A shortened version of this story was published by the Detroit Free Press.
Much has been made of Matthew Stafford directing the offense to a comeback victory for the third consecutive contest. The Lions now have three straight come-from-behind wins in the final two minutes of a game, their latest thrilling victory a 20-16 win over Miami. Stafford has continually stepped up at the end of games and his playmakers have made plays to save the day.
But let’s not overlook why this team has even had the opportunity to win games late. The defense is the best in the league and continues to impress each week. Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has done a phenomenal job of maximizing his players’ talents and has this defense flying to the football. On Sunday, the Dolphins were just another victim of a ferocious defensive effort led by Ndamukong Suh and his linemates.
As I wrote in my film breakdown of the Dolphins’ offense last week, quarterback Ryan Tannehill had the offense rolling, averaging 30.6 points per game over the previous five matchups before entering Ford Field. They had the fourth-best rushing attack and Tannehill was making good decisions and accurate throws in the Dolphins’ spread attack. However, Miami’s good vibes came to a screeching halt in Detroit.
Here’s the first play of Miami’s opening offensive series. Suh and C.J. Mosley line up at tackle while Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones are the ends. The Dolphins come out in their typical shotgun set with 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three receivers). They want to run right while Tannehill carries out a zone read fake to the left in hopes of freezing the Lions’ backside defenders. This will allow the Dolphins to have four blockers against four defenders and get a ‘hat on a hat’ to the play-side.
Look at the immediate penetration from Suh with Mosley pursuing down the line to eliminate a cutback lane for the running back. Jones has pushed his man backwards, while cornerback Don Carey comes on a blitz from the slot to set the edge and force the ball carrier inside.
Suh tosses his man aside, Jones discards his blocker and the two combine to stuff the back for a loss of two. This was typical of how the Lions defended the run as they held Miami to a season-low 50 yards on 19 attempts (2.6 yards per carry).
On the next play, Suh shows his pass-rushing prowess. He dominates Dolphins offensive guard Mike Pouncey and brings down Tannehill for his 4.5 sack of the season.
Pouncey and Suh are both listed at 305 pounds. Yet after Pouncey initially gets his hands in Suh’s face, the three-time First-Team All-Pro defensive tackle tosses his foe (a pro-bowler last season) like he’s a 50-pound weight in the gym.
Suh’s brute strength and athleticism is a recipe for disaster, as he storms into the backfield to bring down Tannehill.
On Miami’s second possession, the Dolphins faced third-and-12 from inside their own 20-yard line after Mosley and Ansah sniffed out a receiver reverse and dropped Jarvis Landry for an eight-yard loss. Here’s the play by Mosley, lined-up at right defensive tackle, with Ansah positioned outside in the ‘wide nine’ technique.
Neither are fooled. They immediately recognize the potential for a reverse and stay disciplined.
Mosley (No. 99) won’t get credit in the stat sheet but he slows down Landry and allows Ansah and the others to clean up.
Good hustle from the entire defense as they’re eight guys around the football in the final frame. Rallying to the ball is the hallmark of any great defense.
After blowing up the reverse to put the Dolphins in third-and-long, the Lions slide Suh to defensive end and put Ansah beside him to the inside. They will run a stunt with Ansah looping around Suh after they both crash hard to the inside. With Miami needing 12 yards, the defense figured the Dolphins would likely throw the ball downfield, giving the D-line enough time to run the stunt and pressure the quarterback.
It looks like the Dolphins have this blocked up well and Tannehill has a nice pocket to throw from.
But Suh continues to drive hard to the inside and actually pushes Pouncey (No. 51) off balance. This helps Ansah shed Pouncey’s block and come free.
On the other side, George Johnson has a nice upfield rush, keeping Tannehill from escaping to the left as Ansah closes in.
Tannehill doesn’t pull the trigger and can’t escape the athletic Ansah, who picks up the sack.
This is another display of excellent team defense from the Lions. The secondary had good coverage and forced Tannehill to hold the football.
One final play to look at. Here’s the interception from James Ihedigbo to halt a drive in the second quarter. The Lions fake a Double A-Gap blitz, which causes Miami’s offensive line to account for the pressure up the middle (protection schemes always force a potential free rusher to come from the farthest point, the edge, so they will block middle). Though the Dolphins have five blockers to the Lions’ four rushers, Johnson will be unblocked.
At the snap, the two linebackers take a jab step forward and then retreat into coverage. Miami’s offensive line isn’t able to adjust in time and Johnson comes flying into the face of Tannehill.
Johnson gets a hand up, Tannehill doesn’t step into his throw and the ball doesn’t have enough velocity or accuracy as it floats behind the intended receiver.
Easy pick for Ihedigbo, who returned it 70 yards deep into Miami territory.
A-Gap blitzes are prevalent in the NFL today and this is a prime example of why. It allows the defense to force the ball out quickly while occasionally dropping guys into coverage to protect against a blitz beater like a quick slant (notice the position of DeAndre Levy No. 54 after he drops). Nice scheme from Austin and executed to perfection by his players.
I noted in my review of Miami’s offense that the Lions would have to win one-on-one matchups and stay disciplined against this multi-dimensional ground and aerial attack. The Lions consistently accomplished both of those tasks, essentially holding Miami to three field goals (minus the blocked kick return to the Lions’ three-yard line which set up the Dolphins’ only touchdown).
Each level of the defense is playing good ball and it starts up front. The defensive line continues to dominate the line of scrimmage, which has allowed Levy and the linebackers to fly to the ball. Levy is second in the league with 64 solo tackles and will surely be a pro-bowler. Second-year cornerback Darius Slay has vastly improved, and Ihedigbo and fellow safety Glover Quin have solidified the back-end of the defense.
The Lions face a difficult slate of games in the next two weeks, but with the defense playing at an elite level, the team will continue to hang in games even if the offense struggles.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.