Lions film review: Breaking down the pros and cons of the defense’s performance

Detroit News

In a game with 178 snaps, including a combined eight fourth-down attempts and a dramatic finish, it can be difficult to know where to place your attention. In the end, we’ve decided to narrow our focus to the Detroit Lions’ defensive performance in our review of the film from the team’s 28-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Three games into the 2022 season, the Lions are allowing more points than anyone. And while they’ve shown signs of progress the past two games — shutting out the Washington Commanders in the first half a week earlier and holding the Vikings to 14 points through three quarters on Sunday — the unit simply is struggling to find any real consistency.

Detroit did some really good things against Minnesota, limiting the opponent to converting just two of nine third downs, holding quarterback Kirk Cousins to under 60% passing and bottling up one of the league’s best receivers, Justin Jefferson, limiting him to career-low 14 yards on three receptions (on six targets).

But porous run defense against the Vikings’ zone-blocking scheme, a handful of communication errors in the back end, and an uncharacteristically awful performance from cornerback Amani Oruwariye all played into the final result.

So let’s take a look at all of it, the good and the bad, as we put this game to bed. And given that the Lions lost, it feels appropriate to start with the negatives.

Ground-game woes

A couple of weeks back, linebackers coach Kelvin Sheppard passionately stated that despite the Eagles’ success running the ball against the Lions in the season opener, no one in that game or through the preseason was having any luck gaining yards on the ground through the middle of Detroit’s defense.

That held true against Washington last week, but you might be surprised when I tell you Minnesota didn’t do any significant damage up the gut against the Lions, despite the opponent’s running backs combining for an efficient 124 yards on 24 carries.

No, nearly all the consequential yardage gained by Dalvin Cook and Alexander Mattison came attacking the edges of Detroit’s line, often on cutbacks against the flow of their offensive line’s zone blocking.

We saw Detroit attacked in this manner out the gate, with Cook gaining 12 yards on back-to-back carries on the Vikings’ opening possession. Similarly, Cook gained another nine yards on the first play of the second series, with all three runs going around the right edge, behind an offensive line sliding left in unison at the snap.

And while the Lions managed an occasional stop when a defensive back aggressively attacked their backside gap, the Vikings utilized that action to great success throughout the contest.

With Detroit having its defensive front match the Vikings’ flowing line to maintain gap integrity on the inside, the secondary was tasked with playing a big role in backside run support, and they weren’t up to the challenge. Nickel cornerback Mike Hughes struggled to beat the blocks of wide receivers K.J. Osborn and Adam Thielen, while Oruwariye missed multiple tackles on the perimeter, including one on Cook’s longest gain of the day, while Jeff Okudah failed to set an edge when Cook bounced it outside for a 4-yard touchdown run in the first half.

Finally, Minnesota’s tight ends had a concerning amount of success winning one-on-one matchups against Detroit’s edge rushers, regularly pinning them inside to hold open outside lanes.

Ultimately, the Vikings didn’t have many big gains running the ball, with only one carry longer than 10 yards, but it was the consistency they had from snap to snap, which is untenable for Detroit’s defense going forward, because it leads to long drives and creates opportunities with the play-action passing game.

Communication concerns

A big theme coming out of the contest was the communication issues in Detroit’s back end, but in reality, they were few and far between, only magnified by the blown coverage on the game-winning touchdown.

On that snap, the Lions lined up overloading the defensive line to the left side of Minnesota’s formation, the cornerbacks in press coverage and split safeties, presumably to offer support over the top.

On the snap, Cousins was looking right the entire way, where he had Thielen and Osborn. The quarterback admitted after the game that Thielen was his primary read, but it was Osborn who came open deep from the slot for the 28-yard touchdown throw.

Mike Hughes was in coverage, playing with inside leverage, and was beaten cleanly by Osborn to the outside, running a corner pattern. Still, the slot corner clearly thought he had help from JuJu Hughes, but that wasn’t the case. The backup safety, filling in for the injured Tracy Walker, inexplicably stayed flat-footed in the middle of the field at the 15-yard line, covering no one in particular, as Osborn raced by before hauling in the scoring strike.

The other key communication breakdown came on Thielen’s first-half touchdown. On first-and-goal from the 1-yard line, the Vikings motioned Jefferson through the backfield. Seeing Okudah get caught in traffic trying to follow the motion, Oruwarye wisely tried to switch assignments as the ball was being snapped, but his teammate didn’t see the communication, resulting in Thielen leaking free across the back line of the end zone for an easy score.

Oruwariye’s struggles

We can debate whether Oruwariye is truly a No. 1 cornerback, but the facts are these: He’s held opposing quarterbacks to under a 60% completion percentage each of the past two seasons and finished third in the NFL with six interceptions in 2021. No. 1 cornerback or not, those are good numbers from a steady performer.

