Allen Park — The trade deadline (and taking the kids trick-or-treating) screwed with the schedule a bit, but here’s this week’s 10 film study observations from the Lions’ 20-15 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.
WHAT HAPPENED IN THE RED ZONE
The story from the game has been the Lions’ inability to score a touchdown with five trips inside the 20. We’ll break them down, trip-by-trip.
■ Drive No. 1: Early in the second quarter, after a long completion to Marvin Jones, the Lions found themselves with a first-and-goal from the Steelers 10-yard line. The first snap was a handoff to Ameer Abdullah, who was swallowed up after a modest 2-yard gain. The play failed because center Travis Swanson was badly beaten off the ball. Worse yet, he was flagged for holding, pushing the team back 10 yards. On the replay of the down, a swing pass to Theo Riddick was snuffed out after one yard.
Facing second-and-goal from the 19, Matthew Stafford got a favorable one-on-one matchup with cornerback Joe Haden covering Jones, but overthrew the ball on a go route down the right sideline, despite the receiver having inside position.
And on third-and-goal, the Steelers dropped into a deep zone. The Lions left Riddick in pass protection and ran four routes into the end zone. Stafford threw left to TJ Jones, but it was wide and uncatchable.
■ Drive No. 2: Working the two-minute offense to near-perfection, Stafford drove the Lions 45 yards in 19 seconds down to the Steelers 16 at the end of the first half. On first down, following a timeout, the quarterback made the necessary throw to cap the scoring drive, only to see tight end Darren Fells drop a well-placed jump ball down the seam.
For second down, Stafford looked to Fells again, running a post pattern going right to left. This time, the quarterback put the ball behind his intended target. And while the team could have picked up a first down with a shorter throw, the Lions took another shot into the end zone on third down. Again, Stafford liked the one-on-one matchup between Haden and Marvin Jones, and while this was a better throw than the first, it was still out of the reach of the receiver, glancing off a fingertip.
■ Drive No. 3: A long pass to TJ Jones had the Lions with their most favorable look yet, a first-and-goal from the 4 in the middle of the third quarter. The Lions ran on first down with big back Dwayne Washington out of the pistol. The team used two tight ends bunched to the right side, and motioned in wide receiver Jared Abbrederis for some extra push. It was well-blocked and Washington hit the correct hole, but was stopped by a pair of converging defenders — Ryan Shazier and Haden — just shy of the goal line.
Second down was a disaster. First of all, Stafford appeared to have a pre-snap lane right of center to sneak it in, but either didn’t check to the play or didn’t have the option to. Either way, it was a missed opportunity. Instead, the Lions ran play-action, faking a handoff to Abdullah, with only two routes. The clear expectation was Marvin Jones would be uncovered, but the Steelers’ zone call took him away. Stafford was eventually forced to bail from the pocket and work a ball to his original read in a tight window, resulting in an incompletion.
On third down, the Lions tried to ram it home with Washington, but the execution was bad. A failed cut block by Graham Glasgow was the biggest culprit, allowing defensive tackle Javon Hargrave to slide down the line and fill Washington’s lane. Hargrave was further unimpeded because Swanson lost at the point of attack, clearing the lateral path for the defensive lineman to make the play.
The Lions went for it on fourth down, and had a decent play set up on a delayed route to Washington, going up the heart of the line before breaking to his left. But the pocket collapsed quicker than expected when backup right tackle Dan Skipper, in for his first play of the season, couldn’t contain the edge rusher, forcing Stafford to step up into a muddied pocket where he was sacked.
■ Drive No. 4: On the team’s ensuing possession, they again found themselves with a first-and-goal from the 4. The Lions showed run, with three tight ends to the right side, running play-action with Washington heading left while Stafford rolled out to the right. The initial read looked to be to tight end Michael Roberts in the flat, but he was jarred off his route and knocked down by linebacker Bud Dupree. Earlier in the game, the Lions ran a similar play and the edge defender went after Stafford. The Lions may have been expecting a similar reaction here and were fooled when the Steelers gave a different defensive look. Stafford continued to roll and visibly motioned for Eric Ebron, one-on-one in the back of the end zone, to cut back to the middle of the field. The adjustment is made, but the pass was a touch high for the tight end to handle.
The Lions went back to two tight ends off right tackle, along with Abbrederis, on second down, looking to power it in with Washington. This time, it’s Roberts who loses his blocking matchup, getting swatted away by Dupree, who hits the back in the backfield. Washington manages to fall forward for two yards. Third down, same alignment, Washington runs to the same spot, but a schematic flaw prevents Abbrederis from having any shot to put a body on safety Sean Davis, who fills the hole and stops Washington just short of the score.
