Defensive pass coverage isn’t just about the secondary staying glued to the receivers or the pass rush sacking the quarterback. In order to play sound team pass defense, the two units must work together to be successful.
On Glover Quin’s game-changing interception of Drew Brees, that’s exactly what happened. Speaking with ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio on the field moments after the crucial come-from-behind victory over the Saints, Quin acknowledged the front four’s role in his interception that set-up the winning score.
“We had a great rush from our D-line,” said Quin. “He (Brees) was under duress and tried to step-up, 3rd-and-10 he wanted to make a play at the sticks. We knew that they (the receivers) broke the route right off at the sticks and thank god I was there.”
The Saints showed this formation and personnel grouping numerous times throughout the game and up until Quin’s big play, they had burned the Lions repeatedly.
Running their two-minute offense on the final possession of the first half, the Saints lined up almost exclusively in a 3×1 set (three receivers to one side). On this play, the Lions show man coverage with two safeties, Quin and James Ihedigbo, lined up deep.
At the snap, Quin drops back into the high hole (deep middle), and Ihedigbo becomes the ‘robber’ in the low hole, responsible to read the quarterback and help on any intermediate throws. Ihedigbo stays to his right and arrives late over the middle as Brees completes this pass to Kenny Stills (red circle) for 17 yards.
Here is a play from the first possession of the third quarter where the Saints show the same 3×1 set out of 11 personnel (one back, one tight end and three receivers). The Lions are in Cover 3 this time, with Quin playing the deep middle and the two outside corners each playing a third of the field. Ihedigbo comes down to play a buzz zone towards the numbers, leaving a vacancy in front of Quin in the middle of the field. Saints wideout Marques Colston, lined up in the slot, slips behind the underneath defenders with a vertical route to the opposite hash and makes the reception for 22 yards.
On the very next play, the Saints run the same formation and the Lions switch to man coverage with a slot-corner blitz from Don Carey.
Ihedigbo sits deep while Quin plays the slot receiver. The Saints pick up the pressure and Stills (top of the screen) creates separation with a slick double move on cornerback Darius Slay, who bites on the inside fake. Ihedigbo is worried about the underneath route to Colston and is in no position to help Slay. Brees has time, drops the ball in the bucket and Stills hauls it in for a 46-yard score and a 17-3 lead.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter now with the Saints leading 23-17 facing 3rd-and-9 with 3:20 remaining. Same formation, same personnel, same coverage but the Lions add a twist. This is the pivotal play.
Saints head coach Sean Payton goes to the well once again as New Orleans lines up with three receivers to the defenses left. The Lions are again playing man coverage across the board with two safeties. However, Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has his safeties switch roles. Quin will be the ‘low hole’ player or ‘robber’ with Ihedigbo as the lone deep defender in the Cover 1 scheme (man coverage with one deep defender).
Quin relayed the adjustments of the defense on this play.
“We decided to tighten our coverage and go man-to-man, but we wanted to get a hole player and so me and James, we switched it up. Normally I’m the high guy and he’s the low guy, so we switched it. We held our two-shell (coverage), James stayed high, I came down, I don’t know if he (Brees) saw me or not but he threw it right to me.”
The success of this play for the Lions starts up front with defensive end George Johnson. An undrafted journeyman out of Rutgers, Johnson entered the season on his third team in five years with zero sacks in 11 career games. But It’s finally clicking for Johnson this year and incredibly, he leads the Lions with four sacks.
Lined up at right end here, Johnson uses a hard jab step to the left to get Saints left tackle Terron Armstead leaning inside. Johnson then does a terrific job of using his hands to gain leverage on Armstead, tossing him to the side and sprinting straight for Brees. Cornerbacks Rashean Mathis (boxed left) and Danny Gorrer (boxed right) both have tight coverage, forcing Brees to hold the ball and climb the pocket to escape the would-be sack from Johnson.
Gorrer does an excellent job of playing physical with Colston throughout the route, disrupting the timing between quarterback and receiver. Gorrer fights to maintain his outside leverage, forcing Colston towards his help which is Quin lurking in the middle of the field.
Colston finally shakes free from Gorrer but Brees’ feet are tangled and he’s unable to step into his throw. The pressure from Johnson distracts Brees, who thinks he has Colston open on the in-route for a first down. However, he doesn’t see Quin directly in front of him and throws the ball right into the arms of the Lions’ safety.
Keep an eye on all four key parts of the play: The pressure from Johnson, the physical play from Gorrer in the slot on Colston, Brees’ footwork, and of course Quin reading the quarterbacks eyes.
Perhaps Brees figured Quin would drop deep again and follow the deep corner route run by Brandin Cooks to the weak side of the formation. Quin is known for his coverage skills and usually is the deep safety in the Lions’ Cover 1 scheme. It certainly looked like Brees didn’t expect Quin to be sitting on the route to Colston and Quin seemed convinced the switch from the safeties had an impact.
Here’s a second angle.
That’s exactly how Austin drew it up with the rush and the coverage working in sync to provide sensational team defense. With plays like this, It’s no secret why the Lions are far and away the highest rated defense according to Football Outsiders. With their performance on Sunday against one of the top offenses in the league, the defense proved once again why they are for real.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting, critiquing, and teaching.
Contact Marlowe Alter via email: firstname.lastname@example.org