Simply going off the stat sheet, it would seem like the Lions’ defense was steamrolled into oblivion by the Green Bay Packers at home in Week 5 and got bailed out by “lucky” big plays. From the Acme Packing Company game summary post: “In the end, the Packers outgained the Lions 521-265, out-possessed the ball, out-rushed them and out-threw them. Green Bay was the more efficient offense on a per-play basis, more first downs and more sacks.”
You know what? That is absolutely what the stat sheet says, but the game is not decided entirely by countable stats. Closer inspection of the actions of the defensive front suggests there is more here than meets the eye. What defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni’s unit did on Sunday provides a wonderful opportunity for us to think about how Detroit is playing weird but intelligent football. As coach Pasqualoni noted in a video with the media this week (linked at the bottom of this article), it’s not the sacks or the yards or anything else that really matters; did the defense do what Detroit needed it to do in order to have at least one more point on the board than the opponent?
Keep him in the well
In the past, we have talked about the old Bill Belichick “bullseye” philosophy of targeting the strength of an opposing unit to take it away and its roots in his father Steve Belichick’s scouting work at the Naval Academy in the middle of the 20th century. There is in fact another fun story on that subject relayed by Nunyo DeMasio’s book about Bill Parcells. In the lead-up to Super Bowl XXV, then-defensive coordinator Belichick told his Giants defenders of his plan to take away the explosiveness of Buffalo’s high-tempo K-Gun offense (p.182-183):
On defense Bill Belichick planned to use an unconventional scheme to disrupt Buffalo’s tempo: few linemen while extra defensive backs focused on Kelly’s passing attack and pummeled receivers underneath. To unveil the counterintuitive plan, Belichick held a meeting with his unit in a hotel conference room. With the players seated, the coordinator got straight to the point. “I want Thurman Thomas to run for over 100 yards in the Super Bowl.”
Several guys looked at each other in disbelief, while others grumbled or cursed the idea. Belichick wasn’t surprised by the reaction. . . Belichick insisted. “You guys are going to have to trust me. In order for us to win this football game, Thurman Thomas is going to have to gain 100 yards.”
He expounded on his rationale. Hard-pressed to halt Buffalo’s offense, Big Blue could minimize big gains with novel schemes using as many as eight pass defenders. Belichick intended to tempt Kelly with open running lanes or force him into throws in front of defenders positioned to pummel his receivers.
The defensive boss expressed confidence in his unit’s ability to stop Thomas when it mattered most. “Are you guys with me on this?” They grudgingly consented.
Fast forward to 2018 and the Lions facing off against one of the best quarterbacks in the league. When we think about the most important factor to beating the Packers, the same kinds of plays always come to mind: Rodgers going pure sandlot and extending the play outside the pocket until someone gets open for a huge throw. Take it away Dan Orlovsky:
On Sunday, Rodgers managed to escape the pocket once in the second quarter and made Detroit pay with a 30-yard completion over 23 CB Darius Slay’s head. We now look at that play to see why Orlovsky says Rodgers outside the pocket is “trying to take your soul.”
2018 Week 5 GBY 2Q (5:13). Third-and-7 at the Detroit 39.
Trailing by 17 late in the second quarter, Green Bay has the ball near mid-field after chunk plays to 80 TE Jimmy Graham and 17 WR Davante Adams. Again, Rodgers is going to look for a deep throw to Adams crossing the field against single coverage by Slay. Detroit’s defensive line attacks inside with both 61 DE Kerry Hyder and 93 DT Da’shawn Hand looping to the two A gaps. 40 MLB Jarrad Davis, aligned over 63 C Corey Linsley, takes a token jab step to feign blitz before dropping into a shallow zone. 42 OLB Devon Kennard and 95 DE Romeo Okwara are both one-on-one against their tackles, but only Kennard gets up the field on a speed rush.
The big issue is Okwara getting turned back inside by LT 69 David Bakhtiari. With no dark jersey to his left, Rodgers has an escape route to extend the play and hit Adams down the left sideline:
Staying mobile and clear of the oncoming pass rush, Rodgers is able to drift forward to step into the throw for a big gain. This is the kind of scramble play that defensive coordinators want to prevent when playing Green Bay.
