Allen Park — The losses are piling up and playoff hopes are dwindling, but it's still worth exploring what's going right and wrong with the Lions each week. We reviewed the film of all 162 plays from the team's 44-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens and here are 10 observations.
LET'S PLAY WITH NINE
The most-discussed snap from Sunday's game came when the Lions opted to field a baseball team instead of a football team, defending a third-down pass play with only nine men.
What happened exactly, well, we may never know. The players who have talked about it seem just as confused as outside observers by the operation leading up to snap. Coach Jim Caldwell has repeatedly shouldered all the blame for the "horrendous" situation, as he labeled it, but has also declined to offer specifics on the sideline breakdown.
Looking back at the Lions' third-down packages throughout the game, defensive end Anthony Zettel was on the field, working as an interior pass-rusher, for all but one. Yet, he inexplicably left the field following the second-down incompletion he forced with a hit on quarterback Joe Flacco. The Lions were also missing a nickelback on the play, a role that had been filled by rookie Teez Tabor much of the first three quarters.
In the immediate aftermath of second down, when there was some uncertainty whether Flacco fumbled or the play would be ruled incomplete, Tabor is seen strapping on his helmet and stepping toward the field. It remains unclear what happened when the cameras cut away.
There was clear confusion on the defense prior to the snap, but it's not like the Ravens rushed getting a play off. They didn't snap the ball until the play clock was under 10, more than enough time for the Lions to call timeout. Instead, Baltimore completed a 23-yard pass down to the 10-yard line.
The Ravens ultimately scored a touchdown, going up 14 with 12:39 remaining.
Undrafted rookie Tion Green made his long-awaited debut, and made those clamoring for his opportunity look brilliant by ripping off a 33-yard gain on his first carry, early in the second quarter.
The run, an outside zone, heading left out of a shotgun formation, was successful not so much because of Green, but because of the exceptional blocking he received.
The Lions lined up with two tight ends — Darren Fells and Michael Roberts — off left tackle. The tandem did an outstanding job on the snap, working in tandem to seal 340-pound defensive tackle Brandon Williams inside, while Roberts smoothly broke off the combination block to put a body on linebacker Patrick Onwuasor in the second level.
Left guard Corey Robinson and left tackle Taylor Decker kicked out on the play, behind the tight ends. Decker pancaked All-Pro edge defender Terrell Suggs in the backfield, while Robinson laid waste to cornerback Marlon Humphrey on the perimeter.
Green came around the edge clean and angled his run toward the sideline to negate the pursuit of the backside defenders. He was 27 yards downfield before he was even touched by a Ravens player.
MISSED OPPORTUNITIES ON THE GROUND
Despite the 33-yard run, the Lions had a modest day on the ground. The backs combined to average 3.6 yards per carry, while starter Theo Riddick netting just 21 yards on nine attempts.
There was a first-quarter run that stood out, highlighting Riddick's occasional lapse of vision as a ball carrier. While blocking has often the biggest initial for the Lions, his initial lane was blocked as designed. Had he stayed the course on the north-south carry, he would have gained between 5-7 yards. Instead, he bounced outside and was dropped by a defensive back for no gain.
In the fourth quarter, the Lions blocked an outside run for Riddick perfectly, leaving him one-on-one with Humphrey on the perimeter. Anyone who watches the Lions regularly knows that's a matchup you'll take all day, every day, but the rookie cornerback played with exceptional technique and dropped Riddick after a 5-yard gain. Had the back been able to juke past the defender, the run probably ends in the end zone for a 29-yard score.
Maximizing the blocking on those two plays and we're talking about nine carries for close to 60 yards and more than 100 combined between Riddick and Green. That's not to say there weren't too many blocking breakdowns, and a couple failed short-yardage situations we'll get to later, but that stat line would have been one you're feeling pretty good about at the end of the day.
SAFETY CHECK FOR DIGGS
The Lions went a surprising direction at safety, replacing the injured Tavon Wilson with nickelback Quandre Diggs. After a shaky start, there was a lot to like about the performance.
On the first series, Diggs got sucked in by play-action, allowing tight end Ben Watson run free on a crossing route that gained 18 yards. But as the game progressed, Diggs gave the tight ends little breathing room. Watson did catch another short pass and powered forward for a 5-yard gain on a third-and-4. And wide receiver Jeremy Maclin also beat tight coverage from Diggs for 12 yards on a skinny post in the seam.
But Diggs broke up a pair of passes, tipping one away from Watson and jarring another free from Maclin on a third down with a massive hit over the middle.
Diggs also showed put his ability to play downhill, making an impressive run stop, where he sliced across the formation to drop running back Buck Allen after a 3-yard gain.
As noted, there were a couple coverage lapses, but overall, a promising first start at safety for the young defensive back. Expect to see more of him in the role, which should expand opportunities for Tabor in the nickel.
The Lions have been atrocious in power situations this year — running plays on third and fourth down, or any goal-to-go snaps, when two or fewer yards are needed. The Lions ran two such plays against the Ravens and faltered on both. The team is converting on 33 percent of these attempts this season, worst in the NFL.
