Digesting the Lions

Happy Friday, friends.  I watched some Lions-Falcons on Thursday evening, and I think this game looks a little better for the Broncos than I thought it did a few weeks ago.  Teams are figuring out how to play the Lions, and there were a lot of lessons to be taken away from this game.

This may be shorter than a usual Digesting piece, just because the Lions aren’t doing anything tremendously complicated.  They’re trying to execute, and lately, they haven’t been getting that done very effectively.  There are reasons for that, which we’ll now explore:

Game Watched : Falcons at Lions (Week 7)

Lions Defense

a.  The Lions are really simple schematically on defense.  It’s about 90% Cover-2, and 10% blitz man.  For those who don’t know, or are new readers (we’re getting a lot of traffic in my backyard of Northeast Ohio lately), this is what Cover-2 looks like.

Everybody who has played defense at the high school level or above has likely played in Cover-2, at least occasionally.  Hell, everybody who ever played Madden has used it.  It’s been a staple of NFL football for about 40 years now, and how to beat it is no mystery whatsoever.  Actually beating it can be harder if the defense has a good defensive line.

Have you ever heard of the Steel Curtain?  The Steelers made this defensive concept fearsome, because Mean Joe Greene, Ernie Holmes, L.C. Greenwood, and Dwight White were a dominant group up front.  The whole idea is that you can rush the QB effectively with four men and drop seven into coverage, where you can then cut down angles and make downfield throws difficult.  Downfield tackling is paramount, because you accept the fact that you’re going to give up some short completions.

The major weakness of Cover-2 is that since it’s trying so hard to only have seven men close to the line of scrimmage, teams have always been able to run the ball against it.  The Lions have proven vulnerable to the running game, and in fact, it’s the best way to attack them.  You want to make them bring that extra defender to the line and play man-to-man, and then look to beat them over the top.

b.  The Lions have an outstanding and deep defensive line, which is where their newfound success as a team starts.  They play nine men in a rotation, and all are effective pass rushers, and generally, block beaters.  Here is the participation data for the defense:

Pos # Name Snaps % of Total
DT 90 Ndamukong Suh 403 81%
DE 92 Cliff Avril 359 72%
DT 99 Corey Williams 354 71%
DE 93 Kyle Vanden Bosch 310 62%
DE 94 Lawrence Jackson 215 43%
DT 91 Sammie Lee Hill 153 31%
DE 79 Willie Young 101 20%
DT 96 Andre Fluellen 70 14%
DT 98 Nick Fairley 68 14%
MLB 55 Stephen Tulloch 494 99%
OLB 54 DeAndre Levy 455 91%
OLB 52 Justin Durant 166 33%
OLB 59 Bobby Carpenter 148 30%
OLB 58 Ashlee Palmer 29 6%
SS 25 Louis Delmas 490 98%
CB 21 Eric Wright 475 95%
CB 23 Chris Houston 459 92%
FS 42 Amari Spievey 369 74%
CB 32 Aaron Berry 215 43%
SS 29 John Wendling 76 15%
CB 22 Brandon McDonald 54 11%
CB 38 Vincent Fuller 37 7%
FS 24 Erik Coleman 7 1%
    Average DL 4.07  
    Average LB 2.58  
    Average DB 4.36  

If you take a look at the Cover-2 diagram above, you’ll notice that I set the DEs very wide, in what has become a stupid buzzword of Wide-9 technique.  The Lions usually take this alignment, which is designed to get the DEs off the ball quickly and at an angle that’s tough for a Tackle to reach them.  They contain on their way to the QB.

