Allen Park — Hey, look, the Detroit Lions are .500. Not bad, considering the 0-2 start. Regardless, whether this team was 6-0 or 0-6, we’re going to check the tape on Tuesday and see what it has to say about the previous weekend’s matchup.
Here are five observations after reviewing the film from Sunday’s 32-21 victory over the Miami Dolphins.
Ground and pound
The most interesting thing coming out of this game was the Lions' ability to effectively run the ball. Clearly the team had been better in that department prior to this contest — borderline good even — but no one could have predicted Sunday’s 248-yard output.
Kerryon Johnson is going to get most of the attention. That's understandable. The rookie is off to a sensational start, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge LeGarrette Blount’s best performance in Honolulu blue. He finished the day averaging five yards per carry, despite being used for a number of short-yardage situations, and showed excellent vision on a couple of runs that reached the second level.
My only complaint, and it’s not that he did anything wrong, but when Blount got one-on-one with the safety, I wanted to see him try to win with physicality instead of bouncing those carries to the outside. Blount knows what he’s doing — he’s had plenty of long runs in his career — but there’s something about a 250-pound back plowing through a 200-pound defensive back that you want to see.
Now back to Kerryon.
He carried the ball a season-high 19 times, churning out 158 yards on the ground. Not a bad day at the office. I want to focus on his four longest carries, which represented nearly 80 percent of his day’s production, to determine what went right on those plays.
We don’t have to dive deep for the first one, a 24-yard romp around the left edge on Detroit’s opening offensive snap.
The Lions were in a diamond backfield (more on that later), with Luke Willson and Nick Bellore as split lead blockers for Johnson. The Dolphins countered with a seven-man box and safety T.J. McDonald on the line just outside of it. On the snap, Detroit’s line slid left. Willson, to the right of Johnson, picked up the backside linebacker Jerome Baker.
Johnson took the handoff heading left and immediately found trouble, with defensive tackle Davon Godchaux getting in the backfield after he discarded left guard Frank Ragnow’s block. This forced the back to bounce his run outside the formation.
Linebacker Kiko Alonso had a shot to make a stop after a modest gain, but lost sight of Johnson as he cut behind some bigger bodies and popped clean around the edge.
On the perimeter, receiver Marvin Jones did a nice job of squaring up his man in space, freeing Johnson to gain an extra eight or so yards at the end of the run.
Johnson had just two carries for seven yards the remainder of the first quarter, but broke free for his longest run since high school to open the second frame.
This time, he was alone in the backfield and offset to quarterback Matthew Stafford’s right in shotgun. The Lions had three receivers on the field, two the left and Kenny Golladay to the right, with tight end Levine Toilolo tight to the formation on that side.
Golladay motioned off left tackle pre-snap, which proved critical to the run’s success. That drew the attention of linebacker Raekwon McMillan, who shuffled two strides to his right and took a step in after the ball was snapped. That’s important, because he was now close enough to the line that right tackle Rick Wagner was able to get a body on him when breaking off his double-team seal with guard Kenny Wiggins.
The other side of the lane was opened by Toilolo, as Ragnow pulls through the hole ahead of Johnson and delivered a big block on Alonso, something the rookie guard struggled with on a couple other plays in the game. That block allows Johnson to surge untouched into the second level and he isn’t tackled until he’s ripped off 71 yards.
Again, Johnson goes quiet. He gains four yards on three more carries before the half, but opens the third with a couple nice runs, eight and seven yards, before an 18-yard pickup later in the quarter.
Like his game-opener, this one is around the left edge, but this is designed smash-mouth football. With the ball on the right hash, the Lions go big, with three tight ends off left tackle and Johnson as the single back. The lone receiver is split out right.
Toilolo and Michael Roberts are the two inside tight ends and they do a nice job initially sealing the edge, before some violent, multi-directional collisions knock Toilolo to the ground. Willson fires into the second level as the lead blocker and gets into cornerback Cordrea Tankersley, clearing the path for Johnson.
This was a rare case where it can be argued Johnson didn’t make the right decision. If he stays inside the block, there’s a lot of green and he just has to outrun the pursuing Alonso. Instead, Johnson bounces outside, where Tankersley was able to slow him up long enough for help to arrive.
Johnson’s final run of 10-plus yards came on Detroit’s first offensive play in the fourth quarter. The Lions line up in an I formation with Bellore at fullback and Toilolo off right tackle. It’s a basic power concept, with Toilolo sealing the edge defender outside, and Wagner and Lang work in tandem to maintain the inside of the lane before Lang broke off to keep the hard-charging McMillan out of the backfield.
Bellore does his job, leading through the C gap and eliminating Baker as Johnson follows, skips out of a diving attempt by McMillan and gains 12.
Diamonds are forever
As mentioned earlier, I wanted to come back to Detroit’s use of the diamond backfield formation. It’s something new they’ve been incorporating this season, and they used it more in this game (five snaps) than I recall seeing earlier in the year.
After the 24-yard carry to start the contest, Johnson gained eight more from the formation early in the third quarter. The gain probably should have been more, but McMillan successfully avoided Willson’s cut block attempt before making the stop.
In an interesting twist, the Lions stayed in the formation for the next snap, but ran play-action from it. That’s risky because you have so many pass-catching resources tied up in the backfield, but it worked well, resulting in a 22-yard gain to Kenny Golladay, running a rounded dig pattern against cornerback Xavien Howard.
