Detroit Lions film review: Four observations vs. Raiders

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
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Allen Park — Welcome to another edition of Detroit Lions film review, where we dig into the tape to provide greater detail on the good and bad from the previous weekend's game. 

Following the Detroit Lions' 31-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders, the majority of the conversation is surrounding Detroit's final play on offense, a botched fourth-and-goal that could have tied the contest in the closing seconds. 

Let's start there. 

Head coach Matt Patricia and the Lions are 3-4-1 after Sunday's loss at the Raiders.

This is the end

The controversy starts with Detroit's personnel. Off the field are leading receivers Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones, in favor of a jumbo package, three tight ends and a fullback. Late-game injuries are also playing a role, with T.J. Hockenson being evaluated for a concussion after getting hit hard on a pass over the middle, and guard Joe Dahl exiting with an ankle injury moments before, leaving Oday Aboushi to handle right guard. 

Aboushi is a veteran, but it's worth noting, this is his third snap of not just the game, but the season.

Given the personnel, and the tight formation, it's a run look. This despite the Lions being one of the worst power-running teams in the NFL. According to Football Outsiders, the team is converting 54 percent of its run plays when needing two or fewer yards on third and fourth down. 

On the snap, the Lions run convincing-looking play-action with quarterback Matthew Stafford faking the handoff to rookie running back Ty Johnson out of the I-formation. Johnson follows fullback Nick Bawden to the right to the strongside of the formation, where offensive tackle Tyrell Crosby, an eligible tight end on the play, and the play's eventual target, Logan Thomas, are off right tackle Rick Wagner. 

The question is, based on Detroit's success in these situations, how believable is the run fake? Oakland's defense collapses, but their defensive backs also didn't over-commit to the point where they abandon their man-coverage assignments. 

Following the play fake, Stafford turns his back to the line and rolls left. This is where the play starts to break down. Aboushi, after quickly chipping on the defensive tackle, pulls outside the formation, going left, as a blocker for Stafford, presumably in case the quarterback chooses to run for the end zone. 

Tight end Jesse James' play is also peculiar. Before he runs his route, he attempts to redirect Raiders defensive end Clelin Ferrell inside, but barely gets anything on the reach block. That allows Ferrell to essentially come through the line unencumbered, putting pressure in Stafford's face as he turns to survey the field. 

"They kind of got on us a little bit faster than we had seen before," Lions coach Matt Patricia said on Monday. "They made a good recognition on the edge. Everybody else inside was pretty much stuffed up on the run action, so we had some good action there, which drew a lot of the attention. It was just a really good play by the defensive end to recognize it and get vertical. I would say, he is probably the one guy who just read the play really well."

If Stafford has more time, James would have come open just inside the goal line, but with the pressure getting home, Stafford is forced to fire a back-foot, side-arm floater to Thomas, running a crossing pattern. 

Credit to the quarterback, the throw is impressively accurate, despite the circumstances. Thomas doesn't do quite as well. The pass actually slips through his hands, even before it's knocked away by safety Karl Joseph, who did an excellent job tracking his coverage assignment across the formation.

The incompletion seals the outcome as Oakland runs off the remaining time on the next snap. 

Tale of two halves 

Detroit’s run defense has struggled all season and appeared to be in for a long day when rookie Josh Jacobs ran for 46 yards and a touchdown on Oakland’s first possession. But would it surprise you to learn he had only five carries longer than five yards in this game, all in the first half? How about if I told you the Lions held him to 32 yards on 12 carries in the second half?

What changed?

Let’s start with the first half, focusing on Jacobs’ five longest runs, which represented 65 percent of his first-half output. Three of those carries came on that opening series.

Right out the gate, the Raiders come out with three tight ends, two off left tackle, before pre-snap motion brings a second to the right side. The Lions counter with base 3-4 personnel, seven in the box and five along the line of scrimmage. Interestingly, Devon Kennard is on the right side of the formation, outside Trey Flowers, as opposed to Kennard’s traditional left-side alignment.

Jacobs, as the single back, takes the handoff going right, behind a sliding line and hits the C gap between the left tackle and tight end to that side. As Kennard focuses on maintaining the edge, the spacing between him and Flowers gets too wide, creating a good-sized lane. As Jacobs’ comes through the hole, Flowers is able to disengage from his block and trip up the back, limiting the gain to 7 yards.

Two plays later, Oakland is in an I-formation with one tight end off left tackle, who motions off right tackle pre-snap. The Lions have a similar defensive alignment in the box, with Jarrad Davis and Jahlani Tavai stacked behind five defenders on the line of scrimmage. This time, Kennard is back on the left side, while Christian Jones is to the right of Flowers.

With fullback Alec Ingold leading through the right side C gap, Kennard tries to fill that hole, conceding the edge. Jacobs see this and bounces outside, where he picks up a perimeter block from receiver Zay Jones on cornerback Justin Coleman. Jacobs is able to suck in safety Will Harris deep enough before using Jones’ block to screen Harris, picking up an extra 10 yards at the end of the 17-yard gain.

Running out of I-formation again, Jacobs picked up another 9 yards later in the drive. Again, the Raiders go with a single tight end, lined up tight left before motioning tight right. Jacobs runs a counter, taking the handoff to the quarterback’s right before cutting left, behind the lead of the fullback and a pulling tight end.

The tight end does a nice job walling the penetrating Tavai inside, while the left tackle gets good initial push on Flowers, opening a lane. The last key block comes from receiver Tyrell Williams, who digs safety Will Harris out of the hole, arguably by blocking the defender from behind. Jacobs comes through and runs into traffic, but not before he’s able to churn out the chunk gain.

