A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
Yes, we can all agree that the Detroit Lions were hosed by the officials down the stretch, and that it played a vital role in their devastating defeat to the Cowboys last Sunday.
But let’s talk about the Lions defensive performance in the loss. Teryl Austin’s unit played admirably against a balanced offensive attack. They held the NFL’s leading rusher DeMarco Murray to 3.9 yards per carry and kept Dez Bryant (three catches, 48 yards) in check. Yet the defense committed a few costly errors including a killer long touchdown at the end of the first half, and were penalized in key moments, which gave Dallas the extra life it needed to produce a comeback.
Austin had a terrific defensive game plan and his defense executed it well for the majority of the game. They confounded the Dallas offensive line with three Pro Bowlers, leading to 10 hits and six sacks of Tony Romo. Of those six sacks, four came without blitzing and three were ‘coverage sacks’ in which Romo didn’t have anybody open and held the ball.
But in the end Austin’s unit was tasked with preserving a double-digit lead and it failed.
Let’s examine how the Lions were able to confuse the Cowboys and what changed in the second half.
Here is the third play of the Cowboys third possession. The Lions showed a sugar blitz look (linebackers in the A-Gap) against the Cowboys’ empty set. The Cowboys only had five blockers against potentially six rushers; therefore they down-blocked to the middle and forced the free rusher to come from the outside, the farthest path to the quarterback. However, both linebackers dropped into coverage and badly fooled the offensive line.
Once the Lions took away Romo’s hot read, he was in trouble. The Cowboys had three lineman blocking air on this four-man rush. Because of the protection scheme, defensive ends Ziggy Ansah and Darryl Tapp were untouched. Romo was hammered and fumbled the ball in the process.
It’s rare to see a protection breakdown like this but credit Austin for the design.
Three plays later, Austin called a zone blitz off the left side with a Cover 3 shell behind it. This blitz called for the defensive line to slant to the right to draw attention away from the blitzers. Right end George Johnson dropped into coverage. Ashlee Palmer and James Ihedigbo blitzed off the edge and Josh Bynes charged the middle.
Three plays later, Austin called a zone blitz off the left side with a Cover 3 shell behind it. The defensive line slanted right, George Johnson dropped into coverage. Ashlee Palmer and James Ihedigbo blitedz off the edge and Josh Bynes came free up the middle. Ihedigbo and Whitehead were untouched, Romo missed his hot-read, tried to scramble and took the sack, effectively ending the possession.
Romo failed to recognize the blitz and missed his hot-read, an open Jason Witten.
Ihedigbo and Bynes were untouched, Romo tried to scramble and took the sack, which effectively ended the possession.
Again the Cowboys were fooled and Romo had to run for his life.
On the next Cowboys drive, Austin called another perfectly timed blitz to stall another possession.
Rookie linebacker Kyle Van Noy initially lined up over Bryant in the slot but crept towards the line pre-snap. Milliseconds before the ball was snapped, Tapp charged inside and forced the guard to pick him up, while the tackle battled Van Noy.
This left a gaping hole for Tahir Whitehead to run through and he pummeled Romo as the quarterback turned his head after carrying out a run fake. As you will see in the clip, this was perfect timing by Van Noy and Tapp. All Romo could do was fall backwards to avoid a huge blow.
Pro Football Focus had the Lions blitzing on 11 of Romo’s 37 drop backs. A handful of those included DeAndre Levy blitzing to occupy the running backs when they stayed in to block. The Lions were burned twice (Terrence Williams’ 76-yard touchdown and Bryant’s 43-yard catch-and-run) against a five-man rush. On both of those plays they were in man coverage and bringing an extra defender was not the culprit.
In the second half, I marked the Lions down for just four blitzes. On the final drive, the Lions blitzed on the first play of the possession but then played coverage defense on the final 12 plays (except for when Levy blitzed on third down in the red zone but was called for holding after his responsibility, the running back, tried to run a route).
With the Lions leading 20-17, the Cowboys began their game-winning drive from their own 41-yard line. Against the empty backfield, Austin called the same zone blitz from the first half. Ansah dropped from his defensive end position into coverage, while the rest of the line slanted to the right. Palmer blitzed off the edge but was picked up by Witten who stayed to block. Whitehead came off tackle and had a beat on Romo.
With Whitehead bearing down on him, Romo found Murray leaking out of the backfield in the flat. Ansah drifted too far inside and didn’t spot Murray in time, allowing a 13-yard gain.
Perhaps this made Austin gun-shy because this was the last intricate blitz he called.
Three plays later, the defense had the Cowboys in fourth-and-six. Austin decided to play two-man, which is man coverage across the board with two deep safeties. Both safeties were lined up just inside the numbers and dropped roughly 25 yards downfield, which left the middle of the field vacant. The key matchup was Witten against Ihedigbo.
Witten is a route-running technician and deadly in these situations. He gave a subtle jab and a head fake to the outside and then broke inside, which left Ihedigbo spinning.
Yes, Suh was tackled to the ground by left guard Ronald Leary but that is besides the point.
I would have liked to have seen Austin mask the coverage or use a d-line stunt like this one from the first quarter, resulting in an incomplete pass and a hit on Romo.
I understand not blitzing but you know Witten against Ihedigbo is an unfavorable matchup. Why not call Cover 1 and have one of the safeties (the robber) drop into the short middle at the snap to play the low hole? This would have eliminated Romo’s security blanket and forced him to connect on a more difficult pass deep down the field. To illustrate what I mean, here is a breakdown of Cover 1 from Glover Quin’s game-changing interception against the Saints earlier in the season.
The Lions did earn consecutive coverage sacks on the previous drive to hold the Cowboys to a long field goal while playing two-man.
But this was an easy coverage for Romo to decipher. I understand Austin was confident in his front fours’ ability to generate pressure but I would have liked to at least seen him disguise the coverage.
The Lions fell apart after this fourth-down conversion. They committed two penalties to aid the drive and could not get off the field on third-and-goal on the game-winning score. They had trouble on key downs all game long. According to ESPN Stats and Info, Romo was 8-of-12 for 195 yards with two touchdowns on 3rd or 4th down.
I actually liked the two-man coverage call on the game-winning touchdown because there was less ground to cover with the Cowboys at the eight-yard line. You hope the pass rush and coverage can do a better job in that situation.
Overall, Austin had a terrific game plan and called a nice game, though he could have been more aggressive with the game on the line. You have to credit the Cowboys for winning the individual matchups in crunch time.
It’s easy to see why Austin has received several calls to interview for head-coaching positions. He turned a mediocre defense into one of the best units in the league with basically the same group of players. He will surely pocket this game and learn from it. He is a fantastic coach and deserves all the credit he’s been getting. I understand that it’s easy to nit-pick and second-guess after things don’t go right.
However, when you squander a 13-point second half lead, it’s fair to ask questions.
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.