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Film breakdown: T.J. Lang was the heart and soul of the rushing attack

The Lions really do have a quality run game, but it’s on injured reserve.

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NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The rise and fall of a “great” offensive line

Early in the 2018 regular season, it looked like the investments made by general manager Bob Quinn in the offensive line were finally starting to pay off. Recovering from a putrid opener against the New York Jets, the unit repeatedly posted solid outings to earn praise from national outlets in September and October. Pass protection was great, the team finally found a rushing game, and Detroit was turning the season around with wins against prestige franchises like the Patriots and Packers.

Then the wheels fell off, so to speak: the vaunted run game that posted 200 yards on the road disappeared. Somehow the Minnesota Vikings sacked Matthew Stafford ten times in a single game. By Thanksgiving, the offensive line was a team weakness and regarded as no better than it was a year ago.

Lions fans who have been paying attention to the injury reports should already sense where this is heading. The fortunes of the blocking up front seemed to flow with the availability of stellar veteran guard T.J. Lang. After an assortment of injuries during the first half of the season, Lang was finally lost to injured reserve last month.

T.J. Lang and Lions RB rushing, 2018

Week Opponent Lang Status Snaps Played Total Off Snaps Pct Played Rushing Att Yds Y/A Pct Run Snaps
Week Opponent Lang Status Snaps Played Total Off Snaps Pct Played Rushing Att Yds Y/A Pct Run Snaps
1 NYJ Active 69 70 98.6% 13 34 2.6 18.6%
2 at SFO Inactive 0 77 0.0% 16 81 5.1 20.8%
3 NED Active 73 73 100.0% 32 149 4.7 43.8%
4 at DAL Active 10 54 18.5% 17 74 4.4 31.5%
5 GBY Inactive 0 62 0.0% 27 95 3.5 43.5%
6 Bye
7 at MIA Active 48 64 75.0% 30 211 7.0 46.9%
8 SEA Active 51 59 86.4% 11 25 2.3 18.6%
9 at MIN Active 31 70 44.3% 17 45 2.6 24.3%
10 at CHI Inactive 78 22 67 3.0 28.2%
11 CAR IR 65 23 88 3.8 35.4%
12 CHI IR 66 23 109 4.7 34.8%
13 LAR IR 72 25 100 4.0 34.7%
14 at ARI IR 60 30 115 3.8 50.0%

A fantastic article by Ben Muth at Football Outsiders that we pointed out a few weeks ago came to largely the same conclusion: Lang was a crucial piece of the offensive line puzzle and his replacement Kenny Wiggins could not deliver the level of play Detroit needed at right guard. Initially, we went back to the first nine weeks of the season and re-watched all of the games with a singular focus on the right guard position to check the pass protection differences between Lang and Wiggins.

By the third or fourth game, it was pretty clear that the most devastating part of losing the Pro Bowl guard was not in the passing game, but in the running game. In the table above, we have the game status of Lang, the number and percent of offensive snaps he played in each game, and the rushing output by running backs for the Lions. Removing the gadget plays like reverses using Golden Tate or Jamal Agnew and scramble rushes by Matthew Stafford lets us focus on the designed “ground game” effectiveness of the offense.

In Howard Mudd’s book on offensive line play The View from the O-Line, Chicago Pro Bowler Kyle Long emphasized the value of experience and savviness necessary to successfully block for rushing plays (p.129):

“Run blocking is all technique. It’s all technical work. It requires repetition. One thing I lacked was technique. I would just try to come off and use my momentum. I would put my head down and figure if I ran into them hard enough, they’ll move. I had a rude awakening. A lot of guys just sat there, dumped me to the side, and tackled the running back.”

The astonishing thing about watching Lang—even in horrible defeats where the offense abandoned the run like Week 1 against the Jets and Week 8 against the Seahawks—is that he simply does not lose reps. Sure, the “Monday Night Football” opener was an overall disaster, but a scribbled note on the printed out Week 1 gamebook play-by-play log in front of the keyboard as this is being typed up actually says “Never lost a snap?” on it. Run plays may have failed in various games, but almost none of them ever seemed to be due to a missed block by Lang.

Looking at the overall running back performance, it is pretty clear that in games where the Lions did not have to abandon the run due to deep early deficits (e.g. Jets, Seahawks) and Lang played significant snaps, the run game usually prospered. Those would be Kerryon Johnson’s 100-yard performance against the Patriots and the aforementioned stomping of the Dolphins on the road.

What about the road game against the Cowboys? Lang was injured halfway through the first quarter on the Lions’ second drive of the game. At that point, the rushing attack had already gained 40 yards on six carries by running backs. For the remainder of the game without him in the lineup, Detroit backs picked up just 34 yards on 11 more carries.

Focus and finish

Right guard is not generally seen as a high impact position that makes a huge difference, and I go back to a story that former Lions offensive guard Geoff Schwartz dropped in an article about pass blocking on SB Nation:

There are three types of pass sets for offensive tackles. We will focus on that position because they get paid to pass protect. As one offensive line coach told me “we can find guards at the local grocery store!”

