Lions film review: Five observations vs. Vikings

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Minnesota's Tom Johnson sacks Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford in the fourth quarter.

Allen Park — Well, that was ugly.

The tape from the Detroit Lions’ 24-9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings didn’t look much better than the game did watching it live. The Lions were out-muscled up front, on both sides of the ball, resulting in a demoralizing defeat.

If you want the juicy details on what went wrong, well, you’ve come to the right place. As is tradition, we spent Tuesday reviewing the coach’s film — two angles of all 145 plays (plus a handful wiped out by penalty) — taking detailed notes from each snap. From there, we’ve distilled everything down to these five observations.

Sad sacks

You’ve probably heard, Matthew Stafford was sacked 10 times. That's wild, considering he had been dropped behind the line 13 times the first seven games. Eight of those sacks on Sunday happened during the second and third quarter. Simply staggering.

With failure on that scale, it’s never one thing. It’s a complete breakdown. Let’s take a lot at what went wrong on all 10. You might want to grab a bucket before proceeding, because this might make you nauseous.

2Q, 14:13, 3rd-and-8, MIN 8

The Vikings didn’t record their first sack until the second quarter, when defensive tackles Sheldon Richardson and Tom Johnson ran a well-executed stunt. The defensive line was in an over front with Richardson in a 2i alignment angled toward center Graham Glasgow, off left guard Frank Ragnow’s inside shoulder. Johnson was the 3-tech tackle, across right guard Kenny Wiggins' outside shoulder.

On the snap, Glasgow engaged Richardson, while Johnson attacked the right side A gap, between the center and Wiggins, getting quick penetration. Once Johnson had drawn parallel with Detroit’s line, Richardson disengaged from Glasgow and looped behind the screen his teammate created.

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Normally, Glasgow and Wiggins would switch responsibilities here, but Wiggins has allowed Johnson to get too deep and is turned sideways, making the switch impossible. Richardson came free as Stafford braced for impact and was sandwiched by both defensive tackles.

It took approximately two seconds from the ball being snapped until Stafford realizes he’s done.

2Q, 6:12, 2nd-and-10, MIN 12

Another no doubter, again in the red zone. The Vikings teased a blitz, with linebacker Eric Wilson a yard off the line, over Detroit’s right A gap. But he never came, dropping back into a zone, leaving the front four alone on its rush. Danielle Hunter made quick work of right tackle Rick Wagner, blasting past him with an inside swim move.

Stafford tried to escape, but Everson Griffen had collapsed the other side of the pocket after spinning past left tackle Taylor Decker. The two ends converge, taking Stafford down for a 3-yard loss.

2Q, 5:27, 3rd-and-13, MIN 15

I couldn’t figure out exactly what the Lions were trying to run here live and it wasn’t much clearer on tape.

After a timeout, the Lions motioned into trips to the left side, with running back Theo Riddick offset to Stafford’s left with the quarterback in shotgun. As the ball is snapped, none of the linemen stay in pass protection, indicating some kind of screen. Four drift to the left while Ragnow pulled right.

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Best guess, the Lions were going to run a wide receiver screen to the left, but the intended target messed up the call. The other option was the Lions faking left before dumping it off to Riddick to the right, with Ragnow set up as a lead blocker.

If it was option two, the play design didn’t leave enough time for it to develop. As Stafford pumped left, Richardson was already in his face. The quarterback was able to elude both him and Johnson in the backfield, but was ultimately caught from behind by Hunter, forcing the Lions to settle for another field goal.

2Q, 1:31, 1st-and-10, DET 33

As with the first three, Stafford couldn't make more than a single read before he was dropped. If you’ve ever heard someone say an offensive lineman was put on roller skates, this would be a prime example.

Stephen Weatherly, a rotational 265-pound, recorded just his third sack in three years by bulling Decker back into Stafford. Not a great look for the former first-round pick.

3Q, 13:39, 3rd-and-4, DET 31

This is what you call a coverage sack.