Kyle Vanden Bosch and Cliff Avril start at DE, and Lawrence Jackson and Willie Young are the primary backups.  All are good players, especially Avril.  Vanden Bosch is a high-motor and smart veteran, and Jackson is a former Seahawks first-round pick who is redeeming his career in Detroit.

c.  At DT, the Lions are even more stacked.  Ndamukong Suh is down a little bit in terms of production from his rookie year, but he’s still a beast.  No interior lineman in the NFL is capable of blocking him one-on-one in the pass rush.  The other starter is Corey Williams, and he’s also very good.  First-rounder Nick Fairley (a favorite of mine, as you’ll recall) got off to a late start due to a foot injury, but he’s flashed the excellent interior pass rush skills that I expected to see.  Sammie Lee Hill also plays a lot and does a good job.

d.  The linebackers are an improved group this year for the Lions, led by former Titan Stephen Tulloch.  He’s been very good in coverage and run support, and he rarely comes off the field.  The Will LB is DeAndre Levy, and he also tends to be out there.  Justin Durant is the starting Sam, and Bobby Carpenter also sees time there.  Carpenter was a washout as a Cowboys first-round pick, and he’s been up and down with the Lions, taking a number of bad pass interference penalties on TEs.

e.  The secondary is significantly less good, and continues the trend of the Lions getting weaker on defense the further away they get from the ball.  The CBs Eric Wright and Chris Houston are both below average on a play-to-play basis, although Wright has always flashed good natural ability.  Houston can run, but he has never had good coverage skills.  The nickelback is Aaron Berry, and he does a solid job of what he’s asked to do.

The safeties are Louis Delmas and Amari Spievey, who were both second-round picks.  Neither shows much in the way of coverage ability, but since they’re generally both being asked to play a deep half, they’re passable.

f.  The Lions aren’t a big packaging team.  They go nickel sometimes, and when they do, Berry comes in, and the Sam LB generally goes out.  As you see below, that’s about all they do.  When there’s rarely a dime back, it’s Brandon McDonald.

g. The linemen rush, the LBs and DBs cover, and when there's a blitz (about 10% of the time), it tends to be from a LB.  Here's the season-to-date data:

Pos # Name Rush Coverage Total % Rush % Coverage
DT 90 Ndamukong Suh 239 0 239 100% 0%
DE 92 Cliff Avril 214 2 216 99% 1%
DT 99 Corey Williams 198 2 200 99% 1%
DE 93 Kyle Vanden Bosch 178 0 178 100% 0%
DE 94 Lawrence Jackson 136 0 136 100% 0%
DT 91 Sammie Lee Hill 88 1 89 99% 1%
DE 79 Willie Young 62 1 63 98% 2%
DT 96 Andre Fluellen 38 0 38 100% 0%
DT 98 Nick Fairley 36 0 36 100% 0%
MLB 55 Stephen Tulloch 28 267 295 9% 91%
OLB 54 DeAndre Levy 28 232 260 11% 89%
OLB 52 Justin Durant 7 75 82 9% 91%
OLB 59 Bobby Carpenter 3 60 63 5% 95%
OLB 58 Ashlee Palmer 0 4 4 0% 100%
SS 25 Louis Delmas 8 286 294 3% 97%
CB 21 Eric Wright 6 283 289 2% 98%
CB 23 Chris Houston 1 289 290 0% 100%
FS 42 Amari Spievey 0 231 231 0% 100%
CB 32 Aaron Berry 0 158 158 0% 100%
SS 29 John Wendling 0 40 40 0% 100%
CB 22 Brandon McDonald 2 44 46 4% 96%
CB 38 Vincent Fuller 0 25 25 0% 100%
FS 24 Erik Coleman 0 3 3 0% 100%

Lions Offense

a.  Again, this isn’t that complicated.  The Lions are a base one-back team, tending to play roughly equal amounts of 11 and 12 personnel.  They rarely use a fourth WR, and almost never use a second RB.  There’s no FB on the roster to use, even if they wanted to.  Here's the season-to-date offensive snap data for the skill position players:

Pos # Name Snaps % of Total
WR 81 Calvin Johnson 459 95%
WR 13 Nate Burleson 428 88%
WR 16 Titus Young 306 63%
WR 80 Maurice Stovall 15 3%
WR 82 Rashied Davis 14 3%
TE 87 Brandon Pettigrew 451 93%
TE 85 Tony Scheffler 132 27%
TE 83 Will Heller 119 25%
HB 44 Jahvid Best 306 63%
HB 28 Maurice Morris 88 18%
HB 34 Keiland Williams 52 11%
HB 36 Jerome Harrison 37 8%
HB 11 Stefan Logan 10 2%
    Average WR 2.52  
    Average TE 1.45  
    Average RB 1.02  

