Everything was pointing up, coming into this game. The Detroit Lions’ defense, once a laughingstock in the NFL, was ranked among the top 10 in yards and points allowed. They’d been taking care of business, making life difficult for opposing offenses and looking like a much-improved unit.
Then, well, they were humbled by the Baltimore Ravens in a 38-6 loss.
“Our detail and discipline, which has been so good over the last four or five weeks, was not good enough,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said after the game. “So, (it was) self-induced. That was a combination of a lot of different things. Just like as we win as a team, we lose as a team, and that was one of those.”
Campbell’s not wrong. Much of the Lions’ problems were self-induced, and it was more than one area. It led to 38 points allowed, 503 yards allowed and, most likely, a quiet plane ride back to Detroit.
Let’s take a look at went wrong.
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Detroit’s pass rush was slow to the quarterback
The Lions have been able to generate pressure this year. They rank seventh in the league in pressure rate, per TruMedia, and have done so with the third-lowest blitz rate in the league. That means the pressure is coming with only four rushers.
It’s just taking them a while to generate it.
Opposing quarterbacks have been given an average time to throw of 2.99 seconds through seven weeks, second-most in the league. Detroit’s average time to pressure of 2.65 seconds is the fourth-slowest in the league. It showed.
Lamar. Zay. This duo starting off 🔥
— NFL (@NFL) October 22, 2023
Lamar Jackson had an average time to throw of 3.19 seconds, which is the most of any quarterback in Week 7 (excluding Monday night’s game). The Lions’ average time to pressure of 2.59 seconds was the sixth-slowest in Week 7. Against mobile QBs, that’s not surprising considering their ability to create and extend plays. But on many occasions, Jackson had all day to throw in the backfield and stood tall from a clean pocket.
And then, of course, even when it looked like the Lions had Jackson bottled up, the quarterback simply remained calm and waited for an opportunity, a mistake, frustration and desperation. He was patient and unfazed. It’s demoralizing for a defense.
LAMAR AND NELLY MAKE IT HAPPEN❗️❗️❗️
Tune in on FOX! pic.twitter.com/kO1C0eL4K2
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) October 22, 2023
Made even worse was the fact the Lions dialed up the pressure a little more than they usually do. Their blitz rate of 30.3 was their second-highest in a game this season. Want to guess the highest? The Seattle Seahawks in Week 2. The Lions had zero sacks to show for it Sunday, as Jackson handled everything that came his way.
“There were a number of plays where we’ve got him boxed in and it’s long. He’s back there six seconds, but it’s hard to do,” Campbell said. “He just keeps squeezing, keeps squeezing, seven seconds, keeps squeezing. … Then I commit, and then he just breaks out. … That’s why he’s so dangerous. It’s hard to do when you’re a rusher. I thought we were pretty disciplined for a while. Then it kind of got longer in there, and he’s holding up. Then we just got ourselves in a bind.”
The Lions changed up coverage schemes
The Lions, one of the NFL’s most zone-heavy teams before Week 7, opted to switch up the game plan against the Ravens.
Per TruMedia, from Weeks 1-6, the Lions ranked 10th in the NFL in zone coverage rate, playing it 75.4 percent of the time. Their man coverage rate during that same span ranked 21st in the league, running the scheme just 20.8 percent of the time. But in Week 7, the Lions played man 38.2 percent of the time (fifth-most) and zone 52.7 percent (fifth-least).
So, why the departure from what was working for them?
In terms of game planning, it’s easy to see why the Lions opted for more man coverage. The Ravens ranked 30th in EPA vs. man coverage. They were the 10th-best against zone coverage. It’s certainly possible defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn saw a flaw and looked to expose it. It’s hard to fault the game plan if that’s where their heads were at.
Man allows everyone to have a single responsibility and, in theory, would allow the team to play disciplined football and not overthink things worrying about Jackson.
Obviously, that didn’t happen.
“Are there things we could’ve done better? Yes,” Campbell said of the game plan. “But, I mean, the plan, honestly, was simple. I thought it allowed them to play fast. We needed to challenge these receivers. Make him throw in tight windows and we called those. We just didn’t execute.”
