Lions film review: Breaking down the defense in loss to Cowboys
Allen Park — It's that time of year where interest in the Detroit Lions is going to plummet off a cliff and it will be tough to find things to write about that fans will actually care to read. That's doubly true with the film reviews, because how many of you want to review the gory details of loss after loss?
But for the fleeting moments I have your attention, we're going to shift away from our traditional five things we learned from the film and focus this week's study on the defense, the struggling unit that has sunk Detroit's 2019 hopes.
The Dallas Cowboys racked up a gaudy 509 yards in Sunday's 35-27 victory over the Lions. And they did all that without forcing a turnover or scoring a big play on special teams. It was simply one long drive after another, including five of at least 70 yards.
Let's go to the tape and see how they did it.
On the ground
Surprisingly, given the stud they've got in the backfield, the Cowboys did minimal damage on the ground. Ezekiel Elliott was held in check — 45 yards on 16 carries — and the team's longest run of the day came on a 9-yard Dak Prescott scramble.
With Elliott, the Lions largely did a good job minding their gap assignments, especially on the edges. Defensive end Trey Flowers was stellar from the start, getting the initial hit on a zone-read that resulted in Elliott fumbling the ball on the game's opening possession.
The Cowboys had no success with their stretch-zone concepts. In the fourth quarter, the team funneled Elliott all the way to the edge, where Devon Kennard was able to shed his blocker and make the stop after 1 yard.
Linebacker Jarrad Davis wasn't perfect, but had more than ups than downs in the second level filling run lanes. After being knocked off the ball by guard Zack Martin on a pulling block in the opening quarter, Davis did a nice job clogging holes, separately utilizing both power and finesse.
Backup Tony Pollard had a bit more success than Elliott on the ground, with two carries for 12 yards. He also took a couple of tap passes motioning through the backfield, gaining 13 and 9 on the "receptions."
The Cowboys didn't have many short-yardage situations, but converted all three second-down situations on the ground when needing three or fewer yards, including second-and-goal from the one, twice running at injured defensive tackle A'Shawn Robinson.
Overall, given how well the Cowboys typically execute in the ground game, most teams would be happy with the performance.
Prescott generated some buzz after the game, noting he had time to go through his progressions multiple times on some snaps. Obviously, any time a quarterback still has time in the pocket after reading through his progressions, that's a problem. But that wasn't the case the entire game.
First, Prescott got rid of the ball quickly on the majority of his snaps, negating the rush. Second, it would be inaccurate to say the Lions didn't generate any pressure on the pocket, despite recording just one sack.
In reality, the Lions moved Prescott off his spot closer to one out of every three dropbacks. And again, it was Flowers leading the charge. Despite matching up against six-time Pro Bowl left tackle Tyron Smith, Detroit's defensive end was disruptive throughout the contest.
On the game's second series, Flowers drove Smith deep into the pocket with a bull rush, forcing Prescott to bail. From there, the edge defender shed the blocker, gave chase and forced a throwaway.
Later in the quarter, Flowers blew past Smith on the outside, rushing a overthrow to tight end Jason Witten.
And still in the opening frame, Flowers drove Smith into Prescott a second time, taking the quarterback down, but not until after the quarterback got off a 23-yard pass to receiver Michael Gallup.
Flowers added two more hits on Prescott, as well as another hurried throw that could have resulted in an interception, had rookie safety Will Harris been more aware.
The Lions mixed in a handful of blitzes, including the first snap of the game, and the pressure from those forced a few incompletions, although slot receiver Randall Cobb put two catchable balls on the ground.
The Lions got badly burned on a corner blitz late in the game. The Cowboys had a screen call to the side of the field cornerback Rashaan Melvin vacated, resulting in an 17-yard touchdown to Elliott.
As for the three-man rush, the Lions continued to selectively deploy it. An example that highlights fan frustration with the strategy, as well as Prescott's suggestion he had a wealth of time in the pocket, came on second-and-goal in the first quarter. Flowers was stymied on the outside by Smith, while Robinson and Damon Harrison got no push, allowing the quarterback to calmly scan the field.
To the defensive call's credit, nothing opened up through the crowded pass lanes, resulting in Prescott rolling right before scrambling for five yards. The Cowboys ended up settling for a field goal on the possession.
Overall, the pressure was far from consistent, and there were some missed opportunities. Both defensive tackle John Atkins and Davis blew through the line of scrimmage on snaps, but couldn't bring down Prescott when they hit him in the backfield. (Not that it mattered with Davis, since there was a penalty on Detroit's secondary).
Against the Cowboys, the biggest breakdowns were in the secondary. Even with star receiver Amari Cooper limited to 55 percent of the snaps by knee and ankle injuries, Prescott picked the Lions apart using his secondary weapons.
