Sack-by-sack breakdown of Lions' Week 7 O-line disaster
Things did not go well for the Detroit Lions offense against Mike Zimmer’s Minnesota Vikings defense on Sunday. They went so poorly, in fact, that three people lost their jobs at the end of the game when the autopsy of the performance was complete.
The Vikings sacked Matthew Stafford seven times in the matchup, which is bad in itself as a statistic; what is even more shocking is the fact that only one of those sacks is currently charged to anybody, and the guy who should have picked it up is a running back.
What we saw was an institutional breakdown at almost every level. The Lions were outcoached and outsmarted by Mike Zimmer’s defense throughout the entire game. All seven sacks featured a blitz of some kind, and we saw the Lions consistently unable to get into the right protection, or unwilling and unable to change their protections at all.
The first sack didn’t come until early in the second quarter, but the warning signs had been there earlier in the game. Stafford had been knocked down on the first play the Lions ran as Tom Johnson came through the middle of the line, and had been pressured later in the first period before the flood gates opened with the first sack.
Let’s take a look at each sack, one by one, and examine what went wrong—and where the blame lies. Believe me, there is plenty to go around.
Sack 1: Chad Greenway
Second quarter, 10:10 remaining
This sack was about as simple as it gets when it comes to misdirection with the blitz. The Vikings had four down linemen that rushed, and OLB Anthony Barr was showing blitz on the left of the Detroit line. Even with TE Eric Ebron only chipping, the Lions were keeping six men in to pass block, but to pick up Barr, they called for the entire line to slide left. That allowed them to pick up Barr—but the Vikings were bringing six themselves, because OLB Chad Greenway is also coming from the other side of the line. Detroit was only budgeting here for the five rushers marked in green, but because of the complete slide to the left, they haven’t accounted for Greenway, and so he ends up with an unblocked run to the quarterback—despite the Lions actually having the six bodies needed to pick up the rushers Minnesota sent.
This is the first of multiple plays in which Minnesota was able to get home without bringing any more bodies than the Lions kept in to pass-block.
Sack 2: Everson Griffen
Second quarter, 6:29 remaining
This next sack is one of the most telling from the game. It’s a protection scheme you’ll find across the NFL, and one I’ve never been wild about, for precisely this reason. Instead of a regular pass-blocking set that we saw in the play above—where everybody essentially drops back from the line of scrimmage, fanning out to form a pocket around the quarterback—this protection fakes a run play, and then one player peels back to pick up the player that would be unblocked on the run.
Call it outside zone protection, influence protection, or whatever term you like, the idea of this is to make the front seven of the defense read run and go after the running back by showing them the same keys they would have on a run play, instead of simply a ball fake. The center on this play is supposed to chip the nose tackle (to give the left guard a chance to work across to him as the entire line moves right on the outside zone/stretch fake), and then peel back to his left to wall off the defensive end that should be working his way down the line to run down the back and cut off any cutback lane. The problem here is, the Vikings never bought it for a second.
Whether from tape study, instinct, pure aggression, or the fact that the Lions chose to run it on 2nd-and-10—a passing down to today’s NFL—Everson Griffen just ran in a straight, unblocked line to the quarterback. The center, Travis Swanson doesn’t get a great chip on Linval Joseph, who is steaming through that gap once vacated, but he never has any hope of getting to Griffen on his peel back block, because Griffen isn’t fooled by the run fake at all. This was an ugly play call that risks this kind of disastrous outcome.
Sack 3: Harrison Smith
Second quarter, 1:36 remaining
By this point in the game, the Vikings had their swag on, and were getting creative. On 2nd-and-10, they stack the line, showing six guys looking to rush. Detroit only have five linemen and a running back in to protect, so calling the correct protection is crucial; and even with it, Matthew Stafford must be aware of the possibility that he will need to throw hot off the unblocked rush. Captain Munnerlyn drops out early before the snap, perhaps giving Stafford a false sense of security that he was only looking at five rushers. How they deployed, though, is what does Detroit in on the play.
Everson Griffen and Anthony Barr drop out into coverage (two of the three rushers that were threatening the left of the Detroit line), while Eric Kendricks and Harrison Smith blitz on the other side, which now finds itself overloaded. Smith’s disguise, in particular, was very good, looking like he was lining up to cover the TE in the slot before blitzing, and the FS rolling down to pick up the now uncovered TE.
The Lions picked up three of the four rushers to that side, but the only player that has a chance of getting the last one—RB Theo Riddick—has been fooled badly by Barr dropping out of the A-gap, and now finds himself lost in the middle of no-man’s land. The key part of this play is that Griffen and Barr both shot straight to cut off any potential hot route to the slot receivers, leaving Stafford with nowhere to go on the play. This was a very impressive and creative blitz from Minnesota, and not one I think you can even be too hard on the Lions for.
