Detroit Lions film review: Red zone offense has been ugly, but here’s how they can fix it

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Even after forcing three turnovers in last week’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, defense remains the Detroit Lions’ biggest impediment to becoming a legitimate playoff contender.

The Lions don’t appear to have the scheme or personnel to generate enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, and that puts their back seven in challenging spots when it comes to stopping the NFL’s best offenses.

But as worrisome as the defense remains, the Lions’ offense has not lived up to its billing as one of the league’s most potent groups.

[ Power rankings: Lions climb with Sunday’s win; no lead is safe in today’s NFL ]

Kenny Golladay’s hamstring injury, which kept him out two games, and some shuffling on the offensive line are contributing factors to the slow start. But the biggest issue the Lions offense has right now, in a season in which scoring is at near-record levels, is converting in the red zone.

The Lions rank 23rd in points per game and 27th in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on just six of their 13 opportunities so far this year. Against the Cardinals, they settled for three field goals in five red zone trips (excluding the game-winning drive, when they were playing for a field goal) to keep the score much tighter than it should have been.

“Honestly, we probably should have scored 40 there,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said after the game. “They gave us some great opportunities and we weren’t able to capitalize in the red zone, which is something we need to make sure we work on and make sure we’re better at next week.”

The bad news is that Sunday marked the second time in three games the Lions have fallen woefully short in the red zone. Adrian Peterson opined after the opener that the Lions would have been up “30 points, easily” against the Bears had they not made so many mistakes.

The good news is that — after watching the all-22 film of every Lions’ Week 3 red zone snap — most of their issues are fixable heading into a stretch of very winnable games. Beginning with the upcoming 1 p.m. tilt with the New Orleans Saints, the Lions’ next eight opponents have a combined record of 6-18.

So what went wrong in the red zone and what did the Lions do well? Here’s an analysis of all five trips Sunday:

First quarter: 37-yard FG

The Lions marched down the field on their opening drive, then stalled in the red zone thanks to a combination of good individual efforts by two Arizona defensive players and some poor execution of their own.

The Lions clearly wanted to establish their ground game early Sunday to keep Kyler Murray and the Cardinals offense off the field. They ran the ball on their first two red zone plays out of offset-I formations.

Rookie guard Jonah Jackson, in his first game at left guard, was asked to make a difficult-but-not-impossible block on the first play, pulling to his right to block back-side defensive end Chandler Jones, one of the best defensive linemen in the NFL.

Jackson missed the block, and whether Jones’ presence was the cause or not, Peterson briefly (and uncharacteristically) hesitated as he approached the line. He gained 1 yard on the play, but had he immediately followed fullback Jason Cabinda to his right, he would have had a larger gain and maybe even a touchdown.

On second-and-9 from the 12, the Lions kept their “21” personnel on the field and again handed the ball to Peterson. Arizona safety Budda Baker read run immediately and was in the backfield before Peterson could cut back off Cabinda’s hip. The play was blocked well upfront, but Peterson had no chance to make the lone free defender miss.

Stafford was sacked for a 10-yard loss on third-and-6 from the 9 after Halapoulivaati Vaitai got steamrolled by Jordan Phillips. But the play was lost a fraction of a second earlier as strong safety Chris Banjo disrupted the route of Stafford’s intended receiver, T.J. Hockenson, with a bump 5 yards off the line of scrimmage.

With Hockenson unable to get free for a corner route, and cornerback Patrick Peterson hovering over Stafford’s second read, Danny Amendola, in the right flat, Stafford was forced to eat the ball and take a sack.

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Second quarter: Jesse James TD

The Lions took a 10-7 lead midway through the second quarter when they converted a fourth-and-1 play from the 5-yard line. The drive started on the cusp of the red zone after Jamie Collins’ interception, and the Lions once again opened with two running plays.

Peterson has been the Lions’ best running back this year, but he has not solved the team’s long-standing red zone rushing issues. On first-and-10 from the 14, Peterson was stopped for no gain when he again could not make the only free defender miss. Give Cardinals safety Deionte Thompson credit for quickly diagnosing the play and filling the open rushing lane. Football is an 11-man game, but the teams that have more players who win those one-on-one skill battles are often the best, and the Lions have not done enough of that in the red zone this year.

