When the Detroit Lions signed David Montgomery in free agency, our fearless leader Jeremy Reisman declared the 2019 third-round pick to be “an upgrade. Full stop.” The main thing pointed out about Montgomery was his ability to break tackles, but our friends at Windy City Gridiron described the former Bear as “one of the more well-rounded running backs in the league,” adding that “he’s going to do everything the Lions want at a very high level.”
Other teams clearly agreed with that sentiment, as the veteran ball-carrier was a hot commodity in free agency: he chose to sign with the Lions over two division rivals. In addition to breaking lots of tackles, Montgomery arrived in Detroit with a reputation for being “a power back who thrives between the tackles.” Per Jeremy and Erik, acquiring Montgomery was “a strong investment in a gritty, physical, three-down running back.”
Week 1 against the defending Super Bowl Champions on national television was a heck of a way to find out whether that investment looked like a good one. We did not get to see him involved in the passing game (no receptions) and there may be some things to think about with respect to pass protection, but as a primary ball-carrier David Montgomery absolutely delivered on all expectations. In the Thursday night win in Kansas City, we got to see why the Lions pursued him so hard in free agency.
From our PODcast post-game recap of the win, the crew was talking about the run game around the 33-minute mark when adequate host Chris Perfett observed that the run game vanished for a bit in the middle quarters, but “by the end of the game? Montgomery was still running over dudes.” Then Jeremy jumped in around the 35-minute mark:
“Again, you look at the boxscore and it doesn’t look like that. 34 rushes (for) 118 yards, 3.5 a carry. You have to erase some of the kneel-downs to make that look a little bit better, but I think anyone watching saw David Montgomery doing as advertised. Even that touchdown, we talk about the great block that Sam LaPorta had on that play, that Penei had on that play, but he was 5 yards downfield and still had another 5 to go. And he just like absolutely dusted a guy and then ran over another guy. That’s what he brings.”
Let’s go to the tape and look at what made Montgomery’s debut as Detroit’s primary runner a solid showing.
Getting tough yards between the tackles: Power
Going back to the film, one thing that really stood out about Montgomery’s carries were how well he saw the running lanes and how decisively he hit them. As advertised, he ran hard and confidently, attacking the best spots while refusing to go down easy. The tone of his tenure as a mainstay in the Detroit Lions backfield was established right away with the first offensive snap of the 2023 season.
2023 Week 1 DET at KCY, 1Q (15:00). First-and-10 at the DET 25.
The Lions start the season with 87 TE Sam LaPorta and three wide receivers plus 5 RB David Montgomery. The run is man blocked over the right side of the line to the bubble in the defensive front over 58 RT Penei Sewell. The formation has two wide receivers aligned tight to LaPorta (8 WR Josh Reynolds on the line of scrimmage and 14 WR Amon-Ra St. Brown on the edge just outside of Reynolds). The Chiefs defend it fairly vanilla, with a light seven-man box to counter the Lions’ three-wide personnel.
At the snap, the Lions engage blocks, and a huge lane opens in the C-gap between LaPorta and Sewell. This is a straight-forward gallop for Montgomery, and he doesn’t mess around. Going directly at the hole, a funny thing happens on the way to the line of scrimmage. 56 DE George Karlaftis gets his right hand free from LaPorta and takes a swipe at Montgomery as he runs by:
There are two things to notice here. First, Montgomery evades the arm-tackle and makes Karlaftis miss as he blows by. Second, the veteran running back covers up for maximum ball security. If you remember the Jahmyr Gibbs section of Inside the Den Episode 3, what did running backs coach Scottie Montgomery say to Gibbs? ODB. It’s Our Damn Ball. Ball security is paramount in tight spaces, and here we have Montgomery making sure ODB stays ODB.
At the very end of the run, after having run through two arm-tackles and dragging three defenders to the ground with him, Montgomery again secures the damn ball. There was solid blocking over the right side, but a lot of what the new Lions running back did on the play contributed to it going for 7 yards. Broken tackles: check. Power to move the pile: check. ODB: check.
Moving a little later into the second quarter, we have another great example of Montgomery moving the pile for bonus yards. The play call is a basic zone run to the right side. Once again, the Lions have one back, one tight end, and three wide receivers on the field. The Chiefs counter with light personnel and show man coverage with a single high safety. This is seven in the box against six blockers for the Lions:
2023 Week 1 DET at KCY, 2Q (3:47). First-and-10 at the DET 41.
Running away from 20 S Justin Reid on the left side, the Lions turn it into six-on-six and take care of business to open a running lane:
93 DT Matt Dickerson crashes to his right at the snap, giving 77 C Frank Ragnow and 72 RG Halapoulivaati Vaitai great positioning to wall him off to the back side. Vaitai peels off the double-team to the next level and gets a great block on 23 LB Drue Tranquill, opening a massive hole for Montgomery to blast through.
