Lions film review: Evaluating coverage breakdowns and reason for fourth-down deep shot

Detroit News

Allen Park — It was hardly going out on a limb to predict the Detroit Lions’ defense would struggle to defend the talented and speed-loaded Miami Dolphins’ offense. And that’s exactly what happened Sunday, as Dolphins receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle had a field day, racking up 20 catches for nearly 300 yards in a 31-27 victory.

After the contest, Lions coach Dan Campbell lamented his team’s inability to execute its game plan to be more physical with Hill and Waddle at the line of scrimmage, and the next day the team fired defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant.

Given the results and the unfortunate aftermath, it makes sense to focus on what went wrong with Detroit’s coverage plan and execution. We’ll be focusing on the 13 plays where Miami’s two standout receivers either converted a third or fourth down, registered a gain of 15-plus yards or scored a touchdown.

And after we dissect those defensive shortcomings, we’re going to briefly bounce over to the offense to get a better understanding of why quarterback Jared Goff was compelled to take the deep throw on the failed fourth-and-2 play late in the game.

But first, let’s focus on Hill and Waddle’s impact.

▶ Fourth-and-4, 8:53, first quarter

No team utilizes motion before the snap more than the Dolphins, and on this play, they shifted tight end Mike Gesicki from a tight alignment to wide left, drawing out inside linebacker Alex Anzalone and leaving the middle of the field soft.

Perhaps alerted to something the team had studied on film from this formation, nickel cornerback A.J. Parker made a concentrated effort to take away a shallow crossing pattern, opening his hips to the sideline at the snap while in man coverage on Waddle. Instead of running the crosser, the slot receiver was able to take advantage of Parker’s leverage, getting easy separation on an out pattern, breaking toward the sideline for a 9-yard gain and conversion.

▶ First-and-10, 5:32, first quarter

The Lions played plenty of Cover-3, trying to counter the Dolphins’ speed on the outside, but the opposition found a way to consistently take advantage of this defensive look by utilizing play-action. The fake to the running back would initially suck in the shallow layer of the zone, and with the deep trio on their heels, fearful of getting beat over the top, Hill and Waddle found plenty of room to operate between the zone layers.

Despite the outside corners playing just 8 yards off at the snap, the deep threat forced them to drop to 25 yards as the play developed, while the linebackers scrambled to get to a 10-yard drop after initially coming forward. Within that gulf, Hill found space near the right sideline for a pickup of 24 yards.

▶ Third-and-13, 3:37, first quarter

A favorable situation for the defense can quickly turn into a nightmare if you let Hill run free. The Lions gave the Dolphins plenty of respect pre-snap, lining up the two corners and two safeties with even spacing at a 12-yard depth, and the Cover-4 coverage was confirmed by the defensive backs eyeing the quarterback and not the receivers out of the 2×2 formation at the snap.

Blitzing, and leaving no underneath help, the Lions were asking the four defensive backs to be prepared to come forward and make a stop on a throw short of the sticks, but also not let anything get behind them. How those responsibilities impacted Parker’s ability to process is impossible to say, but the young cornerback didn’t move until Hill had eaten up 9 yards of the 12-yard cushion on a vertical route. By the time the two were parallel, Hill was at top speed and blowing past the coverage.

Parker was actually bailed out by an underthrown pass, but he was too far out of phase to turn and locate the ball and did a poor job playing Hill’s body language, making minimal effort to play through the hands of the receiver to potentially break the pass up. The result was a 36-yard gain.

▶ First-and-goal, 0:55, first quarter

Racing to the line out of the huddle, the Dolphins stressed the defense to match ahead of a quick snap. Frankly, the Lions did well and even navigated a coverage switch as Waddle sliced underneath out of trips to the right on a crossing pattern.

Safety JuJu Hughes was the inside man in coverage and picked up Waddle, but only after taking a false step toward the middle receiving option. One wrong move working against that kind of speed is more than enough, as Waddle accelerated through the end zone for the easy touchdown.

It’s unclear what Anzalone’s assignment was to the side of the score, but the linebacker opted to double Jeff Okudah’s assignment at the goal line. Had the linebacker maintained more depth on his zone drop, he might have had a chance to affect the throw to Waddle.

▶ First-and-10, 13:46, second quarter

While it’s a little unclear, it appears the Lions are in a Cover-2 zone on this snap, where a play-fake to the running back once again draws the attention of Detroit’s underneath defenders.

The Dolphins run a pair of vertical routes, forcing the two deep defenders to match up. Safety Kerby Joseph does a decent job funneling to Waddle, although the rookie defender’s footwork is a mess. But the ball goes to Hill, who runs vertically for 20 yards before angling toward the middle of the field.

Cornerback Amani Oruwariye, the second deep man, shows poor spatial awareness and doesn’t match Hill’s movement, staying close to the numbers and conceding space on the deep throw that nets the Dolphins 42 yards. Had it not been underthrown, we would be talking about a 75-yard touchdown.

▶  Third-and-6, 11:35, second quarter

Detroit is either playing Cover-2 or Cover-1 with a robber. It’s not entirely clear just by watching Joseph’s movements to understand the safety’s assignment. Regardless, Parker is left without help over the top while defending Waddle out of the left slot.