The Vikings are in a standard Cover-2 look and do a nice job taking away Stafford’s options to his left. Kenny Golladay runs a post pattern, but the defenders smoothly transfer responsibility from the underneath layer of the zone to the deep safety. TJ Jones, the slot to that side, tries and out and up, looking to take advantage of the vacated sideline, but the underneath man on the outside of the underneath zone follows deep. And in the middle of the field, a triangle of defenders take away tight end Michael Roberts, running a dig left to right.

Marvin Jones is actually open on the opposite of the field, but Stafford never looks that way, suggesting it wasn't part of his read progression.

The blocking actually holds up well here, including running back Theo Riddick who helped out Ragnow on a stunt. The quarterback was ultimately brought down by Johnson, who was initially knocked to the ground by guard T.J. Lang, but got back up and finished the job.

At 3.5 seconds snap to tackle, Stafford has to get rid of the ball or scramble.

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3Q, 6:25, 1st-and-10, DET 13

Some credit should go to Stafford here for not being bated into an interception. The Vikings disguised their zone coverage early, with the outside corner jamming Marvin Jones at the line before driving down on the check-down read, tight end Luke Willson, running an out route. Safety Harrison Smith was quick to pick up Jones down the sideline, leaving Stafford nowhere to go as Hunter bent around the edge against Wagner and dumped the QB for a loss of 4.

3Q, 1:25, 2nd-and-5, DET 36

This was a Mike Zimmer special; flooding a single gap and forcing the blocking to pick their poison.

Minnesota lined up with seven in the box and teased a blitz from Wilson up the middle to Glasgow's left. This drew the center's initial attention to that side, while the Vikings sent two rushers, Eric Kendricks and Mackensie Alexander into the right side B gap, which was opened wide due to the rush angles of the two linemen to that side.

Riddick did what he was supposed to do, picking up the inside rusher Kendricks, but that left Alexander unblocked.

Stafford didn’t see it until it was too late, and that’s on the quarterback. He has to be aware of that blitz possibility pre-snap, especially since Zimmer runs these looks all the time.

3Q, 0:42, 3rd-and-13, DET 28

Again, the Vikings were in a Cover-2. Following Stafford’s eyes, the initial read appears to be TJ Jones, running a post pattern that comes open late. But the quarterback bails on it early because the receiver gets temporarily hung up by a jam.

Stafford shifted to his second read, a corner pattern to Marvin Jones, but the Vikings safety was in position to take it away. The quarterback missed Kerryon Johnson, wide open in the flat to that side with green to spare.

The sack doesn’t happen until five seconds after the snap. Tyrell Crosby, filling in for Decker, does a nice job driving Griffen’s initial rush wide and beyond the quarterback's pocket. The right side of the line does well to initially pick up a stunt run by Hunter and Johnson, but Wiggins eventually lost control of Hunter. At this point, Griffen has recovered and was able to drag Stafford down from behind.

4Q, 4:15, 1st-and-10, DET 49

Another no-chancer. Marvin Jones was running a go route to the quarterback’s left and Roberts ran a delayed route off the edge to that side, chipping on a block before leaking into the flat. But before either target could reach their spot, Wiggins was beaten on the outside by Johnson.

4Q, 1:55, 2nd-and-10, MIN 11

Taking advantage of the compressed field in the red zone, the Vikings play Cover-3, shrinking the throwing windows. Both receivers to the Stafford’s right were bracketed, while TJ Jones and Marvin Jones fail to get separation to the quarterback's left.

Hunter lined up in a Wide 9 and initially took a direct angle to the quarterback before redirecting to loop around Johnson, who had once again gotten good push against Wiggins. That put both the guard and tackle out of position to switch on the stunt. Hunter came through clean and capped the 10-sack outing.

Gouge away

The Minnesota running backs averaged 2.6 yards on 19 carries. They gained 70 on the 20th.

Big plays in the ground game continue to be an issue for the Lions defense and this week was no different. This damaging snap falls on two players.

The Vikings were in shotgun, with Dalvin Cook offset to the quarterback’s right. Tight end Kyle Rudolph was off right tackle, with are two receivers to that side and another left.

The Lions had seven in the box, with safety Quandre Diggs on the line at the right edge and linebackers Jarrad Davis and Christian Jones both aligned left of the center.

