Allen Park — Another Tuesday, another batch of film observations. We re-watched the Detroit Lions’ 14-7 win over the Minnesota Vikings from every available angle to see what we might have missed. Here are 10 observations from the film:
1. KILLEBREW STANDS OUT
The Lions eased the 2016 fourth-round pick into a limited role last season, giving him around a dozen snaps per game. He’s been on the field for at least 42 the past three weeks, in part because of Tavon Wilson’s shoulder injury, but also because Killebrew has developed at an extraordinary rate.
This was, without question, Killebrew’s finest start-to-finish performance. He made three solo tackles on run downs, peeling off blockers and making stops to prevent bigger gains. In coverage, Killebrew was in the right place consistently, twice breaking up throws in the deeper areas on the field — once as help over the top and a second in man-to-man coverage down the seam.
The only negatives you can point to in the performance were a dropped interception in the end zone, which is a tough play for many defensive backs, and a relatively ineffective blitz effort. Killebrew is turning out to be quite the late-draft gem for general manager Bob Quinn.
For all the strides they made in this game, the Lions still have too many inefficient runs, with the ball carriers getting hit and dropped at or behind the line at a disappointing rate. But Ameer Abdullah’s ability to make something out of nothing on a handful of those plays showcases his talent and bolsters to the team's stat line.
Abdullah had two absurd runs that should end up on his highlight reel at season’s end. First, his third-quarter touchdown. He somehow managed to absorb two hits in the backfield, run through a tackle and squeak through a narrow opening around offensive tackle Greg Robinson before diving and extending the ball across the goal line.
Later in the second half, Abdullah was forced to dodge defensive end Everson Griffen in the backfield, which drove him right into the arms of cornerback Trae Waynes. But the back spun free from the tackle attempt, reversed field when confronted by a safety while still in the backfield, and cut sharply upfield to pick up eight yards.
The line had its moments in this one, particularly some of the second-level blocks from Travis Swanson, T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner, but Abdullah still did so much on his own, netting a career-high 94 yards rushing. He can also thank Waynes for badly botching an edge assignment, allowing Abdullah to run around the left edge untouched for a 29-yard gain.
3. ABDULLAH’S ANKLE
Abdullah left the game early in the fourth quarter, just shy of breaking the Lions’ lengthy streak without a 100-yard rusher, because he suffered an ankle injury. The moment of the injury became clear on film. When running an inside draw, a play he had a nice gain with against the Falcons a week before, the Vikings didn’t bite and linebacker Anthony Barr plugged the hole. As Abdullah pushed for extra yards, and more bodies converged on the tackle, Barr stepped on Abdullah’s foot, pinning it to the ground as the back went down.
There was little on the video to suggest it was serious, and we were told Abdullah had been cleared to return by coach Jim Caldwell.
4. PASS PRO NOT A TOTAL MESS
My initial expectation when I turned on the tape was to see a stunning amount of breakdowns in pass protection, given Matthew Stafford was sacked six times, but that wasn’t the case. On a surprising percentage of his throws, the quarterback was operating from a clean pocket, and was able to square his shoulders and set his feet for his delivery.
Obviously, six sacks is too many, and there were some clear blocking breakdowns. Wagner got cleanly beat by Danielle Hunter on the first snap of the game, getting driven back on a power rush before Hunter ripped inside and got to Stafford in 2.9 seconds. Griffen also blew by Robinson during with a speed rush in the fourth quarter.
Three of the six sacks were the result of coverage taking away Stafford’s early reads. Had he forced the ball in any of the situations, the passes could have been picked. The only one that really hurt was when the quarterback double-clutched and fumbled, losing 21 yards.
The sixth sack was one of the finest defensive efforts you’ll see this season. Hunter had gotten inside on Wagner, but running back Zach Zenner helped pick up the rusher, allowing Wagner to recover and drive Hunter to the ground. It was a well-executed by both Lions players, but while going to the ground, Hunter managed to reach out and grab Stafford’s ankle, tripping the quarterback down.
5. ROBINSON’S STRUGGLES CONTINUE
Griffen called Robinson out as lazy this week and the Lions’ left tackle opted not to engage in a war of words. That’s a fine choice if you’re going to make your statement on the field, but Griffen dominated the matchup.
In addition to the aforementioned sack, Robinson lost far too many head-to-head matchups with Griffen, including multiple on run downs. The Lions wisely gave Robinson help from a back or tight end on a number of passing plays, limiting the potential damage.
Robinson’s biggest struggle that showed up on film was his second-level blocking in the run game. He often looked lost beyond the line of scrimmage, with late and awkward efforts to get a body on a defender. I counted four runs where a missed second-level block cost the Lions yardage in the ground game.
6. STAFFORD GETS LUCKY
Yes, Stafford was sacked six times. Yes, a quarterback’s internal clock can get out of sync because of a talented pass rush and the number of blitz looks the Vikings show. But that’s making excuses for Stafford’s performance in this game. He made a number of bad throws and a couple of mental errors that could have been disastrous had Vikings defenders made the plays.