Schematically, the passing concepts are very typical for the pro game.  The offensive coordinator is Scott Linehan, who connects obliquely to Tim Tebow by virtue of being a big influence on Urban Meyer’s passing scheme a decade ago.  (Anybody who tells you that Florida didn’t use pro-style pass concepts under Meyer doesn’t know what they’re talking about; Meyer’s uniqueness was in mixing a largely pro-style passing scheme with unusual formations and personnel groupings, and a very creative take on the collegiate option running game.)  Detroit does spend a ton of time in the shotgun, as much as any team in the NFL. 

The Lions' infrequently-used running game is also very straightforward and standard, aside from their frequent use of end-around action to hold the backside DE.  Nate Burleson has carried five times and Tony Scheffler once on this action in 2011, and to me, it’s only worth token defensive attention.

b.  At QB, Matthew Stafford started out the season looking like he’d made the leap to being elite, but lately, he’s struggled.  Teams have figured out that Stafford’s much less effective when pressured than when he isn’t, so they’ve been getting after him, and his accuracy has suffered.  The backup QB, who may play Sunday, is Shaun Hill.  People say Hill’s a good backup QB, and I heard Jim Schwartz say that he’s won in the NFL, but I’d feel pretty lucky if we saw him Sunday.

c.  The RBs aren’t very good, with the exception of Jahvid Best, who will miss the game.  Replacement starter Maurice Morris and backup Keiland Williams are not dynamic players, and the lack of fear that they inspire offers the Broncos a good opportunity to play seven in the box.  The Lions’ lack of ability to run the ball has really caught up to them lately, and with teams able to blitz Stafford knowing the passing game is coming, the offense has slowed down.

d.  Calvin Johnson is obviously a really good player, but I think he’s a little overrated when people say he’s the best WR in the NFL.  He’s big, strong, and fast, but he fails to separate a good deal of the time, because he often runs lazy routes.  Nate Burleson is a good technician and a decent #2 WR.  Almost everything is short routes with him, as he’s averaging only 10.1 yards per catch.  Rookie Titus Young is the third guy, and he flashes some signs of being dangerous, even if the DeSean Jackson comparisons from last year’s Draft season were laughable.

e.  Tight End is a position of some strength for the Lions.  Starter Brandon Pettigrew is a good two-way player who can block and also help out in the passing game.  He’s only averaging 9.3 yards per catch, but he’s used a lot; he’s only been targeted three fewer times than has Johnson this season.  Former Bronco Tony Scheffler (who is not, and never has been a star TE) plays a lot, and is still the same guy we remember.  He can get downfield and catch the ball, but he is a low-effort guy in the blocking game.  Will Heller plays just about as much as Scheffler, and is more of a blocker.  You can’t bank on it, like you can with some teams, but generally Heller’s presence will indicate a run or max protection, and Scheffler’s will indicate a pass, or a wasted body in the running game.

f.  The offensive line is atrocious, all the way across the board.  Jeff Backus has been a passable starter at LT for a decade, but he’s not passable there anymore.  He needs to move inside, and the Lions need to find a legitimate guy for LT.  LG Rob Sims has some ability to get push in the running game, but he gets beat a lot in protection.  The C Dominic Raiola has been below-average throughout his career, and somehow never gets replaced.  At RG, Stephen Peterman is like a slightly better Rob Sims.  The RT Gosder Cherilus looked the best of all of these guys in last week’s game, but that’s not saying much.

The Lions mostly minimum protect, and that puts a lot of pressure on Stafford to get the ball out quickly, which he does.  Lately, he’s been missing throws, as I mentioned, but he could always get hot again.  The Broncos are going to want to take steps to delay that for a week.

