Every once in a while in the NFL, a coach will come up with a signature scheme that changes the way the game is played. Don Coryell had the Air Coryell offense, Lovie Smith and Tony Dungy had the Tampa 2 defense, and Mike Zimmer has his signature double-A-gap blitz packages. These creative and unpredictable defensive schemes can be a nightmare for offensive coordinators—as they were last week for (now former) Lions’ offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who lost his job over the matchup. Last week against the Vikings, Matt Stafford dropped back to pass 33 times. He was sacked on seven of those dropbacks and hit on 13 other pass attempts—or, in other words, Stafford was hit on 61% of his dropbacks. This write-up breaks down the terror and confusion that the Vikings’ pass rush brings.
1st and 10 at DET 25 — (14:55 – 1st) M.Stafford pass short middle to J.Bell to DET 30 for 5 yards (E.Kendricks) [T.Johnson]
The first play of the game, the Lions show their hand by having tight end Eric Ebron try to chip Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen, showing that their coordinators are worried about containing his pass rush threat.
Yet despite the chip block, the Vikings are able to generate pressure with a four-man rush as backup defensive tackle Tom Johnson hits Matt Stafford. Generating a pass rush on a four-man rush is difficult because the defensive line is outnumbered 5-to-4, (and here, more like 6-to-4 given Ebron’s chip block). The Vikings’ play call changes those odds by having both defensive tackles swim into the A-gap—suddenly, though the entire defensive line may be outnumbered 5-to-4, Lions’ center Travis Swanson is now outnumbered 2-to-1, as both Tom Johnson and Linval Joseph swim their way into the A-gaps.
Notice the jujitsu handwork immediately after the snap—both Tom Johnson and Linval Joseph swipe their lineman’s hand away to prevent him from using his upper body strength to contain their rush, then immediately follow with an overhead swipe to their right, thereby “swimming” through the A-gaps. This mirror move effectively takes left guard Laken Tomlinson out of the scheme, leaving the A-gaps open and Travis Swanson turned around as Tom Johnson breaks through the pocket. Stafford does a good job rolling out and checking down to Joique Bell, but Tom Johnson still manages to hit the quarterback on the checkdown. It would be the first of twenty hits for Matt Stafford, largely in part to this confusing double-A-gap pressure.
2nd and 10 at MIN 46 – (10:10 – 2nd) M.Stafford sacked at DET 48 for -6 yards (C.Greenway)
The first of seven sacks, this is an aggressive blitz package where both sides are trying to outnumber the other—the Vikings are threatening to crash either side of the line, and the Lions have brought in extra pass protection specialists to counter.
The Vikings line up their defensive linemen along their usual techniques with Anthony Barr threatening from the 9-tech spot. Chad Greenway lines up just outside the weak side, and the cornerbacks are playing aggressive press coverage. So four linemen and the Sam threaten to pass rush, with any of the other two linebackers and any of the press cornerbacks also in perfect positions to blitz. The Lions know a blitz may be coming, but they have no indication of who will be rushing and who will drop back to coverage. And because the secondary is in aggressive press coverage, the Lions can’t counter with a quick hot route either—they have to prepare for the blitz.
The Lions do just that. TE Eric Ebron lines up next nearby Anthony Barr, countering the Sam blitz. The Lions also bring a running back, Joique Bell to threaten another pass block, and they even bring an extra offensive tackle as a belt-and-suspenders protection look. This look effectively translates into a “Go ahead, make my day” pass blocking scheme.
Immediately after the snap, Eric Ebron sets out to chip block Anthony Barr before heading into the flat. The idea is that if this look turns out to really be a Sam blitz, Ebron will knock Barr off balance and immediately be open in the flat, so that even if Stafford has eight Vikings in his face, he can throw it to his open man in the hot route and make the aggressive blitz package pay. Meanwhile, the Lions shift their zone blocking left, relying on the extra offensive tackle to handle any pressure from the right side of the offensive line. And Joique Bell takes the play action fake before running up the middle to provide another hot route in case Stafford’s unable to throw to Ebron in the flat.
