Allen Park -- The Detroit Lions are 3-2 and heading to New Orleans to play the Saints before a bye week. Before we turn our attention to the next matchup, we like to put a bow on the previous game by breaking down the film. Here are 10 observations from the film room:
In my report card after the game, I gave Matthew Stafford a D+. And, as typically happens when I criticize Stafford, my email inbox fills up with people eager to come to his defense.
I’ll readily admit, those report cards are imperfect. They’re based on a single, live viewing and some locker room interviews, so I’m always open to reevaluating. But after watching the tape from the Panthers game, I feel I made the right assessment.
Simply put, Stafford wasn’t sharp. On his first pass, he put the ball behind Marvin Jones on a slant. And on the dropped touchdown throw to Eric Ebron, the tight end was right when he said the pass should have been intercepted. The fact that it went through the linebacker hands isn’t an example of Stafford fitting a ball into a tight window, it’s an example of him catching a break.
In the first half, as the offense stalled over and over, Stafford struggled on third down. He incorrectly anticipated Theo Riddick beating Luke Kuechly and forced a ball into coverage (Riddick complained he was held), missed Golden Tate wide on an escape route and Tate again on a beautifully-run corner pattern.
Stafford also overthrew TJ Jones from a clean pocket, leading his receiver into a big hit from a safety, and was too long on another throw to Jones into the end zone.
Yes, Stafford took a beating in the second half. But when he had time, the throws weren’t good enough. And even when he was under pressure, his footwork was awkward, causing him to stumble multiple times.
He also fumbled twice with no good excuse for either. He just didn’t hold on to the ball while being hit.
Stafford is a good player, that hasn’t changed. He’s just had a pair of subpar performances. It happens.
SIZE BEATS SLAY
Darius Slay had a rough day, struggling with the size of Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin. On the 31-yard touchdown in the third quarter, Slay played with sound technique, quickly flipping his hips and maintaining inside position while staying in stride down the sideline. But he gave away separation during some hand-fighting late in the route and Cam Newton couldn’t have delivering a more perfect ball.
Benjamin effectively ended the game by beating Slay on a third-and-9 in the closing minutes. On the post pattern, Benjamin essentially boxed the smaller corner out with his forearm throughout the route, but never extended the arm to the point where he could be flagged for offensive pass interference. On the break at the top of the route, Benjamin leaned into Slay, getting separation, and Newton, once again, delivered a perfect pass with precise timing.
Slay also gets the blame for Devin Funchess’ touchdown in the second quarter. On that play, the corner was in zone coverage and lost track of the receiver because his eyes were in the backfield.
Slay made some nice open-field tackles in the game, helping prevent some bigger gains, but allowed receptions on six of seven throws his direction. That’s tough to overcome, especially with two completions resulting in scores.
PASS PRO PROBLEMS LATE
Stafford actually had surprisingly good protection throughout the first half. He didn’t see any pressure until a desperation drive at the end of the second quarter, when left tackle Greg Robinson gave up a pair of hurries, with one resulting in a fumble.
Things started to get shaky once the Panthers built a double-digit lead in the second half. On the first offensive snap after the Lions fell behind by 14, guard Graham Glasgow got blown past by Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kawann Short while rookie tight end Michael Roberts couldn’t handle linebacker Thomas Davis blitzing off the edge. The converging pressure led to a second fumble. This one, the Lions lost.
On Detroit’s next possession, now down 17, the team found itself facing a third-and-2. Stafford wanted to throw to Tate on the play, but the receiver didn’t win his route, forcing the quarterback to pull the ball back down and get dropped. When Jim Caldwell says blocking isn’t always responsible for a sack, this would be an example.
Things only got worse in the fourth quarter. On second-and-4, the Panthers brought two men on the blitz and Stafford never saw the second defender coming off the left edge. This one is on the quarterback, who has to identify the possibility pre-snap. By failing to do so, Stafford missed an easy throw to Ebron in the flat where the blitzing defender had vacated.
Now facing third-and-long, the Panthers blitzed two again. This time the running back picked up the free rusher off the edge, but center Travis Swanson was badly beaten by defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. Stafford surprisingly escaped his collapsed pocket, and had Tate open well short of the sticks, but instead ate a sack from cornerback Captain Munnerlyn, who came from the traffic on the backside.
The final sack was tough to diagnosis, but the pocket held up long enough to deliver a pass. Stafford looked like he expected something different from his receiver on the outside, and when the route didn’t go as plan, he started dancing in the pocket.
So of the six sacks, three go against the line, two against the receivers for not winning their matchups on the outside, and one on Stafford for not seeing the blitz.
SECOND-LEVEL RUN STOPPERS
When fully staffed, the Lions run defense is formidable, thanks largely to the efforts of linebacker Jarrad Davis and safety Tavon Wilson, two extremely aggressive downhill players.