Playing relatively tight before the snap, Parker tries to mirror the route with his feet, never using his hands to try and slow the receiver. When Waddle hits a stutter-step in the early moments of the play, the nickel back simply doesn’t have the speed to recover on what develops into a wheel route, getting beat for a 29-yard touchdown.

▶ Third-and-6, 4:42, second quarter

As the Lions often do on third down, they sent a blitz to pressure the quarterback. In this instance, it’s Parker on the rush, leaving Waddle uncovered while the team is playing man coverage on the outside.

The receiver runs into open space across the middle, behind where linebacker Chris Board is too shallow on his zone drop from his pre-snap alignment at the line of scrimmage. It’s not a big gain, but the 13 yards are easily enough to earn a fresh set of downs.

▶ First-and-10, 4:00, second quarter

On the play after the conversion, the Dolphins again attack between the layers of Detroit’s Cover-3, utilizing play-action to increase the spacing for Hill, who gains another 18.

▶ Second-and-5, 13:44, third quarter

Wash, rinse, repeat. Play-action, Cover-3, Hill gets between the layers. On this snap, Hill’s rapid acceleration off the line has Oruwariye aggressively backing up, allowing the receiver to slam on the brakes at a depth of 17 yards for the grab.

▶ First-and-10, 5:16, third quarter

Similar, but slightly different. Again, the Lions are in Cover-3 and the Dolphins run a play-action, but this time roll quarterback Tua Tagovailoa out of the pocket. There are only two routes on the play. Trent Sherfield runs a wheel to the left, occupying the attention of Oruwariye, responsible for the deep third to that side. Meanwhile, Waddle runs an intermediate crossing pattern, from right to left, designed to take advantage of the vacated area created by Sherfield’s route.

Anzalone does a nice job dropping into his zone, minimally affected by the play fake to the back. The same can’t be said for Will Harris, responsible for the zone between Anzalone and the sideline. Because of Anzalone’s positioning, Tagovailoa has to hold on to it for a fraction of a second longer, allowing Waddle to clear that zone into where Harris was supposed to be, gaining 16 yards on the throw.

▶ Second-and-12, 10:44, fourth quarter

In a rare man-coverage blunder, at least for this matchup, Harris gets his eyes locked onto Sherfield while following the receiver in motion across the formation and collides with Okudah. He manages to maintain his balance through the contact, but the pick is enough for Waddle to gain separation on a post pattern, where the middle of the field has been vacated by Detroit’s split safeties backpedaling to keep everything in front of them.

▶ First-and-10, 2:00, fourth quarter

While this might initially look like Julian Okwara is in man coverage on Hill, a closer look reveals it to be Cover-3 where the edge rusher is scrambling to defend Hill in the flat out of motion, only for the receiver to turn upfield on a wheel route.

With a lot of traffic to that side, Okudah is late to recognize Hill on the wheel, so the throw sails over the cornerback’s outstretched arm for a 19-yard gain.

▶  Third-and-8, 1:47, fourth quarter

Finally, an attempt to jam Hill at the line of scrimmage, but Harris’ effort fails. That whiff only adds to the separation the receiver is able to get on his crossing pattern, and with linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez drawn forward to defend a play fake, Tagovailoa is able to stop to his right and deliver a subpar ball that’s still enough to get the first down. That conversion allows the Dolphins to end the game by taking three straight knees.

Why go deep?

Before the Dolphins ran out the clock on the Lions’ hopes, Goff had the offense in position to take the lead late in the fourth quarter.

Following an 11-yard completion to tight end T.J. Hockenson, Detroit faced fourth-and-1 from Miami’s 35-yard line with 2:59 remaining. On the play, the quarterback targeted Josh Reynolds deep, misfiring on the pass that fell harmlessly to the turf, giving the ball back to the opposition.

But why go deep when you need just a single yard? I asked both Campbell and Goff after the game, with the coach saying the play had short and deep answers to what the defense showed and Goff stating Reynolds was his only option in response to the defensive look.

The Lions came out with two receivers to the right side of the formation: Kalif Raymond wide left, Hockenson off left tackle and running back D’Andre Swift offset to Goff’s right, with the QB in shotgun. The Dolphins countered by initially showing an all-out blitz before dropping a safety back to Raymond’s side, providing a bracket on the receiver who had already beaten the Dolphins deep twice in the game.

Miami ended up rushing just four, but the threat of a blitz held Hockenson and Swift in to protect. Goff focused his attention to his right, away from the bracketed look on Raymond. St. Brown was the initial read, but cornerback Xavien Howard locked him up with a physical jam, forcing Goff to progress to his next read. At this point, his options are to take the shot to Reynolds, one-on-one against a rookie cornerback, with the receiver holding five-inch height advantage, or scan back across the field and hope Raymond has found some open space.

Reynolds is obviously the right answer, within the play’s design. And even though Goff took blame for a bad throw, you can understand the placement a little better when you consider the receiver had inside leverage early before trying to work back toward the sideline on a corner pattern. Essentially, the QB tried to adjust in real-time, but the receiver stuck to the pre-snap plan.

While the execution wasn’t ideal, not having a secondary short option for Goff, in this case Swift, was particularly troubling and forced the quarterback to rely on an accurate deep throw against tight coverage, a clear weakness with his overall skill set.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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