least dangerous man on the back side of the play unblocked. In this case, it is 94 DE Will Clarke.

Seeing nothing developing on the front side because the Bucs are maintaining leverage to the outside, Green has to decisively launch himself behind the trailing edge of his line. If everyone on defense is play side, the edge will be unavailable and Green has to cut upfield to get what he can.

The important thing to note here is that Green has lateral spacing from the unblocked edge defender crashing from the back side. As long as he picks his spot to make the cut with enough of a lead, Green will have a full head of steam by the time the crasher closes the gap in the first panel. In the middle panel where contact is actually made at the line of scrimmage, we can see how poor an angle Clarke’s hit is delivered with. Now look at the last panel on the right where the pile ends up: five yards later at the Tampa Bay 41-yard line.

At full speed, it is really apparent where Green stops flowing and makes his cut. This run made basically zero yards before first contact, but ended up with a solid gain. With the model established for what we want to see out of the rushing attack, let us now examine the issues that prevent more Detroit runs from producing like this.

The Bad

There are two dominant factors in run fails: missed blocks and poor running back reads. The 64 dollar question is which of these are more common. Is it just bad blocking and can be fixed with healthier/better linemen? Is it just bad ball-carrier vision and putting resources into more natural runners would solve Jim Bob’s run game ills? Is it both?

Poor running back reads

Piggybacking onto the zone run cuts we just admired, we now turn to some horrible cut decisions. Even with outstanding blocking, running backs missing their reads and cutting before a hole appears or adjusting their run path to go head first into a mush pile can spell doom.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 3Q (11:46). First-and-10 at the Detroit 47.

The play call here is outside zone left from the pistol, and Detroit employs some pre-snap shifting to change the defense’s gap assignments. Unfortunately, the defense can counter with its own realignment and affect all of the offensive blocking assignments. When Fells goes from the right side of the line to the left side of the line, the interior of the Tampa Bay defense responds in kind.

Originally, the Lions in the top panel have Decker on the defensive end (unboxed in the screenshots), Glasgow peeling off to the second level on 58 MLB Kwon Alexander (boxed in lime green) after helping Swanson control the 1-tech DT (boxed in pink). A slanted 3-tech DT is on Lang’s outside shoulder (boxed in yellow) and the other DE is on Robinson’s outside shoulder.

After the shift, the 1-tech has now become a 3-tech outside of Glasgow’s left shoulder. Instead of facing a 1-tech in the left A-gap, Swanson has a slanted 1-tech in the right A-gap. The play side linebacker, meanwhile, has moved inside. If the Lions block the run the same way with Fells firing outside, how is Glasgow supposed to get free up the field to block that linebacker? Are we really expecting Glasgow and Swanson to combo with Glasgow peeling to Alexander?

But all of that is okay because this is a zone play with no pre-determined hole, right? The Lions have the Buccaneers overcommitted outside, and in the natural flow of the play we would expect Lang to come off onto Alexander as Theo cuts the ball up inside the crease. Unfortunately, Theo never makes a cut and tries to stretch the play to the edge. Alexander reads him the whole way, and Glasgow has no chance to get out in front with a big DT on his outside shoulder.

The Tampa linebacker gets an unblocked shot at Theo running sideways and sends him flying for a loss of three yards. An interesting thing to notice is how the defense shows absolutely zero respect for the fake end around by 15 WR Golden Tate at the bottom. Perhaps someone spotted that and suggested the fourth quarter Golladay reverse based on lack of reaction by the defense to those mis-direction fakes.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 1Q (14:55). First-and-10 at the Detroit 20.

On the first offensive snap of the game, Detroit actually ran a standard inside zone to the right against Tampa’s base defense. In the top panel, we have textbook blocking with Glasgow and Lang ready to peel off to hit the second level gap fill defenders. The unblocked man, 29 CB Ryan Smith, is way on the back side away from the run path.

But in the bottom panel, everything goes wrong because Theo does not wait long enough for Lang to control Alexander at the front play side edge. Even before Lang lays a hand on the linebacker, Theo is already changing direction into the unblocked defender Smith.

How much of a missed opportunity was this bad cut? From overhead, we can see Lang boxed in purple pre-snap, at the exchange, and then at the decision point for Theo. In the final panel, it is pretty obvious that a huge lane to the outside was open for at least five to seven yards instead of the two that were actually gained.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 2Q (2:22). First-and-10 at the Detroit 48.

