Lions film review: 10 observations vs. Saints
Allen Park — Between the chaos of Sunday’s game, and some bye week schedule adjustments, we’re a day behind on our film review from the Detroit Lions’ 52-38 loss to the New Orleans Saints. Sorry to leave you hanging. Here are 10 observations from the game.
A ROUGH START
On Detroit’s opening series, quarterback Matthew Stafford was sacked in the end zone, fumbled the ball and the Saints recovered to take an early lead. Here’s why the play broke down.
It was 3rd-and-8 and the Lions were in 11 personnel, with three receivers, tight end Eric Ebron and running back Zach Zenner. The Saints showed pressure pre-snap, lining six along the line, but dropped two in coverage and blitzed with safety Kenny Vaccaro from the left side.
The offensive line and Zenner did an excellent job with the initial protection. Zenner picked up the blitz (something the Lions backs did well throughout the game) and the interior linemen handled their assignments, including a stunt, run on the right side. Left tackle Greg Robinson drove defensive end Alex Okafor’s speed rush wide and well past Stafford.
But the Saints had strong coverage in the back end, taking away Ebron’s out route to the left sideline and a hot route read to Tate, where Vaccaro had vacated coverage. With no one open, Stafford found himself holding on to the ball for too long and made the critical mistake of running horizontally inside his own end zone as Okafor recovered to sack the quarterback from behind 3.7 seconds after the snap.
Stafford could have done three things to avoid the situation. First, step forward in the pocket and avoid the risk of being dropped for a safety. Second, throw the ball away, either deep out of bounds or at the feet of Tate. Three, taken a deep shot to Marvin Jones’ in one-on-one coverage down the left sideline, with little shot of the safety recovering to help on the play.
HOT ROUTE GONE BAD
The Saints got to Stafford again in the second quarter, on an unblocked blitz. The Lions actually saw it coming, but there was a miscommunication on the hot route run by Theo Riddick, who was coming out of the backfield.
Riddick had an option of breaking his route off to the flat or angling back inside down the seam. Stafford expected the former while Riddick chose door No. 2. The back did come open, but because of a small stutter step early in the route, it took too long to develop and linebacker Craig Robertson got home on his rush, stripping the ball from Stafford as he tried to pull it back down.
The Saints took over at the Lions’ 31 and turned the takeaway into seven points several plays later.
Depending on the defensive scheme, linemen and blitzers can be trained to get their hands into the passing lanes if they know they’re not going to get home on the pass rush. The Saints took it to the extreme Sunday, centering their defensive plan around the strategy, anticipating Stafford’s mobility would be limited by an ankle injury and knowing the Lions like to throw the ball quickly.
And while a few of the deflections came on throws intended for targets in the middle of the field, the majority of them came on horizontal throws toward the sidelines, generally within a few yards of the line of scrimmage.
The Saints angled their rushers wide on the snap and had them keep eyes on Stafford in the backfield. That put the edge defenders in perfect position to knock down the quick outs and wide receiver screens the Lions lean on so heavily in their passing attack.
If you’re looking to place blame, there isn’t a single source. On a handful, Stafford didn’t show enough awareness, including one he threw directly into the arms of a defender that could have easily been intercepted. Others, were the result of the linemen failing to do their job, whether it was a poorly executed cut block by Robinson or one of the interior linemen being driven too deep into the pocket. And coaching failed to make a necessary adjustment to counter the Saints’ strategy, whether it was better utilizing pump fakes to get defenders to prematurely leave their feet or making better use of the middle of the field.
Given the effectiveness of the strategy, don’t be surprised if future opponents look to emulate what the Saints did. It will be something to watch after the bye.
LONG RUN BREAKDOWN
Through five weeks, the Lions didn’t allow a running play longer than 18 yards, but Mark Ingram broke free for a 51-yard gain in the opening quarter.
On the play, the Saints lined up with a heavy set — two tight ends off left tackle. The Lions initially had six defenders in the box, but walked safety Miles Killebrew down pre-snap.
At the snap, Ingram took the handoff going to the strong side of the formation, behind the pulling left guard. The Saints did an outstanding job in the second level, with the right tackle blocking Jarrad Davis, the center cutting Tahir Whitehead and the wide tight end getting a body on Killebrew.
The pulling guard chopped down cornerback Nevin Lawson on the perimeter, and Ingram was able to stiff arm Whitehead — who had kept his feet through the cut block — to the ground. From there it was off to the races.
But the block that sprung the play was at the line, where tight end Michael Hoomanawanui appeared to illegally block defensive end Ziggy Ansah in the back on a trap.
WATCH THE PICK
A lot of casual fans understand it’s offensive pass interference to block downfield before a pass is thrown, but might not know you can legally set a pick within one yard of the line of scrimmage. The Saints used this to their advantage on Ted Ginn’s first-quarter touchdown.
On 3rd-and-6, the Saints bunched three receivers to the right, between the hash and the numbers. Cornerback Darius Slay had Ginn, the man furthest outside.
