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Film review: Analyzing the Lions’ backup OL performance vs. Raiders

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To set themselves apart, the reserves must avoid big (negative) plays.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

Long time readers of Pride of Detroit know that the only thing I like as much as the kicking game is trench play by both offensive and defensive linemen. Earlier this week when Graham Glasgow was injured in the first joint practice with the Giants, speculation and attention quickly snapped to Detroit’s backup offensive linemen. The next day, head coach Matt Patricia even addressed it before the media.

We know this is not simply a reaction to the injury, and is in fact part of the normal evaluation process for this staff. Though it did not garner as much attention before Tuesday, that regular rotation was on full display in Oakland for the first preseason game. Consider the linemen on the field for all ten of the Lions’ drives against the Raiders:

Preseason Week 1 at OAK: Offensive Linemen

Drive Quarter LT LG C RG RT
Drive Quarter LT LG C RG RT
1 1 68 Decker 77 Ragnow 60 Glasgow 66 Dahl 71 Wagner
2 1 70 Robinson 77 Ragnow 60 Glasgow 66 Dahl 71 Wagner
3 2 65 Crosby 77 Ragnow 73 Johnson 66 Dahl 70 Robinson
4 2 65 Crosby 79 Wiggins 73 Johnson 66 Dahl 70 Robinson
5 2 65 Crosby 79 Wiggins 73 Johnson 66 Dahl 70 Robinson
6 3 65 Crosby 79 Wiggins 73 Johnson 75 Koloamatangi 70 Robinson
7 3 65 Crosby 73 Johnson 75 Koloamatangi 79 Wiggins 74 Skipper
8 4 65 Crosby 74 Skipper 75 Koloamatangi 79 Wiggins 72 Mihalik
9 4 65 Crosby 74 Skipper 75 Koloamatangi 79 Wiggins 72 Mihalik
10 4 67 McGloster 74 Skipper 75 Koloamatangi 64 Montelus 72 Mihalik

Only twice did the Lions send in the same personnel along the offensive front for back-to-back series: at the end of the second quarter following a three-and-out series and in the early fourth quarter after a three-and-out series. Following coach Patricia’s comment, it stands to reason that the team sent in the same lineups to generate additional film snaps for evaluation.

As mentioned by the FOX broadcast team at the start of the third quarter, there is a fairly intense position battle going on for the offensive line reserve spots on the 53-man roster. Their on-air graphic focused on 72 OT Brian Mihalik, 73 G/C Wesley Johnson, 70 OT Corey Robinson, 74 G/T Dan Skipper, and 66 G Joe Dahl, but as can be seen in the table above there is a much broader field in play. Missing from that list but very much in the mix are former Charger 79 G Kenny Wiggins, fifth-round rookie selection 65 T Tyrell Crosby, and 75 C/G Leo Koloamatangi from last year’s practice squad.

Given all of this lovely tape with tons of different combinations to examine from the first preseason game, we decided to take a look at what the reserve offensive linemen did on all ten drives last Friday in Oakland.

Drive 1: Starters plus GOOD JOB JOE DAHL

About three minutes into the first quarter, the Lions got their first shot on offense for the 2018 season and sent out the healthy starters and 66 RG Joe Dahl in place of injured Pro Bowler 76 RG T.J. Lang. As noted by Kent Lee Platte, it was not an auspicious start for one of Chris Spielman’s favorites.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 1Q (11:28). Third-and-5 at the Detroit 31.

Right in the middle of the screen, we have Dahl matched up against 92 DT P.J. Hall. Although Dahl handles the defender’s attempt to dip his left shoulder and go under the block, there is never a secure grip established. Hall stays alive by counter-punching Dahl off and reverses course to gobble up 8 QB Matt Cassel for a drive-ending sack. On the broadcast, Spielman thought it was not a terrible job by the young guard, but in the upper right we can see what really good anchoring and solid control looks like from 77 LG Frank Ragnow against 97 DL Mario Edwards Jr.

Drive 2: Decker sits down

Halfway through the first quarter, the staff pulled 68 LT Taylor Decker and tried 70 OT Corey Robinson on Cassel’s blind side. Play calls from offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter helped ease Robinson into the game with a sequence of: play action TE drag, quick levels concept, and then a deep pass with TE help in protection on the left side. On the fourth play, CRob looked decent in protection on an incomplete 97 route thrown behind 19 WR Kenny Golladay down the right seam.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 1Q (6:37). Third-and-10 at the Detroit 36.

Coming back to Dahl, all was not terrible for the third-year player filling in at right guard. This play is the completion to 13 TJ Jones short of the sticks that garnered a first down anyway due to defensive holding by 59 LB Tahir Whitehead. Watch the right side of the line where Hall and 95 DE Fadol Brown execute a T-E stunt to blow open the inside rush lane for a faster defensive end. Dahl picks up Brown perfectly and gets a nice assist from Glasgow to secure the pocket.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 1Q (4:57). Second-and-20 at the Detroit 31.