The lack of recognition for interior offensive linemen as dominant players probably has to do with the fact that they seldom create huge plays by themselves. The reason a superior guard is a big deal, though, is not because they cause big gains but because they prevent negative plays. By making and sustaining every block, a guard of Lang’s quality can help ensure strings of successful plays that keep the offense on schedule to sustain long drives.

This is particularly true in the running game, which is not usually expected to create a lot of explosive gains. Instead, running plays are supposed to be safer, steadier plays that generate modest yards with much less risk of failing to gain the expected yards or turn the ball over. It’s why stopping the run is such an emphasis on defense and why negative runs are so backbreaking: the offense is counting on getting a less volatile targeted number of yards in exchange for giving up the possibility of a big play.

How big of a role did Lang play in the early-season success on the ground by the Lions? Consider that a typical game features about 60 to 70 offensive snaps, of which perhaps 25 are called run plays. Most games where Lang had significant playing time, the Lions ran Power to the left side at least two or three times in the game. Another one or two play calls would be a front-side pulling guard play to the outside of the offense’s right similar to a pin/pull sweep. In many games like the Miami road win, the Lions would also run inside trap several times. On all of these plays, the pulling guard would be T.J. Lang.

Adding in another couple of inside zone plays (surely there would be some) where the hole to cut through would be behind Lang at the point of attack, we are now up to maybe eight or nine plays per game with the host of Talking with T.J. as your key run blocker. Just like plays can be designed to get a particular playmaker the ball, one way to view this mix of rushing plays is the Lions were calling ten percent of their offense to feature Lang. That would be one-third of their entire run game in any given week.

What really stands out on the tape are the great fundamentals play after play:

  • Positioning after contact and making the tough reach and cutoff blocks
  • Tracking and engaging cleanly at the second level
  • Latching on and keeping the defender occupied to the whistle
  • Quickly picking up would-be penetrators to keep the backfield clean

We now go to some nice examples of all of this.

2018 Week 1 NYJ, 2Q (14:57). First-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

At the start of the second quarter, the Lions run inside zone to their left (our right) in the image above. 60 C Graham Glasgow gives 98 DL Mike Pennel a swat with his right arm before releasing to seal off 58 LB Darron Lee at the second level. Pennel at the nose position is picked up by 76 RG T.J. Lang, who has to navigate all the way around to get play-side on his man.

Incredibly, not only does Lang get across his man’s face but he ends up turning Pennel all the way around and throws the 332-pounder to the ground at the end of the play. Squeezing up inside the lane opened by Glasgow and Lang, rookie 33 HB Kerryon Johnson went for five yards on first down.

2018 Week 3 NED, 3Q (1:58). First-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

Late in the game with a 10-point lead, the Detroit goes with a pin-pull to the weak side. Lang is uncovered and releases up the field to occupy 51 LB Ja’Whaun Bentley. 77 LG Frank Ragnow will pin the man on his inside shoulder while both 68 LT Taylor Decker and Glasgow release and lead outside.

There are two things to look at here. First, Lang gets to Bentley and slides over mid-block to establish position as if the play is going to go wide as it is designed (“pin-pull sweep”). Decker is beaten by his man, so the edge is slammed shut for Kerryon, who has to cut it back up inside of Glasgow’s block. This is the second big point: Lang has sustained his block all the way from one hash to the other, and even if the play is now going to the incorrect side of Lang’s block on Bentley it does not matter. The defender is still occupied, and Kerryon blows right by for a huge 12-yard gain.

2018 Week 7 at MIA, 2Q (1:06). Second-and-Goal at the Miami 2.

The next play we have is the touchdown run by 29 HB LeGarrette Blount at the end of the first half against the Dolphins. The play call is classic Iso weak up in the left A-gap. 15 WR Golden Tate comes in motion as a wingback to get the defense to overload the right side, but 43 FB Nick Bellore heads left and goes back-on-backer with 52 LB Raekwon McMillan.

Forget about the point of attack for now, though, and look at what happens in the back-side A-gap. Lang blasts his man hard on the double-team for 71 RT Rick Wagner to get a solid inside position and then releases up to wall off 47 LB Kiko Alonso from possibly coming across the field to shoot the gap. Lang stops the Miami big play machine with such force that Alonso’s helmet goes flying.

2018 Week 7 at MIA, 4Q (14:03). First-and-10 at the Detroit 20.

Later in the game with a 12-point lead, the Lions went with an off-tackle play from the I-formation. What is really nice about the job Lang does on this play is that he holds the double team at the point of attack with Wagner as long as he can while staying aware of what else is developing around him. At the last second, he comes off into McMillan, who tries to attack up into the run path from behind but finds only a stiff shoulder and no opening.

Multiple times this year, you can see him exercise patience at the first level, staying with the double-team to maintain control of the line of scrimmage before releasing at the last second to switch off to another block. This is great awareness and vision at work; Lang knows what’s coming, and is not in a panicked rush to get to the next guy before the first job is done.

Running without T.J.

Now, before we get into some of the run blocking problems in Lang’s absence, it is worth pointing out that backup Kenny Wiggins is a veteran lineman who had previous starting experience. Since this is a player with a pile of NFL snaps under his belt, of course we will find some solid plays by him in both pass protection and run blocking.