Up front, Detroit’s defensive line attacks a single gap. That leaves the linebackers and in-the-box safety to fill the remaining lanes. Both Davis and Wilson consistently do so with authority. Both frequently win with their reaction speed more so than their hands, which isn’t uncommon. If you don’t have to engage a 300-pound guard, don’t.
It did get ugly when the two lined up over the A gaps on a third-and-4 as the defensive line fanned out. One guard rag-dolled Wilson while Davis was easily driven back by the center as Newton plunged through the heart of his line and converted on a designed quarterback sneak.
On other plays, Davis and Wilson were sometimes in the backfield so quickly, with such reckless abandon, they missed tackles. Obviously, that’s not ideal, but they do a good enough job forcing the back to shuffle his feet and change direction, allowing teammates time to get to the ball. That’s still a net positive with the disruption.
DICKSON’S BIG DAY
As you well know by now, Panthers tight end Ed Dickson had a career-day, catching five passes for 175 yards in the victory. How’d he do it?
He got off to a hot start in the first quarter running the deep route on a pair of level concepts, designed to stretch a zone defense and get them to commit one way. The attention of the linebackers was drawn to shallow crossing routes as Dickson slipped behind them. On both, Detroit’s safeties continued to backpedal. I don’t know if this is how they’re taught to play within the scheme or the safeties got loose with their technique, but Newton found Dickson first for 18 yards, then 64, when the tight end ran through tackle attempts by both Wilson and Miles Killebrew.
Dickson got free for another big gain when he leaked out from a bunched formation on third-and-1 and no one picked him up in the secondary. The Panthers ran play-action to running back Jonathan Stewart and Newton rolled out. He could have picked up the first with his feet, but there was Dickson, wide open.
Multiple Lions defenders attributed the blown coverage to an alignment issue. In other words, a bad play call, which failed to mark Dickson.
Dickson caught two more passes, both against man-coverage. He outran linebacker Tahir Whitehead on a crossing route for 13 yards in the second quarter and got Killebrew twisted around down the seam for another 23 yards while running a post in the third quarter.
The Lions seem to be having some fun at the fullback spot, using a second defensive player in the role this game. But they might have found something in linebacker Nick Bellore.
On his first snap, a third-and-1, he came through the hole ahead of running back Zach Zenner and delivered a jarring block that knocked All-Pro linebacker Luke Kuechly back and sprung Zenner for a 14-yard gain.
Bellore came back out in the second quarter and tagged Thomas Davis on a stretch zone run from the 1-yard line as Zenner avoided some unrelated traffic in the backfield and plunged in for the score.
His third and final effort was a bit more awkward. Bellore rammed into the back of Ebron on a failed fourth-down conversion, but that wasn’t the reason the play failed.
SECOND LOOK AT RALLY
It’s always exciting to see Stafford lead a rally, but it’s also interesting to see how they happen. In this case, the Panthers were still up three scores when the Lions took over with just under nine minutes remaining.
Largely, the credit goes to Stafford’s weapons in these instances. On the first drive, he connected on multiple short throws to Tate and Riddick against soft zone coverage and let his receivers do most of the work after the catch.
But credit to Stafford, who injured his ankle on the third play of the drive, stayed in the game with noticeably reduced mobility and made the throws, however short they were. And on the 4-yard touchdown to Darren Fells, Stafford rolled out to buy time and create space before delivering a tough cross-body throw to his tight end.
On the second touchdown drive, Stafford again got help after the catch from Tate and Jared Abbrederis, who turned a shallow cross into a 25-yard gain. The touchdown pass to Fells was a good ball on a well-run out route against linebacker Shaq Thompson.
PUT A BODY ON KUECHLY
Kuechly is a nightmare to block and the Lions didn’t seem to have any answers when trying to get their hands on him in the second level on running plays and screen passes. It didn’t matter who drew the assignment, the team had little luck. Robinson was too tentative on two plays, Ebron took a bad angle, Glasgow got ripped past and Swanson had to hold Kuechly to prevent him from making a play on a screen pass.
RIDDICK IS FINE
It would be hyperbole to label this a breakout performance for Theo Riddick, given he finished with just four catches for 45 yards, but if there were any lingering concerns about his elusiveness, let’s put that talk to rest.
Riddick was a nightmare for the Panthers in the open field and even managed to make Kuechly look silly on a throw to the flat, where the shifty back used the linebacker’s momentum against him, pushed him to the ground and turned the short pass into a 21-yard gain.
HAYDEN STEPS UP
Cornerback D.J. Hayden played 23 snaps, but he was a ghost (not necessarily a bad thing for a cornerback) until he made a series of plays in the second half. He was all over an attempted double-move by Christian McCaffery, breaking up the pass, and drove and stuffed Funchess for a loss on a wide receiver screen the next play, forcing the Panthers to settle for a field goal.
Hayden added a pass breakup, and a quality tackle for a minimal gain on second down before the Panthers sealed the game on the third-down conversion to Benjamin.
There’s still a timeshare with Nevin Lawson at cornerback, but Hayden made a case for more playing time with this performance.