Detroit Lions film review: Digging into offense’s successes and inconsistencies

Detroit News

Allen Park — In the Detroit Lions’ first victory this past weekend, the team did something it hadn’t done since the season opener: Score more than 20 points. Obviously, no one should be throwing a parade for this low-bar accomplishment, but it was a critical reason the team was able to get over the hump and avoid a dreaded winless season.

As part of the 29-27 outcome, the Lions posted 372 yards of total offense, their third-highest total of the season. Even more impressively, they reached that 20-point threshold by halftime, netting each of those points in the second quarter.

On the downside, that means they were limited to three points combined in the first and third quarters, and the game-winning touchdown with no time remaining was their only score in the fourth frame.

For this week’s film review, we’re going to look at what went right for Detroit’s offense, particularly in that second quarter, as well as the less successful possessions through the other three quarters to see where inconsistency remains.

The good

After netting a single first down with their first two possessions, the Lions put together four straight scoring series to close out the first half, including a pair of quick-strike touchdown drives built around explosive plays. Much of the credit for both of those goes to quarterback Jared Goff, who made aggressive downfield throws with pinpoint accuracy.

More: Four Downs: Lions’ Jared Goff finally lets it fly; Penei Sewell holds own in loaded class

Starting the second quarter with a fresh set of downs, the Lions opened with an empty backfield. Even though coach Dan Campbell said T.J. Hockenson was a secondary read, Goff had eyes for his tight end the entire way on the play.

With the Vikings showing Cover-2, Hockenson, aligned in the left slot, ran a vertical route that drifted toward the middle of the field. The tight end immediately got into the linebacker, prohibiting the defender from cleanly flipping his hips and giving chase.

With the linebacker forced to turn his back to the quarterback, Goff fired a perfect throw into a tight window between the two levels of the defense, as well as in between the split safeties, where only Hockenson could make a play on the ball.

Credit also goes to Hockenson, who held on to the 25-yard receptions despite taking a massive hit from the safety, which drew a 15-yard penalty for unnecessary roughness to a defenseless receiver.

The next play, a 4-yard run by Jamaal Williams is only worth noting because of the unique formation the Lions utilized on the play, flipping left tackle Taylor Decker to the right side, outside right tackle Penei Sewell, while lining up Hockenson at left tackle. Williams ran behind the Decker/Sewell combination, and that look could be useful in a short-yardage situation down the line.

Detroit scored on the next play, another beauty by Goff to Hockenson. The Lions lined up with three options to the left and Hockenson right, tight to the formation. On the shotgun snap, Goff kept his gaze fixed left, holding single-high safety Harrison Smith to that side, even drawing him over a step.

That created the window the quarterback needed to thread a needle to Hockenson, running a post with inside leverage on cornerback Bashaud Breeland. Had it been some other safety patrolling deep, it might not have been as close, but Smith showed why he’s long been one of the best in the league, nearly recovering to make a play on the ball.

The Lions needed five plays to get into the end zone on that drive, which seems excessive compared to the three it took on the next possession.

Detroit opened the series with a well-executed 5-yard run by Williams before stringing together a pair of explosive gains in the pass game. The first, a short throw to Josh Reynolds turned into a 28-yard pickup thanks to some exceptional route running.

Reynolds, aligned wide right, feigned a vertical route before breaking inside on a slant. The receiver’s release got Breeland turned around and took him out of position to make an effective tackle after the catch. Reynolds ran through the diving attempt by the veteran corner to pick up 21 extra yards.

The Lions scored on the next snap by executing on a well-designed play. Showing a pre-snap run look with an I-formation, tight end Brock Wright off right tackle and two receivers, both left, to the wide side of the field, the Lions further sold run by having fullback Jason Cabinda shifting right just ahead of the snap.

A play-action fake to Williams, along with Cabinda running around the right edge at the snap temporarily held Breeland, the Vikings perimeter defender to that side. That allowed Wright to release free down the seam, angling away from the deep safety on the vertical route. Again, Goff’s pass was perfect, resulting in a 23-yard score for the rookie tight end.

Detroit added two more field goals before the half. The first came after a 13-play, 77-yard drive. The offense opened with a nice balance of effective runs and short passes, staying ahead of the sticks.

The effectiveness of the ground game also opened up the play-action, netting a second explosive gain for Reynolds. On the snap, rookie running back Jermar Jefferson did a solid job picking up Smith on the blitz after the fake, allowing Goff to bootleg left and connect with his former Rams teammate on a crossing pattern that was clear because the linebacker bit on the play on the play-action, resulting in a 27-yard gain.

The drive ended up stalling in the red zone because of a couple missed blocks, including a perimeter whiff by Wright on a well-designed misdirection toss that was otherwise primed for a solid gain for Jefferson.

The Lions closed the half with a effective hurry-up netting another explosive gain in the pass game. The team ran a good route combination to beat the Vikings Cover-2, having Hockenson and St. Brown occupy the underneath defenders, creating space for Kalif Raymond, running a post pattern. That 24-yard gain was the critical play in setting up a 41-yard field goal with seconds remaining in the second quarter.

Detroit got the ball to start the third quarter, but like the opening half, sputtered the first two possessions. They did manage to net a field goal at the end of the third quarter, buoyed by a 17-yard pass interference penalty against Breeland on a play designed to get Hockenson isolated downfield against the cornerback.