But after missing last week’s game because of a back injury, and being limited in practice by that issue heading into the Vikings matchup, Oruwariye looked as rusty as he ever has in a Lions uniform. The 32-year-old Thielen, who has seen his production steadily decline since peaking during Pro Bowl campaigns in 2017 and 2018, dominated the individual matchup with nuanced route running, catching a team-high six passes and forcing Oruwariye into committing a staggering six penalties.

A couple of those flags were admittedly shaky, including the first and the last, but on the other hand, Oruwariye could have easily been hit with a pass-interference penalty while defending Thielen on a fourth-down incompletion late in the fourth quarter, clutching at the receiver as he tried to come back for the ball on a timing route.

Oruwariye also struggled with tackling, matching a career-high with three missed tackles. All in all, it was a day to forget.

Now, let’s transition to what went well for the Lions, starting with the job the defense did in controlling Jefferson, who has averaged more than 1,500 yards in his first two NFL seasons.

Slowing a superstar

Somewhat surprisingly, the Lions abandoned their typical defensive strategy of playing their cornerbacks on specific sides of the field — and allowed Jeff Okudah to follow Jefferson, including into the slot. I had dismissed the possibility when asked about it earlier in the week because it felt premature to ask that much of Okudah two games back from a torn Achilles, but it shows how quickly he’s gained the coaching staff’s trust, although it’s reasonable to wonder if Oruwariye’s back injury could have had played some small part in the philosophical shift.

Regardless, it will go down as a positive decision. Even if the execution wasn’t always flawless, the results are undeniable, thanks in part to well-utilized coverage support from Detroit’s safeties.

Where Okudah struggled with the assignment was Jefferson’s releases, particularly early in the contest. But help from teammates continually limited the damage. For example, the young cornerback whiffed on a jam on the Vikings’ first possession, allowing Jefferson to come open, but Cousins’ pass was batted down at the line of scrimmage by Michael Brockers.

And twice in the first half, when Okudah’s press coverage failed on shallow crossing patterns, safeties JuJu Hughes and DeShon Elliott were there to make immediate stops, limiting the gains to 11 total yards.

Jefferson didn’t catch any passes on Minnesota’s touchdown first touchdown drive, but he certainly contributed, drawing a pass-interference call at the goal line when Okudah was forced to pass the receiver off to Mike Hughes on a coverage switch. And it was Jefferson’s aforementioned motion that caused the Lions to panic and lose Thielen on his scoring route.

Later in the half, Okudah’s jam finally succeeded in his most memorable snap of the battle. The corner knocked the receiver off balance on third down and stayed glued to him for the pass breakup, forcing a punt.

In the second half, Okudah only allowed one more reception to Jefferson, after getting caught in traffic trying to track the receiver through motion. But again, JuJu Hughes was alert, crashing down to drive Jefferson out of bounds after a short gain.

Third-down dominance

When you hold an opponent to a 22.2% conversion percentage on third downs, usually it’s good enough to win the game. Obviously, not in this one, but it’s still something for Detroit to build on going forward.

That success started early with a stop on Minnesota’s first third down, third-and-10 from Detroit’s 38-yard line, a play that tested how the Lions would deal with the absence of third-down pressure machine John Cominsky.

As it turns out, it wasn’t the pass rush that came up big on the play, but the coverage, which blanketed the Vikings’ four receiving options. Cousins ultimately tried to go to his underneath read, tight end Irv. Smith Jr., but linebacker Chris Board was there to force an incompletion.

Cousins threw another incompletion on third down, ending Minnesota’s next drive. Again, the coverage was excellent, and we got our first glimpse of what would be a recurring theme in the contest — linebacker Alex Anzalone blitzing. Coming on a delayed rush when the running back stayed in on protection, Anzalone pressured Cousins into throwing it away.

Minnesota was able to convert twice on their third drive, ending in the Thielen touchdown. On the first, Cousins delivered a perfect ball in the face of pressure to Smith, who cleanly beat the coverage of linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez on a corner route for 17 yards.

The second conversion, which isn’t officially counted as one in the box score, was the pass-interference penalty on Jefferson, committed by Mike Hughes.

Another Anzalone-driven pressure, opening up a stunt lane for Aidan Hutchinson to hit Cousins, not only netted a third-down stop on Minnesota’s next possession; it arguably prevented a touchdown as Osborn had come open deep down the sideline after Mike Hughes got hung up in traffic.

Unfortunately for the Lions, the defense ended up surrendering a conversion on fourth down on a short throw to Thielen, and Okudah got beat by Thielen on another third down later in the possession, setting up the Vikings’ second touchdown.

In the second half, Minnesota failed on all four of its third-down attempts. In the third quarter, it was the aforementioned Okudah pass breakup against the Jefferson, followed by an eight-man house blitz that saw Harris quickly hit Cousins on a throwaway.

And in the final frame, a second-down sack by Anzalone put the Vikings in third-and-19, where they settled for a dump-off pass to the back before punting, while pressure from another Hutchinson stunt, aided by Anzalone, forced an errant throw later in the quarter.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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