At the start of the 2018 season, the Detroit Lions’ run defense was one of the worst in the league. Huge games by Isaiah Crowell (102 yards), Matt Breida (138 yards), and Ezekiel Elliott (152 yards), and Chris Carson (105 yards) in the first half of the season led most observers (including our staffers at Pride of Detroit) to conclude the run defense was awful and needed help. In spite of a recent uptick in run stopping as a unit, the Lions entered Thanksgiving Day with the 11th worst opposing yards per carry average in the NFL (4.8 YPC).
Obviously the insertion of Snacks into the middle of the front has made a big difference, but a single stud player cannot stop all running plays by himself. A crucial part of the scheme the Lions now run is the way the linebackers and safeties at the second level gap fill behind the war daddies like Harrison, Ricky Jean Francois, Da’Shawn Hand, and A’Shawn Robinson. As Chris Spielman is so fond of saying on the broadcasts, Harrison ought to make middle linebacker Jarrad Davis perform much better against the run by giving him clear shots at ball-carriers. Nate Atkins from mlive.com wrote a fine article on Davis’ role in the run defense following Detroit’s Week 9 loss to the Vikings:
“I’m in the middle of the defense. To make sure (a big play) doesn’t happen, I’ve gotta make sure that I get in my gap and I shut it down, that I stop the offensive lineman from climbing on up or moving guys out of there,” he said.
”I’ve gotta make sure I get down and put a stake in the defense.”
The way Davis describes his role, and the way it often looks on film, is that he’s responsible for different gaps at the same time and it’s never as simple as see-ball, get-ball. Whenever it is that simple, he tends to succeed, like on a blitz play to get after the quarterback or a stretch run where he can beat the blocker to get to the ball carrier.
Davis brings incredible athleticism and versatility in blitzing and covering short zones, but defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni puts a premium on stopping the run first. As Tim Twentyman from detroitlions.com wrote back in August, the defense uses “a gap-control scheme that allows linebackers to roam freely and make plays.” That means Davis must stay clean off any blockers trying to tie him him, flow to the appropriate vulnerable gap, then plant his stake down to hold the line and make the stop.
It’s hard to tell with gap responsibilities live sometimes but I thought I saw one mistake in run defense but it may not have even been his fault. So, even if it was his mistake, overall that’s pretty solid— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) November 19, 2018
How rapidly the former Gator is able to diagnose and shut down undefended gaps can make or break the quality of the team’s run defense. Each week, our staff struggles with the Heckle and Jeckle nature of Jarrad Davis’ play, and we wonder if the Lions will get “Good Jarrad” or “Bad Jarrad.” As frustrating as this is to fans, one can only imagine how much the coaching staff would like to see more consistent play at the second level from the team’s 2017 first-round selection.
Good Jarrad: Patient and clean
First, let us look at a textbook example of what the gap-control scheme with a free roaming linebacker behind a defensive tackle eating up blocks is supposed to look like. Threatening in the red zone and on schedule, the Bears ran outside zone to their left but were stuffed for no gain by the Lions.
2018 Week 10 at CHI, 3Q (10:18). Second-and-6 at the Detroit 17.
The defense aligns in a Bear front with 93 DT Da’Shawn Hand on the outside shoulder of 78 RG Bryan Witzmann, 98 NT Damon Harrison Sr. head up on 65 C Cody Whitehair, and 91 DT A’Shawn Robinson on the outside shoulder of 68 LG James Daniels. 32 S Tavon Wilson is up in the box behind Hand, and 40 MLB Jarrad Davis is standing behind Snacks. Chicago has both 24 HB Jordan Howard (to the quarterback’s left) and 33 HB Taquan Mizzell (to the quarterback’s right) in the game.
At the handoff, the defensive line flows with the blockers, and both Tavon and Davis square up behind the big bodies up front. Notice how both are able to flow to either left or right into clear read lanes. Mizzell is strung out horizontally and tries to cut it back inside, but Davis explodes up the field into the run path as soon as he sees the cut. On television, this is how it looked:
We can see how both of the second-level defenders square up and slide laterally down the line, watching their gaps to read when to attack. This is very much like a defensive version of a single cut ball-carrier running a zone play laterally and scanning for a widened gap to burst through.
