Allen Park — Whether you’ve stuck with these all season long or are looking to reclaim your seat on the wagon after jumping off following the Detroit Lions’ 0-2 start, I welcome you to another round of film room observations.
Each week, I comb through the coach’s tape, two non-broadcast angles of the game, allowing me to better understand what happened on each play. I take detailed notes, a few thousand words worth, and distill it down into five observations from the previous week’s game.
Here are my observations from Sunday’s 26-10 victory over the New England Patriots.
Anatomy of ending a drought
The talk of this game, beyond upsetting the Patriots for Matt Patricia’s first head-coaching win, was the drought-ending performance of running back Kerryon Johnson. The rookie needed just 16 carries to eclipse 100 yards, becoming the first Lions rusher to do so in 70 games.
This wouldn’t be a proper film review if we didn’t look at why Johnson was able to have the success he did.
First, let’s remember, he didn’t break 100 yards on the back of one big run. Johnson’s long on the day was 15 yards. It was his consistency that won the day. On 10 of his 16 carries, including eight of his first nine, he gained at least 5 yards. He never lost yardage and gained fewer than 3 yards, just twice.
This is going to be labor intensive, but let’s look at all 10 of those carries gaining 5 yards or more.
►Johnson’s first touch came offset out of shotgun. The Lions motioned Theo Riddick into and back out of the backfield pre-snap, hoping to draw some attention away from the run call.
Johnson took the carry between right tackle Rick Wagner and guard T.J. Lang, with center Graham Glasgow sealing off linebacker Dont'a Hightower in the second level. The defensive end to that side, Adrian Clayborn, is left unblocked. There was probably an expectation he’d be distracted by Riddick’s motion, but Clayborn read his keys well and was able to make a backside tackle after Johnson gains five.
► Again working offset to the right on a shotgun snap, Johnson took his second handoff angling left. Left tackle Taylor Decker and Glasgow did outstanding work walling defenders outside the lane, while rookie guard Frank Ragnow overwhelmed the linebacker responsible for the gap, driving him out of the hole. Again, Johnson was brought down from behind, this time by linebacker Ja'Whaun Bentley, after 9 yards.
► On the next snap, Johnson lined up as a single back behind quarterback Matthew Stafford, operating under center. Once again, a massive lane opened between Ragnow and Glasgow, with both lineman expertly walling off defenders. Defensive back Duron Harmon quickly filled the hole, but Johnson made him miss and bounced right, dodging a second defender before he was stopped on the 12-yard pickup.
►Johnson opened the second quarter in another single-back look, this one in the red zone. Ragnow whiffed as the line slid to the left, forcing Johnson to have to avoid Clayborn deep in the backfield. Compounding the issues, Wagner lost his footing, leaving Johnson to avert defensive tackle Lawrence Guy at the line of scrimmage, as well. But with a little shake, the back found some daylight, taking advantage of good blocks by Lang and Glasgow to gain five.
► After a breather, Johnson returned to the field offset to Stafford’s right in a shotgun formation. The outside zone run headed left with Decker pinning the defensive tackle inside on a down block and Ragnow and Lang looping around the outside to lead the back. Hightower was left unblocked, but Johnson showcased his speed to get the edge, turning upfield for a 14-yard gain before stepping out of bounds.
► Johnson’s first short gain, a 3-yard effort, followed by a LeGarrette Blount four-yard carry, set the Lions up with a 3rd-and-3 at the Patriots 28. In the past, this was a clear passing down for the offense. This time, they gave it to Johnson, offset to Stafford’s left.
Going right, the back cut the run between Glasgow and Lang, who had opened a sizable hole. Ragnow shot into the second level, but Bentley spun away from the block, combining on the tackle with Guy, who came down the line after Decker collided with Glasgow. Even with the blown blocks, the initial lane was big enough for Johnson to gain 6 yards and the first down.
► Johnson opened up the second half with another productive effort, taking advantage of another hole between Glasgow and Ragnow. The single-back look included jet sweep motion with Golden Tate, designed to freeze the Patriots on the edge. Johnson came through the line untouched before he was dropped by safety Devin McCourty after 7 yards.
► After a few short gains, Johnson broke through for his longest run of the night, on a 1st-and-10 near the end of the third quarter.
The single-back set had two tight ends off right tackle, but the run went left. Ragnow delivered a down block on the defensive tackle and Glasgow looped around the left guard to blast Hightower out of the lane. Lang did a nice job firing into the second level to occupy Bentley as Johnson came through clean until he was finally tackled by the deep safety 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.
► Johnson’s final carry was kind of a throwaway, a draw on 3rd-and-18 designed to improve field position before a punt. But it was the run that put him over 100, so we’ll include it.
The Patriots actually had six defenders in the box and the linebackers sold out on the run, so gaining 10 wasn’t easy. Ragnow had another nice block, working in tandem with Glasgow, but Lang, pulling to the right on the play, sprang the century-topper into the second level.
In summary, most of Detroit’s better runs were the result of good interior blocking by Lang, Ragnow and Glasgow. They made Johnson’s life easy, opening big holes into the second level. Johnson did his part with decisive reads, making the occasional tackler miss and using his speed when needed.
Based on some of the shorter runs not highlighted above, and also some of Blount’s touches, the team could really use better perimeter blocking from the tight ends. Luke Willson does some nice work when pulling, but Levine Toilolo struggled in this game, and all season, controlling the edge. If the team can improve here, the run game has the potential to be consistently good.