Beating the Lions Defense

The best thing to do to beat any Cover-2 defense is to run at it, and force them to abandon Cover-2.  Because they play that way 90% of the time, they’re going to usually be better at executing it than you are at beating it.  That’s especially true when you have a young QB making his fifth start, and he hasn’t seen much Cover-2 in the NFL yet.

You especially want to run the ball on a defense that plays its DEs really wide like the Lions like to, and most especially when all their D-linemen are upfield penetrator types, and their LBs tend to sit back five yards off the ball and react.  This creates massive bubbles up front to run through; you should read TJ’s excellent article about Over and Under fronts as it gets into bubbles.  Here is a diagram of the bubbles that we’re going to see against Detroit, with the yellow circles indicating the bubbles.

The Broncos are going to want to run quick-hitting plays into those bubbles, and they’ll most likely be able to have a lot of success doing so.  Let’s talk about box count for a minute.  We hear the phrase “__ in the box” bandied about as it pertains to run defense.  I’ve already used it a couple of times in this article.  What does it mean though?

There are actually several kinds of boxes.  There’s the Guard Box, which would look like a box drawn around the two Offensive Guards and include the Center, and whatever defenders fall inside the area of the box you drew, so maybe it’s a Nose Tackle and an ILB, or it’s two DTs (if they’re playing a 2 technique or tighter) and a MLB.  Assessing the Guard Box is useful for determining if it’s a good idea to run straight up the middle.

The Tackle Box is the more commonly used box, and when a coach talks about the box, that’s usually what they mean.  As you see in this diagram, the Tackle Box is simply a box drawn around the two OTs, and it includes everything between them.

Now, against a defensive front that likes to play Wide-9s, you’ll see that there are only three defenders against five blockers in the Tackle Box.  The OLBs are a step outside the box, and the DEs are two steps outside.  Remember the four big bubbles?  They’re open for business.  If a QB counts 3 against 5 in the Tackle Box, it’s a really good idea to check to a quick-hitting inside run like this one.

You can completely ignore the wide DE on the backside, because he’s so far out of the play, and it’s hat-on-hat on the play-side.  You even have a free blocker in the inline TE, who’s looking for somebody to hit and hopefully making it downfield clean to take on the SS.  If you’re really lucky, the play-side DE will overrun the play looking to hit the QB, and that leaves the wing TE free to go find a man to hit as well.  It has the makings of a big play if you get some good initial blocks on the first and second levels and the RB gets through the hole quickly.

Another kind of box you can look at is a play-side box, which you’d do if you have an outside run called.  If you’re running right, you don’t care that much how many guys are left.  You start that box with the Center and work outside from there, until you get to an offensive bubble.  Check out this diagram, and you’ll see what I mean.

In this box, we have 5 on 4.  Because the backside DT is in a 3-technique, the LG can either hook him or simply let him run upfield and out of a quick outside run play.  (The second option is preferable, if you have a willing DT who’ll sucker out for you.)  Check out this play:

Here, the key guy is the play-side DE, whom the Wing TE is going to guide to the outside and then let him go to chase Tebow and overrun the quick-hitting off-tackle play.  The inline TE is hitting either the Sam LB or the SS, whomever is free first.  The RT is blocking down on the play-side DT and sealing the hole.  When the bubbles are as big as the Lions let them be, it makes it easier to get the running game blocked.  Since the Lions are inviting successful running, the Broncos need to oblige them on Sunday.

b.  Chris Brown wrote a good article on the Wham play that the 49ers killed the Lions with two weeks ago.  You should read this article and understand that I am saying that this is a play the Broncos will want to run, even if it’s a little out of their normal routine.  Hitting Suh from the side is better than trying to hit him from the front.

c.  Cover-2 tends to limit some of the things that Tim Tebow is best at, and in fact, his worst collegiate game was probably against Tennessee as a senior, when Monte Kiffin ran a steady diet of Cover-2 at him.  Because the LBs and DBs are generally facing the QB, the run threat is mitigated.  Screens are limited since everybody is watching, although if you get a quick screen blocked, you can have some success, and the deep ball is limited as well, because there are two deep safeties.

