Leading up to the Thanksgiving Day game against the Minnesota Vikings, one of the hot topics of discussion was the decline of the run defense. The tape from the game against the Cleveland Browns and the first meeting of the season with the Chicago Bears showed blown assignments and missed tackles. Although the team escaped with a win at Soldier Field in Week 11, our Jeremy Reisman lamented the poor play by the defensive front seven and the ground game production surrendered (7.4 yards per carry) was astonishing. What the Bears would try to do in the second meeting was no secret:
#Bears RB Jordan Howard could be the NFL's rushing leader by the end of Saturday. Thank the #Lions' struggling rush D https://t.co/Pbl6zIKwuF— Patrick Finley (@patrickfinley) December 14, 2017
Detroit's run defense has struggled. Lions have given up around 158 yards rushing per game over the last five weeks. Don't forget the #Bears ran for 222 yards in the last meeting. Chicago should be able to establish the run today.— Da Bears Brothers (@DaBearsBros) December 16, 2017
But through the first three quarters of last Saturday’s home win against the Chicago Bears, the Detroit Lions held their visitors to just three points and ten first downs. The Bears converted just three out of eight third-down opportunities on their way to a 20-3 deficit at the beginning of the fourth quarter. Per Nate Atkins from the MLive, the instructions from the coaching staff was to make Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen non-factors:
#Lions defenders described today's game plan pretty simply: Sell out to stop the run and put the game on Mitchell Trubisky's shoulders. It worked pretty darn well.— Nate Atkins (@NateAtkins_) December 17, 2017
Being stout up front in the run game has been a point of emphasis for defensive coordinator Teryl Austin as long as he has been with the team. Here is a quote from Austin on the defensive keys after a huge win at home over a division rival who ran the ball for under 100 yards and less than four yards per carry:
They're the same for us in any game that we play. Which is we're going to go and stop the run, we're going to try and limit the big plays and we're going to try and create turnovers for our offense. We obviously were able to do that and we were successful basically just trying to execute our plan all the time.
That was what Austin said in the Thursday press conference following the third game of the 2014 season against the Green Bay Packers. That is the philosophy around which the Lions’ defense is built: play smart and force the opponent to keep executing down the field. Find opportunities to make plays, but be consistent and prevent the opponent from settling into a consistent rhythm of running the ball for solid gains. As told by the players to Nate Atkins, that meant loading up against the Bears’ unpredictable but dangerous ground game in Week 15.
Winning on second down
We often hear analysts talk about winning on third down, since a stop there will usually hold an opponent to a field goal attempt or get the ball back on a punt. Former Baltimore Ravens head coach Brian Billick provided a simple rule of thumb for third-down conversions in the NFL in a book we have referenced before, Developing an Offensive Game Plan (p.40):
The average team in the NFL converts approximately 38-40% of its third-down attempts. In 1995, the highest conversion rate in the NFL was 50% by the Green Bay Packers. Keep in mind that the percentage of success on third-down situations increases substantially as the distance decreases:
For Billick, “long” is anything seven yards or more to go, while “medium” encompasses all situations including two to six yards to go. The “short” situation only includes one yard or less to move the sticks. These definitions can vary slightly from expert to expert, but are almost always very similar to what Billick uses.
For the current 2017 season, the league average overall third-down conversion rate appears to fall in the 38-40 percent range. Using data from the 2012 season, Princeton Sports Analytics agreed that the cutoff for long situations should be at seven yards or more: “The odds of converting on 3rd down plummet beyond 3rd and 6, dropping from 44% to 36% as a team progresses to 3rd and 7.” This is why the phrase “third-and-manageable” exists.