It is not like Wiggins is being completely dominated all the time—he is just not as athletic or consistent with technique as Lang, and as a result loses his one-on-ones noticeably more often. The problem is that great reps mixed with poor reps in-between does not work well in the run game. It is much better to have adequate mistake-free blocking every rep than to have a shoulder shimmy-worthy play and then blow an assignment to lose yards on the next one.

2018 Week 4 at DAL, 3Q (2:17). First-and-10 at the Detroit 42.

Late in the third quarter of a close game in Dallas, the Lions run Power to the left side. Watch the play develop twice and follow 97 DE Taco Charlton (boxed in pink) the first time and then watch 79 RG Kenny Wiggins (boxed in yellow) the second time.

It is not clear why Wiggins simply ran past Charlton since there is no blocking back in the formation. Blount had zero chance here and took a pretty mean shot to the gut.

2018 Week 5 GBY, 1Q (12:10). First-and-10 at the Green Bay 45.

This is just a pure whiff of a kick out block on 93 LB Reggie Gilbert, who buries Blount for a loss.

2018 Week 4 at DAL, 4Q (3:07). First-and-10 at the Dallas 36.

Possibly the most disappointing aspect of this missed block on 93 DT Daniel Ross (who makes the tackle-for-loss on Blount) is that Wiggins is lined up with play-side leverage. In spite of the alignment advantage, Ross still dips under the block and crushes the play before it even gets going.

2018 Week 5 GBY, 1Q (13:31). Second-and-7 at the Detroit 48.

Very early in the Week 5 win against the Packers at home, Kerryon Johnson picked up 6 yards on an outside run to the right side. What we want to focus on in this overhead All-22 angle is Wiggins (boxed in pink) and 50 LB Blake Martinez (boxed in yellow). Detroit is spreading the field with four wide across, and the defense is completely outflanked by the play call. At the snap, Wiggins engages the down lineman in front of him but passes him off quickly to pursue Martinez at the next level.

While Kerryon Johnson sprints to the edge, Wiggins moves up but completely misses on his intended target. Martinez skirts the block and forces the ball-carrier to get even wider toward the sideline. To understand how heartbreaking this missed block was, we have to view it from behind the run lane.

6 yards is a fine pickup, but just imagine how big that could have been if the Detroit rookie was running full blast downhill instead of sideways to avoid the linebacker. Cutting up the field would have made 11 WR Marvin Jones’ blocking positioning perfect right where he is standing at the numbers.

2018 Week 5 at DAL, 2Q (9:30). First-and-10 at the Detroit 47.

Running zone to the left with Blount, Wiggins (boxed in pink) is uncovered and moves up to take 55 LB Leighton Vander Esch (boxed in yellow). Unfortunately, the Detroit guard is unable to get over fast enough to establish a good angle and never gets a good grip on the rookie linebacker. Vander Esch pulls away and helps provide mass to the gang tackle that brought the ball-carrier down.

Although the play would have likely been stopped for a short gain even without Vander Esch running free from the back side of the play, we really do not want to see unblocked pursuit on any rushing snap.

Where do the Lions go from here?

Though T.J. Lang is still capable of playing at an amazingly high level at full strength, most Lions fans (including the Pride of Detroit staff) accept that it is likely he may retire to protect his long-term health. Looking forward to 2019, Ben Muth from Football Outsiders thinks if Detroit “can keep the same five guys together next year, they should become a top-10 unit. The key may be finding a way to keep T.J. Lang, who has been hurt, and the play has dipped without him.”

Wiggins was never meant to play this large a role, and the assessment we got from Bolts from the Blue’s Richard Wade was spot on: “I think that if he is not asked to do too much he should be a positive addition to the Lions. In an ideal situation, he is not going to start more than about four games per season and if his time on the field is limited to that he will be fine. Well, last Sunday’s win over the Arizona Cardinals was the seventh start of the season for Kenny Wiggins, and the former Charger will end up starting 10 out of sixteen games this year.

Even if the Lions got Lang back on the 53-man roster next season, how many games could they expect him to start? The team will have a lot of questions to think about this offseason when it comes to the right guard position and the run game in general.

  1. Suppose Lang still wants to play and is cleared medically. Would the final year of the current contract be justified given the availability concerns? The team would clear $9 million in net cap space next year if the contract was not retained.
  2. If not, are there free agents or draft prospects at an athletic and technical level who fit the mold of what the Lions need? It looks like the Lions want maulers in the run game at guard based on the style of play seen from Lang and Ragnow.
  3. With the continued growth of Ragnow into a stellar run blocker, should the team switch from being “left-handed” to “right-handed” when it runs the ball? Maybe stay “left handed” but run less gap concepts and become a more zone heavy team running left behind Decker and Ragnow?
  4. What are the developmental statuses of Joe Dahl and Leo Koloamatangi? Are either of them possible transitions to right guard or are they staying at their more natural positions of left guard and center?

We’re going to try and answer some of those questions over the next week or two. Stay tuned.

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