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Film review: How did Detroit survive the first half against Arizona?

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Raise your glass and salute the heroes on the defensive line.

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NFL: Arizona Cardinals at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

No more haters

Throughout the past several months and leading right up to their Week 1 game against the Arizona Cardinals, the Detroit Lions’ defensive line had been characterized as one of the weakest units on the team. Here is a sample to give the reader a flavor of what we mean:

Certainly, we here at Pride of Detroit also expressed concerns going all the way back to April and the NFL Draft. More recently, we’ve posted a number of articles speculating on players the team could sign to shore up the unit, especially at defensive end.

About a week ago, mlive.com’s Kyle Meinke reported on a passionate response by defensive end Cornelius Washington to the haters:

Washington made it clear the defensive linemen have heard the doubts about them, and they take particular exception with the way reporters have written about them.

"We can read, and we read what y'all write, and we're not happy about it," he said. "But hey, y'all are from the outside looking in, so I can understand it. But then again, it doesn't make me feel any better."

Containing David Johnson

Now, back to Sunday and the game against the Cardinals. What did the defensive line do to change everyone’s minds about how good they can be? Well, how about completely shutting down one of the top running backs in the league (even before he left the game due to injury in the second half).

2017 Week 1 ARI, 1Q (14:16). Second-and-6 at the Arizona 27.

The second offensive play of the game for the Cardinals is a strong-side run to the C-gap between 74 LT DJ Humphries and 84 TE Jermaine Gresham. Prior to the snap, 11 WR Larry Fitzgerald went in motion from right to left across the formation, settling outside of Gresham with 28 CB Quandre Diggs mirroring him the whole way. The offensive line has double-teams inside, blocking the Lions’ front to their right (our left), with Gresham setting the edge on the hole for 31 HB David Johnson to run through.

The key defender at the point of attack is 94 DE Ezekiel Ansah, who can be elite against the run when healthy. Lions fans did not see much of the fifth-year edge rusher during the preseason, so some may have harbored questions about how effective he would be to start the year. Well, Ziggy wasted no time in showing he still has what it takes to blow up plays.

At the mesh point, the Arizona offensive line has everything walled off to the inside pretty good. If Ziggy (boxed in yellow) cannot control the C-gap, Johnson will have a clear path to the second level. Fitzgerald has a massive size advantage on Diggs, and 32 S Tavon Wilson can be seen quite deep in the lower right corner of the frame: there is a ton of room to run if the ball-carrier hits the hole.

The best way to watch this play is to view the loop three times:

  1. The first time, look at Ziggy and watch him throw Gresham off and to the outside, powerfully taking charge of the gap.
  2. Next, follow the ball from the hand-off by 3 QB Carson Palmer through the initial cut by the running back. Johnson makes a move to the outside, but a big blue blur forces him to plant and avoid back inside where a smothering mass of linebackers and defensive tackles are waiting.
  3. Finally, look at the C-gap and how wide it gets before Ziggy slams the door shut. Instead of a potentially long gain on second down, the Cardinals get just two yards with this run.

2017 Week 1 ARI, 1Q (12:51). First-and-10 at the Arizona 44.

Here we have the Cardinals running a packaged play, where Palmer can choose to hand the ball off inside to Johnson or throw an outside screen to Fitzgerald in the slot. Since the Lions have three men lined up over the twins to the left of the formation (58 LB Paul Worrilow over Fitzgerald, 23 CB Darius Slay over 13 WR Jaron Brown to the outside, and 27 FS Glover Quin backing them up deep), Palmer goes to the inside run.

Our focus is on 69 DE Anthony Zettel at the top of the defensive line, boxed in yellow. In the middle pane we can see 87 TE Troy Niklas off balance, warded off by Zettel’s left arm. Before Johnson can reach the nice lane that Arizona’s interior offensive line has created, he is cut off at the pass and taken down like a dead tree for a loss of two yards.

Following 28 CB Justin Bethel’s interception return for a touchdown mid-way through the first quarter, the Detroit offense could not get anything going and punted the ball back to Arizona after a three-and-out series. The visitors could not capitalize, though, when the home team’s defense came up with a huge stop on third-and-short.

2017 Week 1 ARI, 1Q (8:37). Third-and-1 at the Arizona 42.

This is a sideline shot from the Fox broadcast’s replay of the defensive stand on third down. Take note of where 90 DE Cornelius Washington is lined up and where Jermaine Gresham’s left foot is sitting on the 40-yard line. The play call is up the gut with 35 FB Elijhaa Penny lead blocking over left tackle.

Here is what it looks like as Penny hits the line of scrimmage. Gresham is driven back so forcefully that the tight end has actually gone backwards through the oncoming fullback right into Johnson’s run path.

Not only did CornWash effectively trade two-for-one and disrupt the run path, he actually gets off Gresham’s block at the end and notches an assist on the tackle. This is a tremendous effort from the veteran to help the defense get off the field.

2017 Week 1 ARI, 1Q (6:12). First-and-10 at the Detroit 13.

The next play for review takes place immediately after the injury to 2 P Kasey Redfern. Set to extend the lead to two scores, the Cardinals pound Johnson off the right side on first down. At the point of attack, 68 RT Jared Veldheer and 70 RG Evan Boehm combo block 92 DT Haloti Ngata with an aim to peel off and kick out 59 LB Tahir Whitehead. Setting the front edge of the play is Niklas, assigned to block Zettel to the outside.

