Lions film review: Diagnosing cause of Detroit offense’s first-half struggles

Detroit News

As you might expect with a winless team a month and a half into the season, the Detroit Lions have many issues. But if they could correct just one — their inability to put points on the board early in games — they might have a chance to secure their first victory.

Following the team’s 34-11 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, the Lions have scored just six points in the opening halves of the past four games, getting shut out three of those four contests.

So what’s been the problem? We went back and re-watched the film of all 21 possessions from those four games to see if there were any consistent themes. We’ve provided a drive-by-drive breakdown, as well as some parting thoughts at the end.

Baltimore 

Possession 1: Is it ominous or expected that the first play in this film study was an execution error? While it’s unclear whether it was a poor throw or receiver Kalif Raymond wasn’t where he was supposed to be, the Lions fell behind the chains right out the gate against the Ravens when Jared Goff’s pass sailed well wide of its intended target.

The Lions recovered from that mistake, picking up back-to-back first downs the next two plays, but execution errors and a poor play design quickly killed the momentum. Raymond dropped a short pass on first down, tight end T.J. Hockenson was easily overwhelmed when asked to block a 304-pound defensive lineman on a run play that resulted in a 1-yard gain, and on third-and-nine, rookie offensive tackle Penei Sewell was quickly beat by an inside move, leading to a rushed throw and incompletion.

Possession 2: The Lions opened up with a weak-side run by Jamaal Williams that netted a solid 4-yard gain, but things came unraveled when coordinator Anthony Lynn dialed up a trick play on second down. Raymond and fullback Jason Cabinda missed blocking assignments on the design that called for running back D’Andre Swift to take a pitch before throwing a lateral back to Goff. The downfield options were open, but the ball never made it back to the QB as Swift was swarmed because of the blocking errors.

That set up third-and-long, where the Ravens were able to unleash one of their many blitz looks that overwhelmed Detroit’s protection scheme and ended with Goff being sacked.

Possession 3: Williams kickstarted this drive with a 14-yard gain, sprung by an excellent pulling block from guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, as well as a perimeter seal by Hockenson. Two modest gains later, the Lions tried to convert third-and-five with a shallow cross to Swift, but Ravens safety Chuck Clark made an excellent open-field tackle short of the sticks. The Lions lined up with the intention of going for it on fourth down, but tight end Darren Fells jumped early, negating coach Dan Campbell’s willingness to take the risk.

Possession 4: This short drive was riddled with execution errors. On first down, KhaDarel Hodge struggled with the cornerback’s jam, causing Goff to show unnecessary reluctance to get the ball to his first read, despite the receiver getting good separation on his route.

A solid pickup on a second-down draw to Swift was negated by a holding penalty on guard Jonah Jackson. And with another third-and-long, the Ravens generated pressure with just four after showing a blitz look pre-snap after the Lions failed to properly pick up an inside stunt. Goff ultimately scrambled and didn’t come close to picking up a first down.

Possession 5: A short sitdown route by Hockenson and a 14-yard run by Swift had the Lions looking ready to finally do some damage. They should have had another chunk gain to the dynamic back, but Swift expected a throw to his inside shoulder while running a wheel route and Goff put it outside. Still, a penalty against Baltimore on that play had the Lions at midfield.

An incompletion on a deep shot to Raymond and a four-yard run by Swift left the Lions with third-and-six. The Ravens again showed blitz, but brought pressure with just four, including their nickel cornerback. Left uncovered by the design, Raymond, working out of the slot, failed to run a hot route for Goff, leaving the quarterback nowhere to go as he was dropped for a big loss.

Possession 6: A simple out route to Quintez Cephus put the Lions in second-and-short, but Jackson lost his leverage on a run up the middle by Swift, resulting in no gain on second down. Detroit ran a pick play to get Raymond in space on third down, but he stumbled while making the catch on the slightly off-target throw, allowing the defense to recover and stop him short of the line to gain.

Again, the Lions looked to go for it on fourth-and-one, and again they jumped offside. This time, Sewell was the culprit, leading to another reluctant punt.

Possession 7: Taking over with just 27 seconds remaining in the half, the Lions still tried to be aggressive, only to see receiver Trinity Benson drop a screen pass on the first snap of the series. After a couple of dump-off passes to Williams gained 25 yards, Goff did a nice job avoiding the Ravens pass rush, stepping up and finding Raymond near midfield. But the receiver wasn’t able to hold on to the pass after a hit by a Ravens defender, leaving Detroit scoreless heading into the locker room.