Gallup, the second-year receiver out of Colorado State, was the big beneficiary, catching nine of his 13 targets for 148 yards.
The Lions mixed up their coverages throughout the game, but leaned most heavily on Cover-1 concepts, whether the traditional man coverage with a single-high safety or a second robber look with a second safety contributing coverage help on one of Dallas' underneath routes.
Gallup did most of his damage working against Melvin. In the first quarter, Gallup caught back-to-back passes on the corner, first a curl, followed by a slant out of a read-pass option look, totaling 26 yards.
Gallup added two more catches for 36 yards in the opening quarter against Detroit's Cover-3 zone. He ran a corner route to vacated space near the right sideline on the first and beat deep-third corner Darius Slay on an out route for 23 yards near the end of the quarter.
After a pair of incompletions in the second quarter, Gallup blew past the coverage of cornerback Mike Ford for a 41-yard gain, setting Dallas up to extend its lead to 11. Ford was able to turn and run on the go pattern, but played the top of the route poorly, over-running the ball when Gallup turned to locate and committing defensive pass interference in the process.
Gallup had a quiet third quarter, catching one pass, a 7-yard chain-mover against Slay, who was playing off-man coverage. The Cowboys also tried to go back to the RPO concept that succeeded against Melvin earlier, but the cornerback broke this one up.
To finish his big day, Gallup added two more catches, both against Melvin, in the fourth quarter. The grabs came on back-to-back snaps, dig routes from opposite sides of the formation.
The first, from a wide right alignment, netted six yards on second-and-10. The second, utilizing a layer concept, saw Gallup gain 22 yards as the middle man from trips to Prescott's left.
Melvin wasn't the only Lions player to struggle in the back end. Nickelback Justin Coleman was also beat several times. In the first half alone, Cobb bested Coleman's man coverage three times for 81 yards and a touchdown.
Each of those three routes broke inside from the slot. On a 49-yard pickup, Cobb gained separation on the break, but benefited further from Coleman losing his footing. Two plays later, Cobb won the matchup again, running a skinny post for an 18-yard touchdown.
Beyond the corners, Walker and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin made critical mistakes. On a blown coverage crosser to Pollard, Walker had a chance to limit the damage, but whiffed on the tackle, allowed the back to sneak into the end zone from 21 yards out.
And Reeves-Maybin, making a rare defensive appearance, failed to recognize a screen setup to Elliott, his coverage assignment. The hesitation allowed a blocker to seal the linebacker off, leading to at the 17-yard score.
These observations probably extend beyond this single game, because they are issues that continue to show up.
First, from a pass-rushing perspective, the edge rushers did fine this week, and Flowers has been playing well for more than a month. The absence of Romeo Okwara, forcing the Lions to lean on Christian Jones and Jahlani Tavai as a third man in the rotation, is far from ideal. The roster could really use another outside rusher, even if they are only capable of contributing in obvious passing situations.
Maybe that man is rookie Austin Bryant. There's a decent possibility he's activated off injured reserve this week. If so, he'll get a long look down the stretch.
The team is also in desperate need on an interior pass-rusher. Technically, that's supposed to be Da'Shawn Hand, but he hasn't been able to stay healthy, with three injuries in the past year. Mike Daniels' contributions, when he's been on the field, have been sporadic, while Harrison and Robinson offer almost nothing in this facet of the game.
Without the pocket collapsing from the inside, quarterbacks, including Prescott this week, have too much time to survey and set.
The run defense does seem to be rounding into form. They've now shut down Saquon Barkley, David Montgomery and Elliott in the past month. They also bottled up Josh Jacobs in the second half in Oakland.
The secondary is a mess. Slay is still really good, but he hasn't been playing at the same level as his two Pro Bowl campaigns. Big Play was a big letdown against Dallas, missing the opportunity to capitalize on two interceptable passes.
Outside of Slay, Coleman and Melvin have been problematic. Coleman got away with getting beat throughout the early part of the season because he was able to close ground quickly and break up several throws at the last possible second. With that success evaporating in recent weeks, he's just getting beat. Often.
As for Melvin, his speed and length play well on vertical routes, but he's slow to react and unable to recover on breaking routes. Ford, on the other hand, has better speed and quickness, but has been a poor finisher.
Add cornerback to the shopping list, and make it two if the Lions shop Slay this offseason.
As for safety, without Walker, the performance drops off precipitously. Harris probably shouldn't be starting yet. He's still in need of plenty of development, while Wilson is limited to playing in the box because he doesn't have the range to cover.
The linebackers have been better in recent weeks, but still remain well below-average in coverage and overall play-making abilities. Davis did come up with the forced fumble and recovery, and is having one of his best stretches as a professional, but it's still premature to suggest he's turning a corner after his horrific start.