d.  What Tebow will have to do is make some stick throws to known spots.  This will be a good gauge of where he is in his growth as a QB, because he’s going to know where he wants to go, and the task will be getting the ball there.  I’ll want to see him use his eyes to keep defenders toward the middle of the field, and then come outside with the ball.  Check out this concept, which is called Double Smash:

The outside guys run curls, and the inside guys run to the corner.  This is a tried-and true Cover-2 beater, because it’s making the OLBs, CBs, and Safeties all have to communicate and know who’s dropping to what depth to take it away.  The read is the Safeties; if they’re slow to follow the inside guy breaking out, you go there.  If they follow that guy, you have to drill the ball into the hook man in a tight space.  That’s the difficult throw that I want to see Tebow make.

This is a variation on the same concept, where if you trust your minimum protection, you run the RB deep down the middle and challenge the SS to pick between him and the Y man.  You can also keep in the backside TE to help protect and make the read go entirely to the right.  This is an example of flooding a deep zone.

e.  The 4 Verticals concept is also very much in play.  Since the defense wants to keep five men shallow and two men deep, you run four guys deep at the two guys.  The defensive adjustment is to drop the Mike deep, (creating what they call Tampa 2), but that still leaves one Mike to defend two TEs.  Good luck.  This is what it looks like, which the name 4 Verticals describes pretty well.

f.  Finally, another classic Cover-2 beater called the Flat-7 concept should also be employed liberally.  This is a mirrored Flat-7, which means it’s the same to both sides of the field.  Here, the read is the CB.  If he drops deep to help the Safety with the 7 route, you go to the flat with the ball.  If the CB stays shallow, the throw is to the 7 route on the sideline.  I like slight inside releases from the WRs on this to encourage the two safeties to hesitate and stay on the hashes.  The CBs, who are jamming in Cover-2, want to let the WR release inside, so you might as well go with it.

Overall, the Broncos are going to need to be patient and bludgeon the Lions with the quick-hitting running game.  If they can get the Lions to bring the extra man up, it’s time to go deep on them and test out that shaky secondary in man coverage.  As long as they’re in Cover-2, though, Tebow will need to be patient and decisive and make the throws that take what’s there.  Again, he’s physically capable of making every throw I’ve described and diagrammed, unlike a Colt McCoy.

Stopping the Lions Offense

a. The Broncos should throw out the normal playbook and assume that the Lions are passing the ball on most snaps.  The DEs should crash hard and get after the QB, even if they get exploited once or twice for a gain on the edge.  Disrupting Stafford is paramount, and it’s worth giving up a couple seven-yard runs to Morris.

b.  I like double A-gap blitzes and outside overload concepts in this game.  The indicators are screaming for a lot of blitz, and I think that Dennis Allen will oblige.

c.  The Broncos can match up just fine man-to-man with the Lions outside.  Champ Bailey should follow Johnson wherever he goes, and Andre’ Goodman can definitely handle Burleson.  I like the matchups on the TEs just fine with the Broncos LBs, and I think that the FS will get to play a lot of centerfield, while Brian Dawkins is turned loose as a box player to cause havoc.

d.  It’s not really a defensive function, but Stefan Logan is a very good return man for the Lions, and it would behoove the Broncos to tackle him if he gets to return any kicks.  Even better would be if Matt Prater would keep kicking touchbacks, and Britton Colquitt would keep booming the punts too.  PFF has the Broncos with the best special teams in the NFL this year, and I've been very pleased with their play too.

I could make a case for the Lions to whip the Broncos Sunday, especially if Tebow struggles, but I think that their overall talent levels are closer than most people think.  The Lions have had the benefit of having a franchise QB and a big-time WR play really well early in the season, even as others around them on offense struggled.  The defense was good early but has been hit in the running game lately.  I’m not fully decided, but I think I’m going to pick the Broncos on Sunday.  Have a good weekend, friends, and we’ll see how this comes out on Sunday.

1.  I’m not in the arguing business, I’m in the saying what I think business.
2.  I get my information from my eyes.

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