Often overlooked are the plays that set up those situations: what an offense accomplishes on first and second downs has a tremendous effect on third down success. Setting aside the short field points at the end of the first half and Darius Slay’s magnificent interception at the start of the second half, here is how the Bears’ other five drives prior to the fourth quarter ended:
Week 15 early Chicago drive enders
|Quarter||Clock||Down||Position||Yards||Play Notes||Third down|
|Quarter||Clock||Down||Position||Yards||Play Notes||Third down|
|1||10:44||2-6||CHI 31||0||Howard HB lead dive over left side, shed and tackle by Davis||3-6 Incompletion by Trubisky|
|1||6:47||2-8||CHI 22||1||Howard outside zone right, CornWash seals edge and Spence turns blocker to free Davis to scrape over||3-7 Trubisky sacked by Diggs|
|2||13:29||2-10||CHI 36||-3||Cohen designed trap cutback, Quin shoots gap||3-13 Trubisky to Cunningham for 12|
|2||1:51||2-16||CHI 49||9||Trubisky pass to Sims, tackled by Reeves-Maybin||3-7 Incompletion by Trubisky|
|3||7:06||2-7||CHI 39||1||Howard lead zone left, Whitehead dodges FB||3-6 Incompletion by Trubisky|
All but one of the successful third-down stands forcing punts in those three quarters were situations with six or more yards to go set up by a stuffed rushing play on second down. Putting the Bears in third-and-6 or third-and-7 repeatedly laid a heavy burden on rookie Mitchell Trubisky. Converting those situations involved tough throws in a hostile environment with 40 percent or lower expected success rates by Billick’s reckoning.
There were several things on the second down wins against the run that impressed on a close re-watch of the tape. Each of the stuffed run plays involved defenders either getting off blockers quickly or avoiding them entirely to make tackles. The stops were made by players at all three levels of the defense: linebackers, linemen, and secondary players all did fine work attacking the Bears’ rushing plays.
2017 Week 15 CHI, 1Q (10:44). Second-and-6 at the Chicago 31.
Prior to the snap, Chicago brings 15 WR Joshua Bellamy across the formation from the right side into the left slot. Detroit, playing with base personnel (59 OLB Tahir Whitehead, 40 MLB Jarrad Davis, and 58 OLB Paul Worrilow on the field), adjust by rotating 27 FS Glover Quin to a single high spot, 28 SS Quandre Diggs down into the box outside of Bellamy, and Whitehead just inside Bellamy to control the edge. In the bottom panel, boxed in pink, we can see 72 LT Charles Leno Jr. indicating to 46 FB Michael Burton and 71 LG Josh Sitton that he is going outside to block Whitehead. That means Sitton has to get the next defender (69 DE Anthony Zettel) and Burton should be looking inside for his target (Davis).
The play is lead zone to the left. When the Lions’ interior pinches down, it creates a natural seam in the play side A-gap to run through. As Burton approaches the gap, he has Davis on his outside shoulder, suggesting 24 HB Jordan Howard ought to cut up the field between Burton and 65 C Cody Whitehair, who peels off to block Worrilow. With successful blocks and a good read, Howard would hit the second level one-on-one with Quin in the open field.
Watch Burton and Davis as they meet in the hole. Davis attacks and initiates contact, throwing a shoulder into Burton to come off clean on Howard. This fits with the physical style of play the former Gator told Dave Birkett from the Detroit Free Press that he wants to bring each week:
“If you go out there and play pitty-pat, patty-cake with guys, they’re going to keep coming at you,” Davis said. “But if you shut them down, you let them know, this is what’s up when you see me, or when you see Quandre (Diggs) or whoever. When you let them know, then they ain’t coming the same way that they came before.”
Stop for no gain on the play to set up third-and-6.
2017 Week 15 CHI, 1Q (6:47). Second-and-8 at the Chicago 22.
On their second drive in the first quarter, facing second-and-8, the Bears ran outside zone right with Howard. In the top panel, we can see the initial step sideways by the offensive line except for 76 RG/OT Tom Compton. Due to alignment, Compton tries to chuck 97 DT Akeem Spence at the snap to help his center get a good block set. Spence in the middle panel is doing a great job of splitting the double-team down the middle, further turning Compton to the inside and away from the direction he is supposed to be flowing.
In the bottom panel, we see the consequence: the man Compton was supposed to release and engage—Jarrad Davis—is running free to the outside with eyes locked onto Howard. Between Davis scraping over the top of 90 DE Cornelius Washington and the degree to which CornWash is controlling the edge with his own push up the field on 70 RT Bobby Massie, Jordan Howard is bottled up inside.
The ball-carrier freezes at the perimeter to try and jump cut it back inside, but a crashing Anthony Zettel and unblocked Jarrad Davis smother that possibility. Gain of just one yard on the play to set up third-and-7.
