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Film breakdown: How do the Lions succeed when they only rush three?

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Detroit is dictating terms to the offensive protection, flashing threats that blockers cannot risk ignoring.

New England Patriots v Detroit Lions Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

We’re rushing HOW many?

For the past two weeks or so, the Lions’ relatively heavy usage of three-man rushes on defense has been frequently mentioned by fans and media. This is a fairly strange thing, since the traditional way to get pressure on the quarterback is to send more guys than the other guys can block. The Lions hardly ever send extra players to blitz, though, and are somehow finding success:

The seeming “lack of a pass rush” has not harmed the performance of the pass coverage. At various times, both Justin Coleman and Rashaan Melvin have drawn praise at times throughout the first few games, Mike Ford has looked pretty good in place of Darius Slay (all things considered), and so the cornerbacks overall have done quite well as a unit. Whatever the case, the pass defense has been working:

Prior to the Week 5 games, they were 8th against the pass by Football Outsiders DVOA rankings, so a very decent showing. From Ben Fennell, the Lions (at least prior to Week 5) were allowing the lowest completion percentage on third down to opponents.

Let us now return to the three-man rushes and whether this constitutes low effort on the part of the Lions to establish pressure. Before the Kansas City game, I thought it was really weird too, and did not know what to make of it (the first draft of this article had a title referencing Insane Clown Posse and magnets, if you know what I mean).

It’s not what you think

Like everyone else, my first thought was that Detroit’s three-man rush was basically dropping guys and playing coverage without trying to get pressure, so the solid numbers against the pass was surprising to say the least. On third-and-forever, this is a completely understandable defensive call; most NFL teams will at least consider it, and the Lions in fact do this from time to time when that particular down-and-distance situation arises.

2019 Week 1 at ARI, 2Q (10:33). Third-and-18 at the Arizona 26.

Following a huge 11-yard sack by 42 OLB Devon Kennard on 1 QB Kyler Murray, the Lions set up to guard the first down marker at the 44-yard line to simply get off the field. Murray hit his running back 31 HB David Johnson for an allowed 7-yard completion leading to a punt.

2019 Week 3 at PHI, 4Q (13:21). Third-and-20 at the Philadelphia 15.

Again following a big sack by 98 NT Damon Harrison for a 7-yard loss, the Lions have their opponent backed up into a horrible third down situation. They go three down and spread the rest near the sticks. In this case, the Eagles could not even complete an easy pass and had to bring on their punting unit for fourth down.

That is the usual way a three-man rush is thought of, but that is not at all what the Lions are doing. The first hint of what is going on came last year when the Lions called for three-man rushes; I have to admit rather sheepishly that I was not paying enough attention to notice. Fortunately, Craig Stout from our sister site Arrowhead Pride was.

2018 Week 2 at SFO, 2Q (1:49). Second-and-10 at the San Francisco 13.

That’s Kennard on the left, 61 DT Kerry Hyder on the nose (yes, really), and 57 OLB Eli Harold standing up on the right side. 40 MLB Jarrad Davis inches up in the right side B-gap, while 52 OLB Christian Jones creeps into the left side B-gap. Jones is the strong B LB that Stout is talking about, and he is actually assigned spy duty on 10 QB Jimmy Garoppolo. Davis drops immediately with his man coverage assignment on 44 FB Kyle Juszczyk.

Once Jones sees Garoppolo boxed in by the wide rushers and knows there is no run threat, he storms in for the sack. What started as a 3+1 spy rush generates a sack thanks to good coverage behind it. The big takeaway here is the formation and process from the Lions’ front. The key elements of what is going on are:

  1. Someone at nose tackle on the opposing center, applying a wall up the middle.
  2. Edge rushers maintaining wide routes to cut off sideline scramble escapes. Can be standing up or down stance.
  3. Linebackers threatening the B-gaps. Can rush, spy, or drop into coverage.

It is a slightly different take on what zone blitzes and double A-gap calls do to bait offensive protection players into blocking air and 46 defense ideas on setting up isolated pass rush one-on-ones. Instead of trying to get one-on-one matchups inside by putting down linemen covering all three interior offensive linemen (thereby preventing the guards or center from giving or receiving help against inside rushers) like a Bear front, the Lions are trying to guarantee one-on-ones outside. It is like an inverted 46 defense flipped inside-out.

