All-22 Detroit-New England Preview: Pats defense struggles against tight ends

Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports First-round pick Eric Ebron has missed the past two games with injury and has only 10 receptions.

Lions rookie tight end Eric Ebron has a chance to punish the Patriots this week                       -Andrew Weber/USA TODAY

A shortened version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.

The Lions’ offensive struggles have been the center of attention, one week after scoring a season-low six points and failing to score a touchdown for the first time since 2009. The leaky offensive line has gifted opposing defenses 31 sacks, the run game is 30th in the NFL and short-yardage troubles plagued the team last week. With the loss to 9-1 Arizona, the Lions dropped to an astounding 0-15 on the road against teams that finished with winning records with Matthew Stafford under center.

Yet thanks to a top-rated defense along with a sprinkle of late game magic from the much-maligned offense, Detroit is the only team with a winning record in the bottom third in scoring, averaging a measly 18.8 points per game. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi has been under fire for his perceived lack of creativity with his play-calling after the Lions were limited to 11 first downs and just 262 yards in Arizona. Lombardi admitted this week that the playbook would be simplified for Sunday’s game at New England (1:00 p.m., Fox)

A week after facing a dominant Cardinals defense with one of the deepest secondaries in the league, the Lions’ 18th ranked passing offense will battle a middle-of-the-pack Patriots defense. Though the unit has played well in limiting the high-powered Broncos and Colts offenses to 21 and 20 points respectively, the Pats rank 15th against the pass according to Football Outsiders.

They employ a premier cornerback in veteran Darrelle Revis and head coach Bill Belichick is one of the most innovative defensive minds in football. But with star linebacker Jerod Mayo lost for the season and defensive end Chandler Jones set to miss his fourth straight game, they are far from the championship defenses of the early 2000 dynasty-era Patriots.

Against the Colts, Belichick opted to pit Revis against Reggie Wayne for a majority of the night while the rest of the secondary focused its attention on Indy’s leading receiver T.Y. Hilton. Mixing in both press-man and Cover 3, the plan worked with Revis allowing just one catch for five yards on six targets. Hilton, the league’s fourth leading receiver, was held to a season-low 24 yards on three receptions.

Thanks in part to Revis’ masterful coverage skills, the Patriots are fourth against No. 1 receivers but they have had major issues corralling tight ends. Football Outsiders has them 31st against tight ends, allowing a league-high 76.6 yards a game with four touchdowns on the season. That trend continued last week in Indianapolis.

The strategy of focusing all the attention on Wayne and Hilton left starting cornerback Brandon Browner matched up with tight end Coby Fleener. The athletic third-year tight end shattered his previous career-highs with a 144-yard, seven catch performance, which included beating Browner for four receptions and 109 yards.

This is noteworthy because the Lions have a skilled athletic tight end of their own in rookie first-rounder Eric Ebron. After missing three games with a hamstring issue, Ebron (four catches, 22 yards) started and played 59 percent of the snaps in Arizona. In seven games the 6-foot-4, 265 pounder, who runs a 4.60 40-yard dash, has 14 catches for 125 yards (8.9 yards per catch) and a touchdown. Can Ebron emulate the success of Fleener and other tight ends against this defense? First, lets examine how Fleener was able to have a breakout performance.

Here the Patriots are in zone against the Colts’ bunch set, while Revis plays man versus Wayne to the lone receiver side. The Colts use a levels concept with the offset tight end running to the flat, Fleener running a corner route and Hilton going deep. These route combinations are meant to stretch the defense vertically to allow the quarterback to make a simple hi-low read depending on how the defense reacts.

 NE-IND Levels v Cover 3

With the outside corner running deep with Hilton, the Colts have a two-on-one against the defender playing a curl-flat zone to the sideline. Quarterback Andrew Luck will read the defender circled at the 32-yard line. Because the defender cheats towards the short flat route, Fleener comes wide open behind him. Note Revis blanketing Wayne at the bottom of the screen.

NE-IND Levels v Cover 3, 2
Luck drops the ball over the linebacker to Fleener for 22 yards.
NE-IND Levels v Cover 3, 3
NE-IND attacking cover 3 levels

Later in the game, Fleener matches up one-on-one against Browner on the outside.

NE-IND Fleener dbl move 45 yds

NE-IND Fleener dbl move 45 yds1a

The six-foot-four, 221-pound Browner is the biggest corner in the league and plays a physical brand of football. But Fleener brought the physicality to him on this play. He uses his hands to free himself from Browner’s grasp on a double-move and leaves the corner in the dust.

NE-IND Fleener dbl move 45 yds2

The safety, shaded to the three-receiver side of the field, has no chance to help Browner and Luck hits Fleener in stride for 45 yards.

NE-IND Fleener dbl move 45 yds3
 NE-IND Fleener beats Browner 45 yds

Browner is a solid corner who had a rough game, but he doesn’t possess make-up speed. If he matches up with Ebron, the key for the rookie will be his technique against press coverage and his ability to combat Browner’s physicality.

Here’s where Ebron’s size and athleticism can create matchup problems. This is from week four against the Jets. New York plays 2-man under (man coverage with two deep safeties) and Ebron runs a seam route against Michigan native David Harris (white box). The safeties are positioned at the numbers, leaving no help in the middle of the field.

DET-NYJ Ebron TD

The former pro-bowl linebacker takes leverage to the inside because he knows he has no help over the deep middle. Harris has tight coverage but Stafford identifies the matchup with his young tight end and fires a laser to Ebron’s back-shoulder, allowing him to make a play for his first career touchdown.

DET-NYJ Ebron TD1
Nice hands and concentration from the rookie.
DET-NYJ Ebron TD

I want to examine one play that exemplifies Revis’ man coverage skills. What makes him so special is his press-and-trail technique. At the line, he does an excellent job of getting his hands on Wayne and then stays in his hip during the entire route. This affords him great position if a pass were to be thrown.

NE-IND Revis blankets Wayne

Pressure on the quarterback is a cornerbacks’ best friend and here the Patriots pressure Luck off the edge. You can see a linebacker and safety Devin McCourty following Hilton just inside the 30.

NE-IND Revis blankets Wayne2NE-IND Revis blankets Wayne3

Revis is in perfect position as the ball arrives and sticks his left hand between Wayne and the ball, deflecting it into the arms of McCourty for the interception.

NE-IND Revis blankets Wayne4

NE-IND Revis blankets Wayne PB INT
My guess is that the Patriots will give the Lions’ offense multiple looks. They may decide to stick Revis against Tate in man and play zone against Johnson and the other receivers everywhere else. Or perhaps they will have Revis, who gives up six inches to Megatron, guard the star receiver one-on-one while they double-team the quicker Tate. Either way, you know the Patriots will try to limit those two receivers and force Ebron and the others to beat them.

Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.

You can follow Marlowe on Twitter and check out his other film review articles for the Free Press.

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