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Film review: Blocking starts to gel for Detroit Lions

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Last Friday’s preseason game provided a glimpse as to why the Lions signed all those veterans in free agency.

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New England Patriots v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It takes a little time sometimes

Heading into the dress rehearsal game last week, many Detroit fans worried over the quality of blocking shown by the Lions in the early preseason. The debut of the 2017 Lions offense against the Indianapolis Colts was fairly ugly, grading out as a D-plus from our Jeremy Reisman. Blocking issues in the second preseason game against the New York Jets drew an even harsher D-minus grade from Jeremy:

Many of us came into this season believing the offensive line would not only be improved, but be among the best in the league. The Lions have used a ton of resources on the offensive line in the past two years, and they did not look a bit improved on Saturday.

Some may think I’m being an alarmist, but look at this still and tell me it doesn’t frighten you:

Two offensive linemen on their butts and Stafford with a defender slamming into his knees. Those are the kind of hits that can end a quarterback’s season.

What was going on? Didn’t the team just spend a bunch of cap space on blocking upgrades? Yes, but starting right guard TJ Lang had to be worked into the lineup slowly during training camp due to recovery from offseason hip surgery. Left tackle Greg Robinson only joined the Lions in mid-June, taking to the practice field for the first time with his new teammates just a few weeks ago.

Given the fact that starting right tackle Rick Wagner is also new to the squad, the limited time available to work on communication and coordination was a bigger setback than it would have been to an intact unit that played next to one another for years. Hall of Fame tackle Willie Roaf talked up the importance of time together in Howard Mudd’s The View from the O-Line (p.258): “When as a tackle you play next to two or three guards in a year, you don’t have that rapport with them. You want to depend on them. But you don’t have that trust factor.”

The past few weeks of time together through camp and preseason may have made a difference: all three new starters along the offensive line merited stock up evaluations from our Kent Lee Platte in the third preseason game against the Patriots. Then there was this bit about veteran acquisition Darren Fells, who often cedes the tight end hype spotlight to Eric Ebron and rookie Michael Roberts:

Darren Fells, TE - Fells didn’t do a whole lot in the passing game, but beasted as a blocker. On one play, Stafford had time, but a defender came in late. Fells made him pay and blocked him into next week.

We now turn to the tape from the New England game to see how these experienced pros are beginning to look like the formidable unit we all hoped they would be.

Handing off rushers in pass protection

We start on the right side of the line to look at how the rebuilt right side of the offensive line is going to protect the most important investment of the franchise, Matthew Stafford. A couple times during the New England game, the rapport and trust Willie Roaf talked about could be seen in the way Lang and Wagner handled complex pass rushes together.

2017 Preseason NED, 1Q (10:22). Third-and-4 at the Detroit 27.

The first play for consideration comes from Detroit’s second offensive drive of the game. Expecting the pass, New England sends in a zone blitz call where 53 OLB Kyle Van Noy and 37 SS Jordan Richards crowd the line but drop into underneath zones at the snap. The true blitzer is 45 MLB David Harris, who fires up the gut on a delayed rush and is picked up by 21 HB Ameer Abdullah. The defender of interest for us is 98 RDE Trey Flowers, lined up with his hand in the dirt between 76 RG TJ Lang and 71 RT Rick Wagner.

Lang must play Flowers solo because Wagner does not know if Van Noy is rushing the passer or dropping into coverage. When the ball is snapped, Wagner keeps his eyes up and sees Van Noy is not a threat.

Flowers beats Lang to the outside, but Wagner is ready to help out. In the left panel above, we can see the defensive end completely turning the guard. But by the right panel, the rusher is completely halted in his tracks by the tackle.

Although the pass from 9 QB Matthew Stafford to 19 WR Kenny Golladay was stopped short of the sticks, the pass protection was solid in the face of a funky zone blitz.

2017 Preseason NED, 3Q (12:57). Third-and-7 at the Detroit 27.

The next example needs very little explanation. Rookie 48 LB Harvey Langi head fakes to the outside, then stunts inside behind preseason surprise 70 DT Adam Butler. The veteran Wagner does not bite on Langi’s fake at all, and Lang Dahl (as pointed out in the comments below, this is probably 66 RG GOOD JOB JOE DAHL, who at this point in the game was subbing in) calmly passes the 300-pound Butler off.

