On Monday afternoon, Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia was clear: his defensive strategy late in the game did not become soft or “prevent.” The Lions did not take the foot off the gas on the defensive side of the ball, like many perceived it had.
“We definitely didn’t back off from a standpoint of playcalls or anything like that,” Patricia said in his press conference the day after the team ceded 18 fourth-quarter points, allowing the Cardinals to tie the game up late.
But I wanted to fact-check Patricia. It certainly felt as if Kyler Murray had a much easier time sitting in the pocket and finding open receivers. So I went to the tape to check it out.
First, let’s break down a few things that give the defense the illusion of a “prevent defense.” There are essentially three things that look like prevent defense: deep zone coverage, three-man pass rushes, and cornerbacks giving plenty of cushion off the snap. Let’s examine all three.
Deep zone coverage
As noted by PFF’s Brett Whitefield, the notion that the Lions dropped into zone coverage late was completely false. The Lions stuck with man throughout nearly the entire game, and the only times they really dropped into a true prevent was in third-and-long situations early in the game (when they knew the Cardinals weren’t going to go for it on fourth down).
Verdict: Not prevent
Three-man pass rushes
There was a notable lack of pressure on Murray in the fourth quarter and overtime, so it’s easy to see where this narrative came from. However, again, this is more perception than reality. I tracked 33 passing plays in the fourth quarter and overtime, and the Lions only rushed three six times. Almost always, the Lions rushed exactly four, typically leaving a fifth defender to contain or spy on Murray.
But I will say one thing here. For one drive—the Cardinals’ first touchdown drive—there was a clear change in philosophy with the pass rush. For more than half of the plays in this seven-play, 70-yard touchdown drive, the Lions were in a basic four-man front:
Whereas, the rest of the game, the Lions mixed up their defensive looks, sliding the linebackers close to the line of scrimmage to make the pressure much more unpredictable:
At the time, this was extremely successful in confusing Murray and the offensive line in front of him.
Even when the Lions appeared to be in “prevent” defense, they weren’t. Take this play right out of the two-minute warning in the second half.
OH MY GOD, THE LIONS ARE JUST RUSHING TWO AND EVERYONE IS RUNNING BACKWARDS! YOU DESERVE TO LOSE, LIONS!
Okay, now let’s roll the footage of the play:
This is actually a brilliant defensive play call. The only two defensive linemen rushing in on the play both purposely draw the offensive line towards the top of the screen. Meanwhile, they blitz the corner and linebacker at the bottom of the screen, giving them a free lane straight to Murray. He panics and throws a dangerous, floating ball. It’s an easy TFL for the Lions.
So to conclude, there wasn’t really a change in any defensive play-calling, as Patricia suggested.
Again, I see nothing to suggest the Lions were giving extra cushion underneath, allowing the Cardinals to slowly chip away at yardage.
I tracked the average depth of the Lions’ outside corners on every, single passing play. On plays in the fourth quarter and overtime, the Lions cornerbacks were an average of a mere 3.6 yards off the line of scrimmage. For the rest of the game (excluding the few extreme prevent plays and goal line plays), it was 3.8. So you could make the argument the Lions corners were actually tighter in crunch time.
So then what the hell happened?
Well, I hate to give you the boring answer, but sometimes boring is right. The Lions simply gave up too many big plays when they could have won the game. They allowed a 41-yard catch to Larry Fitzgerald on third-and-15. Jalen Reeves-Maybin fell down on a what turned out to be a 21-yard touchdown pass. They allowed a third-and-7 conversion on the game-tying drive.
Pressure was certainly a problem, and you can chalk that up to a tired defense. The Cardinals ran just 29 plays in the first half. In the fourth quarter alone, they ran 25. Detroit’s offense barely stayed on the field, while the defense couldn’t get off it on key downs.
In the first half, the Lions were getting pressure, batting down passes, and making plays on the ball. In the second half, they weren’t. Sometimes it’s as simple as that.