I took a careful look at the Lions' offense on Thursday, focusing on the matchup problems they can present in the passing game led by quarterback Matthew Stafford. Defensively, they also can present something new and different to the Eagles.
You would think that with this being his rookie season, Carson Wentz would have faced a ton of pressure at this point on third down, right? Seems only reasonable that defensive coordinators would look to pressure a first-year quarterback on the most important down in the game. Surprisingly, that is actually not the case. The opposite, in fact, is true. Only one quarterback in football has been blitzed less on third down than Carson Wentz, who is 2-of-4 for 29 yards with a sack, a run for 6 yards and a pass interference call downfield. That adds up to just seven dropbacks where Wentz has been blitzed which, over three games, is a very, very low number.
Well, it just so happens that the Lions employ defensive coordinator Teryl Austin. Detroit has had loads of trouble in every way imaginable in the first month of the season, the one thing that has been pretty consistent is the intent to bring pressure on third down. Only one team in the NFL has more third-and-long (which I counted as 6-plus yards) attempts on a per-game basis so far this year than the Eagles, the Cleveland Browns. It's a situation they've found themselves in often through three games. That may be a reason why the Eagles have struggled on third down as well.
What can the Eagles expect when they get to third down? First off, the Lions like to go to their dime Package in those situations, with four defensive linemen, one linebacker (typically Tahir Whitehead) and six defensive backs. Veterans Glover Quin and Rafael Bush are the safeties, Darius Slay and Nevin Lawson play outside at corner, Quandre Diggs is the nickel back and rookie Miles Killebrew comes on as the dime player. Many analysts saw Killebrew as a potential linebacker coming out of Southern Utah this spring, but he's stood pat at the safety spot so far in his career, though most of his time is spent at, or near, the line of scrimmage.
When they go to the dime package, that's when Austin likes to mix things up with his pressure packages. The Lions are a big "stunting" team up front, with looping defensive tackles and defensive ends. Third-and-long situations are also when you'll see a lot of their various blitz looks.
Shot 1 - Great 3rd down blitz concept from #Lions isolating RG. Busted protection results in a pressure by LB Tahir Whitehead @Big_Tah47 pic.twitter.com/PpGsCoZY7b — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 7, 2016
This is Week 1 against the Indianapolis Colts, and on third down the Lions come out in an exotic look out of their nickel subpackage. The key feature in this look? Defensive end Ziggy Ansah standing up as a Joker stacked in the box. A look like this muddies the protection calls for the Colts, and they're not in great position to block up this pressure. It's a basic Cross Dog blitz, with Ansah and Whitehead attacking the Colts' right guard. This is a really great blitz because you have a defensive tackle lined up directly over the center, taking him out of the equation. You have a defensive end lined up over the right tackle, occupying him as well. That leaves the guard and running back to block these two blitzers in the middle, and they bust, allowing Whitehead to come clean and force the quarterback into an errant throw.
Shot 2 - Same blitz concept 2 weeks later, different players on the field. Coverage doesn't hold up as well and pressure fails to get home pic.twitter.com/9e0I2C4zE9 — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 7, 2016
A couple of weeks later against Green Bay in Week 3, it's third down and you get the same exact pressure, just with different personnel. Instead of Ansah, who got hurt in the Colts game with a high-ankle sprain, you have Kerry Hyder, one of the league leaders with five sacks in four games. Hyder may be productive, but he isn't the type of athlete that Ansah is. His lack of explosiveness paired with a poor angle give quarterback Aaron Rodgers enough time to find an open receiver for a first down. The Lions ran the same blitz earlier in the game down in the red zone and allowed a touchdown, so this look with three down linemen and two blitzers standing up over the ball is something that you can expect to see on Sunday afternoon. It's not the only pressure scheme, however, the Lions use on third down with two rushers up the middle of the protection.
This is a play from Week 2 against Tennessee. The Lions come out in a classic Double A-Gap look with a wide defensive front with four down linemen expanded and two linebackers "mugged" over the center in the middle - essentially a six-man front. With the offensive linemen and running back in to protect, that makes it a six-on-six battle in pass pro, so mathematically, the Lions are OK.
There are typically two ways that offenses can protect this Double A-Gap look. Either you have the running back block one of the mugged linebackers over the ball (with the center blocking the other), or you have the running back block the defender coming off the edge closest to him. Those are the two most common ways to block it up, which is fairly simple, but these looks still put a lot of pressure on offenses to perform and execute, something the Titans don't do on this play.
The center and running back are responsible for the two linebackers, but watch the Tennessee left guard. He tries to help out his center by blocking down on one of those linebackers before diverting back to the defensive tackle, his assignment on the play. He fails to get there in time. Defensive tackle Haloti Ngata plunges into the backfield to help take down quarterback Marcus Mariota. A simple protection scheme goes awry with one mental error, but that's because of the pressure scheme. I also noticed that the Lions actually dropped one of those linebackers over the center, as he flew right into the passing lane that Mariota was looking at on this play, forcing the quarterback to hold the football longer than he would've liked before being taken down.
On the previous play, the Lions showed a six-man front but only sent five. Here against the Packers, they show a six-man look and send all six. This is a straight Cover 0 blitz from the Lions, something they do a LOT down in the red zone. The Packers block this up the same way the Titans did, and actually execute the protection well. Instead of just a straight rush, this is actually a form of that same Cross Dog we looked at in the first two plays, just from a different look. Whitehead is the penetrator here on this blitz, assigned to take away the center and (hopefully) the running back by design. Kyle Van Noy (No. 53) is the "looper," and is asked to loop around Whitehead's rush into the gap that should take him right to Rodgers. The blitz works, as a free rusher is right in Rodgers' face as he throws an incomplete pass.
Cover 0 blitzes (all-out blitzes with no safety in the middle of the field) are a big part of what the Lions do down in the red zone, and that was especially the case against the Packers in Week 3. Here, there's no sugar coating what Austin is trying to do, as he "blitzes the formation" here with seven defenders rushing against six blockers. Someone is going to get free, and Rodgers is forced to throw this ball into the back corner for an incomplete pass. The Lions were pretty up front about their intentions on that play, but they do their share of disguising on third down as well.
Shot 6 - Great overload pressure on 3rd down from the #Lions last week. Cut protection half, creates a 3-on-2 scenario. Slay gets in clean pic.twitter.com/gxQZtzVPrY — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 7, 2016
This is an overload pressure on third down last week against Chicago. The Lions show the potential for a five-man pressure with Whitehead coming from the right, but they instead drop out two defenders from that side and bring two extra defenders from the left. With the 3-technique, Ngata, occupying the right guard of the Bears, it essentially becomes a three on two for Detroit. The right tackle and running back can't block all three rushers, and cornerback Darius Slay comes free off the edge for a sack.
So what does this all mean?
The Eagles' offense will need to be in order when they reach third down to be prepared for the various looks they are going to see. I'm not trying to sell you that this Lions team is the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, they obviously have struggled in every phase of the game. They rank 23rd against the run, 21st against the pass, 25th in points, 30th in the red zone, 32nd in opposing passer rating and 20th in points for a reason.
But whether it's the Cross Dog with a defensive end standing up over the ball, two "mugged" linebackers, Cover 0 blitzes or overload pressures, the Lions will challenge Wentz on Sunday on third-and-long. Wentz has been very effective so far against the blitz, but he hasn't seen a team yet that will bring the heat as often in those situations, making this a new test for the rookie.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.