Motown is rocking once again, as the Detroit Lions have scratched, clawed and ran (just ask the Chiefs) to an undefeated record through four weeks of the NFL regular season for the first time since 1980. The Lions have come back from what seemed to be insurmountable deficits to win their last two games against the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys. Down 20 against the Vikings, the Matthew Stafford-led Lions came back to win 23-20 in overtime. Subsequently, they defeated the Cowboys after trailing 24 points in the early stages of the third quarter. The Lions can officially be labeled the Cardiac Cats, but these felines will be tested on the big stage of Monday Night Football when they meet the Monsters of the Midway in Week 5.
The division rival Chicago Bears come into Detroit Monday night with a 2-2 record, and a narrow victory over rookie phenom Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers. The Bears have faced a tough opening four weeks, as they saw quarterbacks Matt Ryan, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton. They will have their work cut out for them this week, with former first-round picks Stafford and Calvin Johnson of the Lions stepping onto the field on Monday night. How will the Chicago defense handle the Lions?
Speaking of that, what is the Lions’ offense all about? Through four weeks, they have struggled with their ground game, averaging a measly 74 yards per game while possessing an explosive passing game that averages 300 yards an outing. The offensive line is still the key in Detroit, and it still appears to have issues protecting the Lions’ franchise quarterback. On the other hand, the Bears have had issues stopping the running and passing game as they rank 20th and 25th in those areas. The Bears still play their traditional coverages and rely heavily on the front seven to do the dirty work. Can those traditional coverages hold up against the Lions, and will the front seven be able to get to Stafford? Let’s delve into the Lions’ offense and see what it’s all about.
As the old saying goes, “it all starts up front,” and it is no different for us here, as we start the in-depth view of the Lions’ offense with their offensive line. There were many notes I wrote (or scribbled) as I watched the Lions take on the Cowboys this past weekend, and one of those notes said “five and six man protection.”
The Lions relied heavily on five-man protection with chips on pass rushers from their tight ends and running backs from 11 (1 back, 1 tight end) and 12 (1 back, 2 tight ends) personnel against the Cowboys. The five offensive linemen often zone blocked the defensive front of the Cowboys. As mentioned in previous articles, it is a form of pass protection that’s very similar to zone blocking in the running game as well as the old gap blocking schemes. Zone pass protection features the same uncovered and covered rules of zone blocking in the running game, with the covered offensive lineman being assigned to the man in front of him while the uncovered combo blocks with his teammate on the play-side before peeling off to additional rushers.
Along with this zone pass protection, the Lions used a different kind of set up in pass protection known as vertical set. Vertical set is something that the Lions went to at times when they were in an up-tempo and no-huddle offense. From what I’ve seen, vertical set in pass protection is gaining popularity in the NFL. At the snap of the ball, the offensive line takes four steps in reverse. These steps are as follows: inside foot, outside foot, inside foot, outside foot. It is similar to a backpedal by a defensive back. In this protection the offensive linemen drop to a landmark — a designated area on the field — and then set up in pass protection. By going in reverse and getting to their landmarks, the offensive linemen are set to combat any blitzes, stunts, etc. that come from the front seven of the defense because it all develops in front of their eyes, which allows everyone the ability to pick up their assignment. When the Lions went to this against the Cowboys they had success protecting up front.
However, when the offensive tackles and interior linemen go back to their natural set up (i.e. kick sliding), they have had trouble protecting Stafford and gave up quite a bit of pressures. There are two reasons for this: 1) their offensive tackles simply aren’t that great at pass protection, and 2) Stafford’s footwork has at times led him to drop too deep, which has enabled the pass rushers to take an easier path.
Moreover, the Lions’ offensive line is a part of the offense’s running game, one that’s had major issues moving the ball. They are 29th in the league in rushing and only average 3.0 yards per carry. One of the main reasons behind the rushing struggle is a weakness at the point of attack for the Lions, as the offensive line can’t seem to consistently fire off the ball and move the defensive line. The Lions ran into this issue against the Cowboys and used several different run concepts, such as outside zone, toss, draw, power and counter-trey. They have to find success in a few of these concepts to help out Stafford and the passing game.
The threat of a running game is still important in today’s NFL, despite the sudden boom of the passing league. Teams still have to defend the gaps presented to them by the offense and have to find a way to stop the run, because if they don’t the entire playbook of the offense opens up. The Bears should have some success defending the Lions’ running game with eight men often in the box (out of Cover 1) and some quality players in the front seven, such as defensive end Julius Peppers and linebacker Brian Urlacher. These two players have made some big plays over their careers and possess the ability to fight off blocks to get to the ball carrier.
