Detroit Lions film review: Five observations vs. Bills
Allen Park — Much like last week's game in Arizona, the Detroit Lions’ 14-13 loss to the Buffalo Bills wasn’t exactly a burn burner. There was an unexpected flurry of offense in the second quarter — three consecutive touchdown drives — but the two teams combined for just seven points the rest of the way.
And even though the Lions felt like they’ve been out of the running for a month, Sunday’s loss was the blow that officially eliminated the team from postseason contention. So, if you’re here for the film review, you are a true die-hard.
This is likely to be our final film review of the season. We’ll be skipping next week in favor of spending Christmas day with the family, and after Week 17’s game with the Packers, focus tends to shift toward season wrap-up content.
With that said, thanks for sticking this series out with us throughout 2018. The film reviews are a ton of work, but they’re a valuable resource for me as a reporter, to refine my understanding of the game and the team I cover, and hopefully equally valuable for you, the fan, to gain similar knowledge from the insights provided.
On to this week’s five observations from the tape.
In his two seasons with the Lions, wide receiver Kenny Golladay has made some great plays and had some good games, but this was his most complete performance, a seven-catch, 146-yard effort. He finished the day with five grabs going for 20 or more yards and I wanted to go back over each of those receptions.
One of the subtle developments in Golladay’s game this season has been his increased usage and production out of the slot. That’s where he made his first dent in the box score Sunday, hauling in a 20-yard catch in the opening quarter.
Working against Bills cornerback Tre’Davious White in the left slot, Golladay ran a rounded dig pattern. We’ve mentioned in the past that Golladay often runs rounded routes as opposed to relying on sharper breaks. At 6-foot-4, 213 pounds, starting and stopping on a dime isn’t realistic.
White conceded inside leverage on the play, knowing he had safety help over the top if Golladay looked to go vertical, but the cornerback lost ground on his coverage assignment as Golladay flatted out his route horizontally.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford deserves a ton of credit on this play. He was under pressure quickly when Bills linebacker Lorenzo Alexander blew past right guard Kenny Wiggins. That forced Stafford to backpedal and fire the pass while falling away from his target. But the ball was well-placed, hitting Golladay in stride for the sizable gain.
The Lions didn’t look to Golladay again until the opening play of the second quarter, when they came out in a four-wide look, two receivers to either side of the formation. Golladay was lined up wide left, with Theo Riddick in the slot to that side.
This time, White gave Golladay an outside release on a go route, aggressively trailing the receiver down the sideline. There was so much contact that White was flagged for interference. Stafford’s ball was inside and Golladay did an excellent job late in the route, working through the contact and extending to make the catch. By landing on his back, it allowed him to better secure the ball through the ground, completing the process.
Later in the quarter, Golladay bailed Stafford out. Running another rounded dig from the left slot, the receiver adjusted his route, angling upfield, down the sideline, as Stafford rolled right to escape a collapsing pocket. It was a good adjustment into open space, but cornerback Levi Wallace saw it and dropped into the passing lane, putting himself in position to intercept the throw.
Golladay had other ideas, ripping the ball out of Wallace’s hands as the two tumbled to the ground, netting a 24-yard gain for Detroit.
Three plays later, Stafford took another deep shot to his top target, this time down the right sideline. White, playing off coverage, turned smoothly and ran in stride with Golladay. The corner even got his head around early, locating the football. But the placement was perfect, despite another back-foot throw forced by the pass-rush. The high placement was in the right spot for Golladay to go up and get it over the corner for 40 yards.
Golladay capped his outing with a 20-yard catch in the fourth quarter, which put the Lions in field-goal range for a potential game-winner (Matt Prater missed that kick, as you probably know). Running another rounded dig crossing pattern, this time right to left, Golladay found plenty of open space against the Bills' zone defense after the linebackers bit on a play-action handoff to running back Zach Zenner.
Bills quarterback Josh Allen came into this one having rushed for 335 yards over the past three games. The Lions held him to 16 yards on nine carries, his lowest output of the season.
The defense did it by respecting Allen’s ability to bail from the pocket in obvious passing situations, often using a speedy spy, either linebacker Jarrad Davis or defensive back Quandre Diggs, to track Allen's movements.