How Gronk was tamed
More often than not, All-Pro tight end Rob Gronkowski is going to get his. He’s a dominant playmaker and a mismatch for just about any one defender, but the Lions did a nice job limiting him to four catches for 51 yards on five targets.
When Gronkowski had success, it was often against pure zone coverages. He would easily navigate between the layers of the zone and quarterback Tom Brady would find him in soft spots, including twice for chunk gains.
But more often than not, the Lions took Gronkowski away with bracket coverage, especially down the stretch.
Late in the third quarter, the Lions covered Gronkowski at the line with cornerback DeShawn Shead. On the snap, Shead jammed the big tight end, forcing him inside where the Lions had deep help from the safety. Gronkowski eventually broke his route outside, on a corner pattern, but Shead’s trailing position made it difficult for the Patriots to execute and the pass fell incomplete.
New England’s next drive also ended when the Lions took away Gronkowski, Brady’s primary read on third down, forcing the quarterback to eat a sack. Again, the cover man, this time Quandre Diggs, conceded the inside path, but as Gronkowski’s stemmed on a post pattern, he was picked up by deep safety Glover Quin, who undercut the route.
This coverage look showed up again late in the fourth quarter, with Shead working in concert with Quin to bracket Gronkowski down the seam. Brady never had time to move to his second read as linebacker Eli Harold utilized a spin move to beat the left tackle and drop the quarterback for the sack.
The G.O.A.T. underwhelms
Brady is arguably the greatest quarterback of all-time, an argument buoyed by five Super Bowl rings, four Super Bowl MVPs and three regular-season MVPs. But on this night, for whatever reason, he looked like just a guy.
Take away his incredibly well-executed touchdown throw to James White in the third quarter and Brady didn’t do anything particularly well. He misfired on a short toss early in the game, twice missed behind his intended target on intermediate third-down throws to kill drives, under-threw a deep ball that was intercepted by Darius Slay and nearly had a second pass picked when he forced one into a non-existent window where two defenders had better plays on the ball than receiver Phillip Dorsett.
You have to go back to 2014 to find a game where Brady completed fewer passes than the 14 he did against Detroit on Sunday.
For the third straight week, Stafford had an inexcusable turnover. Early in the third quarter, facing a 3rd-and-4, the Patriots' Cover-2 defense took away the quarterback’s initial read. The offensive line held their blocks, but there was some interior push, creating the illusion of pressure.
Willson came open across the middle running a post pattern against Bentley. It was potentially a big gain, since the safety had vacated the area to cover another receiver. Stafford got antsy, likely because of the pocket push, and failed to reset his feet and square his shoulders. With his body and feet still angled left, the direction of the early read, and Willson running the opposite direction, the trajectory of the throw was significantly off, coming in well behind the target and allowing Bentley to make the pick.
The Patriots turned the turnover into a touchdown drive, cutting the Lions' lead to three. And on Detroit’s ensuing possession, Stafford was sacked on first down when Decker lost his block on the slow-developing play-action pass.
After a short toss to Riddick made it 3rd-and-9, the Lions were in jeopardy of giving away their remaining momentum from a dominant first half. Fortunately for Stafford, he brought the team back with a throw few can make.
With three wide receivers to his left, Kenny Golladay ran an out route from the inside-most position to that side. Stafford threaded a needle into a small window — over one defender, in front of another, with the sideline shortening the field.
That throw sparked a 10-play, 75-yard possession, capped off by a 33-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones on a broken coverage and put the Lions back up 10. On the touchdown, the single high safety was supposed to support the cornerback covering Jones, but instead crashed down on a play-action.
Red zone woes continue
Through three weeks, the Lions are the worst red zone offense in the NFL, converting just 30 percent of their trips into touchdowns. We’ll get into that more later this week.
In this game, the Lions went 1-4 inside the 20, but we can ignore the final trip, when the team took over on downs and ran it three straight times with Blount to kill the clock.
After scoring a touchdown the first trip, on a 4-yard crosser to Golladay, the Lions stalled out the rest of the night.
With 1st-and-goal from the 9-yard line in the second quarter, a first-down run by Blount was stopped after two yards when Toilolo was tossed to the ground in the hole. On second down, the Lions attempted a play-action rollout with Stafford. It appeared Johnson was open in the flat after the fake handoff, but the end zone angle suggests Patriots linebacker Kyle Van Noy’s positioning would have made that a difficult throw. Instead, the quarterback tried to connect with Golladay in the end zone, but tight coverage led to the receiver being unable to get both feet in bounds on the catch.
On third down, Stafford simply missed the throw. Marvin Jones ran a good route from the right slot and got quick separation on a post pattern, but Stafford fired high, leading to a field goal.
Play-calling and a good defensive play helped kill Detroit’s next trip inside the 20, early in the fourth quarter.
On first down from the Patriots 19, the Lions attempted a pass to fullback Nick Bellore, who feigned pass protection before running a delayed route into the flat. But the Patriots didn’t bite and linebacker Elandon Roberts snuffed it out for a 5-yard loss.
Now behind the sticks, the Lions attempted a screen to Johnson. That failed thanks to another play recognition, this time by Van Noy, who spun off his block into the throwing lane, killing what was otherwise setting up to be a nice gain.
On 3rd-and-15, the Patriots covered Detroit's receiving options well and Stafford was forced to scramble, gaining back 10 yards, but coming up well short of the marker.
As is usually the case with these things, there are issues with play-calling and execution. These issues must be ironed out. This Lions will struggle to compete if they’re regularly settling for field goals instead of seven points.