In the middle of the third quarter, the Lions faced a third-and-1 from their 31. The team lined up in a pistol, with two tight ends off right tackle and wide receiver Kenny Golladay motioning behind the line, between right tackle and the first tight end.
The handoff was to Riddick, running behind the strong side of his formation, but the play was compromised early when right guard T.J. Lang lost his footing, preventing him from helping on a double-team of Williams, the defensive tackle to that side, or getting to the second level to body linebacker C.J. Mosley.
With Lang down, Williams overpowered right tackle Corey Robinson and combined with Mosley to make the stop for no gain, forcing a punt.
The Lions got another shot to win with power in the fourth quarter, with a first-and-goal situation from the 1. They lined up in an I-formation with Zach Zenner as the lead back for Green. Taking the handoff, the deep back looked to go off right tackle, but Lang was stood up at the line, getting no push, and Robinson was tossed aside by defensive lineman Carl Davis, who plugged the hole, forcing the back to take a wider angle where he was hit by safety Tony Jefferson and dropped by a swarm of Raven defenders.
Misdirection and play-action have been problematic for the Lions defense all season. The Ravens utilized them twice for a pair of short touchdowns.
On the first, the Ravens showed a run with a compressed formation at the goal line and their backs in an I. But Watson leaked into the back corner of the end zone on play-action for the easy score. Defensive end Anthony Zettel had the coverage assignment and recognized the play-fake fairly quickly, but still wasn't able to recover in time to make a play on the pass lofted over his head.
Baltimore returned to the I-formation their next trip deep into the red zone, but split a receiver out to the left to create some spacing. Again, the handoff was faked heading right, but this time, both the tight end to that side and the fullback ran routes into the end zone. The only Lions defender to properly diagnose the play, defensive back Miles Killebrew, took the tight end, the deeper of the two options. The fullback ran free, with rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis making a way-too-late break on the ball as the 3-yard pass connected across the goal line.
Matthew Stafford was borderline brilliant throwing the ball during a lengthy stretch against the Ravens, completing a franchise-record 20 consecutive passes, including a threaded needed down to the goal line to Roberts. But Stafford was responsible for two turnovers, which cost the Lions 14 points.
The first, a sack-fumble in the second quarter, is on the quarterback for not identifying the possible sources of pressure pre-snap and making the necessary adjustments to his protection and reads. He acknowledged as much when I asked him about it after the game. Safety Eric Weddel dropped down into the box late and wasn't marked by Stafford, leaving tight end Darren Fells to block two rushers at the snap. Fells did his job correctly, taking the inside man, eliminating the threat with the shortest path to the quarterback. That left Weddle to come free around the edge and obliterate Stafford, forcing a fumble.
Worse yet, the Ravens also brought a corner blitz from the opposite direction. That left Golden Tate wide open. Had Stafford made the hot read to that side, he still might have taken a big hit, but the Lions likely come away with a nice gain instead of a turnover.
Stafford's second turnover, an interception, was only partially on him. After absorbing a sack on first down, a combination of good coverage and subpar blocking by Robinson and Riddick on a blitz pickup — the Lions faced second-and-18. The Ravens rushed four on the play, but worked an effective stunt to Stafford's left. Riddick did a nice job picking it up, but the threat still forced Stafford to bail from the pocket, heading to his left.
Stafford was able to get in space, square up and throw a pass downfield to Marvin Jones, but it was an ill-advised attempt into double-coverage. The receiver didn't help, underestimating the throw's depth and poorly timing his jump. The pass sailed over his head and was Humphrey, who made an excellent read and play on the ball.
PREMIER DEEP THREAT
While the interception wasn't Jones best moment, he did catch two deep passes and was targeted deep on four designed throws.
The recipe was the same for both completions and one of the two incompletions. During the three plays, the Ravens would commit safety help to Jones' side to another route in the middle of the field, creating a one-on-one matchup on the outside. Neither completion was a great throw, but they hung in the air long enough for Jones to adjust, his specialty.
On the fourth, a near-interception out the back of the end zone, Stafford used his eyes to get the deep safety to drift to the opposite way of Jones, but not far enough. Plus, Jones' post pattern brought him to the middle of the field, closing the gap for the assisting defensive back, who made a play on the ball, but couldn't get both feet down in the back of the end zone to complete the interception.
Mike Wallace might be past his prime, but he remains one of the game's premier deep threats. And as good as safety Glover Quin has been for the Lions, it didn't make any sense why he was covering Wallace one-on-one when the Ravens connected on a 66-yard pass play to set up their first touchdown.
It turns out, Quin wasn't supposed to be alone. I got that much asking him about the breakdown after the game. He noted he was supposed to have help over the top, but wouldn't name the teammate who was supposed to be there.
On film, it looks as if the Lions are running Cover-3, their favorite coverage look, but there's also a possibility it's quarters coverage. Quin tracks Wallace through the middle of the field and Killebrew appears to be responsible for the next section to Quin's left.
Killebrew lingers on a shallower target, Watson in the seam. By the time Flacco fires the pass and Killebrew flips his hips, Wallace is already five yards beyond him.