It’s not always easy to catch a great glimpse of a football game from only the television broadcast. Nearly half of the play takes place off-screen, and oftentimes viewers are not treated to a replay—or, at least, a good camera angle of a replay.
That is why you see so many football fanatics rave about the All-22 film that NFL Game Pass has provided to fans in the past few years. This allows the common fan to see the entire play develop with angles not typically provided by television broadcasts. You can get a much better sense of what each team is trying to do, and which players are playing well—provided you know what you’re looking for.
So each week (hopefully) I will rewatch the previous Detroit Lions game and provide my analysis of the game based on the All-22 film. My focus will be on things I either got wrong in my initial evaluation of the game or things I just completely missed.
The Lions completely revamped their linebacker strategy
We already knew from the snap count that Jarrad Davis did not play much in Sunday’s game, but what I hadn’t realized was how much they completely changed the role of the guys that were out there.
Here’s what you could call the Lions’ base defense for this game:
That’s second-year linebacker Jahlani Tavai in the jack linebacker position—previously held by Christian Jones most of the season. Jamie Collins Sr. is right there in the middle as the mike—a position split by Tavai and Davis for the majority of the first two games. Then on the right side, Christian Jones is playing the will.
For Collins and Jones, this wasn’t a huge change. Collins is best in the middle, and Jones played the will for the majority of 2019. But this was an entirely different use for Tavai. Prior to Sunday’s game, Tavai just had seven snaps at jack linebacker per PFF. He never had more than a handful per game last year, either.
I asked Lions linebackers coach Ty McKenzie why the Lions made such a drastic change this week, and if we could expect more of it going forward.
“The idea there was, obviously, we needed him on the edge the same way we needed the rest of the guys, and we kind of wanted to switch up things for the rest of the guys to make sure that we’re containing, caging Kyler Murray,” McKenzie said.
And even though Tavai wasn’t great in his first game as a full-time jack linebacker, the strategy worked. Murray only had 29 yards rushing after averaging 79.0 in the first two games.
Collins was also much more effective as the team’s mike. The quarterback pressures and the interception were huge, but his biggest impact may have been in the run game. First, let’s watch some of the issues the Lions were having with Jarrad Davis. Here’s the very first defensive play against the Packers:
Davis aggressively attacks the defense’s left A-gap. Problem is, Collins already has that gap assignment, and it leaves a big cutback lane for Aaron Jones.
Last week, Matt Patricia noted how Davis can sometimes play a little too quick like this:
“He’s a fast, explosive guy – sometimes a little bit too fast, maybe gets ahead of the play a little bit too early, too quick.”
Now let’s look at Collins in a similar role:
Here he avoids the temptation to jump up the A gap. Instead, he stays disciplined, is able to slide past the second-level block, and makes the tackle for a 1-yard gain.
Overall, the Lions’ run defense was much, much better in Week 3, holding Arizona to just 4.0 yards per carry after Detroit’s defense was allowing 6.5 YPC in the first two games combined.
As for Davis on Sunday, his usage was even less than his 15 snaps suggest. Of those 15, 11 came on one series in the second half, as the Lions seemingly were just giving Jamie Collins a rest.
Solid game from John Penisini
Each week, we’ve slowly seen more and more of the Lions’ sixth-round pick. He played just nine snaps in his NFL debut in Week 1, 18 snaps the next week, and 19 on Sunday vs. the Cardinals.
And while Penisini still has a long ways to go in terms of consistency, in a two-play series, he flashed his potential to be a solid nose tackle in this league.
In the first, he showed his strength on a bull rush that collapsed the inside of the pocket by 5 yards, and he nearly got to Murray before the quarterback got the pass off:
Look at the rook John Penisini pushing the center back 5 yards. pic.twitter.com/kjaKOyzltc— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) September 30, 2020
But where coaches will fall in love with Penisini is the very next play. This scheme is heavily dependent on its interior defender doing what they call “two-gapping.” Two-gapping is exactly what it sounds like: playing disciplined football, not overcommitting and being responsible for both “gaps” of the line on each side of you.
If you want to know what two-gapping looks like, this example by Penisini is literally the definition of two-gapping:
Damn, then on the very next play he two-gaps to perfection.— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) September 30, 2020
Love seeing that kind of promise in a sixth rounder. pic.twitter.com/cqQDMBbj5b
If Penisini can continue this kind of improvement in such little time, he could be prominent force for Detroit’s defense going forward.
Tracy Walker does not look like himself
All throughout training camp, we saw Walker look like one of the most competitive man-to-man coverage players on the field. His battles with T.J. Hockenson were epic, and each day he was getting his hands on at least a couple of balls per practice.
But right now, he’s going through something. He’s either overprocessing or unconfident or something entirely else. Because he’s just getting beat on a regular basis in coverage, whether it’s man-to-man or zone.
On this first play, Walker was having issues communicating with Will Harris. He attempted to switch assignments. Walker wanted to take the running back (29) while passing off 85 to Harris. By the time the communication is made, the snap has already taken place. Both Walker and Harris are already a step behind, but then Walker takes the long route—having to navigate through 2 other crossing routes—to get to his guy.
That’s obviously not all on Walker, but he made a bad situation worse.
Then there’s this odd play.
At first, he’s very physical with the tight end here. But at the top of the route, he just stops. It’s almost like he thought the play was over, and just lets Dan Arnold make the catch in front of him. For someone who is typically very aggressive at the catch point, this is very out of character.
Then in zone, he also seems to be struggling to process his surroundings.
Here, he drifts too far to the left, leaving a wide open receiver underneath.
While here, the seam route catches all of his attention despite help over the top. This leaves another wide open receiver in the flats.
It’s hard to know exactly what’s going on with Walker, but I had a brief discussion with some beat writers on the topic, and I think the Detroit News’ Justin Rogers brings up a good point.
Could be as simple as he's playing a different role with Harmon taking over a lot of what he did last year. 330 high safety snaps last year, nine through three games this year.— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) September 30, 2020
This is an entirely new role for Walker. While it’s one that fits his skillset the best, there is still a mental element that he appears to be adjusting to. Hopefully, we see improvement soon.