Chicago

Possession 1: Detroit had little problem moving the ball in Chicago from the start. With their opening possession, they methodically worked their way into the red zone behind the strong running of Williams, who gained 22 yards on four carries before successful converting a third-and-one.

Goff was also sharp, feeding an early crossbody throw while rolling out to Hockenson for seven yards and connecting with Cephus for a 21-yard pickup down the sideline after seeing the shallow zone defender drive down on Swift coming out of the backfield.

An unnecessary roughness penalty had the Lions knocking on the door, first-and-goal from the 8-yard line, but a miscommunication between Goff and center Frank Ragnow resulted in a premature snap that ricocheted off the quarterback and was recovered by Chicago.

Possession 2: Again, the Lions drove deep into Bears territory with Swift, Hockenson and Williams the focal points early in the series. But it was Cephus who came up with the explosive play that put Detroit in scoring position, working himself open on a scramble drill as Goff eluded the Bears pass rush on third down, turning the broken play into a 33-yard pickup.

But the Lions squandered another opportunity, mostly due to a series of excellent defensive plays by the Bears. They forced a throwaway on first down, tackled Swift for a loss on second down and took away Goff’s primary and secondary reads on third down, resulting in a short scramble back to the original line of scrimmage.

Despite that stretch of struggles, the Lions made the questionable decision to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 5. To the credit of the play design, Swift was open, but pass-rush pressure coming from both edges affected Goff’s throw, which was deflected before it reached its intended target.

Possession 3: This drive played out similarly to the first two, with the Lions driving deep, but coming away empty-handed. Aided by another 15-yard penalty against Chicago, the Lions had a great chance to hang seven on the opponents, but Goff overshot Raymond, who was wide open running a post pattern that split the deep safeties in Cover-2.

Goff responded to the mistake with one of his best plays of the season, avoiding multiple pass rushers in the pocket and finding rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 17-yard gain down to the 9-yard line. After two short runs, Goff looked to have Cephus open in the end zone on third down, but Sewell got beaten by veteran edge rusher Robert Quinn, who knocked the ball free from the quarterback’s grasp and he looked to throw, leading to another turnover.

Possession 4: After three long drives, the Lions closed the first half with a whimper, going three-and-out after Goff missed Hockenson wide on first down and the tight end whiffed on a block that limited Swift to a 6-yard gain on a well-timed draw that caught the Bears of guard. After another false start by Sewell, Goff threw it away on third down with St. Brown blanketed in coverage.

Minnesota

Possession 1: For the first time in two games, the Lions mustered some points in the first half, driving for an early field goal. As they often have this season, Swift, Williams and Hockenson led the charge, combining for the first 35 yards of the series.

A tight-window completion to Cephus for 13 yards put the Lions in field-goal range, where they ultimately stalled. On third-and-nine, the play call was questionable, with the first read going to Hodge, covered by multi-time All-Pro Patrick Peterson.

Possession 2: The Lions again leaned on their trio of playmakers to work across midfield before running a well-executed receiver screen to St. Brown for 13 yards that put the offense just outside the red zone.

That’s where things fell apart quickly. On first down, the Lions attempted to run play-action, but Sewell got beat by Everson Griffen, forcing Goff to eat a sack. Then, on second down, Griffen got the best of Sewell again, this time with a spin move. From there, the veteran pass rusher was able to knock the ball free from the quarterback, resulting in a turnover.

In addition to the subpar blocking and ball security, Goff made a second error by rejecting a throw to his initial read, a wide open Hockenson on a short comeback route.

Possession 3: After picking up a quick first down, the Lions found themselves facing third-and-six. The Vikings blitzed and Goff had no choice but to get the ball out quickly, targeting Cephus on a short comeback route. Already short of the sticks, the receiver came back even further to prevent the hard-charging defensive back from having a play on the ball, which consequently eliminated any chance of converting on the play.

Possession 4: For the second time in three games, Benson dropped a first-down pass. This time, the Lions were able to initially recover, thanks to Cephus spinning out of a tackle on third down and turning a short throw into a 21-yard gain.

After two incompletions, including an ugly back-shoulder fade Goff’s target had no shot to make a play on, St. Brown picked up eight yards on third down using a well-designed crosser behind the line of scrimmage that put the Lions in position to add three more points before the end of the half.