Golladay caught a second pass when the Lions went to the diamond, and it’s a pretty clear example of the Lions knowing what the Dolphins were going to do defensively. The corner covering Golladay blitzed and, without needing to look, Stafford spun and delivered a quick strike to his receiver, netting a 15-yard gain.
Asked what he liked about the formation on Tuesday, Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter didn’t want to give away much, other than saying he liked the element of unpredictability it added.
“To be able to run the ball in play-action and have that thing look pretty similar pre-snap, I think that’s tough on the defense,” Cooter said.
What a Teez
With Jamal Agnew on the shelf, the Lions leaned heavily on Teez Tabor, who drew the difficult assignment of containing Dolphins receiver Albert Wilson to start the game.
Wilson was clearly schemed to be a massive part of the Dolphins’ attack, prior to suffering a hip injury. It seemed like the early plan was to get him in space on crossing patterns, and on the first two tries, Tabor did a textbook job of tracking the route across the field and driving hard to make the open-field stop once the ball was delivered.
Those passes went for meager gains of three and four yards.
The Dolphins made a nice adjustment on a third crossing attempt to Wilson, having him drive deeper downfield into Tabor before breaking his route inside. That allowed Wilson to use his speed advantage to get easier separation, which he turned into a 25-yard gain on the catch and run.
Tabor still managed to make the stop, tripping Wilson up from behind, which caused the receiver to stumble. Those awkward steps resulted in the injury that ended his day.
Tabor also made a nice play late in the fourth quarter, getting up after being cut to make an open-field tackle on tight end Nick O’Leary.
Now let’s talk about the touchdown Tabor gave up in the fourth quarter.
Covering Danny Amendola, the middle receiver in a trips left look, the cornerback’s technique surrendered inside leverage. Amendola ran a post, which he extended across the field as quarterback Brock Osweiler was flushed from the pocket by pass-rush pressure from linebacker Jarrad Davis.
Amendola had a step, but Tabor closed the gap as Osweiler threw on the move. It ended up being the perfect throw, just over the cornerback’s outstretched hands.
Added up, it was probably Tabor’s best pro game. The 25-yarder to Wilson wasn't ideal and needs a technique tweak, but there wasn’t much more Tabor could have done on the throw to Amendola.
It’s pretty common for offenses to run two, sometimes three, routes in combination to take advantage of specific defensive looks. There are dozens of examples from every game, but I wanted to highlight a couple from this performance.
The first being TJ Jones’ 26-yard catch on the first drive. Jones lined up wide right, with Golladay in the slot. Golladay ran an out route, drawing the attention of two underneath defenders, while Jones streaked down the sideline. From there, Stafford was able to squeeze the ball in to Jones before the deep Cover-3 defender could arrive.
Detroit beat Miami’s Cover-2 look in the second quarter running a post-corner combination with Marvin Jones and Roberts. Jones lined up to the outside and ran the post pattern, sucking the safety inside with him, while Roberts ran the corner.
Some teams will scheme for the underneath man to the outside to match up with a vertical route, but the Lions had Johnson coming out of the backfield to that flat, commanding enough attention for Roberts to get behind the first layer of the zone into the unoccupied space down the sideline for a 29-yard gain. That set up a touchdown late in the first half.
Finally, the play was wiped out by a penalty, but Golladay’s touchdown in the third quarter was so effective against Cover 2 because Willson’s dig pattern commanded the attention of the underneath defenders in the middle of the field, leaving Golladay one-on-one with the safety on a post pattern.
Stafford made the play even more effective by putting the ball where only his receiver could get it, intentionally placing it high off Golladay’s back shoulder. That was necessary because the safety was driving on the route and would have been in position to make a play on the ball.
Cooter brings "A" game
The life of a coordinator is probably much easier when your team runs for 248 yards on 35 carries, but Cooter did a nice job dialing up plays all game, including some of those route combinations highlighted above.
I wanted to note two more plays.
The Lions’ first touchdown was a thing of beauty. The Lions showed run, with two tight ends off right tackle and motioning Golladay, the team’s best blocking receiver, into the backfield before the snap.
The line fired left at the snap and Stafford faked a handoff to Johnson going that direction, drawing the attention of the Dolphins defensive line, as well as Alonso. Golladay was the second decoy, slicing behind his line, left to right, into the flat. That drew the attention of four defenders — two linebackers, a safety and a cornerback.
Meanwhile, Roberts, who had been the innermost of the two tight ends, shot free into the secondary and ran a corner pattern. It took him out of the deep safety’s reach and led to an easy score.
The second play was also set up by earlier success in the run game. Again the Lions’ personnel suggested run, with two tight ends to the right and Golladay also tight to the formation on that side. Under center, Stafford took the snap and turned to his left, faking the handoff to Johnson, who was also heading left, along with the O-line.
Stafford rolled to his right after the fake, similar to the touchdown throw to Roberts, but this time swung the ball back across the field to Johnson. The blocking set up well, but Graham Glasgow whiffed trying to cut Alonso.
Johnson was able to stiff-arm the linebacker to the ground, but was driven out of bounds shortly after, capping the gain at 15 yards. If Glasgow makes that block, Johnson goes for anywhere from 25-50 yards.