A version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
Entering this season, there were high expectations for a Lions’ offense that was far too inconsistent last season.
Detroit’s priority in the off-season was to improve the offensive line and, by extension, the league’s 28th-ranked rushing attack, which averaged a paltry 3.6 yards-per-carry (29th). They traded for veteran guard/center Manny Ramirez, drafted guard Laken Tomlinson in the first round and added running back Ameer Abdullah in the second round.
Yet through two games, the offense has sputtered, failing to consistently move the ball. Though the passing attack has been merely mediocre, Detroit ranks near the bottom in every running category. Their 32 rushes are the least amount in the league and their average of 3.3 yards-per-attempt ranks 29th.
As Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett touched on in his film study, Sunday’s poor offensive output was a collective fail from every position group on the offense. The line failed to protect Stafford, the receivers failed to consistently create separation, the quarterback missed some throws, the running backs (though they never had much of a chance) didn’t break tackles and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi could have done more to protect his quarterback.
Without a run game to lean on, Lombardi had Stafford throw 53 passes. Through two weeks the Lions’ offensive pass to run ratio is 73 % to 27 %, the second-most unbalanced mark in the NFL.
Why has Lombardi called so many passes? Because the offensive line has been beaten badly in the run game and failed to create movement up front. Unfortunately, that’s only the start of their problems.
Let’s jump into the All-22 coaches film from Week 2 to examine what happened and why it happened.
Anyone who watched this game saw the offensive line dominated by Minnesota’s defensive line. The combination of Abdullah, Joique Bell, Theo Riddick and fullback Michael Burton carried 12 times for an abysmal 18 yards. Stafford led the team with four rushes for 20 yards.
On the Lions’ first drive of the game, right guard Larry Warford, making his return from an ankle sprain that kept him out of the opener, is tossed aside by third-year defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd. Center Travis Swanson doesn’t generate any push and can’t sustain his block on veteran Linval Joseph. Bell, who looks rusty after sitting out the preseason while recovering from off-season knee and Achilles surgeries, is hesitant and stops his feet, a no-no for running backs.
This time, it’s Manny Ramirez who is out-leveraged by Floyd, while Warford ends up on the ground.
Abdullah fared no better, as he was running for his life on five of his six carries. He’s lucky to pick up two yards after 6-foot-9 right tackle Cornelius Lucas plays too upright, thus losing the leverage battle and being pushed back into the explosive rookie runner. Look at the backside pursuit from the aggressive Vikings.
Here’s another run where Abdullah has no chance after Swanson gets pushed to the ground and left guard Ramirez can’t get to linebacker Chad Greenway. Again, no movement from the men in white.
The only successful run play the Lions had was an early misdirection handoff to Abdullah for seven yards (the Philadelphia Eagles used this play, sometimes called H-Reverse, last year to revive their running game).
It would have been nice to see Lombardi go back to this run to combat the attacking pursuit of the Vikings second-level defenders.
The Vikings are a young, fast defense but the Lions didn’t attempt to slow them down (no reverse to keep them honest?), calling just one screen pass, a first quarter attempt to Joique Bell that went nowhere as Swanson and Warford were slow to react to linebacker Gerald Hodges.
With the Vikings controlling the line of scrimmage from the start, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and defensive coordinator George Edwards did not have to worry about the run, and similar to last season’s meeting in Minnesota, they disguised coverages and deployed their favorite blitz scheme, the double-A-gap pressure package which we’ll dissect in a bit.
In the first half, Stafford was accurate and on time with his throws and the line mostly held up in protecting him. But the beleaguered quarterback unsurprisingly wore down in the second half after being punished all afternoon.
Pro Football Focus had Stafford pressured on 38 percent of his dropbacks (22 of 58), 10th most among quarterbacks in Week 2. I had Stafford pressured on an obscene 15 of 35 second half dropbacks (43 percent).
When the Vikings pressured Stafford, he completed just 7 of 20 passes.
Stafford’s nightmare began on the third play of the game. On third-and-10, he finds Golden Tate for 19 yards but not before being demolished on a hit by rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks. Warford whiffs on his block of linebacker Anthony Barr and Bell doesn’t react to Kendricks, who comes racing in untouched on a delay once he reads tight end Eric Ebron is blocking.
The Lions ran a fair amount of deep route combinations throughout the game, but the Vikings’ blitz schemes and pressure forced Lombardi to alter his gameplan. He began dialing up more quick, short passes and the strategy worked on the two second quarter drives.
They beat the blitz a few times with quick passes to Ebron, but credit the Vikings for not missing tackles and preventing chunk plays all day.
The Lions scored on both second quarter drives. A 14-play, 72-yard march took 7:14 but was halted prematurely for a field goal. An eight-play, 73-yard drive before the half finished with a laser of a touchdown throw from Stafford to a tip-toeing Calvin Johnson.
On the field goal drive, they finally moved the ball as Stafford and Tate connected for a pair of well-executed 18-yard pass plays.
On second-and-goal from the Vikings’ 8, Lombardi designs a post route for Lance Moore, isolated to the right of the formation with veteran cornerback Terence Newman over the top. The Vikings play Cover 3 with four underneath defenders. Johnson (boxed in orange) lines up next to Tate and draws the attention of the Vikings’ middle safety.