Unfortunately, 56 DE George Karlaftis manages to loop back inside of Sewell on the edge, making first contact with the runner at about the line of scrimmage. Look at where Montgomery ends up, though. He covers up to absorb the hit, stays upright, and keeps his legs going to move the pile (and allow others like Sewell to help move it forward, too). By the time he goes down, Montgomery gains 5 yards after contact.
Patience to find daylight: Vision
It’s not enough to simply point at a hole and run as hard as possible, though. It’s crucial to pick the right hole and hit it at the right time. So often in the past, Detroit fans have suffered through watching running backs miss open holes or try to dance around too much to make fancy cutbacks like they are wearing number 20 in the 1990s. Montgomery does no such thing, and runs the ball with an excellent feel for what the blockers in front of him are trying to do. A sequence of back-to-back zone runs in the first quarter against the Chiefs is illustrative.
2023 Week 1 DET at KCY, 1Q (5:02). Second-and-5 at the KCY 19.
This is in the red zone, three plays before the Amon-Ra St. Brown touchdown. The Lions go inside zone to the left side, and the image above shows the bucket step up top and the mesh point on the bottom. When Montgomery gets the ball, he’s looking at the dancing bears to see where the crease in the defensive front will open up. As it turns out, Vaitai and Sewell get 344-pounder 99 DT Keondre Coburn turned around (boxed in brown above). That means the key defender left to determine where the hole is going to be is 32 LB Nick Bolton (boxed in pink), the target of Detroit’s Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow.
Depending on whether Ragnow forces Bolton outside or inside, the hole could be on either side. Montgomery has to be patient to see where it develops, and let his blockers pave the way. As it happens, Bolton over-runs the play, so the space with two white jerseys and no red jersey in between is the back side A-gap flanked by Vaitai and Ragnow. Montgomery lets them push everybody out of the way and squeezes his way through for a solid 6-yard gain.
On the very next play, the Lions go right back to the run game and decide to pound it on first down again.
2023 Week 1 DET at KCY, 1Q (4:24). First-and-10 at the KCY 13.
Same as before, Montgomery takes the handoff and has to scan for where the hole is opening up. This time, it’s between 73 LG Jonah Jackson and 68 LT Taylor Decker. However, the initial hole boxed in pink is filled very quickly by 50 LB William Gay.
Watching the blocking develop in front of him, Montgomery sees Jackson engage Gay and ride him to the outside. The hole is no longer the B-gap between Decker and Jackson, but is now the front side A-gap between Ragnow and Jackson. In the middle panel above, we see Montgomery hitch up momentarily to let Jackson clear the linebacker out of the way, and then he bursts through behind Ragnow. This gets the Lions a solid 4 yards on first down.
Given the incredible offensive line talent general manager Brad Holmes has invested in, it’s crucial for the ball-carrier to trust the blocking and let the play develop rather than panic and freelance. An impatient runner might charge straight up into the pile or make an unnecessary cut, but veteran runners with good vision like Montgomery understand how to make the design work.
2023 Week 1 DET at KCY, 2Q (10:53). First-and-10 at the DET 36.
Consider this outside zone run to the left in the second quarter from a very heavy formation featuring two in-line tight ends. For the most part, the Lions actually have this blocked pretty well, and Montgomery definitely hit the correct lane. So why did this play only go for 3 yards?
Ideally, Vaitai should have come off the combo block (boxed in pink), but it looks like the defender hooked his right arm. Now, no referee is ever going to see that defensive holding, so it will never be called. That allows 54 LB Leo Chenal to shoot the gap unblocked to impede Montgomery’s run path. Look at the blocking from the overhead All-22 angle in the lower right panel of the image above, though. If Vaitai was able to even get a piece of Chenal, that’s a solid run path for Montgomery to roll through and drag the pile for another few yards. What ended up a 3-yard gain would probably have been more like 5 or 6 at least.