2018 Week 4 at DAL, 3Q (4:51). First-and-10 at the Detroit 12.
Late in the third quarter on the road at Dallas in Week 4, the Cowboys ran outside weak zone to their right in the red zone, sensing good numbers to that side (three blockers on three in the box and 27 FS Glover Quin deep). 52 OLB Christian Jones is the edge man blocked by RT 71 La’el Collins, 97 DT Ricky Jean Francois is over 70 RG Zack Martin’s outside shoulder, and 73 C Joe Looney will combo block off RJF onto Davis (boxed in purple).
At the handoff, 45 HB Rod Smith takes a wide track and has a nice hole developing in front of him in the right B-gap. Martin has RJF blocked to the inside, while Jones is to the outside holding the edge against Collins. Peeling off the combo block on RJF, Looney has a shot at cutting off Davis, but fails.
With the gap filled and no daylight to run to, Smith slows down and tries to cut it back inside. Unfortunately for him, that is where all of the Detroit help is waiting, and the play is swallowed up for no gain.
Lateral pursuit to the outside to shore up vulnerable gaps is a task that makes great use of Davis’ speed. Several times this season, he has either forced plays back inside or bought time for safeties to move up and cut off the edge.
2018 Week 3 NED, 3Q (10:50). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 12.
Here the Patriots run crack toss with 26 HB Sony Michel. Similar to the play above against the Cowboys, Davis navigates the mess in front of him to get sideways in a hurry, firing up the field once he is clear of the crack back blocks. Although Michel runs through the first tackle attempt, the runner is knocked off balance for Quin to make it over to the sideline. On the ensuing cut back inside, Davis splits a hustle tackle with Hand on Michel for a gain of just two yards.
Avoiding the blocks of linemen firing out to the second level and staying clean, both in pursuit to the outside and when plugging holes up the gut, often determine how effective Detroit’s man in the middle will be in run support. If he can stay clean, he can stay mobile and make plays.
2018 Week 11 CAR, 1Q (14:19). Second-and-6 at the Carolina 14.
In a clear running situation, the Panthers bring 22 HB Christian McCaffrey in motion from a wide split to rejoin 1 QB Cam Newton as a tailback. This is a decoy, though, and Newton actually runs a zone read play with the give to 34 HB Cameron Artis-Payne since 42 OLB Devon Kennard is sitting on the quarterback keeper.
Watch Davis in the middle of the field slide patiently down the line, observing all of the action in the backfield develop. As he keeps his attention focused on who has the ball, 82 TE Chris Manhertz runs up from a three-point stance to seal Davis inside. Not only does the second-year middle linebacker see the block coming out of his peripheral vision, he sidesteps it cleanly and makes the diving stop to limit the offense’s gain to a single yard.
2018 Week 8 SEA, 2Q (9:44). First-and-10 at the Seattle 20.
Taking advantage of a big discrepancy in agility and quickness, Davis can put opposing linemen like 78 RG D.J. Fluker of the Seahawks on the ground while staying upright himself.
2018 Week 9 at MIN, 3Q (11:39). First-and-10 at the Minnesota 41.
Even if it does not always result in a tackle on the stat sheet, consistently evading blocks as he does here against 74 RT Mike Remmers ensures that Jarrad Davis is always available to fill gaps, pursue to the edge, and do all of the other things the Detroit defense needs out of its linebackers.
Bad Jarrad: Taking chances and overpursuing
No player is going to be perfect on every play, but with linebackers and safeties who must gap fill at the second level, the hope is that they make as few as possible. Sometimes a player will lose edge containment, and other times a defender will be pushed out of their gap. When linebackers in a system like the one the Lions are running make those mistakes, the pain can be immense.
2018 Week 1 NYJ, 1Q (14:34). First-and-10 at the New York 13.
Early in the Monday night opener, the Jets load up with a double tight end formation to try and earn some breathing room safely. The Lions counter with a Bear front, letting Davis patrol behind the trio of RJF, 92 NT Sylvester Williams, and 94 Ezekiel Ansah. As expected, the Jets slam 29 HB Bilal Powell up the gut, but Davis slides so far down the line that he runs himself out of the hole that develops.
In the image above, Davis (boxed in pink) flows immediately and aggressively to the play side, and that makes it easy for 67 RG Brian Winters (boxed in yellow) to keep pushing him play-side to open the cutback lane. The worst part? Look at the bottom panel and count the blue jerseys in front of Davis; there are three defenders corralled into the same spot (Davis, Williams, and Ziggy) by the blocking.