At the snap, we can see Fitzgerald running in from the outside to block. The lane looks clear, and Johnson should have a shot at Quin at the next level. However, Anthony Zettel has something to say about that.

Throwing Niklas to the side, Zettel comes free and forces Fitzgerald to attempt a last second block into the run lane. The ball-carrier stops momentum and tries to bounce outside, but breaking stride gives Whitehead, Quin, and Slay (who was covering Fitzgerald outside) time to reposition.

There is no chance of beating the three of them to the outside, and Johnson turns it back in for a paltry gain. Although 98 DT Jeremiah Ledbetter and Quin got credit for the tackle, what really blew the play up was disruption from Zettel’s penetration into the backfield.

As noted by our own Justin Simon, the defense did an excellent job to limit the ground game. The Cardinals had a scant 15 yards rushing in the first half, and just one run for four yards or more (a 6-yard run). It is quite the feat to make the opponent one dimensional and a major job of the defensive line is to hold the line of scrimmage, but what about that pass rush? Was it all phenomenal coverage by the secondary, or did the line have a hand in that as well?

Making plays that “changed the game” against the pass

Although there was some criticism about missed sack opportunities, the pressure was relentless and definitely influenced the outcome of plays. We turn now to three examples of that: a crucial stop on third down, the creation of a turnover, and the prevention of a touchdown.

2017 Week 1 ARI, 1Q (3:22). Third-and-goal at the Detroit 2.

This play is third down on the series where Zettel’s leaping penalty gave Arizona another chance to turn the botched punt into a touchdown. The design spreads the field with Fitzgerald running a fade to the corner at the top right of the screen while a three route combination at the bottom left tries to pull the rest of the coverage outside. The point is to isolate Jermaine Gresham in the red box, who will put a token block on Cornelius Washington and then release to try and sneak up to the goal line in front of the linebackers.

We can see by Palmer’s feet that this is really a set play: he is hopping and waiting for Gresham to release the block. Unfortunately for the Cardinals, Washington bull rushes with such intensity it not only drives the tight end back four yards but leaves him staggering and off-balance for when the throw arrives. That made it an easy read for Whitehead and Killebrew to swoop in and drop Gresham for a 4-yard loss. Yet another great stand on third-and-short by the defense thanks to a super non-stat play by a defensive lineman.

While we are giving credit where it is due for big plays, let us now turn to Glover Quin’s interception in the second quarter. ESPN’s Michael Rothstein wrote an article about the stellar performance of the Lions defense against the Cardinals containing the following quote from 97 DT Akeem Spence:

“Granted, we didn’t get the sack numbers we’d like, but we got the hits, we got the disruptions, we got the turnovers, so it’s hand-in-hand. The secondary, they had a great game because we played great up front.”

The Quin interception is a perfect example of how these things go hand-in-hand.

2017 Week 1 ARI, 2Q (10:49). Second-and-25 at the Arizona 43.

The above still is taken right after Palmer released the ball and landed on his feet. While there is no hit on the quarterback as he is throwing, there is a lot of crowding from Ledbetter behind and Zettel in front. Due to the pass rush and token pawing by defensive linemen through his throwing motion, Palmer could not set his feet well, step into the throw, or follow through properly. One result of such bad mechanics is that the ball can sail on the quarterback:

It is a bit clearer just how high and away the ball got away from Palmer in the reverse all-22 camera angle:

The other thing really interesting about that reverse angle is that we can see John Brown was wide open on his crossing route. The Cardinals would have posted a huge gain if the throw had been uncontested and delivered with accuracy. Instead, good pressure up front created a turnover opportunity for Quin to cash in.

2017 Week 1 ARI, 2Q (0:51). Third-and-10 at the Detroit 14.

For this one, I am going to simply refer everyone to Justin Rogers’ solid film review notes over at the Detroit News. The play in question is filed under item 9 in the article, entitled “Game-altering plays.”

From Rogers’ article:

Palmer had a receiver come open in the end zone and he looked to connect, but Ledbetter dove and tripped the quarterback, causing the pass to come up well short. The Cardinals would settle for a field-goal attempt, which they missed, and the Lions drove down to set up a 58-yarder by Matt Prater. Ledbetter’s effort ended up being a 10-point swing.

Possibly a much better unit than anybody suspected

One game does not make a trend, but it is pretty clear nobody thought the kind of performance delivered against Arizona was even possible for the Detroit defense. I will agree with Jeremy and Alex that the Lions’ pass rushers need to get better at finishing off the quarterback, but after watching the tape a few times, I at least get the sense that the capacity to get four-man pressure is there. Also, the run defense was about as solid as it could be, thanks in large part to the defensive line.

The other reason to be optimistic regarding the defensive line after this game was the fact that it was more than just one or two players turning in career games; everybody in the unit played well. We already knew about the defensive tackles like Haloti Ngata and A’shawn Robinson, but how about those defensive ends? After all that speculation about who the team needed to chase in free agency, it turns out Cornelius Washington and Anthony Zettel can make some nice plays after all. And how about youngster Jeremiah Ledbetter?

Who is going to shine on Monday night against the Giants? Is it going to be Ngata and A’shawn collapsing the center of the line? Is it going to be Zettel and Spence getting free in the twist game? I bet Cornelius Washington would say “all of the above,” and I would not put it past this group to surprise us all again.