Detroit Lions film review: Four observations vs. Chiefs
Allen Park — It's been a couple days since the Detroit Lions' lost to the Kansas City Chiefs and we still haven't been able to fully process all the twists and turns the contest provided.
But that's why we have Tuesday, when we can go over the film with a fine-toothed comb to get a better sense for the nuanced details of the matchup, which featured five second-half lead changes, five third-quarter fumbles, a few controversial officiating decisions and not one, but two Hail Mary attempts to cap the action.
Without further hesitation, let's get into four takeaways from our tape study.
No matter what happened earlier in the game, the Lions had a chance to put the Chiefs away late in the fourth quarter, when the opponent faced a fourth-and-8 at their own 34-yard line.
Kansas City wisely used a timeout before the play, temporarily bringing down the volume in Ford Field and allowing the offense to settle down and call a play it liked.
Out of the break, the Chiefs came out in shotgun with receiving back Darrel Williams to quarterback Patrick Mahomes' left. The rest of the formation consisted of two wide receivers to the left and two tight ends right, with All-Pro Travis Kelce flexed out wide.
Detroit countered with an exceedingly light front, consisting of Trey Flowers inside, in a 1-technique, and Romeo Owkwara and Devon Kennard on the edges. Safety Tavon Wilson and cornerback Mike Ford were also in the box, directly lined up across from their coverage assignments. Wilson was shadowing Williams out of the backfield, while Ford was head up over tight end Blake Bell, off right tackle.
On the snap, Mahomes appeared to be looking for Bell — who many would have perceived as the least-likely target — on a crossing pattern, but Ford had the big man blanketed. Up front, the Chiefs doubled Flowers, while Okwara and Kennard rushed wide. Flowers lost his footing early in his rush, and with Wilson bailing to chase Williams into the flat, a massive lane developed for Mahomes to tuck and scramble.
The biggest question mark on the play design is what linebacker Christian Jones is doing. Originally lined up outside Kelce's far shoulder, Jones passes the tight end off to teammate Jarrad Davis when the route breaks inside. But inside of flowing inside to help keep Mahomes in the pocket, Jones joins Wilson in pursuit of Williams to the flat. There's almost no way the design called for double-coverage of the back.
With Davis and Ford's backs turned to the play while in man coverage, Mahomes was easily able to scramble for 15 yards and the first down, deflating the home crowd's energy.
Eight plays later, Williams plowed into the end zone from a yard out for the winning touchdown.
I got an email this week complaining about the Lions going to a prevent defense down the stretch, but that's inaccurate. The team continued to play primarily man coverage, often pressing the receivers, throughout the final drive.
Kelce did catch an 18-yard pass when Davis abandoned his zone to pursue Mahomes rolling out of the pocket, while the remaining three completions came on crossing patterns where the receiver simply beat the coverage.
Unlocking the ground game
After three weeks of minimal success, the Lions' rushing attack finally found some footing against the Chiefs. The team's backs, led by Kerryon Johnson's career-high 26 carries, churned out 168 yards on the ground, at a 5.1 yard-per-carry clip.
Unlike last week, where we went through each of Johnson's 20 runs, we're going to limit this week's look to team's nine carries longer than six yards in an effort to determine what was going right against the Chiefs.
SECOND-AND-10, CHIEFS' 28
J.D. McKissic only carried the ball four times, but he had the longest run of the day, a 26-yarder, that when combined with a face mask penalty, set the Lions up first-and-goal from the 1.
The Lions showed a pass look, with two wide receivers and T.J. Hockenson, the lone tight end, split out wide before motioning into the right slot. Fullback Nick Bawden was in the game, but offset as an h-back to the right side, as opposed to Detroit's preferred I-formation look they've leaned on to start this season. The Chiefs countered with six in the box.
On the snap, Bawden fired through the A gap, between center Frank Ragnow and right guard Graham Glasgow, leading McKissic and delivering a punishing block to linebacker Anthony Hitchens. At the line, McKissic cut sharply left, between Ragnow and left tackle Taylor Decker, who was bodying linebacker Darron Lee in the second level. The hole between the linemen was small, but McKissic managed to squeeze through quickly as the defenders attempted to disengage.
From there, McKissic bounced more sharply left, almost horizontal at this point, around a perimeter block from receiver Kenny Golladay, completely avoiding the unblocked deep safety before turning upfield where he was eventually pushed out of bounds at the 2-yard line.
FIRST-AND-10, LIONS' 21
Not entirely dissimilar to the McKissic run, the personnel and alignments are nearly the same, down to Hockenson motioning inside from his wide split. This time, it was Kerryon Johnson in the backfield.
Like McKissic's carry, Bawden leads through the right side A-gap and neutralizes Hitchens. Hockenson, coming outside in, redirects charging linebacker Damien Wilson, while Glasgow seals off the defensive tackle, creating a massive lane, maybe the biggest a Lions back has seen in 2019.
Johnson is able to gain 14 before he's brought down by the backside pursuit after he was forced to slow his feet in the second level by a pair of converging defensive backs.
FIRST-AND-10, CHIEFS' 20
The personnel is a little different here, and a popular grouping in this game, with both McKissic and Johnson sharing the field, paired with Hockenson and two receivers, Marvin Jones and Golladay.
The Lions bunched Hockenson, Jones and McKissic off the right side of the formation before motioning McKissic to the left. Taking a snap under center, quarterback Matthew Stafford tosses it to Johnson going right.
The Lions give Jones the unenviable task of sealing defensive end Alex Okafor inside and the receiver does an admirable job as right tackle Rick Wagner and Hockenson lead the way for the back. The tight end does his job, but Wagner only gets a part of his assignment, leading to a stop after 13 yards.
FIRST-AND-10, CHIEFS' 45
Again, Bawden is offset to the right, with Hockenson off Wagner's shoulder. The Chiefs have a run blitz called, and even though Bawden whiffed trying to cut safety Tyrann Mathieu coming around the edge, the fullback got in the way just enough to keep Johnson's initial path clear. Wagner wasn't able to seal the inside of the lane, but Hockenson's block was good enough for Johnson to bounce the run wide and gain 12 before he was angled out of bounds.
SECOND-AND-5, CHIEFS' 31
A rare usage of a heavy set, the Lions put two tight ends off left tackle and motion Golladay in to the strong side of the formation. On the snap, Glasgow pulled left, adding more beef that direction.
Johnson showed patience before cutting up between Glasgow and tight end Jesse James. Golladay and Hockenson, working in tandem, were unable to sustain a block on Mathieu, who spins free and potentially prevents a touchdown, limiting Johnson's gain to 11.
FIRST-AND-10, LIONS' 26
Hockenson, Jones and McKissic are tight to the formation's left side pre-snap. McKissic motions right, faking an end around, as Johnson took a handoff behind a line flowing to the left, before cutting back on a counter.
Hockenson pulled and executed a cut block on defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah, but Glasgow couldn't keep defensive Xavier Williams pinned inside. Williams slowed Johnson with one arm, getting some face mask in the process, helping limit the gain to 9 yards. A flag tacked 15 more on to the end of the run.
FIRST-AND-10, CHIEFS' 34
Once again, it's Hockenson, Jones and McKissic bunched, to the left side. McKissic motions to the right pre-snap and Hockenson once again pulls, setting up the counter. This time, it's Wagner unable to seal Williams inside, allowing the big defensive tackle to slow Johnson's momentum and limiting the pickup to 9 yards.
SECOND-AND-3, LIONS' 42
Despite a heavy set, with Logan Thomas and James off left tackle, the Chiefs put six in the box. The design fell apart quickly when defensive tackle Chris Jones clogs up the middle, preventing Ragnow from getting to his second-level block.
Seeing the hole filled, Johnson bounced his run to the next gap, between Decker and James, before cornerback Charvarius Ward made the stop after 9 yards.
SECOND-AND-9, CHIEFS' 36
An early-game run with Hockenson and James off left tackle. On the snap, Hockenson and left guard Joe Dahl pull right. It's hat on hat up front, but not a lot of running room. Johnson was able to find a little daylight between Glasgow and Wagner. Safety Juan Thornhill was called upon to make the tackle as Johnson racked up 8 yards.
Conclusion: There are likely three major factors at play with Detroit's success. First, we can't ignore Kansas City's defensive struggles stopping the run. They came into the game one of the league's worst teams and Detroit took advantage of an opponent's weakness.
Second, the Lions made some needed personnel adjustments. Instead of continuously trying to run against eight-man boxes with a fullback and two tight ends, the Lions went away from those groupings and the defense responded by not stacking the line anywhere close to as often. While Detroit's backs can run between the tackles, power isn't their premier trait. They perform better in space.
Third, the perimeter blocking, at least on the longer runs, was better than it's been. Look how frequently Hockenson was involved in making a block on a long gain. What is not noted was how frequently he didn't deliver on his assignment on many of Detroit's shorter carries. As he improves his consistency with is individual assignments, the consistency of the overall ground game should follow.
Finally, it should be noted the Lions still haven't perfectly blocked any runs. While there were fewer badly blown blocks in this game, resulting in overall success, the team is still leaving much longer gains on the field because one blocker isn't fully executing.
In his first NFL game in a dome, Mahomes threw for 315 yards, but completed just 24 of his 42 throws, while failing to record a touchdown pass for the first time since Week 5 of the 2018 season. His passer rating of 81.0 was the third-worst of his young career.
So how did the Lions manage to keep the NFL's most prolific passer in check?
Well, first and foremost, the defense wasn't about to let him beat them with a back-breaking big play. In what may be one of the more exaggerated defensive alignments you'll see in the NFL, the Lions routinely lined their deep safety up 21 to 24 yards off the line of scrimmage.
Second, the Lions didn't rely on blitzing to get pressure. The team often rushed just three defenders, while dropping seven or eight into the passing lanes. In the back end, three- and four-safety packages were the preferred choice to muddy up the passing lanes.
Even without blitzing, the Lions did manage to generate a decent amount of pressure, hurrying Mahomes more than a doze times and hitting him while he attempted to throw on several of those passes.
According to Pro Football Focus, Mahomes completed just two of his 15 throws when under durress, while he was 22 of 29 from a clean pocket.
Stafford in the red zone
The story of the loss, more than anything, was Detroit's inability to finish consistently in the red zone. The offense worked inside the 20 six times, but scored a touchdown on just three of those trips.
Worse yet, despite 1st-and-goal situations from inside the 10 on the three non-touchdown possessions, the Lions came away with just three points, fumbling the ball away twice.
Let's look back at the plays Stafford made, and didn't make, in the red zone.
We'll begin with the touchdowns.
In the opening quarter, facing a third-and-4 from the 5, the Lions were in jeopardy of settling for a field goal a second consecutive possession. The shotgun formation had Johnson offset to Stafford's left, with Golladay in the left slot and a bunch formation of Hockenson, Jones and Marvin Hall to the right.
The Chiefs rushed four and appeared to be in a Cover-3 defense. Jones and Hockenson's route combination stressed that coverage as Jones' out route occupied the boundary corner long enough to create a window for Hockenson, running a corner pattern.
Stafford smartly put the ball a little behind Hockenson, eliminating the cornerback's ability to recover and make a play, resulting in the 5-yard score.
Stafford's second touchdown pass, in the third quarter, might end up being his best throw of the season. The Lions spread out with four wide, and give the quarterback a fifth pass-catching option with James releasing from off left tackle.
Stafford only had eyes for one target on the play, Golladay, running a post from the right slot. The throw is a perfect combination of timing, anticipation and velocity. Taking advantage of the underneath linebacker, Wilson, looking at the receiver and not into the backfield, Stafford fired a bullet that sliced between four defenders, a pair in each layer of the zone.
Stafford and Golladay connected for a second score late in the fourth. This time, more credit goes to the receiver. Running a curled out pattern, the quarterback's mechanics were compromised by pass-rush pressure, leading to a back foot throw that caused the ball to sail.
Golladay not only used his frame to keep the coverage at bay, he was able to secure the ball and tap both toes in bounds to complete the catch.
But it wasn't all sunshine and rainbows inside the 20.
In the third quarter, Stafford nearly connected with Golladay on another score. It was a play representative of how much faith the quarterback has in the receiver, hurling it off his back foot into tight man-to-man coverage, despite the cornerback having the inside leverage.
To his credit, Golladay almost made an improbable grab, reaching around the cornerback, but replays showed the ball was moving as the receiver went to the ground out of bounds.
There were two problems on the play. First, Hockenson came wide open in the middle of the field due to the fact he was working with better leverage against the coverage, yet Stafford never looked anywhere but Golladay.
Fine, it's tough to turn away from your No. 1 receiver in a one-on-one situation. But why was the design for Golladay's route to break inside?
On the left side, where Golladay was operating out of the slot, the entire wide side of the end zone was open. Plus, the corner was playing with inside leverage even before the snap. If the route goes outside, Golladay is going to be in the dominant position, much like his touchdown catch in the fourth quarter.
After the reversal, Stafford held on to the ball too long on the ensuing play. Initially, he wanted Golladay, running a post from the slot, but the Chiefs bracketed the receiver, taking the option away.
As pressure arrived, Stafford bailed from the pocket. Hockenson's defender gave pursuit to the quarterback, but Stafford was running away from the newly open target and didn't see it.
After the game, Stafford said he thought Hall could get open on the scramble drill, and the receiver almost did, but not before Chris Jones hit the quarterback, forcing a fumble recovered by the Chiefs.