Detroit Lions film review: ‘When I see a WR dump someone, that’s always pretty cool’

Detroit Free Press

Josh Reynolds was running his route downfield when D’Andre Swift stumbled to the ground to catch a short pass from Jared Goff in the third quarter of the Detroit Lions’ win Sunday over the Washington Commanders.

Swift had popped to his feet and was headed across the field by the time Reynolds realized he had the ball. Immediately, Reynolds thought, “Oh damn, let me try to pick up a block for him real quick.”

Swift did not need Reynolds’ help to reach the end zone. One of Reynolds’ fellow receivers, DJ Chark, already was there providing passage.

But Reynolds’ approach highlights one of the key elements of the Lions’ hot start.

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Two weeks into the season, the Lions (1-1) lead the NFL in yards per rush (7.2), are tied for second in points per game (35.5) and rank third in rushing yards per game (186). They are the only team with three runs of 50-plus yards, and their receivers’ willingness to block is a big reason why.

“It is all the difference in the world,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said Monday. “I remember there was about a three- or four-year period there where I used to do explosive runs, I’d do a study at the end of the year, and it was always two things, the running back and receivers blocking downfield. Those were the two things that were the common denominator in having those explosive runs.”

Swift’s catch-and-run touchdown and an end-around by Amon-Ra St. Brown three plays earlier that was made possible by a block from receiver Quintez Cephus helped stymie the Commanders’ momentum in the third quarter.

In fact, receiver blocking has been at the forefront of most of the Lions’ big plays this year and that is the focus of this week’s film review.

D’Andre Swift: 50-yard run

The Lions had their first explosive run of the season on their second offensive play, a second-and-11 from their own 24-yard line in their Week 1 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Swift, who had been stopped for a 1-yard loss on a swing pass one play earlier, took a handoff from Goff 5 yards deep in the backfield and was 5 yards past the line of scrimmage before a defender laid a hand on him.

Tight end T.J. Hockenson gave Swift a clear path to the second level with a good trap block on Javon Hargrave, 4/5ths of the Lions offensive line — everyone but right guard Logan Stenberg — won their block cleanly, and St. Brown, from his position split just left of the line of scrimmage, pinned safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson inside the tackle box, leaving Swift one-on-one in the open field with cornerback James Bradberry.

Swift planted his left foot in the ground, cut to his right and raced down the sideline past stumbling safety Marcus Epps before Darius Slay could bring him to the ground.

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St. Brown, the Lions’ most physical receiver, has emerged as the leader of the corps’ blocking brigade.

“Obviously it’s nice to catch touchdowns,” he told the Free Press last week. “But I might be talking personally, but I feel like that’s our job, we got to go score touchdowns. We got to go do that out there and make those plays. But for me, when I see a receiver dump someone, I think that’s always pretty cool for me to see. ‘Cause we have that reputation as receivers that we just want the ball and if we don’t get the ball then screw it. But to see a receiver dump someone or block hard or put his nose in there, that’s always, for me I always respect it and I’m sure a lot of other receivers do, too.”

Amon-Ra St. Brown: 58-yard run

The Lions had two 50-plus-yard runs against Washington last week. Swift had a 50-yarder midway through the first quarter out of a three tight end set, when he showed great vision following a bulldozing block by Dan Skipper to break free into the secondary, and St. Brown had a 58-yard gain on a jet sweep to set up Swift’s TD.

St. Brown said the Lions spent the entire first half setting up his long run, routinely motioning him across the line of scrimmage while waiting to strike.

“I feel like as a defense at some point you kind of just don’t pay mind to it,” St. Brown said.

That appears to be what happened as the Lions left Montez Sweat, Washington’s left end, unblocked on the play. Sweat, playing for a handoff to tailback Craig Reynolds, gave St. Brown an unobstructed path around end while the Commanders were in man-to-man coverage in their secondary.

Cephus pivoted inside off the snap, taking cornerback William Jackson III’s eyes with him, then blocked cornerback Benjamin St-Juste, who was following St. Brown on his motion across scrimmage, long enough for St. Brown to break free down the sideline.

“Cephus made a hell of a block now,” Campbell said. “And that was one of those you circle, say, ‘Hey, Q this is your play.’ And he went in there, I mean it was outstanding, man. Get a traveler, he blocks a traveler, now we’re off to the races, Saint does the rest. So everybody’s got a hand in it. Those guys, they did their job. They did what was asked of them.”

Josh Reynolds: 3-yard touchdown catch

Swift’s first touchdown of the season, a 7-yard run on fourth-and-1 late in the first half against the Eagles, came around left end when he got a good cut block by tight end Brock Wright, a strong pulling block by left guard Jonah Jackson and a nice second-level block from Chark on Gardner-Johnson to run untouched to the end zone.

Chark picked up a free defender in the middle of the field on Swift’s 22-yard touchdown catch against the Commanders, though Swift might have reached the end zone without help on that play.

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And the illusion of a Lions receiver blocking helped set up another touchdown in that game.

With just under 7 minutes to play in the first half, the Lions lined up for a first-and-goal on the right hash from the 3-yard line. St. Brown motioned right out of a stack formation, with St-Juste following him across the line of scrimmage, and Goff play-faked a handoff to Jamaal Williams out of the backfield.

Reynolds, split right but tight to the line of scrimmage, drifted towards the secondary, where he engaged safety Darrick Forrest momentarily before releasing from his block and making a beeline to the back of the end zone.

Goff lofted a pass Reynolds’ way, and Reynolds toe-tapped his feet in-bounds as he made the catch with Forrest chasing him to no avail.

The touchdown, Reynolds said Monday, was a byproduct of the Lions’ blocking prowess at receiver.

“I think it opens up everything,” Reynolds said. “Play-action. You got the linebackers and safeties diving hard. Why? Because we’ve been digging them out the whole game. Digging them out, digging them out. Now, bam, play-action on a little stalk and go. It makes all the difference in the world.”

Campbell, who has been in the NFL as a coach or a player since 1999, said he’s been a part of teams where receivers are both willing and unwilling blockers. The difference is dramatic, he said, and part of the reason the Lions are built a certain way.

“I’ve been around guys that are pretty good receivers, but man they get after it in the run game and it changes the attitude of your team, it just does,” Campbell said. “’Cause those offensive linemen, man, they appreciate that and the defense appreciates it. There’s a toughness to it. And we got it here. And look, I think our coaches have done a great job. It’s an emphasis for us and they take ownership in it. It’s kind of — it’s a right of passage here.

“But I also, I credit Saint and Leaf (Kalif Raymond) to that, too. I think they set the tone in that room with that. And it’s expected of all those guys and they’re all bought in. I mean, Josh Reynolds is blocking guys, Chark’s blocking guys. They’re all doing it. It’s a good room.”

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

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