What’s stopping the Detroit Lions on third down? Drops, sacks and poor play calling

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
| Detroit Free Press

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The Detroit Lions got shut out last week for the first time in 11 years, and a big part of their offensive struggles was their inability to convert on third downs.

Playing a Carolina Panthers team that was last in the league in third down defense, the Lions made good on just 3 of 14 third down attempts in their 20-0 loss.

“Really, some of that started on first and second down, I thought,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “They had a really good odd(-man front) package that they dialed up. I thought they had some really good pressures out of it, and I think that we got to get that fixed and corrected quicker so that we can get out there and be productive. Really, I thought that just the first and second down stuff, rolling into the third down, put us behind a little bit there, and then that doesn’t really help in those situations when you’re getting a lot of pressure.”

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To Patricia’s point, the Lions had six plays of third-and-10 or longer Sunday, and failed to convert on any of them. The final three of those third-and-longs came with the game largely out of reach in the fourth quarter, but even discounting those plays, the Lions were their own worst enemy when it came to landing in unfavorable third-down situations.

For this week’s film review, I’ve broken up the Lions’ third down plays into three groups, third-and-3 or shorter, third-and-medium (5 or 6 yards, in this instance), and third-and-10 or longer.

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Third-and-3 or shorter

The Lions converted two of their three third-and-shorts, and might have gone 3 for 3 if not for a missed block. That’s about in line with their conversion percentage for the year, where they’ve made good on 21 of 32 third-and-3s or shorter (65.6%).

As bad as the Lions were on third downs Sunday, they actually opened the game with a conversion, and made creative use of their personnel on the play in order to scheme Kerryon Johnson open.

Johnson lined up in a tight split to the right of scrimmage, outside of Marvin Hall, with Jamal Agnew in Johnson’s usual backfield spot left of quarterback Matthew Stafford, and Jesse James and Marvin Jones split tight to the left of the line.

Agnew ran a take off down the left sideline to clear safety Tre Boston out of the picture, and Johnson ran a drag right to left across the middle of the field just beyond the sticks. James and Jones occupied Panthers linebackers Shaq Thompson and Jermaine Carter with routes across the middle of the field, which give Johnson enough time to get open for the first down.

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Johnson had a chance to convert a third-and-2 late in the first half on a toss play to the right, but T.J. Hockenson missed a block on Juston Burris, which caved in the alley Johnson wanted to run through.

On the Lions’ final third-and-short, a third-and-1 late in the third quarter, the Lions outschemed the Panthers with a play-action pass to Hockenson out of a big personnel grouping with six linemen and two tight ends on the field. Carolina had nine men in the box, and Burris and Jeremy Chinn bit hard on the play-fake to Adrian Peterson, leaving Hockenson open for a 35-yard gain, the Lion’s biggest play of the day.


The Lions were 1 for 5 on third down and 5 or 6 yards to go, and while that is not obscenely out of line with their season average — they had converted 4-of-14 attempts (28.6%) from those distances entering Sunday — in all five instances they failed to run an efficient second down play.

(For definition, I consider any second down play that gains at least half the yards needed for a first down to be efficient.)

Before we go on, let’s dispel a myth that Lions fans shared on Twitter during the game: Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell did not fall into a run-run-pass trap, leaving the Lions in third-and-longs. In the first half, the Lions ran the ball on five of their nine second down plays, and several of those runs came against light boxes.

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More than play calling, the Lions’ problem seemed to be execution.

Before their first third-and-5 late in the first quarter, Peterson gained 3 yards on a second-and-8 run against a six-man box. Peterson appeared to have a lane up the middle, but ran into the back of right tackle Tyrell Crosby after defensive tackle Zach Kerr defeated Crosby’s block.

On the next play, Frank Ragnow flubbed a snap that the Panthers recovered at the Lions’ 22-yard line.

Twice more in the first half, the Lions had third-and-medium after unsuccessful running plays. 

Brian Burns made a heads-up play to deflect a swing pass to Johnson on a third-and-5 early in the second quarter, one play after Chinn came unblocked into the backfield to stop Johnson for a 1-yard run. And an unsuccessful third-and-6 on the next series followed a 0-yard stretch run by Peterson against a six-man box.

The Lions still should have converted on third-and-6, but Hockenson dropped a pass.

In the second half, the Lions converted one third-and-5 with a 19-yard pass to Hockenson, and failed on another when Stafford had to unload the ball early because of a timely blitz and threw wide of Jones.

Third-and-10 or more

This is never an easy conversion in the NFL, though the Lions were 12 of 37 (32.4%) on third-and-10 or longer entering the game.

On Sunday, they had four third-and-10s, three of them in the second half, a third-and-20 that came after back-to-back sacks, and a third-and-16 where they were in two-down territory and simply were trying to pick up yards to make for a more manageable fourth down.

Naturally, on third-and-10, little went right on the previous plays, but the Lions had two series that had to be especially cringe-worth watching on film. 

The Lions trailed, 14-0, when their second series of the second half ended on a third-and-10 sack midway through the third quarter. Carolina brought five rushers on the play, and the Lions’ four-man route concept had no time to develop after Burns beat Crosby with a speed rush.

But the Lions never would have been in third-and-10 had Jones not been flagged for illegal formation three snaps earlier, nullifying the Lions’ trick-play throwback touchdown.

“We were obviously trying to get something there, had a good play that we’ve been working on here for a while and just didn’t get it correctly put in position,” Patricia said. “I’ve got to do a better job of making sure we have the details handled in that situation.”

Burns and Kerr split another sack on third-and-10 early in the fourth quarter, one play after Agnew dropped a slant pass that would have gone for 7 or 8 yards.

The sack, on third-and-10 from the Carolina 25, was the third and final play the Lions ran inside the Panthers’ 30-yard line all day.

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

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