Rod Marinelli always talks about keeping Aaron Rodgers in a well. They don’t want him making plays outside of the pocket. This is how he gets the point across in the meeting room with his defensive linemen pic.twitter.com/k0wWg8VFvR— Jon Machota (@jonmachota) April 18, 2018
Rod 3:16 says “Form a ****ing WELL”
In that play, Okwara was simply beat by Bakhtiari, who rode his rusher inside using nice leverage with the outside arm. One way to prevent the dangerous street ball play from improvisation artists like Rodgers is to make sure there is no way for them to leak out of the pocket in the first place. Keep someone on both sides of the quarterback and at least one in front, gradually collapsing the pocket down onto the passer until either the ball gets thrown away or a defender gets the sack. To illustrate, we go to a play with a better outcome in the early second quarter.
2018 Week 5 GBY 2Q (11:33). Third-and-10 at the Detroit 24.
Again the Lions have Hand and Hyder inside with Kennard and Okwara on the edges, Davis over center. The twist here is that Graham is up near the left tackle, and Okwara gives him a token shove to throw off the tight end’s release before rushing the edge. Coverage is robber, with 27 FS Glover Quin patrolling short near the sticks and 28 S Quandre Diggs ending up deep in the end zone.
The main difference to note here is that both Kennard and Okwara bull rush straight into their tackles and drive them back into where the depth of the quarterback drop is: this forms the walls of the well. Meanwhile, both Hand (chipped by 30 HB Jamaal Williams on his inside route) and Hyder drive straight up the middle, serving as the base of the well. Note how the pass rush gradually chokes off the space the quarterback has to work with; everyone is applying pressure, but nobody is sacrificing position to do so.
The concept is to rely on coverage to give the four man pressure time to either get someone into the well or to completely collapse the walls of the well onto Rodgers’ head. Instead of hoping some pass rusher makes a spectacular move, everyone has to play under control and work together. Eventually, Hyder breaks free up the gut and Rodgers has no escape route and prevented from stepping into even trying a legitimate throw—he sails the ball out of bounds to force another missed field goal attempt by 2 K Mason Crosby.
2018 Week 5 GBY 3Q (13:47). First-and-10 at the Detroit 38.
Here is an example of the walls closing in on the well: Kennard is the right edge of the image, blasting by 75 RT Bryan Bulaga for the sack while Okwara hits Bakhtiari on the left side. Hand and 97 DT Ricky Jean Francois provide the base against the interior of the offensive line to prevent Rodgers from stepping up away from Kennard.
2018 Week 5 GBY 3Q (13:05). Second-and-20 at the Detroit 48.
On the very next play, the Lions do basically the same thing again, sending Hand and Hyder up the middle and putting Kennard and Okwara on the flanks. The coverage is solid down the field, and Rodgers eventually tries to take off and make something happen. Unfortunately for him, a Lion is waiting to pounce.
Having driven Bakhtiari back up into the quarterback’s set up point, Okwara does not manage to break through entirely, but keeps hand fighting and watches for an opportunity. Due to positioning, it is impossible to go around his edge without running backwards a substantial distance. If Rodgers tries to break out of the pocket to that side of the formation, Okwara knows exactly where to watch.
Making the QB uncomfortable
Jeff Risdon’s video over at Lions Wire is absolutely correct in saying there is nothing wrong with the way the defense is winning passing downs. Let us not act as if the Lions are bumbling their way into one lucky strike after another. This is by design and the result of sound execution of a well thought out defensive plan by Pasqualoni and Patricia. The secondary is stacked with reliable players like Slay, Quin, Diggs, Lawson, and Shead, and this way of playing the pass by dropping seven into disguised coverage lets the back end carry the load against quarterbacks like Aaron Rodgers or Russell Wilson.
Video: Stop complaining about Lions getting coverage sacks https://t.co/aUClZTSm9a— The Lions Wire (@thelionswire) October 9, 2018
Go back to our first example where Rodgers got to the outside because Okwara happened to lose the rep and got funneled inside. What would it look like if he had been able to stay wide and cut off the escape route to Rodgers’ left? What if the extra second or two gained by leaving the pocket was unavailable?