Stafford’s first misfire came early, on a third down during the team’s opening possession, when he put the ball behind Marvin Jones on an out route and within reach of cornerback Xavier Rhodes.
But the worst of the mistakes was early in the fourth quarter, when Lang was forced to the bench by the officiating crew to be evaluated for a concussion. Stafford was under duress almost immediately when backup guard Emmett Clearly was beaten on the inside and Griffin blew by tight end Darren Fells on the edge.
But as he so often does, Stafford found an escape route, rolling to his right. Nothing was open and he should have just heaved it out of bounds. Instead, he threw it directly into the arms of cornerback Mackensie Alexander. Had the young defensive back caught it, the Vikings would have started in Lions’ territory. Because he couldn’t hang on, the Lions were able to punt and pin the Vikings at their own 5.
7. PASS OF THE GAME
On the flip side, we like to highlight Stafford’s best throw each week. In the shadow if his own goal line, he had to spin free of Hunter — who had powered past Robinson — and roll to his left.
Stafford had Fells open in the flat, but Barr was also there, ready to stop the big tight end short of the sticks and force a punt. So as he continued to roll, Stafford used his eyes to hold Barr and allow Fells to get additional separation before delivering the pass in space. Fells rumbled for an extra few yards after the catch to give the Lions a fresh set of downs.
8. LATE-GAME PLAY CALLING
I received a lot of feedback this week expressing disappointment with the Lions’ play-calling their final offensive drive, when they had an opportunity to run out the clock, but went three-and-out and gave the Vikings one more shot to tie it.
While I understand the desire to keep it on the ground and keep the clocking running (or force the usage of timeouts), the execution on the plays, especially first and second down was poor.
On first down, the Lions looked to go up the gut, but no one put a body on Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks, allowing him to quickly fill the lane and drop Zenner after a one-yard gain. It looked like Graham Glasgow was responsible for peeling off a double-team with Robinson, but came off too late, killing the play’s potential.
On second down, the Lions looked to run a stretch zone to the left, which has its merits because outside runs use up more clock. But the team has been wildly inconsistent blocking these plays and that proved to be the case here as Griffen shot past Fells into the backfield and dropped Zenner three yards behind the line.
And when you’re third and long — and third and longer after a false start — there’s little value trying to push it downfield, even with the two-minute warning stopping the clock either way. The odds of throwing an interception, or taking a sack waiting for the downfield routes to develop, go way up on 3rd-and-17. Another run was an easy call.
Would better execution on the early downs been enough? Maybe. It wouldn't hurt to see something a little bolder, potentially using Stafford’s mobility on a play-action roll out with some short, safety-value routes.
The Lions aren't used to closing out games with the lead. It’s something they’ll need to learn to do consistently and it will be a work in progress.
9. EXTEND FELLS
OK, it’s probably premature to be talking contracts, but Fells is developing into a nice piece of this offense. I know I mentioned a few blocking blunders above, which is going to happen when you get stuck with Griffen one-on-one, but that also speaks to the faith the team has in the veteran tight end as a blocker. There aren’t many around the league you would even consider putting in those situations.
Fells, as he has since he arrived, showed his blocking abilities in this game, both in space and along the line. He executes down blocks particularly well, driving edge defenders inside on outside runs.
But this was the best look we’ve gotten at his receiving skills. He worked from off tackle, out of the backfield, in the slot and even spread wide. He showed both a knack for finding open space and getting separation against man coverage, plus the ability to do some damage after the catch. He dragged poor Waynes four yards after one reception.
Fells is weapon we were always told Brandon Pettigrew was. It was a good signing and the Lions would be wise to find a way to retain him.
10. LINGERING RUN DEFENSE CONCERN
It probably seems unreasonable to sound any alarm after holding Minnesota to 87 yards on the ground, but there are still some lingering negative trends from the Atlanta game that need to be ironed out.
What the Lions did fix was preventing the big play. The defensive backs — notably Killebrew, Glover Quin and Nevin Lawson — did an excellent job tackling on the perimeter. The Falcons picked up a bunch of yards on broken tackles outside their formation, so kudos to the correction.
But the Vikings were still wildly efficient. Dalvin Cook carried the ball 13 times before an injury knocked him from the game and he gained at least four yards on 11 of those runs. The Vikings routinely reestablished the line of scrimmage with a strong push up front, and effectively put bodies on Detroit linebackers in the second level. Tahir Whitehead continued to shine coming downhill, but it wasn't enough. Getting Jarrad Davis back should also help.
After Latavius Murray came in as an injury replacement for Cook, things got better for the Lions, but he still wasn’t stuffed once (no gain or a loss of yardage) on seven carries.
There are two concerns if teams are able to bully the Lions up front. First, it sets up play-action, something a team like this week’s opponent, the Carolina Panthers, will happily exploit. Two, it allows opponents to run clock at the end of games, taking away Stafford’s ability to lead comebacks if you find yourself behind late.
Two games is not a trend, but it’s something that merits continued attention. Detroit’s defenders will tell you their top priority is shutting down the run, but it’s been a struggle the past two games.