Lions notes: Exploring shifting backfield and coverage tendencies

Detroit News

Allen Park — The Detroit Lions finally got D’Andre Swift back on the field last week, but within reincorporating the dual-threat running into the lineup, the team revealed some tendencies they’ll need to be wary of repeating going forward.

Swift, who the team admitted was still battling lingering issues with the shoulder and ankle injuries that kept him out of the lineup the previous month, led the backfield with 33 snaps. But the majority of those came in passing situations, with Swift running a route or pass blocking on 27 occasions. And on the select times he took a handoff, he wasn’t pushing his luck with his injured shoulder running between the tackles.

Meanwhile, when Jamaal Williams was in the lineup, last Sunday’s opponent, the Miami Dolphins, altered their approach, stacking the box with eight or more defenders on 60% of the back’s carries. It marked the highest rate of stacked boxes Williams has faced this season.

With Swift out of the lineup the previous three games, the Lions weren’t sure how teams might approach defending the tandem, but after showing Swift’s limitations, future opponents could look to do something similar, stacking the box against Williams, while focusing on defending the pass when Swift takes the field.

That’s an issue offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is aware of coming out of the Miami game and something he’ll be looking to adjust and taking advantage of going forward.

“There were a couple, 2½ games or so, that were (film) on him and we didn’t feel like we had developed many tendencies, but now that we’re back, we’re getting him back, could see how they would come up just a little bit,” Johnson said. “So, it’s something we’re aware of and we’re looking to use that to our advantage in several ways.”

Coverage changes

Coming out of the bye, the Lions made several defensive changes in an effort to get that unit on track. And while much of the focus was up front, particularly with the usage of rookie defensive end Aidan Hutchinson, arguably the more significant alterations have come in the secondary.

Heading into the bye, the Lions were playing man-to-man as much as anyone in the league, but in the two games since, they’ll played those schemes on 22.6% and 21.4% of their coverage snaps, making them one of the more zone-heavy teams during that stretch.

Lacking an obvious identity at this stage in the season, defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said he wants his group to be comfortable playing either man or zone to match the upcoming opponent, all while maximizing the skill set of the roster.

“You have to look at who you have and be able to design something that helps benefit those guys,” Glenn said. “…Each week, man, we have to design a plan that’s going to give us the best chance to win. So, when you talk about identity it’s who do you have? And what fits them best? And that’s what we do every week.”

It’s a fake

With a successful fake punt against the Dolphins on Sunday, the Lions are now 5-for-6 in those situations during the two seasons special teams coordinator Dave Fipp has been in his role.

At this point, you’d think opponents would be on high alert for a fake when playing the Lions, which makes the success rate all the more impressive. Fipp said it’s because of the emphasis put on special teams in practice and the players’ ability to execute the calls.

“I would say, ultimately, it comes down to those guys executing,” Fipp said. “They do a great job of it. The head coach makes it important. He puts a bunch of time into it. He watches a lot of film on all that stuff, and those guys did a great job of executing it.”

So far, the team has converted on three-of-four pass plays, with punter Jack Fox making all the throws. The other two have come on direct snaps to safety C.J. Moore. As part of each fake, the team goes to the line of scrimmage with two calls, looking for specific keys in the defensive alignment, ensuring the likelihood a fake will work. And if they don’t get those looks, the team is always prepared to punt the ball away.

“There’s been plenty more that just haven’t gotten off the ground because we haven’t gotten the look,” Fipp said. “It’s been good, the guys enjoyed doing it, and they’ve done a good job of executing it. I would say we’ve also got to be smart about it and not get carried away, make sure it’s a play that works for us and doesn’t backfire.”

Injury update

After being limited during Wednesday’s practice, wide receiver Josh Reynolds was held out of Thursday’s session with a back injury. That puts his status for Sunday’s game against Green Bay in doubt.

Also sitting out for the Lions were cornerbacks AJ Parker (hip) and Chase Lucas (ankle), safety Ifeatu Melifonwu (ankle) and offensive tackle Penei Sewell (personal).

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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