Lions vs. Buccaneers: What I learned from film study of Detroit’s playoff win

USA Today

Fresh off the first Detroit Lions postseason victory since the 1991 season, the team decided that one win wasn’t enough. The Lions beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-23, in Ford Field in Sunday’s NFC Divisional Round matchup to advance to the NFC Championship in San Francisco.

Just like the win over the Rams a week earlier, this was a stressful game decided in the fourth quarter. The first three quarters all ended with the score tied. The tension of such a closely-played, high-stakes contest shone through even on the silent All-22 game film.

This week’s film rewatch of the game, both of the broadcast feed and the All-22, revealed a lot about the Lions and where they win and lose games. Here’s some of what I took away from the rewatch.

Jared Goff was even better than I first thought

The box score for Lions QB Jared Goff was a strong one:

30-of-43, 287 yards, 2 TDs, no INTs, 103.5 QB Rating, sacked twice

Box score scouting is perilous, of course. Even in a game with a good line, Goff was better than the stats might indicate.

The first play of the game was one of Goff’s worst. The Buccaneers smartly read the play designed to get TE Sam LaPorta the ball on a quick curl. Goff then wildly overthrew David Montgomery to the left. He missed seeing TE Brock Wright completely uncovered to the right. Goff avoided the negative play well–the Bucs were clearly hoping he’d target LaPorta–but he could have had more.

After that, his decision-making with the ball was almost perfect.  The Buccaneers like to present a look pre-snap and then mix it up once the play starts. Goff handled that beautifully. He was late and threw off his back foot on the end zone throw that Bucs CB Jamel Dean should have picked off, getting lucky on his biggest mistake.

One of the things I’ve come to really appreciate about Goff over the last 25 or so games is his ability to avoid disaster. There were a couple of instances in this game where he had no real good options on pass plays. Goff did a nice job of giving his receiver (Josh Reynolds on one, Sam LaPorta on the other) a small chance of making a play, but the defender has zero chance of making a play. It’s a throwaway in effect, but Goff also leaves just a glimmer of hope for his target to make a great play.

Yet for all the money throws, like the TD strike to Reynolds or deft touch on the (fantastic) backside release to Brock Wright, perhaps my favorite play was Goff’s 7-yard scramble. It wasn’t aesthetically pleasant, and his awkward slide had me fearing for a second that he blew out a leg joint. It was also critically important both in this game and going forward.

Football is a game of give and take. The defense can’t stop everything; they have to pick what to focus on and what to concede. All season long, opposing defenses have conceded wide running lanes for Goff to exploit on a scramble. And all season long, Goff has ignored it. The fact he actually took off plants a seed, putting on film something new for the defense to worry about when facing the Lions offense.

Obviously, that’s overselling the threat of Goff as a runner, but the underlying point could be just enough to give LaPorta a little more room to get open behind a linebacker on a 3rd-and-7 or hold the defensive end from completely abandoning containment and slow his upfield arc just a tad. Goff’s vision, the Lions weapons and Ben Johnson’s play scheme can take advantage of that.

Aaron Glenn is at his best when scheming pressures

The Lions pass coverage on the outside was once again a major struggle. We’ll get to that in a bit. However, against Tampa Bay I thought Lions DC Aaron Glenn did a very good job in mitigating the team’s biggest deficiency–lack of talent at outside CB.

When you can’t cover on the outside and know you can’t cover on the outside, the best remedy is to bring pressure. Glenn certainly did that with some impressively designed, well-executed pressure packages that impacted Baker Mayfield and the Buccaneers.

Take this one from the first quarter.

Safety Ifeatu Melifonwu is highlighted pre-snap playing as a box backer. He’s the guy (spoiler alert) who gets the sack, though you’d never know he’s blitzing. More to the point, the Bucs don’t know.

The Bucs motion across, with Melifonwu stwpping out into the slot. Linebacker Jack Campbell slides over to his old spot, giving the perception of a base nickel in man coverage, which had been the standard defense against this personnel group. The Bucs make no blocking adjustment or protection alert. Fly, meet trap…

Melifonwu explodes on the slot blitz. Campbell sprints into coverage pickup on the slot. Mayfield senses the pressure and looks to his hot read to his left, but the Lions rolled up tight to make that option unappealing.