At the snap, Ginn cut sharply back to the middle of the field while Slay was jarred by a stiff shot from Michael Thomas, the middle man in the bunch. The hit was intentional, but within a yard and the block was not sustained downfield, making it legal. It gave Ginn plenty of separation and he hauled in a five-yard pass from quarterback drew Brees, made Davis miss to get the corner and dove into the end zone for a 20-yard score.
BIG GUY TOUCHDOWN
A’Shawn Robinson’s interception was impressive and he appeared to be in position to make the play by design. He lined up as the right defensive tackle on the 2nd-and-14 play from the Saints’ own 1-yard line.
With no running back in the backfield, Robinson moved to his left on the snap, instead of trying to penetrate into the backfield. Like a safety, he watched Brees’ eyes and drifted into the passing lane. As the quarterback looked to fire a quick slant to his slot receiver, Robinson fully extended and snatched the pass at the 2-yard line and rumbled into the end zone.
Overall, Robinson was a bright spot on the defense. He batted down another pass and consistently fended off double teams and maintained gap integrity as a run defender. With Haloti Ngata out for the year, the Lions need Robinson to be the production leader at the position and this was a solid first showing.
SPECIAL TEAM SPARKPLUG
Despite limited experience, both as a professional and in the college ranks, rookie Jamal Agnew looks natural with the ball in his hands as a return man. He had two big returns in the fourth quarter, shooting up the middle for 26 yards on the first and racing around the perimeter of the formation for a 74-yard touchdown on the second.
On the first, Agnew went up the gut, using a block from Zenner to his left and baiting an unblocked Saint to his right with a false first step. Once at full speed, Agnew followed his blocks and made three more Saints players miss, including two with back-to-back spin moves.
The second punt was a booming 58-yard directional effort that forced Agnew to track the ball and field it near the left sideline. Once he corralled it, he got a number of good blocks, starting with Zenner and Quandre Diggs early and Charles Washington, Killebrew and Jalen Reeves-Maybin further downfield. Agnew, once again, showed an excellent feel for reading and following his blocks, returning it right and cutting sharply upfield at just the right time.
Obviously, the inexperience still shows at times. When the Saints drove another punt deep toward the sideline late in the game, Agnew didn’t track it as smoothly. Instead of letting it bounce inside the 10, he muffed it and had to bring it out of the end zone, leaving the offense 99 yards to go to tie the game.
BACKUP LINEMEN ASSESSMENT
T.J. Lang had been the Lions most consistent offensive lineman through five weeks, so there was cause for concern when he was ruled out before the game, but replacement Emmett Cleary did an admirable job before rolling his ankle in the third quarter.
Cleary impressed as a run blocker, routinely managing his assignment on carries, including a 34-yard Ameer Abdullah run between right guard and tackle.
As a pass protector, Cleary had some costly hiccups. Like most of Detroit’s line, he got embarrassed by Cameron Jordan on a pass-rush snap, put on roller skates leading to a sack early in the third frame. Cleary also allowed a defensive tackle to get a big hit on Stafford after a short completion. But all things considered, the former Cowboys lineman looks to be a capable interior backup.
The team’s offensive tackle depth proved more troubling. Brian Mihalik didn’t look strong enough to anchor against the Saints pass rushers, getting brutalized by both Jordan and Okafor in limited snaps. Jordan bull rushed Mihalik, briefly filling in at right tackle, directly into Stafford for a sack. Okafor did the same thing when Mihalik moved to left tackle, but Stafford managed to keep his footing through the contact, escape the pressure and connect with TJ Jones for a 24-yard catch-and-run.
VERTICAL SUCCESS WITH FELLS
The Lions didn’t attack the field vertically until the second half, and didn’t have success with it until they were down 35 points, but a 22-yard touchdown pass to tight end Darren Fells should offer groundwork for earlier implementation of downfield passing in the game plan.
Facing a 3rd-and-17 from the Saints 22, the Lions came out with a three-wide look, with two receiver to the left and Marvin Jones to the right side. Fells was also to the right, aligned next to tackle.
The Lions ran all four options vertically against the Saints Cover-2 zone and a play-action handoff to Riddick held the linebackers for a fraction of a second, clearing some extra space in the secondary.
The safety to Fells’ side of the field was understandably more focused on Jones, who had been targeted deep three times in the game, hauling in two of those passes, including a 22-yard touchdown. That left the seam exposed and Stafford delivered an accurate pass to Fells at the 5-yard line and the big man finished the job.
Speaking of Fells, he was stopped short on a fourth-and-goal at the end of the first half. The Lions tried to get him free on a rub route, and did, but cornerback Marshon Lattimore didn’t over-commit to Riddick running a corner route like the Lions anticipated, leaving Lattimore in position to drop the tight end just short of the goal line. It was an impressive play by the rookie.
LEARNING ON THE JOB
It wasn’t the best performance for Detroit’s rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis, but it was neat to see him make a mistake early and the necessary correction when the Saints tried to beat him with the same look later in the game.
In zone coverage, Davis didn’t trail the tight end deep enough down the seam to his safety, leading to a 25-yard gain over his head.
When the Saints went to that well again in the fourth quarter, Davis stayed in the tight end’s back pocket and Brees was forced to overthrow the route.