Also note how 64 C Travis Swanson gives a helpful shove to 60 LG Graham Glasgow on 94 DE Kony Ealy before turning to ensure Lang has good control over Langi. All the way on the back side, Robinson has 64 DE Caleb Kidder completely walled off. While this play is against backups, the offensive linemen are all on the same page and playing in sync. Stafford had time to pump, pull the ball back down, and then hit 15 WR Golden Tate on an improvised route over the middle for 17 yards and a first down.

Team blocking at the point of attack

A nice variety of run calls both inside and outside with 21 HB Ameer Abdullah gave fans a taste of what a balanced offense might look like in Detroit. Crucial to the success of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s attack, now that it has committed to going without a fullback, is the quality of tight end blocking and whether the linemen can get out in space pulling and leading in front at the perimeter and downfield.

2017 Preseason NED, 2Q (7:48). Second-and-7 at the Detroit 41.

Here the Lions run on second down against a six-man box. First, the two double-teams. Wagner and Lang on the right side absolutely stand up Van Noy, and then Glasgow and Robinson push 97 DT Alan Branch back far enough for Glasgow to peel off and engage Harris (standing in the picture behind Branch). Then, look at the one-on-ones. Swanson is in total control of 320-pound mass of humanity 99 DT Vincent Valentine while Fells has eliminated Flowers from the play.

The Lions must be prepared to make opponents pay for playing two high safeties and a light box (as the Patriots are doing here) and establish the run to set up play-action passing. On that play, the offense showed it is capable of running inside with power against a quality starting defense.

2017 Preseason NED, 2Q (4:02). First-and-10 at the Detroit 20.

Perhaps the second best play of the game from a blocking standpoint was the offensive snap after the Glover Quin interception in the end zone. The Lions go outside zone to the right, with Abdullah sprinting out and looking for a lane to plant and burst through. On display here is Wagner’s ability to really move (something Riley Reiff was better at than he was given credit for), and some quality effort by Fells to lead the way at the edge.

In the panel on the right, we can see Wagner fire out to the second level in search of Harris. Lang takes on 93 LDE Lawrence Guy, while Fells rides Van Noy all the way outside into 21 CB Malcolm Butler. The fact that everyone on the right side of the offensive formation is winning their block allows Abdullah to be patient, picking his spot to burst up inside Fells for 6 yards.

2017 Preseason NED, 3Q (14:55). First-and-10 at the Detroit 12.

However, the best running play of the game was the first play from scrimmage of the second half. Backed up at the 12-yard line, Cooter sends in 12 personnel to hit split zone right. The two tight ends on the field are Fells as the lead blocker at the edge of the front side and 86 TE Khari Lee as the slice blocker coming across the formation to seal the back side.

After the snap in the upper right panel of the image above, we can see Wagner trying to help Fells push Langi outside and take command of the edge. What actually happens is Fells gets a tremendous shove on his own and sends Langi flying to the ground (visible in the bottom left panel). Mission accomplished, Wagner turns to the next immediate threat, 26 DB Jason Thompson. That blur in the lower left panel’s red box is Golden Tate flying in from the outside on a designed crack back block on Thompson, who has no chance against both Wagner and Tate.

Notice that Fells is still on his feet leading the way at the perimeter. When Tate went inside to block, the cornerback aligned over him became the last unblocked defender on the outside that Abdullah would normally have to beat. But because Fells is still upright and clean, he can run at 31 DB Jonathan Jones (boxed in yellow), forcing him to stay wide.

If Jones overplays inside and gets walled off, that clears the sideline for a home run; he smartly stays put to limit the gain. Provided a nice wide lane to the inside, Abdullah cuts it upfield for “merely” 12 yards.

Though the team did not win the game and the offense failed to put points on the board in the first quarter, there were good things happening in the trenches. Just when you start to think the Detroit Lions front office might have missed on some moves, a game like Week 3 of the preseason against the New England Patriots happens. Things that needed some time to work out the kinks—like offensive line cohesion—start to right themselves, and we remember that Bob Quinn knows what the hell he is doing.