While the Bear front is stacking inside to take away the inside run, the Lion front is intended to play the pass. In that sense, people may want to liken it more to a double A-gap or even an 8-3 defense, but the Ryan family 46 defense is probably more familiar to most fans, and the influence on blocking from that look suffices for comparison purposes. We will now walk through some examples showing how this new Lion front works when defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni sends it in as a changeup in passing situations.

The core “Lion front”

As mentioned above, the elements we are looking for is a nose tackle, two edge rushers aligned wide, and two linebackers sugaring the B-gaps. This works in a nearly identical way to how the 46 defense puts a defensive lineman over each guard: every lineman now has a rush threat that needs to be accounted for:

The Bear front forces one-on-one matchups with offensive linemen. There will be five-on-five blocking. Hopefully we will have one defender better than one of their blockers. The linebackers are freed up. We can pop them right into the hot areas.

If you have three linemen and two linebackers all stacked up front, the guards must adjust and spend the first moments after the snap protecting against the linebackers in case they decide to rush. Protection generally has to go inside-out, ensuring nobody gets through the middle to the quarterback because it is the shortest route to a sack. If the linemen try to ignore the linebackers and assume they will not rush—but then they do in fact rush—the quarterback is toast. Therefore, they must stay inside and cannot help outside.

What does this mean for the edge rushers? They are guaranteed to have one-on-ones against their tackles. Maybe they get chipped on a release by a tight end or a back, but for the most part they will have one big blocker to deal with. As Earl Browning wrote in the above passage, “hopefully we will have one defender better than one of their blockers” on the edge. We are mainly talking about setting up 90 DE Trey Flowers and 42 OLB Devon Kennard, but it could really be anybody (and we will get to that at the end).

2019 Week 2 LAC, 3Q (2:18). Third-and-3 at the Detroit 21.

Here is a perfect example of how the alignment in the Lion front influences the offensive line. Boxed in pink, we have tackle-playing-right-guard 75 OT Michael Schofield pointing at Kennard standing up outside his shoulder. In the bottom panel boxed in purple, we have left guard 66 OG Ryan Groy pointing at 51 MLB Jahlani Tavai to tell 53 C Mike Pouncey that he will watch Tavai over his shoulder.

At the snap, look at the heads of the guards: they confirm the sight adjustment. Kennard danced to his right just prior to the snap, and Schofield’s head went right with him. In both the top and bottom panel of this image, we can see Groy staring at Tavai. Neither Tavai nor Kennard rush the passer, and both drop into coverage.

The two linebackers clog the short crossing lanes in the middle of the field. Tavai sticks with 81 TE Lance Kendricks, who was intending to clear out the shallow zone for 88 TE Virgil Green to cross into for a short dump off. Instead, Kennard is in Green’s way, and the timing of the route is messed up.

Meanwhile on the wings of the tackle box, we have Flowers on our left side of the image plowing into 69 RT Sam Tevi while 95 DE Romeo Okwara is trying to speed rush 78 LT Trenton Scott. Both are put into one-on-one pass rush matchups because all three interior linemen are either blocking 96 DT Mike Daniels (Pouncey and Schofield) or air (Groy). In the bottom panel, we can see Flowers has beaten Tevi.

The coverage is good enough such that 17 QB Philip Rivers cannot unload the ball before Flowers gets to him. The chop to Rivers’ throwing arm forces the ball harmlessly to the dirt, and the Chargers were forced to settle for a field goal. Oh wait.

2019 Week 4 KCY, 2Q (0:37). First-and-10 at the Kansas City 44.

Late in the first half against the Chiefs, we have the Lions doing the same thing but with Kennard and Flowers as the wings and Okwara head up on the center. 40 MLB Jarrad Davis and 44 Jalen Reeves-Maybin show up in the gaps, and then switch right before the snap to give the interior offensive line something to think about.

Once again, in the top panel we have the interior offensive line compressing inwards to remove the inside rush threat posed by the linebackers. On the outside, Kennard is one-on-one with 71 RT Mitchell Schwartz while Flowers is working against 75 LT Cameron Erving. Reeves-Maybin drops into a shallow zone at the snap while Davis is in man coverage on 31 HB Darrel Williams out of the backfield.