Yes, he can make some nasty cuts too: Footwork
So far we’ve seen the power and we’ve seen the vision, but not so much of the elusiveness. Well, there was a lot of that going on in Week 1 as well. For those who are unfamiliar, here’s what we’re talking about, courtesy of the Footwork King:
RB Drills that focus mainly on Running Back footwork for the ability to run not only straight ahead, but also ability to change direction, precise cut, jump-cut without losing momentum.@MontgomerDavid— Footwork_King (@footwork_king1) July 2, 2019
3rd rd / 73rd pick ✍
2019 NFL Draft pic.twitter.com/v98LdofHmY
What can these jump cuts do in tandem with the patience, vision, and power we’ve already seen from Montgomery? Quite a bit, really. As part of the weekend Notes, there was an article on the Lions’ new-look backfield by MLive’s Ben Raven. In it, Raven pointed out how late in the game Detroit leaned on Montgomery on three straight runs to get to a victory formation situation. On the second of those three runs, Montgomery’s jump cutting ability was critical.
2023 Week 1 DET at KCY, 4Q (1:53). Second-and-5 at the KCY 25.
After a nice 5-yard pickup on first down, the Lions need a first down to ice the game and the Chiefs know what’s coming. They load up to stop the run, but of course the Lions are still going to run the ball to keep the clock moving. The play is a man blocked run over the left side with the Sun God in motion as what appears to be one of two lead blockers pulling from the outside into the LT-LG hole (LaPorta being the other one).
The defense is ready and waiting, and in the right side panel above, we see there’s nothing available on the left side. In fact, it’s so clogged that neither LaPorta nor St. Brown ever get into the hole because there is no hole. 2 CB Joshua Williams is waiting on the perimeter, while both 6 S Bryan Cook and 32 LB Nick Bolton lurk right over the point of attack waiting to pounce. The play is bottled up and there’s nowhere to go; with a lesser back who blindly pounds the designed hole, this is going for maybe a yard at best but more likely no gain.
Instead, Montgomery realizes the design hole is gone so now it really is an appropriate time to do something. He plants his foot and skirts the pile to the right side, falling forward for positive yards. From the end zone All-22 angle, we can see just how locked down the Chiefs had the left side:
The veteran back goes around the roadblock, turning what could have been a third-and-medium into third-and short. Oh, and what’s that at the end? Two hands of ball security. ODB.
While not as critical a point in the game, another pretty example of Montgomery using quick skips to his advantage came earlier in the fourth quarter.
2023 Week 1 DET at KCY, 4Q (12:11). First-and-10 at the DET 25.
The Lions appear to be running Duo at the left interior of the line and have an eight-on-seven advantage in the box since the Chiefs are two high with a cornerback playing back away from St. Brown. The second level player that has to make a decision is 32 LB Nick Bolton, and he stays at home in the middle of the field. Sewell takes him, but Bolton committing inside means there’s an opportunity on the back side.
Rather than run up into Sewell’s backside, Montgomery bounces it outside and looks to run it where Josh Reynolds and Amon-Ra St. Brown have numbers on the edge. In the middle panel above, though, we see 22 CB Trent McDuffie shed Reynolds’ block. That’s a problem since McDuffie is now set to engage Montgomery in the open field.
Thanks to Montgomery’s shiftiness, it doesn’t matter. A second jump cut leaves McDuffie on the ground attempting an ankle tackle, and Montgomery tacks on another couple of yards. What could have been a 3-yard gain on a good play by McDuffie becomes a solid 5-yard pickup on first down for Detroit.
Yes, Jahmyr Gibbs is electric and we all love explosive plays, but don’t forget about how much David Montgomery brings to the table as a runner. Gibbs breaks tackles, but so does Montgomery. Even though the Lions said they are increasing Gibbs’ workload, the Ingram-Kamara comparison that Jeremy researched a month ago implies the Lions will probably still put the bulk of the carries on Montgomery’s back.
Based on what happened last week in Kansas City, that’s not a bad thing at all. The David Montgomery we saw in Week 1 was exactly the running back Meko Scott said we’d be looking to see back in training camp:
“David Montgomery has been doing his job to a T, looking really clean, really efficient in the the touches that he’s getting. Showcasing his ability to have patience at the line, but at the same time being able to show that type of elusiveness and toughness that the Lions are actually looking for from their running backs specifically for picking up extra yards.
“Now, while I don’t expect David Montgomery to break Jamaal Williams’ touchdown record, I do expect him to showcase a greater level of consistency when playing the position. Again, being able to be more diverse. Being able to run the ball as well as be a threat in the receiving game. To be able to do more than just run straight ahead and fall forward, and actually be able to break tackles and get additional yardage.
“Essentially doing what Ben Johnson has kind of preached and at least mentioned in the offseason what he wants out of his running backs: take those 3-to-4-yard runs and turn them into 5, 6, 7 or 8-yard runs. And early signs in camp show that David Montgomery is definitely capable of doing that.”