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Film review: Secondary held its own against the Giants’ rub routes

The Lions defended some tough pass concepts well for three quarters.

NFL: New York Giants at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The final score of Detroit’s second preseason game was enough to send the PODcast into panic mode and none of the 6 players who had the most to prove did anything to move the needle much on their stocks. The overall feeling after the game was terrible enough to spur head coach Matt Patricia to lay into everyone (including himself). At first, fearless leader Jeremy Reisman hated almost everything he saw that night and appeared to be headed for the pit of despair.

Remembering it was just the second preseason game of Patricia’s tenure, the gang quickly shook off the feelings of dread. Even Jeremy, who nearly flunked the secondary on his first viewing of the game, reconsidered:

A notable observation from Mansur Shaheen was that the first and second string players in the secondary actually looked pretty damn decent. Alex Reno agreed, tagging Tavon Wilson as one of his winners for flying around the ball. The key line in the RenoTake on Tavon: “He didn’t exactly make any outstanding plays in coverage to force many incompletions, but he didn’t allow any extra yards after the catch and made some nice stops in the open field that were short of the sticks.”

After watching the tape through twice and concentrating on how Detroit did against the pass, I have to say the first two-and-a-half to three quarters of the game agrees with that assessment. Now, we have to remember the Lions only trailed 10-7 going into the half and things really only began to slide after the TJ Jones tipped ball interception. By then, most of the starters were out of the game on defense, and reserves surrendered big plays that the guys we expect to be playing in the regular season did not.

With regards to secondary play in coverage, something that stuck out to me was how well the Lions’ starters dealt with pick plays. We start with a look at some effective “rub routes” by the Giants later in the game and then come back to some earlier plays to highlight the difference between the top and bottom of Detroit’s depth chart.

Pick play separation

To help remind us how pick plays work in football, let’s check out two plays the Giants ran late in the second half against the Lions. Apologies to 36 CB Antwuan Davis, who was cut on Monday (possibly in part due to these plays), but has since signed with Oakland.

2018 Preseason Week 2 vs NYG, 3Q (2:47). Second-and-6 at the New York 14.

New York lines up with 17 QB Kyle Lauletta in the shotgun with trips right: 15 WR Hunter Sharp, 8 WR Russell Shepard, and 6 WR Amba Etta-Tawo from the inside-out. Across from these receivers in man coverage are 36 CB Antwuan Davis, 43 CB Chris Jones, and 31 CB Teez Tabor. The pattern has Etta-Tawo running Teez off deep into the middle third of the field to possibly draw the deep help (here 47 S Tracy Walker lined up super deep off camera) away from the sideline. Shepard and Sharp run a wheel pick combo to get Sharp free down the right sideline in the turkey hole.

Ideally for the offense, Shepard releases hard off the line and posts up, acting like he is trying to set up for a short curl route. In reality he is screening off Sharp’s defender (Davis) and allowing the wheel receiver to run full speed while the cover man is struggling to get around the obstruction. Lauletta watches to see if the pick develops:

To get an idea of just how shady a good pick can be, first look at the action at the crossing point. Note how the quarterback sees it work and puts the ball in the air before Sharp is fully into his wheel break:

In spite of a complete lack of pass rush (as per usual) from the Lions, the ball is overthrown thanks to Lauletta’s third-string arm. What if that had been a real NFL quarterback like 10 Eli Manning throwing the ball down the sideline, though? Just look at the separation created downfield:

The receiver runs out to around the 33-yard line, which would have easily been a 20+ yard completion with whatever YAC could have been tacked on.

2018 Preseason Week 2 vs NYG, 4Q (11:13). First-and-10 at the Detroit 22.

The other way a pick play can work is for the route runner to run at referees or other defenders and use them as obstacles to steer his cover man into. Early in the fourth quarter, the Giants have it down near the red zone and run a play action naked bootleg with two hi-lo tight end crossers for Lauletta to dump the ball to. At the top of the screen, the two wideouts run their cornerbacks off into the sunset to clear green pasture for 47 TE Garrett Dickerson (the high crosser) and 82 TE Scott Simonson (the low crosser) to work with. Detroit’s coverage is man-to-man with 35 LB Miles Killebrew on Dickerson and 36 CB Antwuan Davis on Simonson.

At the mesh point for the run action component, we can see the big problem for Davis in the pink boxes. As Killebrew and 53 LB Trevor Bates flow with the blocking, Davis runs into both of them instead of cleanly scraping under or over the linebackers. That leaves Simonson running full speed across the formation as Lauletta rolls out while Davis has to regain his balance before attempting to catch up.