Later on the drive when matched up against 73 DT Maurice Hurst in a passing situation, though, Dahl is absolutely torched by a swipe-and-rip move by the rookie from Michigan. At the top of the screen 51 DE Bruce Irvin has Robinson’s hips completely turned and the corner is open to Cassel. If this call had been anything but a designed three-step dump to 80 TE Michael Roberts, the play likely ends up a sack or at least a hit on the quarterback.

Drives 3, 4, and 5: Veteran FAs and Crosby enter

When the Lions took possession in the second quarter, Robinson moved from left to right tackle for 71 Rick Wagner, and former Jets starter 73 C Wesley Johnson came in for Glasgow. On the next drive, the final starter was replaced when 79 LG Kenny Wiggins took Ragnow’s place in the trenches. For the most part, the run blocking was fine (and at times very good, like the frontside block by Crosby on the touchdown) and much of the pass play calls were from the quick game playbook and put little stress on the pass protection. Two of the non-quick game passes of note are worth looking at on the lone touchdown drive of the night.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 2Q (8:31). Second-and-11 at the Oakland 25.

The play is an incompletion targeting 12 WR Bradley Marquez down the right side, but the thing of interest for the purposes of this article is the depth attained by the backup tackles on both sides of the line. By raw measurables, Robinson (boxed in pink at RT) is actually more athletic than Crosby (boxed in yellow at LT), but look what happens when they both get speed rushed around the edge on the same play.

At the bottom of the tackle box, 91 DE Shilique Calhoun is trying to go around 65 LT Tyrell Crosby, but gets walled off and cannot turn the corner. At the top of the box, 95 DE Fadol Brown gets around and under 70 RT Corey Robinson, and has the tackle’s entire frame turned and off-balance by the time Cassel delivers the ball. Now if we go back up to the still shot, look at their feet and how deep the two tackles have gotten in their depth. This kind of positioning is how Crosby did not allow a sack last year at Oregon and part of why our Jeremy Reisman thought he would jump to the first backup tackle spot ahead of both Mihalik and Robinson immediately.

As an aside, what cannot be seen from the wide broadcast angle is the end of the pass protection duel on Robinson’s right side of the line. Against a team like the Packers or Cowboys, that is almost guaranteed to be called for a holding penalty.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 2Q (8:26). Third-and-11 at the Oakland 25.

On the very next play, the Lions run a mirrored vertical-out pass play with the first down completion to 84 TE Hakeem Valles on the right side deep out past the sticks. In the image sequence above, boxed in pink is Hurst facing Dahl. At the snap in the top middle pane, Hurst falls to his knees for some reason. Then in the upper right pane we see that Dahl decides to reach after him and join him on the ground! Hurst recovers in the lower left, and by the middle bottom pane is picking up steam to blow past Dahl (now also getting up off the ground). For a split second as the camera whips left to follow Cassel’s pass, we can see Hurst getting a hit on the quarterback.

It is not clear what Dahl was thinking—maybe to pile on and keep Hurst down on the ground?—but just imagine if that was 9 QB Matthew Stafford taking an unnecessary shot from a free rusher in the midsection. Not good.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 2Q (1:28). Second-and-6 at the Detroit 19.

A more promising rep was a second down play near the end of the half where 14 QB Jake Rudock dumped the ball short to 33 HB Kerryon Johnson in the right flat for four yards. On the left side of the image above, we have former Spartan 91 LB Shilique Calhoun and former Wolverine Hurst combining on a T-E stunt like we saw earlier against the starters in the first quarter. This time Dahl has to work with Robinson to pick it up, and they slide over to stop it just fine.

The other thing to check out on this play is on the right side of the image where Crosby is facing off one-on-one against Brown. The defender goes for a straight bull rush instead of a speed rush around the corner, but gets stopped cold. Just look at the end of that play where Crosby not only stands Brown up, but unceremoniously throws him aside. Magnificent.

Drive 6: Koloamatangi at right guard

For almost the entire second half of the game, 75 C Leo Koloamatangi played where we expected him to line up: 36 of his 39 credited snaps were at center. Pride of Detroit’s Hamza Baccouche drew attention to the unsung hero’s solid play, and even highlighted some of the snaps (plus one monstrous run by Kerryon Johnson negated by penalty) at right guard.

What is remarkable about the solid block L.K. lays on the canceled 57-yard run is that he had to evade a slanting 90 DT Treyvon Hester and 79 LG Kenny Wiggins (pursuing Hester) while pulling to the left. The speed with which he rapidly tracks and blows up edge defender 35 CB Shareece Wright in the backfield is impressive and satisfying. Instead of that exciting play, though, let us examine the 1-yard broken play scramble that followed it.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 3Q (13:05). Third-and-9 at the Detroit 30.

