The Detroit Lions are the worst red-zone team in the NFL. After being kept out of the end zone on four trips inside the 20-yard line against the Atlanta Falcons, the Lions are translating just 43.2% of their opportunities into touchdowns.
The road split is particularly brutal, sitting at 23.8% through eight games. And it’s not revelatory to point out the inability to capitalize in the red zone was the primary reason the Lions fell short against the Falcons.
For this week’s film review, we’re going to reassess at the team’s play-calling approach and execution on those four failed trips, prior to switching over to the defense for closer look at the impressive performance of linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who played 100% of the defensive snaps for the first time in his five-year career.
The Lions managed to work their way inside the 20 with their first possession, a lengthy drive that was already at nine plays when rookie receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown converted a third-and-12 running an out route from the left slot to give the offense a fresh set of downs at Atlanta’s 13.
To that stage in the series, backup quarterback Tim Boyle had thrown six times during those nine plays, countering expectations the Lions would lean on the run. But now operating in condensed quarters, Detroit got understandably conservative.
More: Four Downs: Looking deeper into Campbell’s fourth-down conversion decisions
On first down, Boyle lined up in the shotgun with running back Jamaal Williams offset to the right. The rest of the formation was compact with the line, with three receiving options left and tight end Brock Wright tightest to tackle Taylor Decker. On the opposite side, Josh Reynolds was split out, just beyond the right hash.
The Lions looked for an inside power run, doubling both defensive tackles on the snap as Wright pulled around the formation to seal off a backside defender. And while the combo blocks were effectively executed, Decker struggled to keep Falcons defense end Dante Fowler Jr. outside of the lane. Additionally, slot receiver Kalif Raymond struggled with his assignment, digging out cornerback Darren Hall, who made the stop in the hole after a 3-yard gain.
Detroit stuck with a nearly identical formation on second down and once again doubled the defensive tackles while having Wright pull left to right. The difference is there was a lessened emphasis on maintaining the double teams as right tackle Penei Sewell and guard Jonah Jackson quickly broke off into the second level to pick up Atlanta’s linebackers. That proved ineffective as Atlanta’s interior linemen won their one-on-one matchups, limiting Williams to a 2-yard gain.
Needing to throw on third-and-5, the Lions spread things out with Reynolds and St. Brown split out left and Raymond and Wright to the right.
The play design relied upon a two-man combination with St. Brown feigning an out route from the slot before breaking inside on a slant. The intent was to clear Reynolds on a fade route that had started inside. The design worked, but the timing was off as Boyle rushed the throw despite no pass-rush pressure, resulting in an incompletion.
The Lions wouldn’t return to the red zone until late in the third quarter, and in this instance, things fell apart quickly due to penalties.
After entering on another St. Brown reception, the Lions had first-and-10 from Atlanta’s 13. That immediately turned into first-and-15 after a false start against Decker. Coach Dan Campbell has since taken blame for this infraction due to getting the play call in late and causing unnecessary confusion.
Following a short, 2-yard run by Craig Reynolds, the Lions committed another false start after Wright flinched well before the snap.
Now way behind the sticks, the Lions opted for an outside run with Williams on second-and-18, which gained just 2 yards. And on third-and-16, Boyle quickly threw it away after recognizing the Falcons had his initial two reads well-covered.
The Lions settled for a field goal, tying the game, before Atlanta responded with a 10-play, 71-yard touchdown drive to take the lead early in the fourth quarter.
Detroit countered with a lengthy drive of its own, crossing into the red zone on a short pass to Reynolds as the clock ticked under six minutes remaining. That catch set up a fourth-and-1 at Atlanta’s 17-yard line.
Instead of trying to power through the line with Williams, Boyle took a shotgun snap with four receiving options, two to each side, with the big back initially hanging back in protection before releasing on a delayed route.
Williams ended up being a critical component to the play’s success as the back’s route put linebacker Foyesade Oluokun in conflict, allowing Raymond to find open space on his shallow crossing pattern where he sat down and picked up 5 yards and the conversion.
Now, for the third time in the game, the Lions had a first-and-10 from Atlanta’s 13-yard line. On this effort, they lined up Williams as the single back and a tight end off each tackle. The handoff to the back, heading right, never got going as Pro Bowl defensive lineman Grady Jarrett swam around the block of right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai and tripped Williams up in the backfield for no gain.
