Lions film review: 10 observations vs. Browns
Allen Park — With that two-game stretch of primetime games mercifully out of the way, we can return to our regular schedule. That means Tuesday film review. Here are 10 observations after a deep dive into the tape from the Detroit Lions' 38-24 victory over the Cleveland Browns.
RETURN OF DECKER
The Lions welcomed left tackle Taylor Decker back to the lineup following his five-month recovery from shoulder surgery. He didn't play the full game, limited to 36 snaps while rotating with Brian Mihalik, and there was some noticeable rust, particularly in pass protection. Decker allowed three pressures on fewer than two dozen plays protecting quarterback Matthew Stafford.
The struggles were understandable given the long layoff and difficult individual matchup. On the first play of the game, rookie defensive end Myles Garrett took a wide angle before bulling Decker deep into the pocket, which had also collapsed from the opposite side when Emmanuel Ogbah shed right tackle Rick Wagner, dipped inside and dropped Stafford for the sack.
Garrett beat Decker with speed in the fourth quarter, bending around the edge and chasing Stafford into a sack for linebacker Christian Kirksey.
Decker looked better with his run-blocking assignments, which I'll get into further down.
ROBINSON'S POSITION SWAP
Decker wasn't the only Lions lineman making his return from injury. Corey Robinson came off injured reserve for the game and made an unexpected debut at right guard, a position he hadn't played since his junior year in high school.
The transition got off to an ugly start when Robinson didn't appear to understand his assignment on Detroit's second offensive snap, a handoff to running back Ameer Abdullah. Robinson initially moved as if he was going to execute a combination block with center Travis Swanson, while both Ogbah and linebacker Joe Schobert raced through Robinson's gap to swallow Abdullah in the backfield for a six-yard loss.
Robinson also missed a second-level block in the first quarter that led to a four-yard loss, was ill-prepared to handle a stunting linebacker in the second quarter that contributed to a sack, and got beat one-on-one in the fourth quarter, allowing his man to bat down a pass intended for a wide-open Eric Ebron in the flat.
The struggles, while understandable given the circumstances, are a reminder of the difficulties that come with switching positions. With time, a talented lineman can move from tackle to guard, but it's not a process that can be rushed. The footwork, angles and assignments are not subtle changes. Robinson is both smart and athletic. With more time, he probably could do well inside, but things didn't go well against the Browns.
POPPING GROUND GAME
The Browns came into Sunday's game as the NFL's best run defense, but the Lions managed to rack up 104 yards on the ground, averaging 5.5 yards per carry. Those numbers were boosted by five big runs. Let's take a look at what went right with each of them.
Abdullah got the party started with a 20-yard gain with 8:39 remaining in the first quarter. The under-center carry to the left was successful because of a dominant block on defensive end Nate Orchard by rookie tight end Michael Roberts and an interior seal provided by Decker on Kirksey. Also contributing second-level blocks were Graham Glasgow, Robinson and wide receiver Kenny Golladay.
Two plays later, Theo Riddick got free for 21 yards around the right edge. Somewhat mirroring Abdullah's run, Riddick was able to get the edge thanks to strong blocks from a tight end and tackle, this time Darren Fells and Wagner. It also helped that the Browns linebackers were frozen by a fake end around to return man Jamal Agnew, moving the opposite direction of Riddick.
Abdullah gobbled up another 19 yards on a 1st-and-10 carry to start the second quarter. Fells, Glasgow and Mihalik all won their one-on-one assignments (maybe with the help of some holding by Fells), and Abdullah used his speed to once again get the edge.
Riddick gained 10 more on the next play, all thanks to individual effort. He took the shotgun handoff going right behind the pulling blocks of Glasgow and Swanson, but penetration by the Browns muddied the lane deep in the backfield. With nowhere to go and a big loss looking inevitable, Riddick made an executive decision to reverse field, somehow got around four unblocked defenders and was able to turn upfield and turn it into a positive.
The final play, while just an eight-yard gain, was a well-executed touchdown run for Abdullah. The power look got off to a strong start when Glasgow and Mihalik, on their way to the second level, used Jamie Meder's momentum against him to knock the defensive tackle to the ground. Robinson sealed open the lane pulling through and cutting Garrett and center Travis Swanson handled Danny Shelton long enough for Abdullah to burst across the line. Mihalik's second-level block was picture perfect and Glasgow got just enough of his assignment for the back to plunge across the goal line for the score.
DEJA VU ON STAFFORD'S PICK
Matthew Stafford threw an ugly interception in the opening quarter, which contributed to Detroit's 10-point deficit. After the game, the quarterback said he was trying to burn the throw by putting it into the ground.
There was some similarities to Stafford's first interception of the year. On both plays, Golden Tate was running a shallow crossing route, and on both, he ran into a defender who jarred him off the route. Even with his target stuck in traffic, Stafford, with some pressure in his face, forced it to the spot where Tate was supposed to be, had he not be ensnared.
Shallow crossing routes are a great way to get a receiver in space, especially someone capable of doing damage after the catch like Tate, but it's an area of the field where he's a target for legal contact from defenders. The Cardinals and Browns took advantage of this and turned it into turnovers.