Stafford moves the safety with his eyes by looking towards Johnson. Moore runs a good route and jerks hard to the right before planting and crossing to the inside, yet Newman doesn’t bite. There’s some contact but Stafford’s throw is well behind Moore, who stumbles as Newman drops the interception.
The following play, Tate stumbles and falls as he comes wide open on a drag route, forcing the Lions to settle for a field goal.
Minnesota wasn’t fooled by anything the Lions were doing, and were happy to force Detroit to dink and dunk its way down the field. The Vikings’ secondary stayed on the hips of the Lions’ playmakers and forced three second-half turnovers.
The Lions stayed in their three receiver set, with Moore getting the nod as the third wideout by playing 60 of 78 snaps. Fourth-receiver Corey Fuller was on the field for just nine offensive plays.
To counter, Minnesota played nickel most of the game, with two linebackers — rookie second-rounder Kendricks and 2014 first-rounder Barr — and five defensive backs. Starting linebackers Greenway (14 snaps) and Hodges (28 snaps) were removed for Kendricks (53 snaps) and slot corner Captain Munnerlyn (65 snaps). This gave the Vikings great speed in the middle of the field to help them cover. They paid no attention to the Lions’ ground game because their defensive line dominated early and Lombardi was rightfully hesitant to go back to it.
As the hits and pressures began to climb, Stafford — understandably so — stopped trusting his protection and began moving off his spot. His accuracy level dipped in the second half.
On first down, the Vikings fake the double-A-gap blitz by only sending one of their two linebackers. What makes this scheme so effective is the setup looks the same, whether you send extra guys or not. The threat forces the offense to account for the potential pressure up the middle, causing break downs in protection and/or giving the defense favorable one-on-one pass rushing matchups.
The Vikings only send five rushers against six pass protectors, but they get a clean shot at Stafford. Kendricks comes and is picked up by Abdullah, while safety Harrison Smith blitzes untouched off the edge and levels the quarterback. The Vikings drop the left defensive end, something Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has employed at times, to cover the tight end, while Barr drops into a flat zone to take away the quick slant to Johnson. It’s one-on-one across the board with one deep safety. A perfect call and well-executed by the Vikings.
Two plays later on third-and-10, Lucas is bull-rushed into the backfield and left tackle Riley Reiff gets beat deep off the edge. Stafford drifts too deep in his drop, doesn’t set his feet and throws incomplete towards Ebron running a corner route.
The following series Stafford gets a reprieve following a 27-yard pass interference call on rising third-year corner Xavier Rhodes which negated a horribly thrown interception.
On the next play, the Lions tried to get the ball to Ebron on a quick hitch route to combat a Vikings blitz. Little used defensive end Justin Trattou isn’t fooled by the run action, gets his hands in the passing lane and collects the pick.
Following the Lions’ third turnover in five second-half possessions, the Vikings ate nearly six minutes off the clock and kicked a field goal for a 26-10 lead. The Lions received the ball back with 6:13 to play and took 4:32 to drive 82 yards for a touchdown. They tried to go deep, but as was the case all day, the Minnesota secondary smothered it.
On the second play of the drive, the Lions sent three receivers on the outside vertical, with Ebron running down the seam over the middle. The Vikings have one-deep safety, with Rhodes on Megatron’s hip (as he was all afternoon), step-for-step at the bottom of the screen. No one is open, Stafford is forced from the pocket and sacked.
Defenses can drop safeties deep to take away the shot plays because they aren’t concerned with the Lions’ run game. The inability for this passing game to get anything going down the field is a major issue, but it likely won’t improve much unless the run game shows signs of life and Lombardi devises more creative calls.
The Vikings were glad to give up small chunks of yards in exchange for time, but the Lions scored a touchdown and needed a two-point conversion to make it a one score game.
This is a split-zone run with Ebron coming across the formation to block the back-side end. The key block is supposed to be made by Johnson coming down to pin the strong safety, Harrison Smith, inside. It’s a very difficult block to make for the receiver because Smith is so close to the line with the Lions at the two-yard line. Johnson doesn’t take a flat enough path and Smith slips past him to stop Bell (why Bell was in the game over a spry Abdullah or Riddick is another matter).
The Lions have as many skilled offensive weapons as nearly any team in the league, which is why a second straight forgettable outing and 0-2 start is so frustrating.
Although they’re only two games in and still learning to play with each other, the offensive line remains the weak link. Lucas was horrid and Warford, Swanson and Reiff weren’t much better. Ramirez was the only lineman to hold his own, and that’s a surprise because he’s more of a center than a guard at 32 years old. With the talented defenses of Denver, Seattle and Arizona up next, the season will turn even uglier fast if adjustments aren’t made.
Most contending teams are built to win in the trenches, and though the line isn’t the only problem (how about feeding Abdullah more than seven offensive touches?!), if this team doesn’t improve the run game and protect Stafford, he won’t last into October, and the franchises’ bid for consecutive playoff appearances for the first time in 20 years will disappear with its quarterback, whether you think he’s the man for the job or not.
Credit to NFL Game Pass for the game footage. All GIFs and illustrations were created by Marlowe Alter for the Free Press.