Sack 4: Eric Kendricks
Third quarter, 6:07 remaining
This is the second sack in which the Lions try to protect by faking an entire run play, and it goes horribly wrong. Again, they faked an outside zone play, this time to the left, but instead of expecting the center to peel back and take the unblocked man, the fullback needs to pick it up and leave Stafford rolling out into rushers that will be chasing him down, still leaving him just enough time to hit TE Eric Ebron after he releases. You see this kind of play each week in the NFL, and in this case, it’s going to be tougher than usual, whatever happens, because the Vikings are running a blitz right into it. On top of that, once again, the execution is off.
The fullback instead comes all the way out to take the edge man after Ebron releases; that leaves two unblocked players coming right at Stafford. He shakes the first, one but can’t get any further than right into the arms of Kendricks. Had the fullback picked up the first man, this play had a chance, but when he leaves him unblocked, it’s dead.
This is reaching the point in the game where the Lions need to be asking themselves why they’re still running protections like this, because so far, they have failed spectacularly.
Sack 5: Anthony Barr
Third quarter, 4:51 remaining
Again, the Vikings scheme an overload on the blitz. Pre-snap, they show double A-gap pressure, with LBs Eric Kendricks and Anthony Barr lined up as if to blitz. Harrison Smith is also down at the line showing rush, so the Lions are looking at seven coming. They do have seven blockers to pick it up, with a TE and RB both staying at home; but again, it is how the Vikings deploy their rush that undoes the protection.
Harrison Smith drops out, but Captain Munnerlyn comes from the slot on the other side of the line, immediately changing the numbers game and causing an overload to that side, as the Lions slide away from it. It’s made even worse by the fact that Barr doesn’t come from the A-gap he was threatening, but instead, loops around to the C-gap outside of the TE. Ebron can’t block Griffen one-on-one, so there is near immediate pressure—but Riddick actually picks up Munnerlyn. That still leaves an unblocked Barr, who simply outflanked the protection with his rush. This is another example of the blitz defeating the Detroit protection, despite an equal number of rushers and blockers.
Sack 6: Eric Kendricks
Fourth quarter, 12:35 remaining
This might be my favorite dumpster fire from the day. The Vikings, again, are a little bit creative, but honestly it doesn’t matter, because what kills Detroit is exactly what they were shown to begin with. Both Barr and Kendricks are again threatening the A-gaps, and the way the Lions line up, they can’t pick up both of them with the protection they have called.
If you can’t pick up both linebackers threatening the A-gaps, the one thing you cannot do is turn your back on them and run play-action. Even if you’re actually running the ball, you’re just gifting one of those linebackers a tackle-for-a-loss on the play. This is the first of the sacks that was doomed before the ball was even snapped. It legitimately looks like Stafford knows it, too, and is actually just trying to outrun the linebacker he knows is chasing him down as he runs back from the line of scrimmage. He doesn’t manage it, and Kendricks gets the easiest sack of his life.
This is the play that raises the biggest question marks to me. Either Stafford isn’t allowed to change anything at the line, which you would think may change after the Lions fired their offensive coordinator following this game, or he is, and didn’t do it here. Even if he isn’t permitted to change things (which seems the more logical of those two options), he has to call a timeout to talk things over and try and get in a different play, rather than take this sack. This was fundamentally bad football from the Lions, and the Vikings just took the free play. This is the kind of play that causes serious meetings after the game.
Sack 7: Tom Johnson
Fourth quarter, 7:56 remaining
The final sack of the day was like the follow-up blow to a boxer that’s already falling to the canvas, out cold after a flurry of knockout punches. The Vikings again crowded the line (you may have picked up on this theme) and showed seven rushers, with the Lions keeping in seven to match, but only actually rushed four.
What is most spectacular about the play is that three of those four guys got home, and one of them was left almost entirely unblocked—the guy who ultimately notched the sack, Tom Johnson.
It looked, at first glance, like the Lions were sliding their protection to the right—away from the overload the Vikings were showing—but in fact, it looks more like the entire play is a rollout to that side, which is torpedoed by Danielle Hunter just destroying the right side of the Lions’ line. Stafford drops back trying to buy space, which only makes his situation worse, allowing Munnerlyn to beat Ebron around the edge, and Johnson to come from the backside entirely unblocked and clean things up.
What initially looked like Detroit trying to second-guess Minnesota’s blitzes wasn’t actually the Lions trying to outthink themselves when it came to their protection, but rather, them just not thinking at all. They changed nothing to adjust to what the Vikings were showing them, again suggesting that Stafford simply doesn’t have the permission to do so—or didn’t under Joe Lombardi’s rule.
NFL quarterbacks have to be able to run the show once they are out on the field. If they are dealing with somebody else’s play calls, they need to have the ability to change protections, adjust calls and audible out of them when necessary. If they don’t, a good defensive coach will simply find what they can’t do and exploit it with something they cannot counter. The Vikings did that in this game, and pummeled until the Lions were out.
Stafford has now been pressured on 38.8 percent of his dropbacks this season, or 112 passing snaps across seven games, and while it’s easy to point to the offensive line as a problem—and it has certainly been far from good—looking only at the sacks from the Minnesota game shows a far deeper institutional failing that ultimately cost three coaches their jobs.
All the Lions can hope for now is that a new set of coaches brings a new set of responsibilities, and the ability for Matthew Stafford to actually aid in his own protection.