2017 Week 15 CHI, 2Q (13:29). Second-and-10 at the Chicago 36.
Early in the second quarter, the Bears faced second-and-long on their third possession of the game. Once again, there was pre-snap motion to shift the gaps when Bellamy crossed the formation to widen the offense’s left side. Look how dramatic a shift this elicited from the defense: all three linebackers and Glover Quin up in the box all shifted at least one gap to their right.
The run design is a counter trap to the left, bringing Burton (boxed in yellow) across the formation to trap an unblocked 98 DT Jeremiah Ledbetter (boxed in red). 29 HB Tarik Cohen takes his first steps to the right side of the offense, but then looks to cut back inside behind Sitton and Burton.
One problem: Glover Quin has this thing sniffed out and aggressively shoots the gap on the back side of the counter. He gets up the field so fast that 17 WR Dontrelle Inman’s attempt to crack back on the safety has no chance. Cohen is unable to make the counter cut with Quin in his face and loses three yards before going to the turf. This set up third-and-13 and led to yet another Chicago punt.
2017 Week 15 CHI, 3Q (9:42). Second-and-10 at the Chicago 25.
This play did not actually result in a missed third down conversion by the Bears, but it is too good to exclude from our review. Boxed in red on a standard inside zone play is A’Shawn Robinson. In the second panel, he is engaged off the snap with the center Cody Whitehair, but by the third panel A’Shawn has pushed away Whitehair and is battling with the right guard Compton. In the final panel, we can see A’Shawn has gotten clear of both linemen and is helping take down the running back.
If Joshua Bellamy had not been flagged for an illegal block, this play would have only moved the ball two yards and set up third-and-8. This did not end the drive, though, because a big gainer from Trubisky to 13 WR Kendall Wright for 19 yards moved the sticks for the Bears. It took one more super effort against the run on second down to end the drive, this time from Tahir Whitehead.
2017 Week 15 CHI, 3Q (7:06). Second-and-7 at the Chicago 39.
Setting up for a lead zone run on second down, the Bears try to outflank the Lions by motioning Bellamy across the formation. The Lions are ready for this, shifting all of their linebackers and moving 23 CB Darius Slay into run support now that Bellamy is no longer in front of him (Quin walks out of the box and picks him up in man coverage).
Tahir Whitehead has the back side A-gap fill responsibility, and he moves up to plug that hole quickly. When he arrives, look at the move he puts on Michael Burton. Whitehead recognizes how the play is unfolding in front of his eyes and sidesteps the fullback’s lead block entirely. Jordan Howard gained just one yard on this run, setting up a third-and-6 which the Bears failed to convert.
The players and coaches on defense drew up and executed a tremendous game plan to contain Chicago’s most explosive players, Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen. Selling out to stop the run and forcing the quarterback to keep making play after play is only risky if the opponent has a veteran guy like Stafford at the helm.
The Bears do not:
Third Down Passing— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) December 16, 2017
Matthew Stafford: 8-9, 118 yards, 2-0 TD-INT
Mitchell Trubisky: 3-7, 46 yards, 0-1 TD-INT
The first time the Lions faced the Bears in November, non-Pro Bowl safety Glover Quin reminded everyone how forcing an opponent to be one-dimensional is a big advantage. “Running the ball definitely helps. When you get in games when you’re down, and you can’t run the ball—now you have to air it out. Interceptions happen.”
In the Lions’ victory at Ford Field, the second half possessions by the Bears—playing from behind—produced just one score to go with a punt and three interceptions. If the defense could force Mitchell Trubisky to air it out, GQ knew what would happen. By shutting down the run game early as the offense gradually built a lead, Austin’s unit could dictate terms to the Bears offense for much of the second half.
HALF: Lions 13, Bears 3— Rich Campbell (@Rich_Campbell) December 16, 2017
Bears have 19 rushing yards on 9 carries; nowhere near the success they had running it against the Lions at home.
The level of preparation was obvious by the way none of the window dressing took Teryl Austin’s squad by surprise: every shift and motion was met with a counter-shift by linebackers and secondary players. Quick recognition of what Chicago was doing instilled confidence in players who attacked up the field in the example plays above like Jarrad Davis, Glover Quin, and Tahir Whitehead. None of them had to stop and think about whether or not they could commit aggressively—they knew when they should.