Cornerbacks gave up too much cushion in coverage. There were six missed tackles in the game. Sometimes, it was an individual effort leading to a big play. On the opening touchdown, it looked like Jack Campbell made the wrong read, selling out for the run as Jackson kept it for a score. Dan Campbell said he felt some of his players started overcompensating for others. There were times they paid too much attention to Jackson, or tight end Mark Andrews, on plays where they weren’t the primary responsibility. It led to breakdowns elsewhere.
Channeling @GodsGiftGus13 energy this AM
Back in action Sunday at 4:25 on CBS! pic.twitter.com/kqHkttTcJ8
— Baltimore Ravens (@Ravens) October 23, 2023
Watch Derrick Barnes and Tracy Walker each follow Andrews on the play above. Two defenders, one offensive threat. Can’t have that. Alex Anzalone is spying Jackson on the play and tries to get the sack, but has no help on the backend. It created plenty of space for Gus Edwards, who took a short pass 80 yards on what would eventually lead to a touchdown.
For a defense that lacks star power, you need everyone working together.
“There’s these things that just show up,” Campbell said after the game. “Man, just do your job. Handle your responsibility. If we’re going to play man, that’s your man. Stay with your man. Don’t have bad eyes. Don’t have lazy eyes. Don’t look back there. You just cover your man. You know what, if (Jackson) runs in for a touchdown, then so be it. That’s not your responsibility. Then as you get into that hole, what happens is everybody starts pressing. ‘Man, I’ve got to make something happen.’ Then, you get out of what we talk about doing. We start getting outside of the scheme. You’re doing more than is asked of you. Because of that, it creates more problems.”
Lions played more three-linebacker sets, less nickel
No NFL team had a higher 4-3 rate than the Lions in Week 7 (excluding Monday night’s game). Per TruMedia, the Lions had three linebackers on the field 47.3 percent of the time and played nickel (five defensive backs) 49.1 percent of the time. That’s a shift from what they’d done the previous six weeks. From Weeks 1-6, the Lions played nickel 76 percent of the time and had three linebackers on the field together 15.8 percent of the time.
Clearly, the Lions liked the idea of having Jack Campbell on the field together with Anzalone and Derrick Barnes. It’s something we’ve seen more and more as the season’s progressed, with Campbell playing Sam linebacker in Detroit’s defense — a hybrid linebacker/defensive end role. The usual starter at Sam, defensive end Charles Harris, was inactive for Sunday’s game. It’s possible the Lions wanted to provide extra attention to stop Baltimore’s run game, while also keeping a linebacker around to spy on Jackson in the event he takes off with his legs. Couple that with the coverage change to play more man, and it seems the Lions were simply looking to dare Jackson to beat them with his arm.
“It takes every one of us to do it right,” Campbell said. “We have to. That’s where we’re at. When we do it, we’re pretty good. But when we don’t, it’s hard to overcome some of these things. We’re not that type of group. It takes every one of us. You can say that every week we’ve got to be disciplined, but with this guy, you better double it up, because Lamar is an issue.”
If there’s a simple takeaway here, it’s that the Ravens are a bad matchup for the Lions. But even more than that, it appears the Lions overcorrected in an attempt to slow down Jackson. Defending Jackson is a pick-your-poison type of deal. You either put an extra linebacker on the field and try to stop him from scrambling and make him beat you with his arm, or you play more nickel and try to stop the pass, while leaving yourself susceptible to his mobility. The Lions guessed wrong.
Jackson’s growth as a pocket passer was something for which Lions players and coaches clearly weren’t ready. They’d likely try to defend him differently if they were to play again. They got away from what had been working for them and got burned in the process.
So, what now? After watching a game like that, one might think the Ravens revealed a blueprint to beating the Lions’ defense. But ask yourself: How many teams have a quarterback as creative as Jackson (in addition to a defense that matches up as well as Baltimore’s does vs. Detroit’s)? Easier said than done.
This was a bad loss, and the Ravens played winning football on Sunday, but it’s not reflective of how the Lions have played since late last season.
(Photo of Aidan Hutchinson and Lamar Jackson: Mitch Stringer / USA Today)
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