■ Drive No. 5: The Lions had a final shot late in the fourth to get it into the end zone and take the lead. On first-and-10 from the 11, Stafford sees Marvin Jones working on second-year Artie Burns and opts to try a fade. Despite the corner doing a nice job, maintaining inside position and getting his head around, Stafford delivers a great ball that goes through Jones’ hands and hits him in the facemask. He has to make that catch.
On second down, Stafford finds Tate on a short dig, but the Steelers wrap him up immediately for a 5-yard gain. Here comes one of the game’s most controversial calls, Stafford checks into a draw to Riddick on third-and-5. It appears the quarterback had the right idea, based on the defense alignment, and it would have worked if Golden Tate heard the check. Instead of blocking his man, nickelback Mike Hilton in the slot, Tate ran his route and Hilton came up to drop Riddick. On fourth down, a blocking breakdown is the culprit. Again, it was Swanson driven back, this time by Hargrave. The traffic impacted Stafford’s throwing motion on a pass intended for Ebron, ending the Lions’ threat.
■ Conclusion: There isn’t a single culprit here. Yeah, there were some dud play calls, but not enough to say offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is exclusively, or even primarily, the problem. Stafford missed some throws, but he also had two touchdowns dropped. There were also some blown blocks that ruined otherwise successful schematic looks.
SLAY SLAYS BROWN
One of the more compelling individual matchups coming into the game was Darius Slay covering Antonio Brown. The Lions cornerback did an outstanding job, holding Brown to one catch for nine yards while shadowing the receiver much of the day, including the occasional shift into the slot.
The Steelers took a couple shots into the coverage, including a deep ball, but Slay was in top form, not allowing another grab on the other three targets. He also broke up another deep pass to Justin Hunter.
There were only two plays where Slay had a noticeable breakdown. On one throw to Brown in the end zone, the receiver actually got separation out of his break, but quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was short on the delivery, in part due to some pass-rush pressure. And, of course, Slay got busted for grabbing the wrist of Eli Rogers, drawing a flag for pass interference on a third down, extending the Steelers’ game-ending drive.
SHADES OF LEVY
Rookie linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is showing rapid improvement, and despite his undersized frame, he flashed impressive downhill drive and quick play recognition, contributing to three stuffed Le’Veon Bell runs.
With this style of play, combined with his smaller build, I couldn’t help but think of the way a young DeAndre Levy used to read and react when making plays in the backfield. Obviously, Reeves-Maybin is a long way from matching Levy’s impact, but it was a positive performance from the fourth-round pick whose increasing playing time suggests he’s gaining more trust from the coaching staff.
We can’t bemoan Detroit’s blown chances in the red zone without also considering how many points the Steelers left on the field. One the opening series, Rogers dropped a wide-open touchdown,. And on a similar route in the third quarter, Roethlisberger missed an open Darrius Heyward-Bey in the end zone. Both those drives ended in field goals. Additionally, Bell’s fumble at the end of the first half was almost as bad as Tate’s fourth quarter, robbing the Steelers of another three points, at least.
Roethlisberger was inconsistent much of the game, missing some easy throws, including a chunk gain down the seam to tight end Jesse James, right before the long touchdown pass to JuJu Smith-Schuster. Speaking of the rookie, he put a third-down pass on the ground in the fourth quarter that would have given the Steelers a first down.
All this to say that this 20-15 game could have been something wildly different if not for a series of unforced errors on both sides. It wasn’t just the Lions faltering under the primetime lights.
ANATOMY OF A 97-YARD TD
Speaking of that Smith-Schuster touchdown, it was really a thing of beauty.
The Lions were in a Cover-2 zone, with safeties Glover Quin and Tavon Wilson split wide to provide help over the top against Brown and Hunter, two proven deep threats. Both receivers ran vertically at the snap, demanding the commitment of the safeties prior to the pass.
In the right slot, Smith-Schuster was matched up against Quandre Diggs, who has been exceptional this season. It stands to reason, the Lions trusted their nickel corner to handle the matchup, but the rookie ran an advanced route with precision, feigning a slant to get Diggs to commit inside and gaining separation by turning upfield when the corner turned his hips.
Once he had a step, Smith-Schuster angled back inside behind Diggs and toward the middle of the field, removing the threat of the safety recovering. Roethlisberger delivered a ball from the end zone that traveled more than 30 yards in the air and hit his receiver in stride, sending him off to the races.
