In the season opener, the Detroit Lions allowed Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts to run for 90 yards on 17 carries. Five of those runs picked up key third or fourth down conversions. He was undeniably a big reason why the Eagles walked away from Ford Field as 38-35 winners on Sunday.
Many have wondered if the Lions should have taken a different approach to defending Hurts, a quarterback they knew could hurt them with his feet. Some have suggested using a quarterback spy—a player, typically a linebacker or safety, designed to just follow the quarterback around no matter where he goes. The idea is that you would never have the quarterback unaccounted for, like it appears the Lions did on a few occasions Sunday.
On Friday, Lions linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard was asked about potentially using a quarterback spy, and it’s safe to say he is not a fan of that strategy.
“You show me tape where the spy stuff works,” Sheppard said bluntly. “What you do is you waste a defender when you operate like that, and you’re playing prevent defense in a sense. Show me where a spy has tackled Hurts, Lamar Jackson, Kyler Murray in open space. So, to each his own. Whatever you believe in, but I’ve seen that get torched on the college level and the NFL level.”
It’s a fair argument to make. Using a QB spy immediately puts the defense at a mismatch in terms of numbers. But while the extra defender may not be able to always make the one-on-one tackle very often, they certainly could slow the quarterback or funnel him to other defenders.
Of course, it’s fair to respond with, “Well, what you guys did didn’t work either.” That’s a point that Sheppard gladly conceded. The Lions linebacker coach chalked that up to two different things. For one, some of that is unavoidable with a special weapon like Hurts.
“That’s what’s going to happen when you play a mobile quarterback like that,” Sheppard said. “Now is that acceptable? No, but it’s reality. We’re (linebackers) in coverage with our backs turned.”
Sheppard went on to explain that having a mobile quarterback immediately puts every defense at a numbers disadvantage. Every blocker, running back, wide receiver is accounted for—and the extra defender is usually a deep safety to prevent explosive plays. But when the quarterback is one of those weapons, it’s a plus-one advantage to the offense.
“So when the quarterback has the ball, they will always be plus-one, and whoever the free player is, nine times out of 10 it’s your post safety,” Sheppard said. “So that just comes with the nature of the beast, and next time we play a mobile quarterback, we’ll have a plan for that.”
The other reason Sheppard gave for their struggles against Hurts was the team’s lack of production from the defensive line.
“Now the d-line has got to win,” Sheppard said. “(Defensive line) Coach (Todd) Wash will tell you that, but those types of things are going to happen.”
While that may sound like Sheppard throwing another unit under the bus, those comments are backed by what coach Dan Campbell said on Monday in the aftermath of the team’s Week 1 loss.
“It’s the gap responsibility,” Campbell said. “We have a couple of things where it just—we have an issue where we’re running a stunt and one guy’s not running the stunt, that one shows up. We have about three occasions of we need our force defender on the line of scrimmage, he should be down there fitting, he’s 10 yards off and now it rolls back, everybody’s doing their job. So, it’s always one guy.”
The good news for Detroit is that they don’t face a quarterback on the level of Hurts’ mobility until Week 10 against Justin Fields and the Bears or Week 12 against Josh Allen’s Bills. Still, both Sheppard and Campbell know this trend isn’t going away in the NFL and they’ve got to get it fixed.