Buying or selling Detroit Lions have solved their pass rush woes?

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Lions had their best defensive effort of the season in Sunday’s 34-16 blowout win over the Jacksonville Jaguars, in no small part because they got significant contributions from their previously dormant pass rush.

Trey Flowers said after the game that shutting down Jacksonville’s rushing attack allowed the Lions “to control the game,” which in turn helped them pressure Jaguars quarterback Gardner Minshew.

There definitely is some truth to that. The Jaguars ran for a season-low 44 yards and had just five called running plays in the game’s final 38 minutes.

But the Lions also took advantage of Minshew’s inexperience, and the Jaguars’ feeble offensive line, by deploying their most extensive blitz package of the season.

Flowers had the game’s only sack, forcing a Minshew fumble just before halftime, and the Lions pressured Minshew on 31.3% of his dropbacks — a number that would skew even higher if not for a game script that allowed the Lions to play more passively while up big in the second half.

In my study of the all-22 coaches film, I credited the Lions with nine pressures on 20 Minshew dropbacks in the first half. On six of those 20 plays, the Lions sent more than four rushers, and seven of the plays they didn’t came during Jacksonville’s two-minute drive at the end of the half, when they were noticeably more cautious. Often, when the Lions sent just three or four rushers, they employed a zone blitz, dropping a defensive lineman into coverage and bringing a back-seven defender from somewhere on the field.

While some of the Lions’ changes could be sustainable going forward, much of their game plan seemed built around a clear lack of respect for Minshew and the Jaguars.  

Among their bye week adjustments that make sense going forward, the Lions started rookie John Penisini at defensive tackle, which allowed them to play more successfully out of a four-man front.

Under Matt Patricia the Lions have favored a three-man front, with an outside linebacker — Devon Kennard in 2018-19 and Christian Jones much of this year — as an edge-setter on the left side of the line. With Penisini playing primarily as nose tackle over top of the center, the Lions played Flowers (sometimes out of wider splits) at right defensive end, Danny Shelton at defensive tackle, and Romeo Okwara at left end.

The simple change allowed the Lions to get their best pass rushers, Flowers and Okwara, on the field for more than just obvious passing downs.

After building a 24-3 lead early in the second half, the Lions returned largely to their three-man line for the rest of the game.

“I thought it was good to put him in the middle and see how that anchored some things for us to allow those other guys, like you said, to move around, and maybe be in some different positions,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “It was good to see. I thought he played well. He’s strong. He can play very low to the ground. He does a good job with his hand placement. It was good to see for his first chance to get a lot of reps out there and played really well.”

One other personnel change that paid dividends for the Lions on Sunday was playing Jayron Kearse (38 snaps) as the No. 3 safety instead of Will Harris (one snap). Kearse had two first-half pressures and was a big part of a blitz game that has been nonexistent at times for the Lions this year.

The Lions brought two seven-man pressures and one six-man blitz in the first half, all on Jacksonville’s first quarter field goal drive. Minshew was 2 of 3 passing for 11 yards on those plays, but the Lions forced one incompletion in the end zone, when Minshew had to unload a ball early to avoid a Tracy Walker sack, and gave up a 2-yard completion on third-and-7 on another of the throws — when Kearse and Julian Okwara let Minshew slip out of their grasp.

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Julian Okwara had two pressures in five snaps and flashed some of the pass rush ability that made the Lions draft him in the third round, but he also left with a leg injury. If Okwara misses significant time, that could limit defensive coordinator Cory Undlin’s options going forward as the Lions don’t have another obvious choice to play as a backup end.

Romeo Okwara led the Lions with four pressures Sunday, including one on another key third down stop in the red zone, when Minshew had to throw so early that his intended receiver had not even turned up field on the wheel route he was running to the end zone. Like his brother, though, Okwara also let Minshew slip out of at least one sack.

Even when the Lions weren’t blitzing Sunday, they were getting pressure through stunts and twists, and disguising their looks by clouding the line with back-seven players such as Kearse and linebackers Jamie Collins and Reggie Ragland.

That’s part of the design of this defense, and while it played well against the inexperienced Minshew on Sunday, the Lions might not have as much success in coming weeks against veteran quarterbacks such as Matt Ryan, Philip Rivers and Kirk Cousins.

That’s why I fear Sunday’s pass rush improvements may not be sustainable. In Patricia’s two-plus seasons as head coach, the Lions have been hesitant to blitz, or not as effective with their disguises, against more seasoned passers.

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Some of that is understandable. Aaron Rodgers, for instance, is one of the NFL’s best at beating the blitz. But after studying all 64 defensive snaps against the Jaguars, the Lions still are light on players who consistently can win one-on-one matchups upfront.

Flowers’ sack came on a power-to-speed move, when he bull-rushed left tackle Cam Robinson and accelerated past him to swipe loose the ball. The Lions also forced a first-half interception on a four-man pass rush, when Jahlani Tavai pressured Minshew up the middle as Romeo Okwara dropped in coverage off right end.

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But on the Lions’ first 34 defensive snaps when they rushed three or four players — everything but Jacksonville’s final throw-caution-to-the-wind drive — they pressured Minshew just seven times.

That 20.6% pass-rush win rate is in line with the number they put up in the first four games of the season, when their pass rush was the most anemic in the NFL.

Perhaps Sunday’s win will be the revelation that leads the Lions to blitz more, and they made some schematic and personnel changes that can help in that endeavor.

But until they’re able to do it against better teams and better quarterbacks, Sunday’s pressure looks like a one-week wonder.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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