Here’s what Everson Griffen brings to Detroit Lions’ defense

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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Everson Griffen is not the missing piece to a previously unimaginable Super Bowl run.

But his acquisition Tuesday in a trade with the Dallas Cowboys was a savvy football move by the Detroit Lions that should, at a minimum, provide insurance at their thinnest position.

Griffen, 32, may not be the same pass rusher he was when he was terrorizing the Lions for a decade with the Minnesota Vikings. But an all-22 film review of his play with the Cowboys shows the Lions are getting a player who remains effective in something more than a situational role.

In Dallas, Griffen was playing a little more than half the Cowboys’ defensive snaps in a rotation with DeMarcus Lawrence and Aldon Smith.

He lined up frequently at both the left and right end positions, played with his hand down and as a stand-up rusher, and occasionally moved inside to play over the guard or dropped into zone coverage. 

Griffen’s ability to play all over the defensive line was a selling point for a Lions team that values versatility, though I suspect, at least off the bat, he won’t have nearly as big a role in Detroit.

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The Lions have settled into a productive rotation on their defensive line in recent weeks that features Danny Shelton, Nick Williams and John Penisini, with help from Trey Flowers, on obvious run downs, and they’ve used Flowers and Romeo Okwara extensively in pass rushing situations, with linebackers and safeties pitching in.

Rookie third-round pick Julian Okwara was ticketed for backup duty as a pass rusher before a knee injury sent him to injured reserve last week. Griffen replaces him as a backup, though with potential to have a greater role.

Someone on Twitter suggested to me the Griffen trade was like the Lions’ acquisition of Dwight Freeney a few years ago, but I think that undersells the move. Freeney was limited to playing as a situational pass rusher in Detroit, while Griffen feels more like a true No. 3 defensive end.

Conversely, Griffen is not the same caliber pass rusher the Baltimore Ravens acquired earlier this month in the Yannick Ngakoue trade, and I doubt he’ll have the same impact Damon Harrison had for the Lions in the second half of 2018.

For this film review, I watched every Griffen snap from three games this season: Week 2 against the Atlanta Falcons (because the Lions played the Falcons last week) and the past two weeks against the Arizona Cardinals and Washington, plus a handful of other plays from throughout the season.

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I did not see Griffen win often as a one-on-one pass rusher, but he showed occasional flashes and contributed in other ways.

In seven games with the Cowboys, Griffen had 2.5 sacks among 20 tackles and six quarterback hits. Romeo Okwara, for comparison, has been the Lions’ best pass rusher this year with four sacks, 15 tackles and 10 QB hits.

The Lions, no doubt, need pass rushing help, so let’s start with that area of Griffen’s game.

Griffen’s first sack of the season came against the Falcons, on a second-and-12 play late in the fourth quarter, when Atlanta was trying to take a shot downfield. Though the sack was clearly in the “coverage sack” category, he showed his experience on the play.

After staying home on a run-action fake. Griffen set up backup right tackle Matt Gano, a first-quarter injury replacement for Kaleb McGary, by drawing the lineman outside before clubbing his way back to the pocket for a clean shot on Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.

On his sack last week against Washington, Griffen showed a good power-to-speed move against right tackle Morgan Moses. Rushing from a wide split at the left defensive end spot, he knocked Moses slightly off balance with his initial move, then looped around the tackle to haul down a scrambling Kyle Allen, who was flushed from the pocket on a good inside rush by the Cowboys’ Tyrone Crawford.

Griffen’s final sack, one he split with linebacker Jaylon Smith, came in a Week 5 win over the New York Giants, on third-and-13 in the third quarter.

Playing as a traditional right defensive end, Griffen did a good job collapsing the pocket against rookie left tackle Andrew Thomas. When Giants quarterback Daniel Jones stepped up to avoid the rush, he was an easy mark for Griffen and the blitzing Smith.

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Though none of those sacks was the product of a great individual rush, like we saw so many times from Griffen in Minnesota, he showed enough remnants of that player to think he can be effective in a more concentrated pass rush role like he might have initially in Detroit.

I saw Griffen try two spin moves against the Falcons. On the first, he beat left tackle Jake Matthews, only to have Matthews recover and knock him to the ground. On the second, a third-and-6 play deep in Dallas territory in the fourth quarter, he beat Matthews and stayed on his feet, eventually forcing Ryan to throw the ball away as he scrambled toward the sideline.

Five of the eight quarterback hurries Pro Football Reference has credited Griffen with this year came against the Falcons and Washington, and statistically he has not done much in his other five games. Against Arizona, he was largely a non-factor, beating left tackle D.J. Humphries with an early spin move that did not result in anything, and losing contain on one Kyler Murray scramble.

Griffen won’t displace Flowers as the Lions’ best edge run defender, but remains serviceable enough to contribute on more than just pass rushing downs.

Against the Falcons, Griffen’s two best plays came against the run. 

On a third-and-2 play in the second quarter, Atlanta ran at Griffen, who lined up over top of the right guard. He stood up his blocker and was the first Cowboy in on the tackle, holding Keith Smith to a 1-yard gain.

Playing right defensive end in the fourth quarter, he beat tight end Hayden Hurst to the edge on a stretch run that went for a 2-yard loss when Todd Gurley had nowhere to go.

Lions coach Matt Patricia shed no appreciable light Wednesday on how he envisions using Griffen. However Griffen’s role shakes out, the Lions made a low-risk and low-cost move in acquiring him for the final nine games — he won’t be eligible to play until the Lions’ Nov. 8 game against Minnesota because of the NFL’s COVID-19 protocols — and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Contact Dave Birkett at Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. 

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