The Lions deployed this strategy throughout the game, with the biggest stop coming on fourth-and-two in the red zone in the third quarter.
Whether the run was designed or not, Allen quickly pulled the ball down after linebacker Devon Kennard was cut rushing from the left edge, leaving a wide lane for the quarterback to scramble for the first.
But Diggs, who lined up five yards off the ball pre-snap, directly behind nose tackle Damon Harrison, set off on a dead sprint, cutting off Allen’s angle on the attempted scramble, forcing a cutback inside where A’Shawn Robinson was able to chop the ball loose from the quarterback’s grasp and end the scoring threat.
Ford sputters out
It was a rough day for rookie cornerback Mike Ford. He was the weak link on the defense Sunday, getting beaten repeatedly by a fellow undrafted rookie, former Alabama receiver Robert Foster.
Foster’s first catch of the day, a 7-yarder on third-and-two, came when he out-muscled Ford on an attempted jam, knocking the cornerback off-balance and giving the receiver the necessary separation on his short comeback route.
Allen exploited the Foster-Ford matchup on consecutive plays during a second-quarter scoring drive, first on an deep crossing route, similar to the rounded dig patterns Golladay was having success on. Ford conceded the inside leverage, but wasn’t able to maintain his trailing position through the break in Foster’s route, leading to an easy 28-yard pickup.
On the next snap, Foster ran a deep corner pattern, getting quick, early separation against Ford. The throw was off target, but the young corner wasn’t able to get his head around to locate and blindly lunged at the receiver as the ball descended, leading to a 43-yard pass interference call.
After catching another deep pass against Ford out of bounds, and pulling in a 31-yard reception working against Nevin Lawson, the Bills took advantage of the rookie-on-rookie matchup one more time, for the game-winning touchdown.
The play design here was excellent, with two routes intersecting 12 yards down field. Foster, going left to right, drew Ford into the traffic, utilizing the screen for instant separation. With Diggs, the deep safety, providing support on the other route, Foster ran free into the open field where Allen was able to float a deep ball to him at the 12. Foster did the rest, scampering in for the score.
Scrap the call
It feels like the play-action rollout is part of every playbook, but more and more defenses are keyed in on the design. For the Lions, Kennard is excellent on these plays, rarely over-committing in pursuit of the play-action from the backside, keeping focus on the quarterback and pressuring the passer into a quick decision.
Twice, Kennard’s pressure against the Bills on these types of plays leading to throwaways by Allen.
But I’m more concerned why the Lions continue to run these looks. It’s one they’ve been using going back to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, at least, working the ball to tight end Brandon Pettigrew in the flat. And as teams have grown accustomed to defending it, it rarely seems to work. The Lions ran a variation of the concept twice against Buffalo and a defender was all over the receiving option both times.
Surprisingly, both passes were completed, despite minimal separation by the receivers, but for marginal gains of 5 and 3 yards. Until the Lions have an obvious speed mismatch they’re trying to exploit, they should probably dump all variations of this look from the play book.
Third-down check downs
Few things drive fans more crazy than an offense regularly throwing short of the sticks on third down.
On the day, the Lions were below-average on third down, but the team collapsed in that department during the second half, converting just once on seven tries.
On third-and-six in the third quarter, the Bills covered Theo Riddick well out of the backfield, with linebacker Julian Stanford breaking up the throw (which was a yard short of the marker, regardless).
Later in the quarter, the Lions got cute on third-and-one, running play-action from a heavy I-formation with LeGarrette Blount and Joe Dahl in the backfield. The pass was designed to go to Blount, but he was covered. Not that the throw even made it, getting batted back at Stafford after rookie right tackle Tyrell Crosby, making his first start, whiffed on a cut block.
In the fourth quarter, I imagine fan frustrations peaked. On one of the best play calls of the day, TJ Jones ran a precise out-and-up route from the right slot, came wide open for a conversion in field-goal territory, but Stafford fired over the receiver's head.
The final two efforts in the game, third-and-13 and third-and-eight, saw Stafford throwing a check-down to Riddick on the first and a receiver screen to Brandon Powell on the second. Both players were stopped almost immediately, well short of the sticks.
Of the six third-down throws in the second half, only one was to a receiver beyond the first down marker. The only conversion of the half was a Zenner 4-yard run on third-and-one in the third quarter.