They tried to go back to the well with another deep shot to Hockenson in man coverage on the next play, but the end zone throw was long and the coverage was tight. After a blocking breakdown on second down resulted in no gain, the Lions ran on third-and-10, a move that successful got them into field-goal range for a 49-yard make.

We’ll come back to the game-ending drive a bit later, but first we’ll look at some of the failed possessions.

The bad 

As noted, the Lions opened up each half with a pair of dud drives.

After picking up a quick first down on a 10-yard gain by Williams to kickstart the team’s opening possession, the Lions stalled because Goff missed St. Brown twice. Unlike later in the game, when the quarterback showed zero hesitation, Goff didn’t pull the trigger to an open St. Brown on a play-action throw on first down.

Then, on second down, the Lions ran a levels concept toward the right sideline with St. Brown as the deeper option. Despite that being open, Goff checked down to Hockenson, but the pass was wide and had too much juice, making it too difficult for the tight end to handle, resulting in an incompletion.

After getting 9 yards on third down via a check-down crosser to Raymond — a good decision by Goff — the Lions went for it on fourth and failed to convert with a QB sneak. Whether you liked the call or not, the line simply didn’t get enough push against the Vikings behemoth interior tandem of Michael Pierce (340 pounds) and Dalvin Tomlinson (325), the latter who shot the gap to stop Goff short.

Detroit’s second possession, a three-and-out, falls largely on Hockenson’s blocking. The tight end botched a cut block on first down, leading to Williams getting stopped for 1 yard, then overran his assignment while pulling on second down, resulting in another minimal gain.

Facing third-and-7, Detroit got flustered by a classic Vikings’ tactic, showing pre-snap pressure in both A gaps. That resulted in no one blocking either edge rusher and Goff getting quickly sacked. Watching it again, it’s amazing the quarterback managed to hold on to the ball.

Similarly, to start the second half, the Lions went three-and-out twice, with blocking issues being the primarily culprit both times.

On the first, both Evan Brown and Halapoulivaati allowed pressure on first down, dooming an attempted screen pass to Hockenson. After a poorly blocked run on second down resulted in a 2-yard gain, a rapidly collapsing pocket altered Goff’s check-down throw on third down, causing an incompletion.

On the next series, the Lions attempted to open up with a stretch zone, but Brown got put on skates by Pierce, forcing Williams wide and into traffic. To make matters worse, the back fumbled the ball, resulting in a loss of 3 yards.

On third-and-long, Sewell made an uncharacteristic mistake failing to make the switch on a stunt, leading to Goff being sacked again.

After the field goal in the third quarter, the Lions turned the ball over their next two possessions. They were moving the ball well early in the fourth quarter, going back to the working combination of power runs and play-action throws, including a 14-yard completion to St. Brown across midfield after the Vikings bit aggressively on a play fake.

But a couple of errors by Goff ended the threat. The quarterback hesitated on a second-and-4 before progressing to a well-covered St. Brown that was broken up by the cornerback.

And on third down, Goff got in trouble locking in on Hockenson and forcing the throw despite triple coverage, resulting in an interception. That extra defender had abandoned St. Brown, running a crosser, and the quarterback admitted he missed the defensive breakdown after the game.

Later in the fourth quarter, the Lions went four-and-out deep in their own territory. Campbell acknowledged regretting his call on third-and-2, where Williams was stopped after a gain of 1 yard.

The problem with the play was it called for Hockenson to pull and cut, something he’s been inconsistent doing all year. The tight end’s block led to the defensive end falling directly into the run lane and contributing to the stop. Had Hockenson kept his feet in the design, the Lions likely convert.

Campbell also noted the fourth-and-1 play call, a play-action pass to the flat, would have worked had it been better executed, but that doesn’t show up on film. The Vikings simply had the perfect defensive counter and executed extremely well, taking away all of Detroit’s options.

The clutch 

I wanted to separate the game-winning drive, a 14-play, chaotic series. The offense, led by Goff, did a pretty good job managing the clock, despite no timeouts and a few execution errors knocking the possession off schedule.

That includes the first play, where the Vikings did a nice job keeping Hockenson from getting out of bounds on a crossing pattern out of motion. Additionally, Reynolds had a concentration drop early in the drive and the team took a highly confusing delay of game penalty with 23 seconds remaining.

Still, the offense remained poised despite the hiccups, including the quick-thinking of running back Godwin Igwebuike, who snagged a short dump off across the middle on third-and-10 and turned it into a 13-yard gain while getting out of bounds.

Following the conversion, KhaDarel Hodge did a nice job of bailing out Goff with a diving catch and St. Brown came up with three grabs before his touchdown, getting out of bounds on two of them.

The rookie nearly had a touchdown five plays earlier, coming open down the seam, but Smith got through cleanly on a blitz and hit Goff, causing the pass to sail. St. Brown still made a play, albeit a defensive one, knocking away a near interception to keep Detroit’s hopes alive.

On the final play, from the 11-yard line, Raymond played a critical role as a clear out defender, colliding (potentially intentionally) with the slot defender to the play side. Finally, Goff’s timing on the scoring strike was on point, with the ball leaving his hand just as St. Brown broke his route inside.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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