A’Shawn Robinson was the first breakdown. He lined up in a 1-technique, between the center and left guard, but was immediately driven out of the play by Vikings center Pat Elflein at the snap.

That left Davis to fill the gap, but instead of aggressively attacking downhill, he hesitated, opting to directly take on the block of Minnesota’s right guard in the second level. That’s all Cook needed to be off to the races.

Glover Quin, Detroit's deep safety, was aligned to the left pre-snap, providing supporting coverage to the two-receiver side of Minnesota’s formation. There was no way for Quin to recover and make a play on Cook close to the line of scrimmage. Quin was lucky to trip the back up short of the end zone.

Slot options

The Lions split up slot duties against the Vikings, with TJ Jones picking up most of the reps that would have previous went to Golden Tate.

Theo Riddick was split out a few times early in the game, but as noted in my mailbag last week, he’s a limited fit when he’s not coming out of the backfield. The running back’s route tree keeps him close to the line of scrimmage. He can run a dig, out, slant, basically anything within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage, but defenses know he’s not a threat to stretch the field vertically.

That allowed the Vikings to sit on those underneath routes, tackle Riddick quickly and negate his impact after the catch.

Jones, on the other hand, doesn’t have Tate or Riddick’s quickness, so he’s not the threat those two are in the open field. But Jones does have the ability to make plays downfield, most recently illustrated against Miami. Being able to run those routes opens up a number of downfield combinations, creating opportunities for Marvin Jones and Golladay.

That didn’t come into play in this game, but TJ Jones remains a better slot option than Riddick.

Defending Thielen

Not that it was a priority, but the Lions essentially kept two Calvin Johnson records intact. By preventing Adam Thielen from topping 100 receiving yards, the Lions snapped his streak of eight straight games topping the century mark to start a season, one shy of breaking Johnson’s mark. It also put a serious dent in the Vikings receiver’s hopes of topping Johnson’s single-season yardage mark. Thielen entered the game already behind pace. 

With Stefon Diggs out of the lineup, you might have anticipated the Lions having All-Pro Darius Slay trail Thielen around the field, but the team did the opposite. Instead, they largely left Slay to cover lesser assignments without help, while doubling Thielen with cornerback Nevin Lawson and safety help over the top.

The strategy worked like a charm, taking away anything in the intermediate and deep parts of the field, while relying on the solid tackling of Nevin Lawson and Quande Diggs to limit the damage on underneath grabs. The final stat line: Seven targets, four catches, 22 yards.

Thielen did manage to score, a 2-yard grab on a nifty route. He took advantage of Lawson, in a zone, looking into the backfield. The receiver's route initially went to the flat, lulling Lawson into a false sense of security, before he cut upfield into a vacant area behind the corner. 

It's a fake

A week after getting beat by a fake punt (well, a rookie running a ridiculous rogue option), the Lions ran their own, one of pre-planned variety.

The key to a good fake is making sure pre-snap look doesn’t differentiate itself from a normal punt. If anything, personal protector Tavon Wilson was subtly a half-step closer to center, making the direct snap an easier angle for Don Muhlbach.

The Vikings were also in a standard look, rushing seven with a pair of jammers to one side, in this instance to the fake side.

Wilson’s 6-yard scramble around the left edge of the formation was successful for three reasons. First, the snap is excellent. Two, rookie Tracy Walker and linebacker Trevor Bates effectively sealed the edge, pinning pursuing tacklers to the inside. Finally, the gunner to the fake side, Charles Washington, took a wide angle toward the sideline, forcing both jammers to turn their backs away from the play just long enough for Wilson to pick up the first down.

It was a well-timed and well-executed call for the Lions, down 11 with more than eight minutes remaining.  

Of course, it didn’t matter. Decker blew a block on Griffen the next snap, allowing the defensive end to blow up an attempted flea flicker, and one play later, Stafford tried to flip the ball to Kerryon Johnson while scrambling away from pressure. It was dropped, recovered by Hunter and returned for a touchdown, capping the Vikings’ victory.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers