Detroit Lions film review: Four observations vs. Giants
Allen Park — With a victory over the New York Giants on Sunday, the Detroit Lions are back in the win column and back to .500 on the season.
There were plenty of interesting moments in the contest, and the spoils didn't come without a stiff challenge from the upstart Giants and rookie quarterback Daniel Jones.
As is our Tuesday tradition, we dug through the game film to uncover some of the finer details that led to the final result.
To beat the Giants, the best strategy is to limit the damage done by superstar running back Saquon Barkley. Given he had 140 yards from scrimmage, plus a receiving touchdown, the Lions' did just enough to get by. But Barkley's effort on the ground — 64 yards on 19 carries — marked significant improvement in an area of weakness coming into the matchup.
For the sake of brevity, which we admittedly lack in this space at times, we're not going to break down all 19 of Barkley's runs. Instead, allow us to provide a synopsis of the carries.
First and foremost, the Lions were far more stout up front than they had been in recent weeks. Nose tackle Damon Harrison, who pointed the finger at himself last week for the run defense's struggles, did a better job clogging the middle, starting with Barkley's first carry, which Harrison stuffed for a 2-yard gain.
Da'Shawn Hand's return from injury also provided a significant boost. Showing almost no rust, he consistently anchored well, while using his length to maintain separation and disengage from blocks, stopping Barkley for 2 yards at the end of the second quarter and after 1 yard on a red-zone carry in the third.
In the second level, when Barkley broke through, the Lions largely did a good job gang tackling. They also caught a couple breaks with what can safely be described as unlikely tackles.
Safety Tracy Walker prevented a far bigger gain somehow spinning Barkley down with an arm tackle, while edge defender Devon Kennard tripped up Barkley with a desperate diving effort as the back ran past him. Those two gains combined for 13 yards, but they could have easily gone for 30 each.
The Lions also caught some breaks in the passing game, where Barkley produced 79 yards on eight catches. Early in the game, he easily got a step on Jarrad Davis while running a wheel route, but Jones' throw was off-target. Given Barkley's speed and the positioning of deep safety Will Harris on the route, it might have gone to the house from 71 yards out.
And Barkley should have scored on his 38-yard grab in the third quarter, running an angle route slicing through Detroit's zone coverage. Instead, he stumbled in the open field, allowing him to be caught from behind.
Maximizing skill sets
The Lions' pass rush has been a major issue this season, and blitzing more isn't part of the schematic DNA. Knowing that, the team has had to get creative with how it generates pressure.
Against the Giants, the team seemed to unlock a way to get more pressure without compromising the desire to send four or fewer defenders after the quarterback. More importantly, they found a way to get Davis heavily involved in the rush while sticking to the core principles of the scheme.
At this point, Davis' ability as a pass-rusher has been established. He's exceptionally efficient when called upon in this area, but he's not big/long enough to convert to a full-time edge rusher.
On Sunday, the Lions would line up between three and five defenders along the line, with Davis in his traditional off-ball alignment as the middle linebacker. But on a dozen of those snaps, they would rush three from the front and send Davis as a fourth attacker.
This worked well, giving him momentum coming toward the line, while leaning on his vision to find a gap to attack. It resulted in an impressive five pressures on the quarterback, including a sack-fumble that Kennard scooped and scored.
Davis was the most frequently used player in this setup, but the Lions also rushed four utilizing Christian Jones, Jahlani Tavai and cornerback Justin Coleman at different times.
Detroit did blitz sparingly, particularly in third- and fourth-and-long situations late in the game. Two of those blitzes resulted in pass breakups, with Rashaan Melvin, coming on the pass rush, batting one down at the line, and Coleman knocking one away from Golden Tate when Detroit added three safeties to the rush mix on a fourth down.
No distance too far
A good part of Detroit's overall offensive success was the unit's success on third down. The 57.1 percent conversion rate was a season high and marked the second consecutive week the team has been better than 50 percent in that area. For frame of reference, only one team, the Dallas Cowboys, are converting above 50 percent on the season.