72 RT Brandon Shell gets a phenomenal cutoff block on RJF to bust open the right side B-gap, and Powell bursts through on the basic inside zone play for 13 valuable yards.
2018 Week 1 NYJ, 3Q (1:04). Second-and-6 at the New York 38.
Again, a basic zone play out of a heavy (three tight ends!) formation by the Jets in a down-and-distance combination that lends itself to running breaks for a big play. Instead of reading the double-team on RJF, Davis immediately charges in what appears to be a gamble to go for the tackle-for-loss. Instead, everyone from the right guard down the back side of the play successfully reaches on their man to bust open the B-gap again.
Without anyone to read and plug the hole, it’s off to the races and nobody catches 20 HB Isaiah Crowell.
2018 Week 9 at MIN, 2Q (4:45). First-and-10 at the Minnesota 25.
Late in the second quarter on the road at Minnesota, we have a pretty basic inside zone run by 33 HB Dalvin Cook. Two outstanding cutoff blocks by 75 RT Brian O’Neill (on RJF) and 74 RG Mike Remmers (on Davis) secure the lane for Cook to run downhill immediately.
What is really disappointing here is that it appears Davis hops and plants his feet, preparing to try and evade Remmers’ block by going around him to the left. That just makes the linebacker even easier to wall off from getting play-side. Blowing past the first and second levels at full speed untouched, Cook took it 70 yards before being caught by Quin.
2018 Week 10 at CHI, 1Q (11:26). First-and-Goal at the Detroit 3.
Finally, we have the first quarter touchdown run by 29 HB Tarik Cohen from 3 yards out. The Lions have a curious alignment, with big gaps in the line to both left and right. Not expecting something up the middle, the call has both Devon Kennard and Christian Jones standing up and split several yards outside the last blocker in the tackle box to their respective sides.
When that play was setting up I was wondering why they had Davis and Quin stacked on a side already heavy defense. seems like at least on of them was out of position and both went to the RT— Erik Schlitt (@erikschlitt) November 13, 2018
What happens in the lower panel is a disaster because Davis decides to commit to his left (the offense’s right) even though Quin is already deep on that side and able to move up into run support if necessary. On the side that Davis did not choose to go to, there is nobody available to move up into the gap, and that’s exactly where Cohen bangs it into the end zone.
Is this okay?
It goes without saying that we would all like for the linebackers (especially Jarrad Davis) to consistently make excellent reads at full speed, stonewalling opponents at every opportunity. That is just not possible, though—even the best players will miss things. Nicholas Dawidoff’s book Collision Low Crossers about the 2011 New York Jets under Rex Ryan had some relevant passages about linebacker play focused on Pro Bowl veteran Bart “Can’t Wait” Scott.
As film frames flashed by with Bart Scott eddying off in haphazard directions, vectoring across the field along angles at steep variance with those he was supposed to take (defensive coordinator Mike) Pettine proposed setting the commentary on a loop: “Where’s Bart going? What’s Bart thinking?” (Defensive line coach Mark) Carrier watched Scott deliver a leg whip and said “God I love Bart. Dude makes me laugh.” To (linebackers coach Bob) Sutton, Scott’s position coach, Scott was challenging because he kept multiple coaching points in mind and might apply any one at any given moment. However, Sutt said, the offense had no more idea of Scott’s intentions than Scott did, and this allowed Scott to make surprising and important plays. Scott knew nothing of eggshells. He was decisive and did everything at high speed, which was what you wanted in a linebacker. (p. 149-150)
Now, if that is a guy who can be one of the top inside linebackers in the league for a perennially dominant defense, is it okay to have a few infuriating gambles or misreads from time to time? How many such occurrences each week are okay? In terms of what the Lions do going forward, the level of need in this area has a wide range of believable possibilities:
- How comfortable is the team with his progress in making defensive calls and being the stacked backer reading and filling behind Snacks? Certainly the run defense has been better lately, but is it enough of an improvement?
- We know Jarrad Davis is a great athlete with improving coverage skills and phenomenal lateral pursuit. He is effective at blitzing as well. Should the Lions consider moving him to the Will?
- Even if everything is fine with Jarrad Davis remaining the Mack backer in coach Pasqualoni’s words, who is supposed to be his backup? If Davis were injured, who is the depth behind him?