Aidan Hutchison wins his battle and also gets pressure from the same side as Melifonwu. That prevents Mayfield from seeing the shallow cross that is uncovered. It’s critical for Melifonwu to make the play, and he does; if he and Hutchinson don’t finish off the pressure, Mayfield has an easy throw for a massive gain.

Every Lions player sold this well and executed. They did the same on Brian Branch’s sack later in the game. Glenn’s blitz scheme relies on good spacing, pre-snap coordination and concealment of intentions. The defense pulled that off very well against Tampa Bay.

Tackling is becoming a bigger problem for the Lions defense

With all the (rightful) consternation about the downfield coverage struggles, one area where the defense continues to decline is tackling. The Buccaneers game was the latest in a downward slope of tackling.

This game saw Rachaad White, who averages a paltry 3.6 YPC, rush for 55 yards on nine carries against what’s been a great Lions run defense. Missed tackles and tackling opportunities created almost all of those yards.

It’s the missed opportunities that stood out on film. Sure, missing a tackle like Melifonwu did when he failed to sink his weight after getting an initial wrap, or Alex Anzalone falling off a tackle attempt is not good. But being the player who should be in position to make the play and not being there is worse. Rookie LB Jack Campbell had three instances on White’s nine carries where he should have been there to make the play but wasn’t. The path to the point of attack from both Campbell and Anzlaone was not optimal in this game.

Tackling has been a growing issue. PFF tackling grades are not always a gold standard of metrics, but the Lions have five of their eight lowest game tackling grades in the last five weeks. That’s backed up by the eye test and film study. The defensive line isn’t doing as diligent of a job in inhibiting blockers from getting out to the second level or shedding and finishing. In this game, Romeo Okwara, Aidan Hutchinson and especially John Cominsky really struggled in those facets. Cominsky had a really rough one when matched up against Bucs left tackle Tristan Wirfs, who had a great game. Wirfs is one of the league’s best, but it was hard to see the Lions not adapt to the Bucs attack.

At this time of the season, practicing tackling with actual contact simply isn’t going to happen. It shows.

Quick hits

–Jonah Jackson’s injury really hurt the interior pass protection. It’s a shame because No. 73 played his best game in weeks before going down with the knee injury, notably at sustaining blocks in pass protection.

–Give credit to the defensive coaching staff for applying film study of the Buccaneers offense. It manifested on Derrick Barnes’ game-sealing INT, but the defense seldom got tricked or beaten by misreading the play.

–Kerby Joseph played arguably his best game in single-high safety coverage. He anticipated routes and assignments better than he had in recent weeks.

–It can be tough to focus on route-running when the receiver isn’t targeted, but once again I see progress in attention to detail from Jameson Williams on shorter routes and also working back to Goff. He’s growing his game every week even if the stat sheet doesn’t always show it.

–On the end-of-game clock management: it was clear from the Bucs players that they knew the game was over and conceded. Much ado about very little…

–Melifonwu absolutely got away with one in defending Mike Evans on the end zone fade route. He got away with it because Evans didn’t stop or make a play back to the ball. However, it spotlights the ongoing issue of Lions DBs doing a poor job of playing, or even recognizing, the ball in the air. It’s weird that CB coach Dre Bly was exceptional at that during his playing days but it clearly hasn’t rubbed off on his players.

–I want more Jalen Reeves-Maybin in the game at linebacker. Once again, his nose for the ball and closing speed to the point of attack shone.

–The TE release crosser by Brock Wright was picture-perfect. His slow-motion move in the open field was not only beautiful but also really important. It set up the Craig Reynolds TD run, which was the most critical offensive play of the second half for Detroit.

–I thought the officials did a good job calling a consistent game that let the players control the game. They missed a few calls, as is inevitable and part of the game. Good job overall, however. Don’t get to say that very often…

–Chase Lucas had a phenomenal game as the gunner on coverage units. Will Harris also did a great job, notably on the return where he made a tackle. Would have been easy for him to give up his outside contain based on the start of the return but Harris stayed disciplined and made a play.

–Left tackle Taylor Decker in pass protection vs. Bucs EDGE Joe Tryon-Shoyinka: 10 pass rush attempts, 0 pressures allowed by Decker. I’m not privy to the determination of what analytics considers “wins” versus just stalemates, but I would’ve had Decker with nine wins in 10 attempts. No. 68 played a fantastic game.

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