clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Film breakdown: Detroit Lions run defense showed serious improvement vs. Dolphins

It’s getting there.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Miami Dolphins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

At the start of the season, most fans expected there to be some adjustment issues as players learned a new way of playing defense. The absolute dumpster fire that was the run defense in the first three losses of the season, however, was far beyond what anyone on the Pride of Detroit staff imagined would happen (yes, Mansur kept pointing out that we learned the run defense blew chunks after all three of those games).

Jeremy Reisman’s film article on the problems stuffing the ground game after Detroit’s Week 2 loss at San Francisco highlighted a couple of familiar themes: poor angles resulting from tentative linebacker play and failed outside containment assignments. These issues surely infuriated the coaching staff since their philosophy is to stop the run first and play consistent assignment football.

Okay, now THIS is the defense we expected

Thankfully last Sunday in Miami, the Lions shut down the inside run and put up a great defensive front performance overall. Playing the Jeremy game of taking away the one long run, Miami was under three yards per carry. Opposing teams are also going to “make plays” and get a big run every so often, but the Lions were consistently good stopping the run for pretty much the rest of the game (especially in the first half).

The explanation that came off the tape in Week 7 to crush the run is the same one we got for defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni’s unit harassing Aaron Rodgers in Week 5: players were patient and unselfishly carried out assignments to set up teammates. In this film breakdown, we will examine five plays from the Lions’ victory that show excellent team defense of the type that is not credited on the stat sheet.

Gap integrity: Filling from the second level

As pointed out by Jeremy Reisman in the film article we linked earlier, the defensive scheme “frees up linebackers to pursue aggressively and often unblocked. It’s up to them to read correctly and attack.“ When defensive linemen eat up blockers at the line of scrimmage, linebackers and safeties must locate and hit the open hole to plug it before the ball-carrier can get through. In a perfect world, the second level player can shoot the gap and meet the runner at full speed in the backfield for a loss.

2018 Week 7 at MIA 1Q (15:00). First-and-10 at the Miami 25.

This is the first offensive snap of the game for the Dolphins, and their play selection is a straight dive up the gut. Both 93 DE Da’Shawn Hand and 97 DT Ricky Jean Francois will get combo blocked at the snap, with 66 C Travis Swanson peeling off to take 40 MLB Jarrad Davis at the second level and 77 RG Jesse Davis taking on 52 OLB Christian Jones. 21 HB Frank Gore is offset a little behind 8 QB Brock Osweiler’s left, and will look inside first for a hole.

At the snap as the blockers engage, we can see the designated lane and the most obvious run fits for the defenders playing run support at the second level. Both linebackers are hovering over the combo blocked defensive linemen while 28 SS Quandre Diggs is in the box after switching with 27 Glover Quin (now in deep coverage) to account for Miami’s pre-snap motion. The super play here by Davis is to clog the lane by attacking wide at the guard’s inside leg while throwing his shoulder into Swanson to present Gore with a wider obstacle in the lane (boxed in pink below).

Notice RJF taking outside leverage and Jones behind him shifting inside to account for that. Both Kennard and 95 DE Romeo Okwara maintain control of the edges, and Gore has really no option other than to attempt to cut back into the left side B gap instead of where the play was supposed to go. Unfortunately for him, Diggs is the rare defensive back who is fearless in run support with great tackling technique.

Nino takes Gore down for no gain on the play. Now, often this year we have slowed down some of the GIFs embedded in film breakdown articles, but these are being deliberately left at full speed with decent framerates. We hope this helps capture just how short a window all this diagnosis and reaction has to be crammed into by the professionals on the field.

2018 Week 7 at MIA 1Q (7:37). First-and-10 at the Miami 39.

This time lining up without a huddle, the Dolphins attempt to run Gore on an inside zone play to the right. Once again the Lions are single high with Quin deep (you can see his shadow above the mid-field logo) and Diggs almost but not quite in the box. At the snap, Jones charges the line to attack the A gaps directly while Davis hangs back apparently spying the running back.

At the mesh point, there are a couple of things to note. First, Jones is charging the obvious lane for the run play, which will force Gore to keep scanning left for a place to run the ball. Davis is watching the whole thing develop, and will start scraping back over the top following Gore’s cut read progression down the line. Finally look at the far left for Okwara boxed in blue playing back side contain. This looks just like a zone read play (relevant to this week against Seattle, according to our Justin Simon) with Osweiler staring down Okwara to see if he is going to crash down the line at the dive or stay home against a QB keeper.

With the back side patrolled by Okwara and Jones charging the front side, Gore has no choice but to simply straight-line it behind his last blocker, 78 LT Laremy Tunsil and hope for the best. The best turns out to be a stonewall stop by Jarrad Davis after a paltry three yards.