On second-and-10, Detroit went back to a 2 x 2 formation. The Falcons played a disguised Cover-2 defense, but St. Brown was able to find some space on an out route from the right slot when the outside option to that side, running back Godwin Igwebuike, forced the outside-most underneath defender to carry a vertical route into the end zone. That gained 8 yards with forward progress and set up a manageable third-and-2.
Detroit lined up with Reynolds as the single back and Wright, St. Brown and Raymond condensed to the right side of the formation, allowing the Falcons to counter with 10 defenders in or just outside the box.
The design fell apart almost instantly as St. Brown was slow to react on the snap and couldn’t get enough of blitzing safety Jaylinn Hawkins. On the opposite side of the formation, left guard Jonah Jackson was badly beaten by defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard. Those two defenders quickly converged in the backfield, dropping Reynolds for a 3-yard loss and forcing Detroit to settle for a field goal.
The Lions got one more chance after the defense forced an unexpected turnover in the closing minutes. A delayed handoff to Williams on first-and-10 gained 7 yards, getting the Lions back into the red zone, and Boyle was able to reset the chains at the 9-yard line with a quick hitch to slot receiver Tom Kennedy.
Despite using their last timeout after the Kennedy catch, the Lions had plenty of time to operate with 39 seconds still on the clock.
Coming out of the stoppage in play, Detroit went back to a 2 x 2 formation with Boyle in the shotgun and Craig Reynolds in the backfield to the right. To the quarterback’s left, Josh Reynolds was out wide with St. Brown in the slot. To the right, Kennedy was out wide, but motioned into the slot, inside Raymond.
The Falcons played Cover-1 with Oluokun sitting in a middle field zone, likely doubling as a spy if Boyle were to try and scramble.
Raymond, who ended up the target on the play, starting running a shallow cross before stemming his route vertically. Boyle saw his receiver had inside leverage and a step on the defender, but was slow to trigger, double-clutching before making the throw. That provided Oluokun more than enough time to close the window and jump into the throwing lane for a relatively easy interception.
Reeves-Maybin seizes opportunity
Switching gears to the defense, Campbell was asked Monday who have been some of the team’s most-reliable performers this season. Somewhat surprisingly, the first name out of the coach’s mouth was Reeves-Maybin.
At this stage of his career, most everyone understood the impact he’s capable of having on special teams, but after being buried on the defensive depth chart because he was too undersized for former coach Matt Patricia’s scheme, no one was sure what Reeves-Maybin could contribute in that department this season.
By Week 3, following the organization moving on from Jamie Collins, Reeves-Maybin had a regular role, playing the larger share of a rotation with rookie Derrick Barnes. And during those nine games, Reeves-Maybin had largely been solid.
But it’s been past two games, with injuries to Alex Anzalone and Josh Woods thinning out the depth chart, that Reeves-Maybin has had an opportunity to truly flash his potential as a player worthy of being a long-term piece in this rebuild.
Against the Falcons, the Lions limited the opposition to 47 rushing yards on 18 carries (2.6 YPC). And while run defense is a full-team effort, Reeves-Maybin’s execution stood out on film.
As a player who is legitimately undersized (230 pounds) for his position, Reeves-Maybin often has a difficult time shedding the block. When an offensive lineman, or even a tight end get their hands into his chest, he has trouble fulfilling his assignment. He’s at his best leaning on his instincts and quickly reading and reacting through his keys to beat blockers to their spots.
Against the Falcons, Reeves-Maybin was consistently beating blockers to their spots and either making the stop or redirecting the back into help.
He also adds value as a pass-rusher, showing a consistent knack for attacking the right rush lanes. And while he did get stymied by the running back a couple times, he altered one throw with pressure and was able to jump up and deflect another.
In coverage, Reeves-Maybin wasn’t as sharp. He doesn’t always show the best awareness in zone, when slight adjustments to players crossing through his area could tighten or even take away windows for the quarterback.
When playing man, like many linebackers, he’ll struggle with some of the better running back and tight end route releases, but Reeves-Maybin closes ground quickly and is a good open-field tackler, who limits the damage he might allow.
His ability to navigate through traffic, quickly close ground and make a play in space showed up when he forced a fumble in the closing seconds, giving the offense a final chance to win the game.
Reeves-Maybin will have two more chances to validate this performance, but he’s trending toward being a player the Lions should look to re-sign after the season.