Though the play failed due to great coverage downfield by the Raiders, this was a great rep all around for the reserve linemen. A lot of things are going on in the image above:

  • Crosby at LT and Wiggins at LG pick up 90 DT Hester and 91 LB Calhoun in the twist game beautifully.
  • Crosby rides Hester completely out of the picture under total control.
  • Wiggins also maintains control of Calhoun the whole way and drives him two yards backwards.
  • Wesley Johnson at C with a little help from Koloamatangi totally walls off 98 DT Frostee Rucker.
  • Robinson at RT takes 95 DE Brown for a ride and never loses control of the edge.
  • Koloamatangi secures Rucker with Johnson and keeps his head on a swivel, moving over to help Robinson at the end.

I know these are reserves playing against reserves with a quarterback not named Stafford standing in the pocket, but this is the kind of pass protection I like to see.

Drives 7, 8, and 9: Skipper at RT and LG

Though most fans do not expect much out of the deep reserves entering the game really late, there were still useful plays to watch. Unfortunately, most of them were bad and erased a lot of the good will built up earlier by Tyrell Crosby.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 3Q (6:00). Third-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

The two battles to watch above are the tackles against the edge rushers. At the top, 74 OT Dan Skipper is beat around the right corner by 95 DE Fadol Brown. Combined with Crosby being beaten around the left edge by Calhoun, Rudock has to pull the ball down and gets flushed. The play ends up being an automatic first down due to defensive holding on 1 WR Brandon Powell (visible in the upper left corner of the GIF), but the quarterback takes a vicious hit from behind delivered by the guy who beat Crosby.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 3Q (0:56). First-and-10 at the Oakland 11.

Knocking on the door at the end of an eight minute drive, it is disappointing to see a sack in the red zone. Calhoun keeps his arms extended on Crosby and then pulls the tackle off balance to open an outside lane to the quarterback.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 4Q (8:07). First-and-10 at the Detroit 20.

Midway through the fourth quarter, we have 74 OT Dan Skipper now lined up at left guard taking on 64 DL Shakir Soto. Somehow, Soto gets so much leverage and power in his bull rush against Skipper that he actually manages to pancake the offensive lineman.

The loss of ground collapses the pocket from the inside out, forcing Rudock to run to the outside. This is not good.

Drive 10: Deep backups run the two-minute offense

A frustrating end to a frustrating game, the turnover to seal the game showed how Koloamatangi’s eagerness to find someone to hit can be used against him.

2018 Preseason Week 1 at OAK, 4Q (0:32). Third-and-10 at the Oakland 35.

The Raiders bring just four on the pass rush, but 64 DL Shakir Soto as a DT and 47 LB/DE James Cowser rushing from outside run yet another T-E stunt. The normal assignments would have Skipper at left guard following Soto and exchanging with 67 LT Jamar McGloster to take over on Cowser. If Koloamatangi stays home in his assist spot, he would be in great position to catch the twist inside if the exchange was not made cleanly. Unfortunately as can be seen in the right panel above, the center follows Soto as well.

Once committed, Koloamatangi cuts off any way for Skipper to switch off even if he realizes where Cowser is going. This leaves the inside rush lane completely unblocked, and in the right panel here Cassel is getting hit while our over-eager center is still trying to locate the unblocked rusher. Most of the time during the Oakland game the instinct to assist other blockers served Koloamatangi well, but in this case it led to a catastrophic turnover in a game-winning drive situation.

What to look for against the Giants

Based on usage and rotation through spots, it appears the coaches are still leaning toward the more experienced players like Wesley Johnson, Kenny Wiggins, and Joe Dahl as the primary interior backups and Corey Robinson at tackle. Time to time there were great awareness plays by the veterans—for example watch Kenny Wiggins on the screen pass to Kerryon Johnson in the third quarter. 46 LB Jason Cabinda doesn’t fall down just barely out of reach of tackling the ball-carrier on his own; Wiggins is out front and notices the back side pursuit in time to make a desperation lunge to keep the screen alive.

But for every nice play made by even the veterans, they also got beaten against four-man pressure for a negative play or were called for holding on a critical down. That’s why the thing to look for in this game is consistency if anyone is to pull away from the pack. Crosby played a heck of a game up until the end of the third quarter where things started to fall apart. Koloamatangi had a fine game but for the big mistake at the end. Joe Dahl had some fine plays but some really awful ones early on as well. And so on, and so forth. If a guy gets beat by a better athlete on a rep, that kind of thing happens, but blown protections or mental errors are preventable.

The competition for the last few offensive line positions is pretty close, and Jeremy’s projected roster looks about right based on the first preseason game. If anything you could make an argument that Wesley Johnson will make it ahead of Dahl or Koloamatangi, but that last tackle spot really is the coin flip between Robinson and Mihalik that Jeremy lays out.