The Browns went after rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis in coverage and should have had far more success than they did. Twice, in one-on-one coverage, tight end David Njoku blew past Davis down the seam, but quarterback DeShone Kizer under-threw both passes. Davis ran into Njoku on each, got away with early contact while face-guarding on the first and was flagged for pass interference on the second.
Additionally, subpar positioning in a zone coverage allowed receiver Rashard Higgins to get behind Davis for 18 yards near the end of the first half.
Davis also missed a tackle in coverage and was not his stellar self in the run game, routinely getting engulfed by second-level blocks, while not maintaining his gap integrity of a few others. He finished the day with just four tackles.
THROW OF THE GAME
Stafford showed outstanding touch on deep passes to Ebron and Golladay, but the quarterback's second-quarter toss to Tate was his best throw of the day.
Looking at 2nd-and-3, just shy of midfield, the Lions showed a run look with two tight ends off left tackle and Riddick in the backfield. The Lions faked the handoff, but the pocket was quickly disrupted by a Browns blitz. Kirksey came wide from Stafford's right side, forcing Wagner to ride him behind and past his quarterback. The Browns also sent Schobert on a stunt to that side, but he was picked up by Riddick.
Still, it was enough to get Stafford dancing. As he was backpedaling, Tate came free on a deep cross and the quarterback delivered a side-armed, back-foot throw around the outstretched arms of Ogbah, hitting Tate low, but in stride, 20 yards down the field. By allowing the receiver to keep his momentum, he made the safety miss and gained 20 yards after the catch.
Looking to rattle Kizer, and knowing they weren't likely able to do it rushing just four, the Lions blitzed a healthy amount in the victory. The problem is the team's blitzing was largely ineffective, particularly when they brought extra pressure with a linebacker. Tahir Whitehead came on a blitz 10 times and his only hit on Kizer came when he drew a roughing the passer penalty. Davis blitzed seven times and generated pressure just once.
The defensive backs had more success catching the Browns by surprise. Nevin Lawson took a rare snap at nickelback and got a pop in on Kizer. So did Quandre Diggs. And safety Tavon Wilson's delayed blitz in the fourth quarter netted him a sack for an 11-yard loss in the fourth quarter.
The most troubling sequence from Sunday's game was the Browns' eight-play, 85-yard touchdown drive to open the second half, which included six running plays netting 70 of those yards. It was Detroit's typically reliable safeties who let them down most on the series.
The drive gained early momentum when the Browns caught the Lions defense not prepared for a quick snap. The linebacker spacing was the initial issue and Davis was easily blocked in the second level, opening up running back Isaiah Crowell's lane. Glover Quin had an opportunity to make the stop after about 10 yards, but was brushed off with a stiff-arm as Crowell gained 21.
The Browns gained 16 on the next two snaps, a modest four-yard gain by Crowell up the middle and a tightly contested pass to Ricardo Louis on the outside. They netted another six yards out of a wild formation, where they motioned into a three-man blocking front and running back Duke Johnson took advantage of Detroit's wide-split defensive counter by running straight up the middle.
Johnson gained 19 more on a draw when safety Tavon Wilson got caught up in the play-action and drawn far out of his run gap, chasing a tight end in coverage.
Wilson failed to set the edge on the next play, when Crowell bounced a run outside and the safety whiffed on his tackle attempt, leading to another chunk gain of 14 yards.
Crowell finished the ground-and-pound session by taking advantage of a poor pursuit angle by Miles Killebrew, which allowed Crowell to once again bounce around the edge, six yards into the end zone.
Kizer is still a rookie prone to rookie mistakes, but he looked sharp much of the day against the Lions, even exhibiting some touch on his deep throws. So it was a devastating blow to the Browns' chances when Diggs knocked Kizer from the game at the end of the third quarter on a nickel blitz.
Kizer's replacement, Cody Kessler, struggled during his two-plus series, and a missed throw in the fourth quarter might as well been the final nail in Cleveland's coffin.
Down seven with a little less than seven minutes remaining, the Browns had it 2nd-and-5 from their own 23-yard line. The Lions came aggressively on a blitz, leaving D.J. Hayden in man coverage with no safety help covering receiver Bryce Treggs on the outside.
But the little-known receiver with only five receptions this season got Hayden to bite on a stutter step and blew by the veteran corner on the outside, along the sideline. With two yards of separation, an accurate throw would have resulted in at least a 50-yard gain and possibly a touchdown. Treggs reportedly ran a 4.34 40 coming out of college.
Instead, it was overthrown by five yards and the Browns ended up punting.
THE PERFECT AUDIBLE
The Browns showed an all-out blitz with eight along the line on the ensuing possession. Stafford has seen enough of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams to know the look wasn't for show. The quarterback had three receivers to his right and checked into a quick pass to Tate, the middle man in the bunch.
It turned out to be the perfect call, thanks to well-executed blocking.
First, Stafford had to fire it quickly enough so that the Browns couldn't bat it down. The ball whizzed by the finger tips of two defenders charging into the outside throwing lane. Once Tate had it, Marvin Jones and TJ Jones paved the way on the perimeter, while Wagner shot into the second level and blasted one linebacker, and got in the way of a second, to hold off the backside pursuit as Tate darted through the narrow lane for the 40-yard score to seal the victory.