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Film breakdown: What the hell happened to the Detroit Lions’ run defense?

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Problems at the second level and perimeter are creating big plays in the bad way for Detroit’s defense.

Detroit Lions v Oakland Raiders Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

At the halfway mark in the season, Lions fans are still waiting for the run defense to live up to the huge expectations from where it left off last year. Even Damon Harrison Sr. knows he does not look anything like the imposing force we know he ought to be. As our own Mike Payton told Windy City Gridiron, “There isn’t a running back alive that isn’t going to town on this defense right now.” But is this really a simple matter of “Snacks made our run defense awesome and without that Snacks effect it sucks”?

In the Lions’ Week 9 loss to the Raiders, Kent Lee Platte thought Harrison looked more like what we had in 2018, but overall the defense was still unable to stop the run. While this was a better game from Harrison, we have to remember it was against a backup offensive lineman due to injuries at center for the Raiders. Whatever the case, the Lions were gashed on the ground. Take it away Jeremy Reisman:

In the ground game, you could easily see just how dominant the Raiders offensive line was in this matchup.

Let’s just make it simple here: 36 rushes, 171 yards (4.8 YPC).

What is going on here? Is it Harrison or is it something else? Well, it’s something else. We went to the Week 9 tape to check it out (under duress), and two issues showed up repeatedly: the defense is getting attacked at spots where the alignment is vulnerable (pre-snap problem) and when the hole filler moves up they often take bad angles (post-snap problem).

Surrendering leverage through alignment

On some plays, the defense comes to the line and is simply not set up to succeed. Offensive blockers with extremely good leverage just by virtue of how the formations stack up are getting good blocks to bust open holes for big gains. This can be on the outside when a blocker is set wide of the end man on the line of scrimmage and thus already in a great spot to seal the edge, or it can be on the inside when the defense shows wide splits and convenient bubbles for blockers to pry open.

Week 9 at OAK, 1Q (10:52). First-and-10 at the Oakland 37.

Oakland lines up in the I-formation with 87 TE Foster Moreau to the left and 28 HB Josh Jacobs behind 45 FB Alec Ingold. 4 QB David Carr motions Moreau to the right side before the snap, and the play call is outside lead zone right. The Lions are in a balanced wide 3-4 defense with 98 NT Damon Harrison Sr. over the center, 93 DT Da’shawn Hand in a 5-tech outside the right tackle, and 90 DE Trey Flowers in a 5-tech outside the left tackle. 40 MLB Jarrad Davis and 51 MLB Jahlani Tavai are over the guards, while both OLB 42 Devon Kennard and 52 OLB Christian Jones are split wide standing up outside where a tight end would line up.

Notice the Raiders have numbers on the Lions to the offense’s right. Counting Snacks in the middle, who is two-gapping, there are four box defenders to that side: Kennard, Hand, Davis, and Snacks. Unfortunately, there are five blockers: the center, right guard, right tackle, Moreau, and Ingold. Usually the defense ought to have even or better numbers in the box (hence 8-man fronts against 5 OL plus a TE and FB) but this is a flipped advantage with the Raiders bringing more blockers than the Lions have run defenders.

At the snap, the big uglies all match up man for man, and Ingold is running free with nobody to block. On the back side, Jones is wasted as the play runs away from him:

Ingold ends up smashing into Kennard to double-team at the point of attack with Moreau, sealing the edge in a devastating way for Jacobs to bounce the play outside for a big gain. Since the Lions are in man coverage on the outside, 27 CB Justin Coleman must drop with his receiver, taking him out of position to help in run support; Kennard was the last guy on the edge and he got crushed backwards two-on-one.

Week 9 at OAK, 2Q (6:26). First-and-10 at the Oakland 20.

This is the first play after the interception in the end zone; Oakland sets up from the gun with Moreau on the right and Jacobs to Carr’s right. 85 WR/TE Derek Carrier is in the right slot, drawing 52 OLB Christian Jones off to cover him. Detroit’s defense is in the same 3-4 personnel with Snacks on the nose but now 91 DT A’shawn Robinson and 95 DE Romeo Okwara are on the outside shoulders of the tackles. Kennard is again standing up outside where a tight end would be, and Jones would have been over Moreau’s shoulder if not for Carrier in the slot. Davis and Tavai are again over the bubbles in front of the guards.