Near the end of the first half, the Lions ran inside zone left with Tion Green. Depending on the defensive flow, Green has to choose whether to bounce it outside, bend it up into a crease, or bang it back into a cutback lane. The expected combo blocks here would be Swanson and Glasgow on the 1-tech DT and Lang plus Robinson on the 3-tech DT.

At the mesh point where Stafford gives to Green, we have everything we expected, and all blocks look good. Moving up to fill the right A-gap is 54 WLB Lavonte David (who will be taken by Lang) while 58 MLB Kwon Alexander plugs the left B-gap between Glasgow and Decker. The defensive backs outside to Detroit’s left are occupied by the screen action by 11 WR Marvin Jones.

When Glasgow releases from the combo block on the DT, he has a good one-on-one lead blocking shot at Alexander. If Green follows him and breaks behind the block (whether to the A-gap or B-gap), we can see from overhead that he would have had two wide receivers ready to double-team a lone defensive back down the field (the safety is way back). But in the shot from behind the defense, we can see Tion Green’s head is already turned and he is cutting it back inside even before Glasgow has had a chance to engage the linebacker.

Instead of an open lane to the outside, the ball goes back into the mush pile for three yards. Maybe there is nothing there and seeing it from the ball-carrier’s point of view would show something else, but from overhead and the All-22 box angle it looks like a little more patience to let the blocks develop would have obtained a better result.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 1Q (10:51). Second-and-5 at the Detroit 31.

The issues on cut reads were not limited to zone plays against the Buccaneers. Early in the first quarter, the Lions ran power to the left out of the pistol, sending Lang through the hole as a lead blocker for Theo. If everything worked right, we would expect to see Lang engage David at the point of attack with 19 WR Kenny Golladay coming in to crack back on 23 S Chris Conte. As with all gap blocked plays, the scheme is opening a specific hole, and the ball-carrier must follow to the aim point and read the lead block.

Lang approaches the hole and has a good shot at David. What should the Lions want Theo to do here: go outside of Lang’s block and avoid a direct hit or cut it back into the middle of the line?

At the end of his pull, Lang does not even get a piece of Lavonte David; the veteran guard thinks Theo is going outside. It is not really a “missed block,” though. When the ball went back inside, the defender saw it and shot inside what would have been an otherwise good blocking approach by Lang. Gain of two yards on the play.

Missed blocking assignments

We can also flip this around, though. Just as bad runner decisions can waste a well-blocked opportunity, Lions running backs not named Barry Sanders will rarely make anything happen if the blockers fail to execute. We now consider four such examples of bad run play outcomes in spite of decent running back decisions.

2017 Week 14, 4Q (0:34). Third-and-1 at the Tampa Bay 27.

At the end of the game on yet another third-and-short situation, Detroit sent in 34 HB Zach Zenner to run outside zone to the left with Fells on the play side edge. The unblocked man on the left side boxed in yellow is 51 LB Kendell Beckwith. In the middle of the line boxed in purple is 90 DT/DE Chris Baker going up against Glasgow.

In the first panel of the sequence showing Zenner’s demise, we can see Baker get skinny inside of Swanson and raise his right arm to swim over Glasgow. By the second panel, he is running free and gets just enough of the ball-carrier in the third panel to slow the acceleration for Beckwith to close in for the kill.

Zenner did what he was supposed to, but he had absolutely no chance here. To be fair to Glasgow, this is not technically a “missed” assignment; it is just a great effort by Baker to split the blockers and penetrate up the field to make a play.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 4Q (5:55). First-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 39.

On the other hand, here is 85 TE Eric Ebron completely whiffing on a split zone slice block. Theo Riddick has no chance and loses three yards in the process. Also note 58 MLB Kwon Alexander, who eventually made the tackle, looping around unblocked behind Lang.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 1Q (13:50). Third-and-1 at the Detroit 29.

In case you have not already had your fill of Detroit failing to convert on third-and-short, here is the end of a crack toss play with Tion Green attempting to move the chains on the first possession of the game. Marvin Jones has a great angle on Ryan Smith and Swanny is running full blast with Beckwith lined up in his sights. Surely this will be a big gainer with no support behind Beckwith, right?

Remember this golden oldie?

Tion Green stopped for no gain. Detroit punts the football.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 4Q (2:00). First-and-10 at the 50-yard line.