Jacobs stayed quiet until late in the second quarter, when he was able to bounce around a bad edge set by defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand on an inside-zone handoff out of shotgun, gaining 8 before five defenders converged to bring the back down.

Three plays later, Jacobs had his final sizeable run, going up the gut for 16.

This one is on Davis. The Raiders are back in the I, with a single tight end motioning to off left tackle pre-snap. Running the same counter motion from earlier, Davis pursues that aggressively, following the fullback and pulling tight end. But instead of reversing field on the handoff, Jacobs runs directly through a hole created by guard Richie Incognito’s push on Romeo Okwara, into the space in the second level vacated by Davis. Avoiding the tackle of Harris, Jacobs is  finally driven down from behind by Christian Jones.

That’s the full the extent of the bad. In the second half, Jacobs was held to 3 or fewer yards on eight of his 12 carries, with a long gain of 5.

To start, Damon Harrison makes an impact. The long-dominant interior lineman comes up with a pair of individual plays on Jacob’s first two carries, resulting in gains of 3 and 2 yards.

On a third third-quarter carry, Harrison knocks over his blocker, clogging the lane, while Davis barrels through a block, dropping Jacobs for 1 yard as he tries to bounce outside.

At the end of the third quarter, the Raiders are knocking at the door with first-and-goal from the 6. Tavai comes up with back-to-back stops on Jacob after 1- and 2-yard gains. On the first, Tavai steps over an attempted cut block and takes advantage of a strong edge set by Kennard and Harris. And on the second, Tavai dips under the block of a pulling guard to make the stop.

In the fourth quarter, safety Tavon Wilson was able to drag Jacobs down from behind after 3 yards when Harrison clogged the middle of the line, forcing the back to shuffle his feet. Jacobs was slowed at the line again on a later carry when Davis takes on the fullback aggressively in the hole, leading to a cutback and another 3-yard gain.

Jacobs’ final carry went for no gain. Davis, Tavai and Wilson all shoot their gaps on the attempted counter out of I-formation, with Davis officially getting credit for the stop.

In reality, the difference between what Jacobs was able to accomplish in the first half and the second half wasn’t the result of schematics, for either team, but better execution and individual efforts by Detroit’s defenders down the stretch.

In particular, Harrison and Tavai stood out, but even Davis, with his season’s worth of struggles, found himself in better positioning on the run plays throughout the final two quarters.

Bigger role for change of pace

After a rough start to J.D. McKissic’s day, you left this game wondering how the Lions might be able to get the change-of-pace back more involved in the weekly game plan.

As we noted, it wasn’t a great start for McKissic. With the Lions driving on the game’s opening possession, he fails to secure his first handoff, fumbling the ball over to the Raiders. And later in the quarter, he was robbed of a touchdown when a linebacker blitz rushes Stafford’s throw, sending the ball just wide of McKissic’s diving attempt to make the play.

McKissic’s only other touch of the first half, a nice, 9-yard run around the left edge, is negated by a holding penalty.

His final line through two quarters: Zero carries, zero yards and zero catches on one target. It’s worth noting, the quarterback always gets the blame on fumbled handoffs.

Understandably, you probably didn’t expect much in the second half, but McKissic shined and left you wanting more.

On a third-quarter touchdown drive he was electric. Subbing in for Ty Johnson after the Lions crossed the 50, McKissic carried the ball three of the next four plays, gaining all 32 of his yards on the ground.

The first 8 yards came on a counter out of I-formation. Only a good read by unblocked linebacker Will Compton limited the damage.

On the next play, McKissic took it up the gut, running behind left guard Joe Dahl. McKissic deserves most of the credit for this 13-yard gain, running through the tackle attempt of 305-pound defensive lineman P.J. Hall before picking up a second-level block from slot receiver Danny Amendola.

After a short pass to Amendola, McKissic picked up 11 more, thanks to outstanding interior blocking.

Both defensive tackles are sealed outside on the snap, with Dahl and center Frank Ragnow doing impressive work driving their man wide left. On the right side, Kenny Wiggins breaks off the double and gets a late hit on linebacker Tahir Whitehead in the hole, clearing the cutback lane for McKissic into the second level.

Finally, in the fourth quarter, McKissic flashed his receiving prowess. Out of a shotgun alignment, he rolled around the left edge and stemmed vertically, before angling his route toward the sideline 8 yards beyond the line of scrimmage.

Whitehead, playing with inside leverage, never had a shot to recover, and the Cover-1 safety was drawn to the middle of the field, helping on wide receiver Kenny Golladay’s deep post pattern. The play resulted in a 26-yard touchdown for the shifty running back.

It's a fake

As a football fan, it’s difficult not appreciating a good fake. The Raiders executed an excellent one when setting up to punt in the third quarter.

The design was simple, and we can probably safely assign blame to rookie Will Harris (No. 25) for allowing the conversion.

Pre-snap, the Lions had two blockers over the Raiders’ left side gunner. Their sole job is to slow that player down. They’re not looking into the backfield. On the snap, that gunner, cornerback Keisean Nixon, angled sharply inside, toward the formation. This served two purposes. First, it cleared that side of the field. Two, it created extra traffic on Detroit’s side of the line of scrimmage.

The snap went directly to the left upback, safety Dallin Leavitt, who headed right. The Lions have that side well defended, but Leavitt hands off to tight end Derek Carrier, going left after lining up on the right edge pre-snap. With Steve Longa unable to beat his block on the edge, Harris is the only man who can make the play.

Lined up play side pre-snap, Harris flowed in and left, following Leavitt, leaving the rookie safety way out of position on the end-around, resulting in a 27-yard gain.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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