2018 Week 5 GBY 2Q (1:00). Second-and-1 at the Green Bay 35.
The formation and blocking inside the tackle box is very similar in both situations. The defense is aligned a bit different, but we basically have Hyder and Kennard very wide on the right side, Okwara very wide opposite them outside the left tackle, and Hand doing something in the middle. Hand, Hyder, and Kennard all end up effectively overloading the middle to right side blocking. What really changes is the position of Okwara to Green Bay’s left.
In both plays, the busting of the well is from the base by Hand up the middle. The play we looked at earlier ended poorly for Detroit because Okwara was turned inside and the well had no wall to force Rodgers up into Hand’s path. But on the current play, Okwara and Bakhtiari are battling deep beside the quarterback so the “escape” route goes up the field (near the interior rush path) instead of out wide.
All you real Detroit Lions fans already knew this was the Da’shawn Hand strip sack near the end of the first half. As our own Jeremy Reisman pointed out in his analysis of the play:
Romeo Okwara deserves a ton of credit for not only beating his man to the outside, but holding the edge so that Rodgers has to step up in the pocket to try and escape, rather than sliding out past the edge. Devon Kennard does the same on the other edge, making Rodgers feel claustrophobic in the pocket.
Claustrophobic and uncomfortable indeed. On the play where Okwara was to the inside, Rodgers slips out and drills a 30-yard completion down the sideline. On the other play where the walls of the well were in place, Rodgers loses the ball deep in Green Bay territory to set up another scoring opportunity for Detroit. This is a “whole defense” effort with solid coverage by linebackers and secondary players buying time and pass rushers working together to keep containment until someone gets to the quarterback. As long as everyone stays patient and does their job, good things happen.
All of this fits with what coach Pasqualoni explained to the media in the “Pasqualoni on defensive performance through 5 weeks” video posted by detroitlions.com a few days ago. Starting around the 15 minute mark, there is a very relevant sequence of questions and answers to what we have just seen from the Week 5 tape:
Pasqualoni: But i’ve always felt - always - that the sack is the result of the front and the coverage working together. You know, the rush and the coverage working together. That’s just the way it is. If the guy isn’t covered and you’re blitzing and the guy’s wide open? In this league, that’s a complete ball. I mean, regardless of how much you pressure him. So the guys in the back end/linebackers gotta keep it tight, and the guys up front gotta go.
Question: When it comes to pass rush, is there a stat you like more? More accurate when it comes to measuring a pass rush?
Pasqualoni: You know I’ve always felt this way. On defense we have two jobs. I’ve already stated the first job: “stop the run.” The second thing you always each week find yourself saying right after you say “stop the run,” is “make the quarterback uncomfortable.” I think it’s more realistic to say that you can have a chance to make him uncomfortable than it is to go in there and sack him X amount of times. So how do you make him uncomfortable? Maybe it’s the coverage, maybe it’s the disguise. It’s certainly the rush, it’s certainly the collapse of the pocket. Making him throw off his back foot, not giving him lanes to slide, to push up in and then a lane to throw the ball in. Close those lanes off.
Question: So when you evaluate the team, when Rodgers is flushed out and has to throw off his back foot and throw it out of bounds, you grade that and consider that just as good as a sack?
Pasqualoni: Absolutely. You affect the quarterback that way, it’s a third down off the field, or a turnover, or whatever it is. I mean, those are big plays so to me those things all go into the issue of production. The production issue of the player, the production issue of the defense - the scheme. I think you’ve got to consider all those things. I think they’re really important. You play a guy like Aaron Rodgers, it’s hard. If you can just do something to affect him a little bit. Brady the same way, right? Any quarterback - if you can just affect them. A little bit, somehow some way figure it out. But it’s all important - it’s as important as a sack. I’m going to at least say that all that culmination of trying to be “effective” is important.
About a week and a half ago while I was musing aloud in our Slack chat about possible things to look at in film review, Kent Lee Platte asked me what we ought to make of defensive end Romeo Okwara. To that point in the season (a little before the Dallas game), Okwara had not really posted any significant stats or churned out big plays, but was starting to get massive amounts of playing time.
I could not give him a good answer because the only impression I had of Okwara was that he was a disciplined veteran who played good assignment football on the outside with his head up; there was a coverage play with him in the flat against San Francisco, but other than that nothing was terribly memorable. It turns out that is exactly why the former Giant is a perfect player for this scheme and why he was so well suited to Pasqualoni’s game plan to contain perhaps the best quarterback in the league.