This is the kind of play that worries me about Travis Swanson’s well-being. Near the end of the game, the Lions ran split zone with Theo Riddick at mid-field. Most of the elements of the play look fine, except one:

  • Ebron makes his block coming across the formation and maintains it well.
  • The line engages at the first level and Corey Robinson seals Kwon Alexander to the inside for a huge hole on the back side.
  • Theo sees it, and plants his foot immediately to burst up the lane.

Then watch Swanson. He snaps the ball and moves over to combo with Glasgow on 91 DE Robert Ayers, but then just kind of stands there instead of releasing to occupy 54 WLB Lavonte David (who makes the two-yard stop unimpeded). It is a bit clearer when you watch a higher quality copy of the play instead of a low budget GIF, but Swanson kind of hobbles over awkwardly as Theo is going down. I really hope the guy is okay.

The Fugly

It was not really clear where to categorize the other small flaws in run play execution like holding callls (and non-calls), so this is a bonus section to address such plays. For example, the swim move that Baker did to Glasgow on the third-and-short play at the end of the game was not the first time he won a down with it.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 2Q (15:00). First-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 40.

In this play, Baker is lined up as a 3-tech defensive tackle between Robinson and Lang. The call by Detroit is inside zone left with Tion Green. Notice in the second panel the difference between what is happening on both sides of the interior line. Glasgow has a hand on Ayers to help Swanson fit into the block. Lang is trying to do the same to help Robinson, but Baker goes up and over Lang with his right arm, breaking through in the bottom panel.

Now, when you look at the rest of the play, the blocking is solid all the way down the field and Tion Green navigates traffic like a champion. If not for the one missed block (and then hold by Robinson), the Lions have a solid 12-yard dash.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 2Q (13:47). Second-and-13 at the Tampa Bay 43.

Two plays later, Detroit went empty gun with Theo Riddick split wide left. After looking over the defense, though, Stafford waved Theo into the backfield. As can be seen above, the adjustment by Tampa Bay was to walk 54 WLB Lavonte David over to match the new alignment. Originally, David was lined up over Marvin Jones (the receiver that Theo runs past), which seems like it would have been a heck of a mis-match to exploit.

The play is a delayed inside draw, which has no hope. The defense is in 2 Man, and David simply mirrors Riddick the whole way. At the snap, the linebacker starts to move up and outside as he sees the back fake the flat release, and ends up exactly in the inside hole for the draw. Instead of pushing up the field inside, Riddick bounces the ball outside of the tackle box and goes down after three yards anyway.

The transgression here is trying to ad lib out of the play design. Just like quarterbacks who expose their tackles to holding penalty risk by scrambling around unexpectedly, Theo breaking the play design’s angles for blockers sets them up for failure. Not thinking the ball would go outside, Decker ends up flagged for holding as he tries to maintain contact with his assignment.

2017 Week 14 at TAM, 4Q (12:55). Second-and-1 at the Detroit 26.

On a different note, here is a play that ended up gaining six yards but should not be considered an example of good execution. On second-and-short, Tion Green took an outside zone handoff around end for decent yards, but look at what is going on in the light blue box. The only reason the play worked was because Corey Robinson and TJ Lang got away with blatant holds.

In all likelihood, 92 DE William Gholston (the guy beating Lang) should have wrecked the play for a huge loss. Even with all the shenanigans, Gholston sticks out his arm and almost pulls Green to the ground before the ball-carrier turns the corner. Getting away with cheating all the time is not a reliable or desirable way for the Lions to plan their success in the run game.

It’s both

Longtime readers of Pride of Detroit know that I subscribe to the “Best Offensive Lineman Available” philosophy and believe that success in the running game rests largely on blocking. However, the terrible results from zone plays cannot be laid completely at the feet of the line and tight ends; impatience on the part of the running backs and missed holes are a real problem for the Lions. The issue is particularly troubling when the back with the worst hole recognition and overtendency to try to bounce the ball outside has the most offensive snaps out of all running backs on the roster.

Offensive line injuries to nearly all of the starters exposed how poor the Lions’ depth is. Who starts behind Lang? Behind Glasgow? Brian Mihalik was a nice pickup, but how many weeks of poor left tackle play in relief of an injured Taylor Decker did the team endure to finally find him?

The Lions just do not have enough consistent performers on the roster right now to have a good running attack (and maybe not even a decent league-average one). Bob Quinn has been adding players every year, and many of them are quite good, but the continued woes on third-and-short for the Lions are a reminder of how big a talent deficit the team has had to—and continues to—dig itself out of.