Simonson has several steps of separation by the time Lauletta gathers up to throw the ball, and it is an easy pitch and catch for eleven yards and another first down. Part of this is on Davis, but part of it is also on the linebackers since they all need to coordinate who is going where.

What good teammates can do: get out of the way

In case you needed another reason to love Darius Slay, he provided a fantastic example of how the linebackers in the play above could have helped Davis stay in stride with Simonson. Early in the second quarter with the ball on Detroit’s 3-yard line, New York ran a spread out shotgun pass play with a different rub route combo to either side of 5 QB Davis Webb.

2018 Preseason Week 2 vs NYG, 2Q (14:10). Second-and-Goal at the Detroit 3.

At the top of the screen to the offense’s left, 88 TE Evan Engram posts up in front of 28 CB Quandre Diggs (playing safety) with Sharp trying to loop behind. Lawson plays it well, backed off enough to stay mobile and not get caught up in the pile. Webb sees nothing there after two hops, and starts looking back in the other direction where 12 WR Cody Latimer and 87 WR Sterling Shepard are running a slant and out to block Agnew from following Shepard to the sideline.

The play falls apart when 42 LB Devon Kennard gets pressure and chases Webb around, and eventually Slay knocks down a desperation throw to Latimer along the back line of the end zone. Chris Spielman went to the replay camera following Slay around to marvel at how well the All-Pro cornerback stuck to his man as the play broke down. Here is the beginning of that close-up replay angle:

The point of emphasis here is to watch the two guys fighting on the flat component of the slant-flat streak across the shot (Agnew and Shepard). Look at Slay’s reaction and composure: he jumps back to create space for Agnew to run through. Latimer is forced to hitch up to avoid drawing a penalty, and Slay takes that opportunity to re-orient himself to the quarterback. By the time Agnew is exiting the picture a fraction of a second after contact, he’s already back at full speed in pursuit of Shepard while Slay is re-establishing hand check position on Latimer. The instinctual spacing of levels by Big Play Slay for the cross to happen in front of him while maintaining a lock on his own assignment is incredible.

What good cover men can do: be aware and take good paths

Continuing our reverse progression through the second preseason game, we now turn to 32 S Tavon Wilson to see how the cover man can evade traffic and take good angles to prevent bigger gains by the offense on pick plays. Both plays we will examine have Tavon matched up on Engram in third-and-7 situations.

2018 Preseason Week 2 vs NYG, 1Q (2:43). Third-and-7 at the Detroit 29.

This is a designed crossing pattern to get the ball to Engram by setting up multiple opportunities for him to rub his cover man off on somebody. As the tight end runs across the formation through traffic, he can use anyone in the way to take out 32 S Tavon Wilson trying to tail him in man coverage.

The first opportunity is to run Tavon into 40 MLB Jarrad Davis, but Davis attacks up the field and actually obstructs Engram’s path a bit. The second opportunity is the diagonal route across the field run by Shepard with Agnew covering. That may have slowed Tavon a bit, but the trail coverage lets the route clear before it can be a problem.

At the throw, the pursuit angle to Engram is solid and nearly cuts him off in time to prevent the conversion; only a late stretch of the ball at the very end gets it past the first down marker. Still a good effort on third down—sometimes young athletic first-round tight ends will just make plays.

2018 Preseason Week 2 vs NYG, 1Q (1:06). Third-and-7 at the Detroit 19.

Again facing third-and-7, the Giants run another pick play to Engram, hoping to get him open to the outside by running Tavon into Agnew at the top of Shepard’s curl stem. 28 HB Jonathan Stewart came out of the backfield and was followed by Davis to the outside at the bottom.

The pick attempt is very obvious, and Webb tracks Engram the entire way: the play design is for this and only this throw. Tavon handles the pick like a champ, getting skinny underneath the curl route to stay with his man the entire way.

Not only does the former Patriot safety contest the catch, he wraps up immediately and this time Engram’s desperation reach for the sticks is not enough. Sometimes the young athletic first-round tight end does not make the play.

This stuff (sort of) matters

Usually saved for important situations like third downs or two-point conversions, pick plays are must-stop plays for NFL pass defenses. Although these are still games that “don’t count,” when it came down to the players we expect to be contributing from Week 1 onward, they got the job done in coverage. Paul Pasqualoni’s defense holding firm against what ought to be complex “money” plays for the offense—even in preseason—felt great.

While the game plans and final scores don’t matter too much, knowing the guys who will make the 53-man roster are playing with good fundamentals and communication is a good sign. Seeing the Lions defenders closing fast on pass catchers, form tackling well, and generally staying in good position in coverage against the starters for the Giants has to be counted as good progress for the new scheme. Now, if the team can find a pass rush and play some disciplined outside containment to stop the run, we may actually have ourselves a defense.