Reeves-Maybin is in great position to jump the shallow cross by 14 WR Sammy Watkins, so there is no safety valve available. Both 76 RG Laurent Duvernay-Tardif and 77 LG Andrew Wylie are left looking around for someone to block as Kennard beats Mitchell and forces 15 QB Patrick Mahomes to throw the ball away off-balance.

Variations on the base look

Now, the Lions will typically drop one or both of the linebackers into coverage, sometimes using one as a spy on the quarterback. Removing two out of the five defenders threatening the quarterback like this is what adds a tick to the counter of three-man rush snaps. If the Lions never rushed the linebackers, though, nobody would believe the purported threat of an inside blitz. Pasqualoni prevents this by, well, actually sending them every so often. The other thing that forces the pass protectors to think is lateral rearrangement of the look’s basic elements.

2019 Week 1 at ARI, 2Q (13:27). Third-and-8 at the Arizona 18.

Both of these ways of changing it up came into play on this third down call against the Cardinals in Week 1. Left to right, there are five rushers threatening the offense, but look which are the down linemen and which are the stand-up linebackers. 51 MLB Jahlani Tavai is over center where there would normally be a nose tackle and 96 DT Mike Daniels is over 67 LG Justin Pugh’s B-gap. Instead of being a stand-up rusher on the perimeter, Kennard is starting from a three-point stance.

At the snap, Tavai charges and ends up looping around to the right behind Daniels. Reeves-Maybin is not actually rushing, and goes flat-footed after faking a rush; he is actually assigned coverage on the back, 31 HB David Johnson. The top panel above is what we have come to expect: Detroit forces the interior offensive line to commit inside, leaving both Kennard and Flowers one-on-one on the outside. In this case, Flowers beats 74 LT D.J. Humphries like a drum, and there’s nothing left for Humphries to do except grab some cloth.

Murray is flushed from the pocket by Flowers, and has to throw it away. The key here is not that the Lions are rushing three or four or however many bodies, it is the fact that their best pass rushers Kennard and Flowers are almost certainly going to be isolated on one blocker each.

2019 Week 2 LAC, 1Q (2:36). Third-and-3 at the Los Angeles 32.

This is not a mistake. On the left side of the formation wide and outside the tackle box standing up is 91 DT A’Shawn Robinson as the edge rusher in this three-man rush package. Everyone is standing up except 98 NT Damon Harrison Sr. in the middle. While not optimal, the extreme changeup thrown at 69 RT Sam Tevi does its job.

Boxed in pink, A’Shawn gives Tevi the bull rush from hell while Okwara shows us how the low man wins with pad level. Up the middle, the guards are staring at all three linebackers (Jones, Kennard, and Tavai) dropping into coverage. Jones and Kennard jump the middle crossing routes while Tavai runs up the seam with 81 TE Lance Kendricks. Rivers has nowhere to go with the ball, and eventually both of his own offensive tackles are walked back into the pocket to meet him.

The three-man rush call from a Lion front or any of these kinds of variants is fantastic in third-and-short to third-and-medium because it puts the linebackers in perfect position to take away the high-percentage crossers that so many teams like to run. At the same time, there is a decent chance for pressure from the edge since both outside rushers are given an opportunity to win against their tackles.

Even if the play breaks down, the overall design takes away most of the escape routes for the quarterback. The wide rush by both outside players is designed to keep the QB in the well, and the fact that the defense has eight players dropped into coverage (possibly one spying the QB even) means they should also be in decent position to stop a scramble up the middle. In the play right above, both Kennard and Jones are in the vicinity to move back up if Rivers decided to try bolting up the middle, and Snacks is clogging the center with multiple OL bodies anyway.

As long as everyone maintains their relative spacing, eventually the pocket collapses without letting the quarterback slip away. For a look at how crucial it is for all parts to be working together in a team defense approach, consider one of the worst breakdowns to befall the Lions when rushing from this look this season.

2019 Week 4 KCY, 1Q (2:07). Third-and-6 at the Kansas City 18.

This is the scramble by Mahomes for 25 yards where he looked back at the referee. The defense is in our Lion front with 92 DT Kevin Strong over the center, Flowers and Okwara on the wings, and Davis and Kennard as the B-gap standing linebackers. At the snap, Davis backs out in coverage while watching the running back and Kennard attacks for a four-man rush.