Peterson picked up 8 yards on second-and-10, when he showed nice vision on a cutback and the Lions stayed on the ground against a six-man box.

On third-and-2, the Lions drew up a pick play for their best receiver, running Golladay on a shallow route across the middle of the field. Baker again showed great anticipation, flying in from his deep safety spot a yard in the end zone to meet Golladay on the catch, even though Stafford trained his eyes on Amendola in the left flat trying to draw the defense’s attention that way. 

The play did not work because Golladay ran his route short of the sticks, but offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell showed some promising ingenuity on the play by using Amendola out of the backfield.

On fourth-and-1, Bevell’s creativity came in handy again as the Lions won a personnel mismatch to take a 10-7 lead. Operating out of “22” personnel, with two running backs and two tight ends on the field, the Lions emptied their backfield and ran a pick play for little-used tight end Jesse James.

With Arizona expecting run, James cut underneath Kerryon Johnson for an easy catch and score.

[ Lions’ coach Matt Patricia isn’t riding the NFL roller coaster of emotions ]

Second quarter: Golladay TD

On their third trip to the red zone, the Lions needed only one play to reach the end zone.

On first-and-10 from the 15, D’Andre Swift motioned left into a trips formation with Amendola and Golladay, leaving the backfield empty. With Golladay running a post from the point of the formation and Amendola running a curl just outside him at the numbers, the Cardinals were forced to cover the Lions’ No. 1 receiver with a safety and linebacker.

That’s a mismatch the Lions will take every time, and Stafford threw a well-placed ball — Baker, who’s an impressive player, came up inside Golladay on the pass-breakup attempt — that Golladay hauled in for his first touchdown of the year.

Third quarter: 24-yard FG

The Lions were gifted great field position on three of their red zone trips Sunday, including this one that came after Jeff Okudah’s interception.

Johnson converted a second-and-1 from the 13 with a 5-yard run, evading a tackle in the backfield after Vaitai missed a block. The Lions gave the ball to Johnson again on first-and-goal — they ran on all four of their first down plays from inside the 15-yard line Sunday, and have done so on 9 of 10 such plays this year — then took to the air the next two plays.

On second-and-goal from the 6, the Lions just missed a touchdown when Stafford threw too high for James, who was open in the back corner of the end zone after Thompson cheated up on Hockenson, who ran a complementary hook at the goal line.

On third-and-goal, Stafford again overthrew an open receiver, Amendola, who was streaking across the back line.

While the Cardinals deserve some credit for the Lions’ red zone struggles Sunday, this drive stalled due to the Lions’ own malfeasance.

“We settled for field goals in the red zone too often this year,” James said. “We got to find a way to get that in.”

Fourth quarter: 35-yard FG

The Lions got a fresh set of downs on goal-to-go from the 10 after Arizona lined up with 12 men on the field on the first snap of this red zone possession.

Once again, the Lions opened with a running play, and once again, Baker was there to blow it up. Peterson gained 2 yards, but might have had 5 more if not for a timely run blitz by the Arizona safety.

On second-and-goal from the 8, the Lions got the look they wanted with Hockenson in single coverage against Thompson split wide to the left. Thompson gave Hockenson just enough of a jam at the line of scrimmage to disrupt his release, and Stafford’s pass deflected off the tips of Hockenson’s fingers. That was not a poorly thrown pass, and with a better get-off, Hockenson probably has the extra half-step he needs to come down with the catch.

On third-and-goal, I’m not sure what the Lions were doing. Golladay, Amendola and Jones lined up trips to left and were the only three receivers who ran routes on the play.

Hockenson and Johnson stayed into block, and when Golladay, Amendola and Jones ended up in essentially the same spot, Stafford had no choice but to take another sack.

The Lions easily could have scored two red zone touchdowns in the second half instead of settling for field goals. If they had, they would not have needed Matt Prater’s heroics at the end.

They need to run the ball better in the red zone, though they won’t see many safeties like Baker going forward. And Hockenson’s play strength cost him two touchdowns.

But the Lions still have the personnel to be dangerous on offense, and if they clean up their red zone inefficiencies they will.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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