Lions film review: Assessing dichotomy of first- and second-half defensive performance

Detroit News

Allen Park — In Sunday’s victory over the Washington Commanders, the Detroit Lions’ defense was nearly flawless in the first half. The Commanders had eight possessions but didn’t net a single first down until its sixth drive, heading to the locker room with zero points and 56 yards.

Replicating that performance in the second half was never likely, but Washington’s ability to completely flip the script was a disappointing way to finish the contest. Through the final two quarters, the Commanders scored four touchdowns and legitimately threatened to complete an improbable comeback after heading into the locker room down 22 points at the break.

Given the dichotomy of the two halves, it felt like the easy focus of this week’s film review.

Going chronologically, we’ll start with the shutdown performance through two quarters. It’s a story of good coverage, clean tackling and a heavy dose of pass-rush pressure.

First half

► First possession

Assignment-sound football and quality tackling showed up immediately on Detroit’s first two defensive snaps. Cornerback Will Harris seamlessly navigated a coverage switch to make the stop on a quick throw after 4 yards, while linebackers Malcolm Rodriguez and Alex Anzalone did a nice job flowing on a stretch-zone run, filling the gaps and dropping running back Antonio Gibson after a 2-yard pickup on second down.

On third down, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn unleashed his first blitz, sending linebacker Chris Board up the middle as a fifth rusher, while bracketing Washington receiver Terry McLaurin with a second defender in the slot, taking away the quarterback’s presumptive hot read.

The blitz proved effective, as Board plowed through running back J.D. McKissic, forcing quarterback Carson Wentz from the pocket where he was eventually stopped by Aidan Hutchinson just behind the line of scrimmage for the rookie’s first career sack.

► Second possession

Frequently, under Glenn, the Lions reserve blitzing for third down. That wasn’t the case in this contest, as the team sold out on a first-down play fake, ultimately sending seven rushers after Wentz. Pressure from Hutchinson forced the quarterback to pull the ball down and attempt to escape the pocket, but Rodriguez broke through, leading the QB to desperately throw it away, drawing a flag for grounding.

Facing third-and-17 after a modest run gain, the Lions just had to keep everything in front of them. They did that when Washington attempted a receiver screen to Curtis Samuel. Cornerback Jeff Okudah and safety DeShon Elliott did a nice job fighting through traffic to make a stop well short of the line to gain.

► Third possession

After the Lions turned it over on downs deep in Washington territory, the defense needed just two plays to get the ball back to the offense. Hutchinson came up big on first down, beating the block of the tight end and adjusting his position to slow the back enough for help to arrive.

Then, on second down, defensive end Charles Harris showcased his burst off the line of scrimmage, easily bending around Washington left tackle Charles Leno Jr. to dislodge the ball from Wentz in the pocket, resulting in a safety.

► Fourth possession

Washington tried to get things going in the zone, running Gibson on back-to-back stretch-zone concepts. Rodriguez slightly over-pursued on the first, resulting in a 5-yard pickup, but did a much better job on the second, working in conjunction with Anzalone to drive the back wide, where he was driven out of bounds by Will Harris for a loss of a yard.

On third down, the Commanders tested Detroit’s coverage with three receivers to the left and selling a quick pass into the flat with a pump fake by Wentz to the innermost option of the trips, Samuel. That was designed to free up a clean, deep release for McLaurin, but Okudah never bit, staying in tight coverage down the sideline and forcing the incompletion.

► Fifth possession

Another blitz on first down saw Elliott hurry an attempt to set up a screen. Furthering the successful execution of the call, Analone was all over the back coming out of the backfield, ensuring the incompletion.

The pass rush only needed four to get home on second down. Hutchinson initially overran the pocket from the left edge, but pressure from Harris flushed Wentz back into the rookie for his second sack of the afternoon.

With another third-and-long, the Lions dropped eight into coverage, once again keeping everything in front of them and stopping a short completion well in front of the marker to force another punt.