Cincinnati 

Possession 1: The Lions wasted little time shooting themselves in the foot in last Sunday’s contest. They committed two pre-snap penalties, resulting in a third-and-16. And even on that play, a designed short throw to Swift, they couldn’t execute correctly because Sewell got beat, preventing Goff from making an accurate throw.

Possession 2: Cincinnati was committed to stopping the run and gave Swift nowhere to go on first down, resulting in no gain. Detroit also mustered zero yards on a poorly designed screen to Hockenson, which lacked the necessary spacing for the tight end to get his momentum going upfield. And on third down, the Bengals took away Goff’s initial read, forcing the QB to check down to Hockenson, running a shallow cross, where he was tackled short of the sticks.

Possession 3: After forcing a turnover, the Lions gave the ball back two plays later. Goff was sacked on first down when he hesitated throwing into a tight window to Hodge. On the next snap, the quarterback showed no fear, firing a ball down the middle to St. Brown, but the rookie couldn’t secure the ball and allowed it to be ripped out by the safety, which was then intercepted by linebacker Logan Wilson.

Possession 4: The Lions finally managed to pick up a first down this drive. Two, in fact. The first came on a delayed route to Hockenson and the second was a well-blocked third-down run for Williams. Detroit had an opportunity for a big gain on a well-designed wheel route for Hockenson, which saw the defender in coverage screened by Hodge, but Goff overthrew his tight end. Whether it was a errant pass or Hockenson being in the wrong spot remains unclear, but it can certainty be classified as an execution error.

The Lions opted to go for it on fourth down, and the play was a disaster. The Bengals did a nice job covering up the reads, while Goff never looked the direction of Swift, who came wide open on the back side of the play. As the play extended long beyond its design, Sewell ended up being flagged for holding and Goff inexplicably threw the ball away, conceding the turnover.

Possession 5: Raymond hauled in a trio of short passes to start the series, including a diving effort near the sideline, while Williams converted a risky fourth-and-one deep in Lions territory to extend the drive.

Things started to come undone when Goff’s conservative nature led him to not throw to Fells, open in the middle of the field, opting instead for a check-down to Williams, who was dropped for a loss of 2 yards. On third-and-11, the Bengals brought more rushers than the Lions could handle, and with no quick reads, Goff threw it at a receiver’s feet, leading to another punt.

Possession 6: Another negative play doomed the Lions, when Swift was yanked down for a 5-yard loss on a toss play after Sam Hubbard beat the block of right tackle Matt Nelson. Having to cope with yet another third-and-long, the Lions ran four deep comeback routes. Goff focused on the three to his left, which ended up being well covered by the Bengals. Had the QB looked right, he appeared to have a window to fit one in to Hockenson.

Final thoughts

Gross. Just gross.

Obviously, there wasn’t going to be one problem in need of a quick fix here, but the sheer amount of execution errors is troubling.

The starting point for the Lions is to clean up the penalties, particularly the pre-snap variety. When Matthew Stafford was under center, this offense was equipped to battle out of its fair share of third-and-long situations, but that’s not the reality with this group.

Secondly, the turnovers have been killer. Not including turnovers on downs, the Lions have coughed it up four times in the first half the past four games. And that’s not fully on Goff. Sure, there was the bad snap, where he said he didn’t do a good enough job communicating, and Campbell is right about the one strip sack, where the QB should have made the quick throw to Hockenson instead of holding out for a bigger play.

Goff has been at fault for some of the struggles in other ways, including a couple of misfires on potential big gainers, and occasionally being too conservative with downfield options, whether that’s opting for the check-down or putting the ball so far out of the reach of the defender that it ends up being out of play entirely.

And for as good as the offensive line has been, despite devastating injuries, there’s too many missed assignments. Hockenson’s blocking was shakier than expected at times and no name popped up more in a negative way during this review than Sewell, who is understandably battling through normal rookie inconsistencies, but needs to get better in a hurry.

The coaching concerns weren’t as problematic. There were a couple of play calls that should probably be scrapped going forward, and for as much as I love Campbell’s overall aggression, I still question going for it on fourth-and-goal from the 5 after three straight dud calls before it.

The good thing is many of these issues are correctable. And they need to be, because as Campbell has said multiple times, the Lions’ margin for error is thin.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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