The play call is quick inside zone to the left. The Raiders have numbers on the Lions because the defense has two high safeties: there is one blocker for every defender up front. What’s more, look at Moreau on the right edge of the defense. If the zone blocking is trying to push everything left and find a crease for Jacobs to shoot through, this looks set up from the start to have a pure cutback lane behind Moreau. Every Raider in the formation has leverage to push their man to the left.

Indeed, that is exactly what happens. Snacks almost manages to break through, but Jacobs quickly cuts away to the daylight on the back side of the blocking. Jones in man coverage over the slot receiver backs away at the snap, and is out of position to act as an edge setter. This was called back thanks to a boneheaded hold by Moreau (which was unnecessary since he already had great positioning on A’shawn), but the play should have been a pickup of 9 yards.

Week 7 MIN, 2Q (14:02). First-and-10 at the Detroit 24.

Here we have the Minnesota Vikings in Week 7 doing the same thing to essentially the same formation. Initially, 84 TE Irv Smith Jr. was aligned to the left side outside of 71 LT Riley Reiff to give the Vikings four blockers against five on the left side: Snacks, Okwara, Davis, Jones, and 21 S Tracy Walker. Prior to the snap, 82 TE Kyle Rudolph motions from the right side to set up outside of Smith, giving the Vikings five-on-five blocking play side for an outside zone run.

In this case, the Lions actually make it easy for Rudolph and Smith to seal the edge. Worried about Rudolph as a receiver, the defense has Walker in coverage against Rudolph while the wider aligned Jones is on Smith. When the play turns out to be a run, the inner aligned Walker follows Rudolph (who is looking to run block) outside. That gives Rudolph great positioning to wall off Walker inside. Smith merely has to occupy Jones long enough for 33 HB Dalvin Cook to zip by for a big 14-yard gain.

Again, the opposing offense left the back side linebacker (Kennard) unblocked and neutralized him by simply running a wide play away from him. This is one of the consequences of the Lions coming to the line in spread wide formations that stay balanced rather than shift with motion. Both the Vikings and Raiders moved a tight end and made the back side of the Lions’ formation irrelevant to give themselves numbers at the perimeter.

Surrendering leverage through overpursuit

Another issue that plagues the Lions defense is linebackers running themselves out of holes instead of filling them. This is especially true for 40 MLB Jarrad Davis and 52 OLB Christian Jones. It is not clear if they are following instructions and intentionally overshooting or guessing on play diagnosis, but the end result is often terrible for the team.

Week 9 at OAK, 2Q (2:42). First-and-10 at the Detroit 40.

On first down, the Lions are in the same 3-4 look as before. The player to focus on is Jarrad Davis, boxed in pink. The Raiders have their tight end Moreau in motion, who will scrape right along with the fullback Ingold. All of the down linemen block to their left while Moreau and Ingold appear to be pulling/lead blockers. The design of the play seems to be attacking the bubble in the defense in front of the right guard, where Jahlani Tavai is waiting.

At the snap, though, Jarrad Davis watches Moreau and reacts to his reversal back down the line of scrimmage. Davis follows Moreau and runs himself out of the bubble he was covering (now marked as a huge blue hole for Jacobs to run through).

Tavai is watching the action in the backfield, but Davis does not let him handle that right side for some reason. With nobody around to plug the hole over left guard, Jacobs ends up with a solid 16-yard run.

Week 9 at OAK, 4Q (4:31). First-and-10 at the Detroit 44.

Driving late in the fourth quarter for the go-ahead score, the Raiders run power right, pulling 64 LG Richie Incognito to lead block for 30 HB Jalen Richard. There is a combo block at the point of attack, and the fill should come from 52 OLB Christian Jones (boxed in pink).

When Incognito and Richard hit the hole, Jones and Davis are attacking from the second level. Notice that the widest part of the hole is to Incognito’s right. Instead of filling the wide part of the hole, though, Jones fires inward and pinches the space to Incognito’s left. This does not make sense on several levels:

  1. The best hole for the runner is on the other side of the blocker.
  2. Jones’ help (Davis) is to the inside, so he needs to cut off the outside and force it inwards.
  3. Jones’ angle hard inside cuts off Jarrad Davis’ path to even attempt to assist.

