Lions film review: Diagnosing what went wrong with the run defense

Detroit News

Allen Park — For much of the second half of the season, the Detroit Lions had been defending the run as well as any team in the NFL. And even though the Carolina Panthers had been having some real success on the ground during that same stretch, no one could have predicted the manhandling that was on tap.

Fittingly, the game was played on a Saturday, because it was reminiscent of a college football mismatch. It had the feel an SEC powerhouse pummeling a non-conference tune-up more than two relatively even-matched NFL squads.

The Panthers ran for 320 yards in the victory. It was the most in franchise history, the fourth-most by any team in the past five years, and the most allowed by the Lions since 1998. And it was accomplished without a single gain of 40-plus yards.

No, the damage was primarily done through nine explosive carries (12 or more yards), totaling 234 yards (73.1%). So there was never going to be any mystery to this week’s film review. The only thing worth reviewing is these plays and diagnosing what went wrong.

▶ First quarter, 14:55, 30 yards

From a personnel standpoint, the Panthers opened with three receivers, while the Lions’ countered with Will Harris serving as the slot cornerback in a nickel package. The Panthers’ pre-snap formation had two receivers to the boundary (short) side of the field, prior to motioning Laviska Shenault right to left.

Detroit’s second level shifted to address the motion, and with Carolina’s offensive line sliding right in unison on the snap, creating the appearance of an outside zone run, Detroit’s defensive line got drawn into matching the movement.

Initially unblocked, right defensive end Aidan Hutchinson crashed down the line and immediately conceded the backside edge. That allowed pulling tight end Ian Thomas to run by him into the second level and pick off cornerback Jeff Okudah. Meanwhile, the remaining receiver to the play side, Terrace Marshall, was able to seal Harris inside, as running back Chuba Hubbard bounced around the left edge on a counter run untouched.

Already a well-blocked play, Hubbard was able to maximize the gain thanks to safety Ifeatu Melifonwu, making his first start of the season, getting a late start on diagnosing the play and then taking a subpar angle to the ball carrier.

▶ First quarter, 13:51, 35 yards

One snap later, the Panthers executed a basic trap design to perfection.

Right guard Austin Corbett and right tackle Taylor Moton quickly feigned a double-team on defensive tackle Alim McNeil, before going around either side of him into the second level. Unblocked, McNeill proceeded into the backfield, where he was trapped by pulling left guard Brady Christensen.

In the second level, Moton was able to seal linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez outside, in part because the rookie appeared to attack the wrong gap, while Corbett was able to assist center Bradley Bozeman with keeping Isaiah Buggs pinned inside.

The entire process created a clean lane for Hubbard, taking a shotgun handoff from quarterback Sam Darnold. Once through the hole, the back angled toward the right sideline, entering a foot race with deep safety Kerby Joseph before the defender finally got the stop, 35 yards downfield.

First quarter, 8:38, 21 yards

Just like the first series, the Panthers opened their second possession with another big gain on the ground. And again, Detroit’s issues were exacerbated by a linebacker getting out of position. This time it was veteran Alex Anzalone, who had entered the afternoon playing some of the best football of his career.

The Panthers were looking for a duo run, with early double-team blocks on the Lions’ interior linemen, but the defense tried to disrupt it by having McNeill and defensive end John Cominksy crashing inside on the snap, with the linebackers and Melifonwu shifting left to backfill those gaps.

The defense broke down when Cominsky got spun around 180 degrees and was left facing away from running back D’Onta Foreman as he approached the line, while Anzalone overcommitted left, creating a cutback lane for Foreman as he breached the hole.

Again, Joseph was left to bring down the back in the open field after he came through the initial lines of defense untouched.

▶ Second quarter, 13:28, 38 yards

The Panthers were kind enough to wait until the second snap of their third possession before snapping off another explosive run.

On this carry, Carolina presented a formation with a sixth offensive lineman and a tight end, both off left tackle, and a second tight end in the left slot. The slot tight end was motioned right prior to the snap, leaving the left side open and drawing cornerback Jerry Jacobs into the box.

On the snap, the Panthers worked a pair of double-team blocks on the left side, while leaving Jacobs unblocked. The corner had a shot at Foreman behind the line, but the back cut sharply right, leaving Jacobs grasping at air.