Davis does a great job within the call to read the run and adjust to the most vulnerable gap, but what Okwara is doing on the back edge is really curious. It turns out the Lions did a lot of this throughout the game, and is a feature rather than a bug of the defense.

Edge contain: staying home

Frequently in the Miami game, the defense was able to so clog the middle of the field against inside runs that ball-carriers were induced to cut it back into a waiting contain player. The lateral scooting during some of these plays was simultaneously amusing and surprisingly effective.

2018 Week 7 at MIA 3Q (8:32). First-and-10 at the Miami 25.

Here is a fun one from the third quarter, where the Lions gave the Dolphins a pre-snap look strong up the middle but shifted at the last second to widen the line and uncover the center. Initially, the interior of the defensive line is almost in a 46-style front with the center and both guards covered; in the top panel above, we can see the offensive linemen looking around trying to coordinate their assignments. After the shift, everyone on defense except Ricky Jean Francois has moved far enough to mess with the blocking.

The play call is inside zone to Miami’s right (our left), but just stop for a second and look at poor Ricky Jean Francois getting TRIPLE TEAMED by confused offensive linemen in the pink box. Look at it! This is absolutely the ultimate “eating up blockers” job and worth a Peanut Butter Jelly Time dance. Back to the thing we are talking about, though: Okwara on the right edge shuffles down the line the same way we saw on the earlier zone play and this time he gets the tackle.

What is going on with that wacky pre-snap shifting? It turns out this is nice sequencing by Pasqualoni, set up by an earlier call.

2018 Week 7 at MIA 2Q (9:34). First-and-10 at the Detroit 11.

Focus on the smaller interior line box Steve Belichick-style and you will see the same line count from the pre-shift look in the third quarter earlier. The center and both guards are covered, and Jarrad Davis is sitting stacked over the nose. It turns out the Dolphins ran inside zone to their left (our right) against this alignment, and the back side linebacker (here 44 OLB Jalen Reeves-Maybin on our left) does the scoot down the line as a contain man against the cut-back.

Like the third quarter play with Okwara as the contain man, Gore cannot break this wide because Reeves-Maybin is squared up and ready to string him out. Instead, the ball-carrier’s only choice is to bang it off the tackle on the back side and hope for the best.

Also worth mentioning on this play is how Hand drives 70 RT Ja’Wuan James backwards into Gore’s approach to the line. Magnificent.

Putting it all together: team run defense

Possibly the most complete example of everything that went right with the defensive execution in the run game at Hard Rock Stadium on Sunday was a smothered counter play near the end of the first quarter. It featured everything—guys throwing shoulders into blockers to collapse run lanes, a shuffling back-side contain man, and a linebacker scraping over the top to make the tackle.

2018 Week 7 at MIA 1Q (2:33). First-and-15 at the Detroit 47.

The diagram above is more or less what Miami was trying to do: 77 RG Jesse Davis pulls and kicks out the end man on the line of scrimmage with 83 TE Nick O’Leary lead blocking through the back side C gap for Gore. The key players to watch on the Detroit side are Okwara (end man on the line of scrimmage), Reeves-Maybin (linebacker in the middle of the formation) and Kennard standing up on the back side (our right).

2018 miami dolphins week 7 counter

What happens is Okwara and Reeves-Maybin sniff out the play quickly and commit to initiating contact with the players trying to block them. Okwara attacks the pulling guard Davis (6-foot-6, 325 pounds) to narrow the lane from the outside. Reeves-Maybin does the same from the inside with a monstrous shoulder into 81 TE Durham Smythe, who was supposed to set the edge and seal the linebackers to the inside. A’Shawn Robinson also does some great work against the double-team by 78 LT Laremy Tunsil and 62 LG Ted Larsen, yielding no ground to them at all. The combination of these things causes a massive traffic jam in the targeted hole: O’Leary has to slow down, which in turn kills Gore’s momentum.

Once Gore is going sideways instead of downhill, he gets run down by some fine second-level pursuit. Reeves-Maybin gets a piece of the ball-carrier and Christian Jones cleans it up after coming all the way across from the other side of the formation. Although Jones was credited with the tackle, so many Lions contributed to limiting the gain to a single yard.

While the Dolphins are not an elite running team, the comfort within the scheme displayed by the Lions on defense in a dominant road win bodes well for the rest of the season. The addition of Snacks Harrison and eventual return of Ezekiel Ansah to the lineup can only make things better.

NEW: Join Pride of Detroit Direct

Jeremy Reisman will drop into your inbox twice a week to provide exclusive, in-depth reporting and insights from Ford Field. Subscribe to go deeper into Lions fandom, and join us on our path to win the Super Bowl.