The passing game always draws the most interest from everyone, myself included. The reason is because the running game is pretty much the same for every team. But what is it that one team does different in the passing game than others? That is the burning question that everyone likes to see answered. The Lions offense is directed by offensive coordinator Scott Linehan, who’s an interesting coach. Before his present day job with the Lions he was the head coach in St. Louis, where things didn’t go well. Prior to getting the Rams’ head coaching job he was the Miami Dolphins offensive coordinator and had some success with them as well as with the Minnesota Vikings between 2002 and 2004. Now he’s in Detroit and guiding an offense that’s averaging nearly 34 points and 376 total yards per game.
Stafford is often in the shotgun and commonly throws three- and five-step drops. This is common not only in Detroit, but throughout the NFL and college game. The reason is because the routes in a three-step drop are usually quick, hence why it’s often called “quick game.” Additionally, if the depth of the drop is any longer than five steps, there is a higher chance of pressure from outside rushers. There are sometimes issues with protection in the five-step drop if a quarterback’s footwork is not great, and in this case the Lions will protect with six or occasionally go to seven (max protect).
Linehan’s offense features screens, slants, flat threats, and quite a bit of Hi-Lo concepts. He will find various ways to run what is commonly called the “Smash” concept, which is a two man combination of routes that typically has the #1 (or outside) receiver run a Hitch route while the #2 receiver (inside, slot) runs a Corner route.
The Lions will run other concepts that are similar to this and accomplish the same thing, such as a flat threat along with a corner threat, as seen below.
These two concepts are similar and accomplish similar goals. They attack the defense vertically, and put the cornerback in a bind. Where this comes into play in this game is against the Bears’ Tampa 2 coverage. I wrote about Chicago’s Tampa 2 last month:
As Tony Dungy noted in his book, Quiet Strength, the Tampa 2 coverage is a blending of 1 high and 2 high principles. The 1 high principle is the division of the field into thirds, which is known as Cover 3. Three deep defenders (one safety, two cornerbacks) and four underneath are blended with Cover 2, which is two defenders deep (two high safeties) and five underneath. What this morphs into is the Tampa 2 coverage, which is a 3 deep, 4 underneath principle. The safeties split the field into thirds with the MIKE dropping down the seam (or “pipe”) and the safeties on the outsides. In this case, there are four underneath defenders: the cornerbacks who are buzzing the flats and two outside linebackers covering the Hook area, which is on the hashes. The MIKE is aligned at five yards off the LOS (line of scrimmage) and drops about twelve to fifteen yards at the snap.
Although the flat defender (the cornerback) has help over the top from the safety, this concept can still be used with success because the safety still has to respect any vertical threats in his direction or the seam, where the MIKE (MLB) is dropping. In this case, the Lions may look to attack the seam or the deep third safety with a vertical route such as a Go or Post route.
A spin off the Smash concept is the Hitch-Seam. This is not much different, with the exception of the #2 (inside, slot) running a vertical Go route. This is a change-up to the Smash and can cause some problems, as witnessed in the Cowboys game last week.
The final two concepts that need to be discussed are the Stick and Slant/Flat. The Stick concept is a horizontal stretch on the outside linebacker in man or zone coverage (think Tampa 2/Cover 2). The Stick route is ran by a tight end (Y in this case) or slot receiver, and it is a vertical stem of about five-to-six yards, then a turn and sit by the pass catcher. Along with this is a flat route ran by the tailback (F) which horizontally stretches the outside linebacker, thus creating an opening for the tight end or slot receiver to catch the pass. It’s pictured below.
all credit goes to brophyfootball.blogspot.com for the image
Lastly, the slant/flat concept is one that the Lions like to run out of a 2×2 (four wide) set, and it’s a man coverage beater. This is important to note because one of the two coverages the Bears like to play is Man-Free (aka Cover 1), as talked about below.
Cover 1 is a man coverage with the free safety in a zone and dropping parallel to the sideline before reacting to the throw, and it puts eight defenders in the box to stop the run. The cornerbacks are in man coverage, aligning with an inside shade of the receiver and carrying him all the way through the route. The linebackers and safeties are also in man coverage, with the safety typically aligned across the tight end and the linebackers designated to cover tailbacks out of the backfield.
In this concept, the #1 (outside receiver) will run a slant route while the #2 runs a flat route. The flat route draws the attention of a nickel cornerback or outside linebacker, while the slant route has the cornerback in trail position in man coverage. The flat route creates an open space for the ball to be thrown to the slant.
This should an entertaining and very interesting game. How will the Bears handle these coverage beaters against their traditional coverages? Can they tame the Lions and avoid a comeback victory? How will they handle Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson? For answers, we’ll have to wait till Monday night.