► Sixth possession

The Commanders finally converted a first down well into the second quarter, but it didn’t come easily. Facing third-and-six after safety Tracy Walker forced Wentz to throw the ball away on second down, rookie receiver Jahan Dotson found a space in between defenders in the near layer of Detroit’s zone to keep the drive alive.

But that was all the defense would allow this series. Harris did a superb job of sticking with receiver Cam Sims on a deep route out of a flea-flicker, with Wentz’s errant throw nearly getting picked off by Walker, recovering from the run fake.

And on third-and-long, following a delay-of-game penalty, the Lions sent the house, eight rushers, with Elliott delivering a hit on Wentz that disrupted the pass and caused an incompletion.

► Seventh possession

Washington netted their second and final first down of the opening half to open this drive, and again, it didn’t come easily, as McKissic had to hang on to a short, 2-yard throw after a big hit from nickel corner Mike Hughes to convert third-and-2.

What little momentum that grab may have provided was lost when McLaurin dropped a screen with a nice bit of open field in front of him on the next play and Hutchinson burst through the line on a stunt to sack Wentz on second down, killing any inkling of a threat.

► Eighth possession

Taking over near midfield after the Lions went three-and-out, Washington had just enough time to run one play to get into field-goal range. Instead, pressure up the middle from defensive lineman John Cominsky caused Wentz to double-clutch on the throw, resulting in the ball awkwardly slipping from his grasp.

► Conclusions

Washington wasn’t without its execution errors, including a dropped pass and Wentz not delivering a couple throws to open receivers, but most of the credit goes to the Lions for successfully doing the little things right, particularly on early downs, opening up opportunities to pressure the quarterback on third down. Rodriguez and Anzalone stood out, in particular, with their positioning on multiple run fits.

Will Harris, filling in for injured starter Amani Oruwariye, was excellent in coverage the first two quarters, while Elliott and Board continued to bring an added dimension to the defense as situational blitzers. Obviously, Hutchinson and Harris deserve mention, as well, coming together to sack Wentz four times.

Second half

► First possession

Things came undone pretty quickly in the third quarter. On the second play of the half, Wentz connected on a 40-yard deep shot to Dotson.

Will Harris was in man coverage on the rookie. Playing with outside leverage on the go route, he was left without help when Walker had to rotate down to cover tight end Logan Thomas, who plowed through the jam of Rodriguez, knocking the linebacker to the ground. Harris will get the blame, but help would have been there if Rodriguez had kept his footing.

Despite the explosive play, the Lions had a chance to limit the damage to a field goal, getting Washington into a third-and-5 after Charles Harris and Okudah did a good job working through traffic to limit McLaurin to 5 yards on a receiver screen.

But some bad schematics and subpar execution left it so Harris got matched up with Samuel in man coverage on a wheel route and Elliott was late to offer support over the top, resulting in a 15-yard touchdown.

► Second possession

The Commanders looked to build off that momentum in their next series, connecting on an 18-yard pass play to kickstart the drive. Working from the left slot against Hughes, McLaurin ran a deep crossing pattern, curling through the break to not lose any speed through the top of the route.

After an 8-yard gain by Gibson on a stretch-zone run, Wentz ran play-action looking for Thomas, running a post route from his pre-snap alignment attached to the right side of the formation.

Not biting on the play fake, Rodriguez did a good job getting to the proper depth on his zone, and even though there was a window for Wentz to fit the ball to his 6-foot-6 tight end, it’s possible Rodriguez’s presence in the passing lane contributed to an overthrow.

Sailing over the head of Thomas, the ball hit Walker in the hands, but he couldn’t make the grab, instead popping it up in the air, where Will Harris was able to enter the frame and make the diving interception.

► Third possession

After a quick first down to Dotson, running a comeback route against Okudah, McLaurin again got the best of Hughes on a deep crossing pattern from the slot, this time gaining 35 yards. The young veteran receiver showed some nuance to his route running when Hughes tried to undercut the route, looping behind the cornerback and in front of the deep safety, Elliott.

