For this week’s All-22 breakdown, I’m doing things a little differently. Rather than just watch the tape and make observations from whatever sticks out, I reached out to fans to see what they wanted me to focus on. While I’m not going to get to everyone’s desired analysis, a lot of you wanted to know the same things. How did the Lions stop the run? What going on with Marvin Jones Jr. and is the secondary actually improving?
How did they stop the run?
Well, if you were to ask defensive coordinator Cory Undlin, it wasn’t anything new. They just were more consistent.
“Didn’t really change up the front that much,” Undlin said. “Messed around with a couple different things, but all in all, we played our stuff.”
I respectfully disagree. Sure, there was nothing that was technically completely new. However, the Lions predominantly used a formation which was used sparingly through the first month of the season.
Here’s what they looked like on Sunday against the Jaguars:
A nose tackle. Two defensive tackles playing 3-tech. A couple edge rushers and a linebacker or two (sometimes subbed with a safety like Jayron Kearse).
Now here’s how they looked for the majority of the time prior to Week 6.
It’s almost the same thing, except one major difference: No nose tackle.
Obviously, there are a ton of mitigating factors. You’re not going to play the Jaguars the same way you’ll play the Saints or Packers or Cardinals. Personnel differences—both for the Lions and their opponents—will also dictate how you match up. But even considering all of those things, the Lions used the three defensive tackle look far more than we’ve seen all season, and it speaks to them learning something very important: they can’t rely on their linebackers in the middle of the field.
I’ve noted over the past several weeks that Detroit has actually been getting good play from their defensive tackles, but it’s been the linebackers struggling to properly run fit. With this 3 DT look, it takes some of the pressure off the linebackers, and allows those big fellas up front to do the work.
Watch as nose tackle John Penisini follows the play, has enough leverage to hold his ground, then shoves his guy into the running lane, causing a cascade of Jaguars players to the ground. You don’t have to rely on your struggling linebackers when you take care of the problem yourself.
Of course, it always helps with Detroit’s best player on defense, Jamie Collins Sr., is having himself a game. And on Sunday, he had himself a game:
Earlier in the week, I said as goes Jamie Collins, so goes the Lions defense.— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) October 21, 2020
This is a great example of this. Nick Williams and John Penisini both get moved off their spots.
Pretty clear running lane.
But Jamie Collins blows up his blocker and makes the tackle. Gain of 3. pic.twitter.com/mSBRcoD1pc
Eventually, the Jaguars caught wise of this formation and started to try to hit the outside in the running game. However, the Lions are typically very good at holding the edges, and this just so happened to be one of Trey Flowers’ best games, as well.
What happened to Marvin Jones?
Many fans—myself included—were concerned by Jones’ lack of production over the past two games. He’s managed just three catches and 17 yards total over that span, causing many to throw accusations that he’s dogging it or that he just doesn’t have it any more.
I didn’t see signs of either of those things against the Jaguars. It’s a boring answer to this question, but Jones was just mostly a decoy on Sunday—and an effective one, at that. Let me show you some examples:
This is the Lions’ patented deep shot to Marvin Hall, and Marvin Jones Jr. is the key to it all. He needs to run his route behind the linebackers, and has to convince that deep middle safety the ball is coming his way. That way, it opens up the middle of the field for Hall, who has inside leverage on the deep left defensive back. It works to perfection:
Stafford threw the ball considerably behind Hall, who had to slow to get it, allowing the Jaguars defensive back to break it up.
With the Jaguars in man-to-man coverage with a single high safety, Jones’ job is to clear out the middle of the field. Jacksonville often tried to take away deep shots, so we saw Detroit use their running backs, tight ends and slot receivers (responsible for 18 of 31 pass targets) as their primary reads.
Jones’ purpose here is to occupy that middle safety and give Amendola room, as long as he can beat his guy. Jones, too, could be an option here, but it would be a much more difficult “turkey hole” throw. Again, everything works to perfection here. Amendola beats his guy, Jones occupies the safety, and it’s an easy 19-yard pickup:
So am I really concerned about Marvin Jones Jr.? No, not really. Sure, he isn’t getting a ton of separation, but that’s always been the case. Just look at the Next Gen Stats for Average Separation
Yes, it is smaller, but not to the point where we’d see this significant drop in overall production.
The truth is, Jones has a reputation as a significant weapon, and the Lions are using that to their advantage. And let’s not forget that Jones had a 20-yard catch in this game called back due to a ticky-tacky illegal hands to the face penalty on Joe Dahl.
Still not feeling great about the secondary
I’ve noticed a fair amount of fans and analysts buy into the fact that the cornerbacks on this team are improving. There are some statistical reasons for that optimism. Amani Oruwariye’s PFF grade has been excellent over the past few weeks:
Since Week 3 (3 games), CB Amani Oruwariye has been playing lights out— PFF DET Lions (@PFF_Lions) October 21, 2020
Coverage Summary (out of 95 CBs):
73.8 COV Grade (22nd)
38.6% Catch Rate Allowed (2nd)
46.6 Passer Rating Allowed (10th)
5 Pass Breakups (T-2nd, rest of #Lions have 6 PBUs on the season)#OnePride pic.twitter.com/oiPMLj2t9l
Oruwariye also comes out looking great when it comes to completion percentage over expectations (lower on the graph is better):
Outside corners as nearest defender this season.— Seth Walder (@SethWalder) October 21, 2020
x = target rate
y = completion percentage over expectation allowed (Next Gen Stats model)
color = success rate (via Next Gen Stats) pic.twitter.com/huXNuzaG3v
But I’m just not seeing it on film. When I look back at that Jaguars game, I saw a lot of missed opportunities on the field for Jacksonville. Here are two plays that likely would’ve been touchdowns. For the first one, Gardner Minshew didn’t see it and pressure got to him. The second, admittedly, was an aggressive blitz that left each corner basically on an island, but the receiver got WIDE open and Minshew threw it to the wrong guy.
This isn’t to say there hasn’t been some improvement; there has been. In fact, this secondary definitely looks better when they’re in zone coverage.
But it’s just not feasible to always be in zone coverage, and we know that’s not what head coach Matt Patricia prefers. With the Atlanta Falcons on deck and their talented wide receiving corps getting healthy and efficient, I’m not feeling very good about Detroit’s chances in that matchup.