And it wasn't just that the Lions were having success, but how they were having success. Needing seven yards or more, the Lions converted five times on eight tries in the first half, contributing to 10 points.
Then, to open the second half, the Lions converted twice on third down, including a third-and-8, fueling that 75-yard touchdown drive.
Let's look at some of those third-down play calls.
The first two saw the Lions take advantage of second-year nickel corner Grant Haley. Playing off-man coverage on Danny Amendola, quarterback Matthew Stafford hit his slot receiver for a 15-yard gain on a slant to convert a third-and-7 on the offense's first possession.
Later in the first quarter, the tandem connected on a post pattern for a 25-yard gain on third-and-8.
That throw involved tight end T.J. Hockenson funneling defensive support away from Amendola by running a dig route from the same side of the field. Hockenson's route first occupied the linebacker in an underneath zone, holding open the throwing lane, before drawing the commitment of the deep safety, leaving Haley no over-the-top support.
Amendola did the rest with his route running, getting Haley to turn his hips inside by slightly angling his route toward the sideline, before snapping back sharply toward the middle of the field, gaining separation as the young corner had to spin around to recover.
That reception set up Marvin Hall's 49-yard touchdown reception on third-and-15.
The Giants look to be in Cover-6 on the play, with the field divided in thirds for two layers of zone defense. To Stafford's left, Marvin Jones and Hall work a combination bunched inside the numbers. Jones, from the outside alignment, runs a rounded deep out, at 20 yards depth. Hall, meanwhile, runs a corner route to the end zone.
The combination puts rookie cornerback DeAndre Baker in conflict. While he should have stayed with Hall through the deep zone, Baker drives down to help with Jones, running one of the most effective routes in his tree. By committing to Jones, Baker leaves Hall to the middle-third safety Michael Thomas, who has no shot to recover when Stafford uncorks the deep throw.
Stafford nearly took advantage of another poor decision by a Giants defensive back on third down near the end of the first half, when former Pro Bowler Janoris Jenkins drove on Jones running an out pattern, leaving running back Ty Johnson free on a go route down the sideline.
In this instance, Jenkins was bailed out by the quarterback's throw sailing just beyond the rookie's reach.
The last one we'll highlight was a third-and-8 conversion early in the third quarter, again effectively utilizing a route combination against the Giants' coverage call.
On this play, it appears the Giants are in a split coverage. On the right side of the field, Jenkins is in man coverage on Jones with safety help over the top. On the left half, it's more of a quarters look, with the deep half of the field split between two zones.
Golladay is in the left slot pre-snap, with Hall motioning from an outside alignment to that side into a stack behind his teammate. Hall runs a post, drawing the coverage of the inside deep defender, while Golladay slices behind him on a dig into open space.
Stafford's throw is impressive, or lucky, or maybe both. It sails just beyond the reach of defenders at the line of scrimmage and the underneath zone into the waiting hands of Golladay for a 25-yard gain.
Anatomy of trick play
Detroit's ground game got off to a decent start with Tra Carson churning out 24 yards on his first three carries. But after that, the Giants began aggressively collapsing on the run lanes, particularly with their safeties.
That aggressiveness helped set up Detroit's trick play in the fourth quarter, a double-pass, 41-yard touchdown to Golladay.
First, the Lions come out with heavy personnel, two tight ends off left tackle and an I-formation backfield. Hockenson motioned to the right side pre-snap and Stafford quickly tossed the ball to J.D. McKissic, heading around that edge, while the quarterback rolled left, away from the chaos.
After two steps, McKissic looked set to cut inside, as both Giants linebackers and safety Jabrill Peppers gave chase. Instead, the back threw the ball backward to Stafford, waiting near the left hash.
Golladay did his part selling the play, as well. Lined up in the right slot, he comes off the line slowly, as if he's sizing up Peppers for a block, only to hit the gas just prior to McKissic's toss back.
Credit safety Antoine Bethea, the last man in the back end, for recognizing Golladay releasing on the deep crossing pattern, but it was too late. Bethea was unable to make up the 5 yards of separation as Stafford's throw led his target into the end zone.