It’s a good playcall, but it’s poorly executed—Barr’s release and burst is simply too fast for Ebron to do much other than whiff before heading out into the flat. This leaves the Lions’ zone blocking scheme in a six-on-six matchup—LT Reily Reif handles Anthony Barr’s speed rush, LG Laken Tomlinson handles Everson Griffen’s speed and spin move, C Travis Swanson handles Linval Joseph’s bull rush, LG Larry Warford and LT LaAdrian Waddle double-team Tom Johnson’s beautiful swim-to-spin move, and extra LT Cornelius Lucas handles Robison’s speed rush. The six-on-six matchup matches up well, but the blocking scheme does have just one weakness—the gap it needs to leave open in order for Joique Bell to open up the checkdown. As soon as Bell runs through the gap, Chad Greenway takes advantage on a delayed blitz, shoving off Brian Robison to leap into the gap and sack Matt Stafford. This delayed blitz turned out to be the perfect play call for the Lions’ aggressive zone blocking play-action.
3rd and 16 at DET 48 (9:25 – 2nd) (Shotgun) M.Stafford pass incomplete deep middle to C.Johnson [E.Kendricks].
That sack sets up 3rd and 16—an obvious passing situation—so now the Lions assign Ebron to full pass protection and drop Stafford into the shotgun, hoping to provide enough time for the Lions’ wide receivers’ routes to develop downfield. The Vikings swap Brian Robison for Danielle Hunter, who starts in a two-point/standing stance, threatening an outside a speed rush. Hunter and Griffen rush the edge, trying to deepen the pocket and take Ebron and the two tackles out of the equation. Linval Joseph eats a double team, and Tom Johnson does a great job preventing Larry Warford from getting his hands locked onto him, enabling him to run around the guard.
This blitz scheme is designed to occupy all the offensive linemen and stretch the pocket to open room for the delayed linebacker blitz. It works. Griffen and Johnson collapse the pocket while the edge rushers pull the tackles out of play, and Kendricks goes completely unblocked, forcing a bad pass and a fourth down.
2nd and 10 at MIN 26 (6:29 – 2nd) M.Stafford sacked at MIN 38 for -12 yards (E.Griffen)
Anthony Barr lines up in the 9-tech and the Lions shift their zone blocking scheme right to account for his blitz, thereby leaving Everson Griffen completely unblocked, who does not bite on the play action and lays out a huge sack on Matt Stafford.
Sam Monson at ProFootballFocus suggested that the Lions intentionally left Griffen unblocked, hoping he would bite on the play action, but given the depth of the routes, the fact that the play action was on the other side, the fact that the Lions have been chip blocking Griffen and Griffen’s initial burst and speed, this looks to me like just a clear mistake on the Lions’ offensive line for sliding the protection right. This sack demonstrates both how important it is that lineman know their assignments and how effective confusing pass blockers with different looks and blitzes can be.
1st and 10 at DET 23 (1:41 – 2nd) (Shotgun) M.Stafford pass incomplete short middle to C.Johnson
This is another creative look and play call for Mike Zimmer, but this time the Lions’ zone blocking scheme counters it well. On the right side of the defensive line, Everson Griffen is lined up in the 9-tech threatening to blow past Eric Ebron, while Linval Joseph is in 3-tech, and Anthony Barr is threatening A-gap pressure in a two-point 1-tech. On the left side of the line, Danielle Hunter is in a two-point stance at the other 9-tech spot, and Tom Johnson in what looks like a 7-tech. In other words, the Vikings are threatening to stretch the edges of the pocket with speed while Anthony Barr threatens to run up the middle. Unbeknownst to the Lions, Eric Kendricks is also running a delayed blitz, designed to run through any hole left open by this spread-out defensive scheme.
The two defensive ends run speed rushes, while the interior linemen matchup in bull rushes. The Lions counter by shifting the zone blocking scheme right, keeping Ebron and Riddick to block any pressure off the left edge. Theo Riddick does a great job showing patience and handling the delayed blitz from Kendricks. The speed rushes still manage to get to Stafford after roughly three seconds, but not until Calvin Johnson finds the soft spot between the zones and gets fairly wide open. Unfortunately, Stafford miffs the pass just as the edge pressure gets to him.
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