For the next play under review, I think it is important to stress several things:

  1. It is the very next play that happened right after that run we just looked at.
  2. The Lions are in exactly the same alignment with Jones in the same place.
  3. The Raiders run the same basic play from a tight set and slight blocking tweaks, but otherwise it is power right with Incognito as pulling lead blocker.
  4. Jones is again in position, pinches down hard instead of filling the wide part of the hole, and cuts off Davis’ angle.

Week 9 at OAK, 4Q (3:50). Second-and-3 at the Detroit 37.

Richard goes almost untouched to the yellow line (Okwara almost gets there in time) and falls forward for five total yards. It is pretty unbelievable that was a real two play sequence by the Raiders that moved the sticks in a tie game late in the fourth quarter.

Week 7 MIN, 2Q (14:42). First-and-10 at the Detroit 34.

After the long pass to 14 WR Stefon Diggs down the right sideline, the Vikings go hurry-up and set for an inside zone run to the right. Same 3-4 alignment with Snacks over center, linemen shaded outside the tackles, outside linebackers standing up outside the tight end spots, and inside linebackers over the guards.

On the bucket step by the line, we can already see some things developing. Rookie 56 C Garrett Bradbury actually gets out a step ahead to the play side, so Snacks has lost control of the front side A-gap; eventually, 65 LG Pat Elflein takes over and walls off the nose tackle. Two consequences: one is that Tavai on the back side is no longer blocked at all. Second, Davis is in a bind because now he has his own actual play side B-gap assignment and the uncontrolled A-gap between Bradbury and 64 RG Josh Kline to think about.

A little opportunity can be a dangerous thing. Davis sees a bit of space to squeeze through and thinks he can shoot the gap to hit Cook in the backfield. Instead, he puts himself into perfect position for Kline to lay a shoulder block and blow open the play side B-gap for the patient Cook to accelerate into. Instead of taking the opportunity to catch Kline off balance and drive the blocker back into the run lane to slow Cook for back side pursuit (Tavai) to get in there, Davis gambled and lost.

It’s the linebackers

Before the start of the year, we knew the linebackers were not a strength of the team, and Jeremy Reisman even noted that “It’s going to rely heavily on this coaching staff getting the most out of these guys immediately.” Half a season in, it is clear the coaching staff has not gotten it done with the linebackers.

Much of the alignment and outflanking issues where the Lions are getting sealed off may be a consequence of still not having the right personnel for the system. When you see Jarrad Davis trying to shoot the gap as an attacking penetrator, he’s playing Teryl Austin style defense. And to be fair to Davis, that’s what the Lions originally drafted him to do.

Even going with three down linemen and four linebackers as opposed to a nickel substitution package has the Lions in relatively light personnel because they do not have many of the hulking enforcers of the old school Parcells-Belichick mold—except for one (maybe two, see below). Jahlani Tavai, the one linebacker who seems to play the hole-filling hit-and-shed thumping game the defense needs from the second level was supposedly a prototypical linebacker for the system. General manager Bob Quinn was not kidding when he said Tavai is a rare natural fit, possibly with an emphasis on the rare. It also hints at what the Lions were thinking with the extension for Christian Jones, game film aside:

There should be something the staff can do about this in terms of preparation and devising ways to defensive audible/re-position players to minimize their vulnerability to motion and shifts. The other type of problem, where we see the linebackers overshooting gaps and taking themselves out of position, is more worrisome because that’s football instincts and reflex. Presumably this is fixable, but it takes a lot of time and repetition to make the concepts into natural reaction. In the meantime, are there wrong/bad keys being given to the linebackers? Is the game plan missing something in tendencies and hurting play recognition? Can anything be done in the short term or are we screwed?

The run defense has gotten a bad rap in the media and Lions twitter coverage (rightfully so), and guys want to “make something happen.” I get that they are fired up and want to do something big to turn it all around, but we’ve seen in the past how that can contribute to only make the problem worse when they don’t stick to the details. It’s not clear if there is a system deficiency, players reading things differently, poor pre-snap positioning, or a big combination of it all, but this is on linebackers coach Al Golden to figure it out and get the most out of these guys. Immediately.