Diggs had a shot to bring Smith-Schuster down at the 30, but the receiver ran through the desperation dive to finish the play.
A NEW OFFENSIVE WEAPON
After his punt return touchdown in New Orleans, multiple people on social media suggested to me the Lions should look to incorporate rookie cornerback Jamal Agnew into the offense. While I understood their logic, I brushed the idea off because, one, Agnew has enough on his plate, and, two, his skill set is limited to handoffs, not route running, so there would be an element of predictability to his presence on the field.
Those points stand, but the Lions were able to catch the Steelers off guard, lining Agnew up in the slot and having him run an end around (with a forward pitch so if he dropped it, it would have been a dead ball and not a fumble), around the strongside of the formation with two tight ends blocking out in front. The play design allowed Agnew to generate speed and have blocking set up in open space, recreating the dynamic of a punt return. And it worked well, thanks to a quality block by Ebron for a 12-yard gain.
I’m not sure the Lions will be able to pull it off again, since future opponents will be on alert to it. But if they could come up with three or four simple plays for Agnew, and some misdirection play fakes off of those looks, it could work.
Last week, we noted that the Lions had not run any two-back sets this season, and, most importantly, Riddick and Abdullah had not shared the field. Not exploring the matchup possibilities there seemed like a criminal underutilization of talent.
Well, the timing of that line of questioning was good, because the duo worked five plays together against the Steelers, gaining an average of seven yards on those snaps, including a 17-yard reception. On that snap, neither player was in the backfield, giving Stafford five receivers out of shotgun. The formation created some spacing issues for the Steelers and Tate came free on a crossing route underneath and did the rest of the damage after the catch.
On another shared snap, the Lions lined Riddick up in the slot and faked an end around to him to set up a screen pass to Abdullah the opposite way. The design of the play was great, but subpar blocking by Swanson and Glasgow limited it to an 8-yard gain.
It’s a small sample size, but the success merits further exploration of shared-field sets for the two versatile backs.
CENTER OF BLOCKING WOES
If you’ve read to this point, you’ve noticed we’ve highlighted some struggles for Swanson. He was often overpowered by his assignments, starting with team’s opening offensive snap, which lead to a 4-yard loss by Abdullah on a stretch-zone run. The Lions' inability to run the ball starts in the middle of the line, and Swanson hasn't been anywhere near as effective as he was a year ago.
CLEAN POCKET = DEEP THROWS
When Stafford’s pocket held, which was more often than not despite left tackle Brian Mihalik making his first start against one of the best pass-rushing and blitzing teams in the NFL, it gave the quarterback the necessary time to attack the Steelers deep, particularly near the sidelines, where there are often holes in zone coverage.
After three straight subpar outings, Stafford looked like his old self against the Steelers, having time to square his shoulders, plant and drive his throws into those tight windows down the sideline where TJ Jones and Marvin Jones did some serious damage.
Stafford’s best deep throw, in my opinion, came early in the game. On the team’s second snap, the initial pocket held well against a five-man Steelers rush, but with the initial reads covered, Swanson lost his block and forced the quarterback to escape to his left. As Stafford scrambled behind Mihalik, Marvin Jones accurately assessed the situation and broke deep. Still moving to his left, Stafford squared up and fired a bomb that traveled 45 yards from release to catch, dropping right into Jones’ hands.
QUIN FLASHES SMARTS AGAIN
Quin intercepted his third pass of the year, continuing to exhibit the stellar instincts that have made him one of the game’s premier free safeties.
On a first-and-10 from the Lions 44, the defense came out with four linebackers and four defensive linemen, with a clear focus on slowing down Bell. But the Steelers countered by spreading their weapons out, moving the back out wide and Brown into the slot, away from Slay. That left backup linebacker Nick Bellore in coverage on Brown, a worst-case mismatch.
Not surprisingly, the Steelers looked to exploit it for a big gain. Brown blew past Bellore quickly after the snap and Roethlisberger fired a deep ball down the seam. But Quin also identified the mismatch, shading to that side of the field pre-snap and starting 18 yards back from the line. He also appears to communicate to Slay that he’s on his own with his outside assignment.
On the snap, Quin backpedaled another six yards and simultaneously breaks toward Brown as Roethlisberger cocks back to fire to the receiver. The ball is a touch overthrown and Brown eases up when he sees Quin in position to potentially deliver a big hit. That frees Quin to make an impressive, diving pick.