Due to Davis’ drop to Mahomes’ left side, the “escape” to the left is covered: Okwara has the lateral escape, and Davis can cover the lane. At the same time, short zone defenders are crossing in front with their assigned receivers, so there are bodies everywhere in the middle of the field. The mistake made by Flowers is that he attempts to spin inside of Schwartz. That breaks the wall of the well and allows Mahomes to escape outside. In the bottom panel, we can see downfield that basically everyone is covered and there is no open throw.

Had Flowers stayed home and walked his man back to the quarterback, the Lions might have had a shot at Kennard looping back behind Strong to close the vise grips with Flowers. Instead, the Chiefs got a long gain and a fresh set of downs.

Bringing numbers without numbers

What head coach Matt Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni are doing with this Lion front is similar in spirit to what some anti-spread attacking defenses are doing. Just look at some of the things in Ian Boyd’s superb article on the 8-3:

It’s ultimately a 3-4 defense in terms of positions on the field and pre-snap alignment, but instead of matching power up front with two-gapping DL, the 8-3 is defined by the eight stand-up players will shift around to assume different roles. It’s descended from the 3-3-5 but uses more 3-4 alignments while bringing a similar philosophy of flexibility. It’s the counter-point to the spread, using space and options to present conflicts and dilemmas to force the offense to play defense.

A multiple look with few down linemen and a lot of stand up defenders who can do different things? Sounds a lot like the looks we are getting from the Lions with hybrid players like Okwara and Kennard who can do lots of things on the edge. I mean, heck we have even seen A’Shawn Robinson standing up on the outside.

The goal in finding and developing personnel is to find players that can perform as many roles in the defensive backfield as possible and having positional rules that will allow players to compartmentalize and play in multiple defenses.

So, athletic hitting safeties who could also be linebackers? Miles Killebrew, Tavon Wilson, and Will Harris, anyone? Quandre Diggs, having been a slot corner, deep safety, and ferocious run support guy could also figure here.

Once again, the offense is forced into a position where someone other than the star is forced to make the play while the defense defers their own stress point somewhere manageable.

In this instance, the slot receiver has a lot of space to work in but with the QB’s eyes focused on the back side he’s unable to take advantage. To successfully attack this defense the offense will have to start calling something else.

Remember how the Lions were double covering dangerous players like Travis Kelce or Zach Ertz?

The 8-3 defense can also align in one call to encourage a response and then shift. Perhaps the offense’s favorite check at the line when they see the defense lining up to deny the QB a chance to run the ball is to call a quick game concept that features the slot receiver, but the defense anticipates this and drops back after the snap to smother the slot receiver with zone defenders.

That sounds a lot like what the linebacker drops are doing to the shallow crossers and scramble lanes. When the Lions line up with five threats in front of five offensive linemen but only actually rush three, they reap the benefit as if they really had rushed five (one-on-one matchups for their best pass rushers) without doing so. That also means instead of dropping six or seven defenders into coverage to get the favorable rush matchups, they get eight to double up the best players the offense has to throw at them and blanket the underneath zones. It’s a lot like playing defense with 13 players rather than 11.

Why is this different from a double A-gap blitz that also walks up two linebackers? In the usual double A-gap look, the defense comes with four down linemen and threatens with six potential rushers. This tends to force the offense to hold the back in to block (so they can have six-on-six in a worst case scenario). When the Lions threaten with five, the offense will often let the back out into a route instead (leaving five-on-five). The Lions are effectively letting the offense have the running back’s short route, and in return will use the extra defender and blanket the deeper routes by doubling another high priority threat or giving additional help over the top. Go ahead and have your 5-yard route (which we’ll have covered anyway), and we’ll still get our best rushers in one-on-ones and bracket your big play guys.

The Lions defense has been an interesting laboratory to try out wacky ideas, and sometimes they are ugly but deadly. As we’ve seen, this disguised three-man rush package has been in the system since last year, but only now is it really drawing attention. I suspect it has to do with the personnel matching the strategy better one extra year into the new regime. Could it have worked with a healthy Ziggy Ansah last year? Maybe, but we will never know. Now Trey Flowers and Mike Daniels are in the defensive line mix. Da’Shawn Hand has one more year of experience. Then we have Justin Coleman, Rashaan Melvin, and a more seasoned Tracy Walker bolstering the man coverage umbrella behind it. This is just really smart defensive football from Pasqualoni and Patricia, and some of the new faces on defense may have been the edge this particular wrinkle in the scheme needed to shine.