Two plays later, Washington busted out a slick design for another explosive gain. The play-action call transitioned into a screen-pass look, putting the defense in knots. With the secondary occupied by two deep routes to the left side, and Will Harris, on the opposite side, locked on the screen, Samuel was able to leak across the formation into empty space for a 27-yard gain.

Frankly, I don’t even know who to blame for the breakdown. It’s completely understandable for Harris to drive on the screen concept. Maybe Elliott, as the split safety to that side, got too preoccupied with Dotson running deep down the middle, but with only the linebackers in coverage, again, it’s tough to fault the thought process.

The Commanders needed two more snaps to cap the drive with Thomas besting the coverage of Rodriguez on a post pattern. Elliott drifted to offer support to Okudah instead of the linebacker on a pair of vertical routes. After the play, the veteran safety was visibly angry and the only interpretation, based on the film, is he was disappointed in himself for that decision.

► Fourth possession

The Lions got off to a strong start to this series, with pressure from Julian Okwara nearly causing an interception on first down, Will Harris beating his block to limit the damage on a screen on second down, and Alim McNeill making an athletic play to shoot his gap and stop the running back short of the sticks on third down.

That left Washington with a difficult fourth-and-1 decision at their own 26-yard line to open the fourth quarter, which they converted with McLaurin running an end-around. Elliott was frantically trying to communicate an alert before the snap, which pulled him out of position to play on the conversion.

McLaurin came up big again on third-and-three a few plays later, shaking Okudah on an escape route, and again after the catch, turning the short grab into a 17-yard gain. And the Lions were caught with their pants down on the next snap, as Charles Harris failed to hold the edge on the backside, allowing Samuel to gain 21 yards on a reverse.

Wentz followed that up with a pair of first-down completions to his backs, the latter a slant to Gibson that capitalized on the Lions playing soft coverage and blitzing both linebackers, leaving the middle of the field open. From there, the 220-pound running back finished the 12-play drive with a 1-yard touchdown plunge, powering through Hutchinson’s hit in the backfield.

► Fifth possession

Washington went on another lengthy drive later in the fourth quarter, going 76 yards on 14 plays. Up 15 points, it’s worth noting the Lions were conceding short throws to burn clock. The biggest play was surprisingly a Wentz scramble, where he juked past Rodriguez for an 18-yard gain.

Eventually working to first-and-goal from the 2, the Lions held fast with the interior of their defensive line coming up with run stuffs on first and second down, taking the game to the two-minute warning. But on third down after the stoppage, with Rodriguez crashing toward the line on a play-action fake, Wentz connected with Dotson on a slant from the right slot for six.

The rookie’s release on the route was impressive, getting Will Harris off balance before slicing inside. Still, the defensive back recovered fairly well. Wentz’s throw, which was high and behind the receiver, was ultimately just beyond the Harris’ reach.

► Sixth possession

With the game nearly sealed, the Lions forced a quick turnover on downs to make it official. The pass rush, as it did in the first half, played a big role on three of the four plays, with Cominsky and Okwara leading the charge.

Cominsky caused an overthrow with his pocket push on first down, while Okwara flushed Wentz from the pocket on both third and fourth down, with Cominsky scoring a clean-up sack to end the drive.

► Conclusions

Coverage breakdowns were the biggest issue in the final two quarters, with much of it falling on the safeties. Lions coach Dan Campbell noted on Monday the team is still working through some communication and discipline issues in the back end and that showed up as Washington mounted its comeback.

All in all, despite allowing the 40-yard grab in the third quarter and the late touchdown to Dotson, Will Harris played well in the spot start. Okudah also continued to build on his strong start to the season, outside the missed tackle on the shifty McLaurin.

Rodriguez was phenomenal against the run again this week, but he was exposed a bit in coverage. His size — both height and weight — was an issue when tasked with covering the much larger Thomas. Look for future opponents to test him in this area.

Up front, the Lions didn’t get home on Wentz anywhere near as often in the second half, in part because there weren’t as many opportunities to bring extra pressure. That said, the performances of Cominsky and Okwara should boost confidence in the depth Detroit has built up front.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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