The key blocks came on the right side, where the center Bozeman broke off his duo block and sealed a tentative Anzalone inside, and Corbett happily allowing Buggs to beat him around the outside, taking the defender upfield and out of the play.

In a tough position to make a stop, Joseph whiffed 17 yards downfield as Foreman cut back inside, gaining another 21 yards before he was caught from behind by Okudah.

▶ Second quarter, 11:02, 13 yards

The Lions have had plenty of issues defending mobile quarterbacks this season, so even though Darnold isn’t nearly as athletic as Justin Fields, Jalen Hurts or Josh Allen, the Panthers smartly tested how the defense would handle some zone-read looks in the first half. The answer: Not well.

On this one, in the red zone, Hutchinson got caught surfing too far inside defending the running back, in part because Buggs, the defensive tackle to that side, also flowed inside, widening Hutchinson’s gap responsibility.

Making the read, Darnold pulled the ball back from Hubbard and bounced around the unprotected edge. The quarterback angled back inside once beyond the reach of Hutchinson, before he was tripped up by Joseph just a few yards short of the goal line.

Second quarter, 7:55, 21 yards

The Panthers went back to the zone-read on the third play of their next drive and again found success.

Carolina used a double-team on McNeill, again widening the gap responsibilities of the edge defender, which on this play was Josh Paschal. The rookie probably could have surfed a little deeper inside to create more conflict for Darnold. Instead, the QB made the easy decision to stick with the handoff to Foreman, who had lots of green in front of him after both linebackers crashed into gaps to their right.

Looking at it closely, Moton probably got away with a hold. While working the double on McNeill, the offensive tackle’s arm hooked around the back of the defender, helping drive him inside. That’s unfortunate, but you’d still like to see the 330-pound McNeill put up more resistance, regardless of the circumstances.

Some credit goes to Melifonwu, the deep safety, who did a nice job keeping Foreman in front of him and making the open-field stop, albeit 21 yards downfield.

▶ Second quarter, 0:38, 33 yards

Late in the first half, and expecting the Panthers to be throwing to work into field-goal range, the offense took advantage of a light box.

Carolina stretched the defense out with three receivers to the left and one to the right. Respecting the Panthers’ deep threats, the Lions also deployed split safeties to provide additional downfield support.

That left Anzalone as the lone second-level defender in the box, paired with four down linemen who were fanned out wide and concentrated to the left side of the Panthers’ formation.

The decision to run Hubbard right was elementary. The back did a nice job taking the left-side handoff vertically into the line, allowing his blocking to set up, before jump-cutting to the right. Corbett wasn’t able to lock up Anzalone, but the guard got enough of the linebacker to allow Hubbard to blow past, angling toward the sideline and into the secondary, where he was eventually dropped by Joseph.

Third quarter, 12:46, 15 yards

To start the third, the Panthers went back to a heavy formation, with a sixth offensive lineman and tight end (motioned in pre-snap) off left tackle. The Lions countered with seven in the box, and had good interior gap responsibility on the inside.

Still, Foreman was able to bounce the run around the left edge, where tight end Stephen Sullivan was able to redirect and seal Melifonwu inside. With the safety blocked up, it created more space for Okudah to defend on the edge, so when he slowed his feet to meet Foreman, the cornerback was doomed.

As you might expect, Okudah ended up missing a diving tackle attempt on the 235-pound back, resulting in the 15-yard pickup.

▶ Fourth quarter, 3:41, 28 yards

The Lions were still dreaming of a comeback, despite being down 14 with under four minutes to play, and having just failed to recover an onside kick. Foreman and the Panthers snapped the visitors back to the reality of the afternoon, capping the big day on the ground with another 28-yard romp.

Running a stretch zone to the right, the play’s success benefitted from the Panthers getting away with another hold. Needing to cross the face of McNeill, rookie offensive tackle Ikem Ekwonu got both hands around the top of the defender’s shoulder pads and dragged him to the ground, using McNeill’s forward momentum against him.

That action created the cutback lane for Foreman. Anzalone should have been in position to make a stop in the second level, but showed a lack of awareness, not recognizing the handoff and following Darnold on a potential, play-action rollout to the left.

So, as with most of the long gains on the day, the Panthers’ running back got deep into the teeth of the defense without being touched. A fitting end to a disastrous day.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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