Film Study: How the Lions found their ground game
It took long enough, but the Lions’ investment in improving their running game is paying off in Detroit.
Adding first-round guard Frank Ragnow and second-round back Kerryon Johnson this season has worked wonders in the latest overhaul by the Lions. Second-round pick Ameer Abdullah and a high-priced offensive line weren’t enough to do the trick in recent years.
A mauler at Arkansas, Ragnow made Dolphins defenders’ lives miserable on Sunday in Miami, mashing defensive tackles and clobbering linebackers in the hole.
Pulling from his left guard spot, Ragnow nailed linebacker Kiko Alonso in the hole to spring Johnson for a 71-yard run on the first play of the second quarter. On a 12-yard run by LeGarrette Blount later in the quarter, Ragnow rode defensive tackle Davon Godchaux a full 10 yards downfield before planting him in the turf, clearing a chasm of a hole to the right for a run designed to go left behind pulling right guard T.J. Lang.
Ragnow, center Graham Glasgow and fullback Nick Bellore capped the drive by paving a huge lane for Blount — known for powering his way through bodies across the goal line — to waltz into the end zone untouched from 2 yards out.
Tackles Taylor Decker and Rick Wagner each had their moments too, as the Lions racked up 248 yards — their highest single-game total since Barry Sanders’ penultimate season — on 35 carries (7.1-yard average). Taking out two Matthew Stafford kneeldowns and five runs that merely killed clock on the final drive, the Lions averaged 8.7 yards per tote (28 for 243).
Johnson was the star of the show. He displayed the same punishing style that helped him star at Auburn. Johnson dished it out twice to Alonso (who had a rough day), slamming him on his back with a stiff-arm after catching a screen pass and later knocking his helmet off after lowering his shoulder on a thunderous 4-yard carry.
But Johnson also showcased the game-breaking ability he has flashed often as a rookie, a level of explosiveness that wasn’t always evident at Auburn. The hole on his 71-yarder was ample, but his burst to and through it erased pursuit angles for Raekwon McMillan and Xavien Howard, forcing Reshad Jones to chase him down and prevent a 91-yard touchdown. Johnson tallied six other runs of at least 8 yards, including several where he bounced outside of Miami’s defensive ends and exploded upfield.
With average measurements of 6-foot-6 and 261.3 pounds, Detroit’s tight ends are known more for their blocking than receiving, and they certainly delivered on that reputation Sunday. On one play, all three aligned on the same side in a wing set to spring Johnson for an easy 18 yards. Each impressed in other ways as well.
Michael Roberts — who also had three grabs for 48 yards and two scores — battered defensive ends one-on-one and washed them down the line on double-team blocks. Levine Toilolo latched on and used his length to box out defenders, including a key seal on Johnson’s 71-yarder. Detroit employed Luke Willson several times as part of a full-house backfield, teaming him with Bellore for a pair of lead blockers.
With so much success on the ground, the Lions played off their run looks for explosive throws off play-action, including Roberts’ first touchdown (15 yards off a bootleg) and a 22-yard crossing route to Kenny Golladay.
Absent a true rushing threat for so long, Stafford is suddenly carrying a much lighter burden. His 22 attempts in Miami were his second fewest in a full game across his entire 10-year career, one game after he threw just 26 times (fifth fewest). He looked downright giddy on Sunday, pointing a finger to the sky with a goofy smile on his face anytime a Lions runner found even the slightest seam.
Detroit’s ground game has had some hiccups (2.6 yards per carry in Week 1, 3.4 in Week 5), but it now ranks well above average (4.9 average, fifth in NFL) after dominating a Dolphins unit that entered 11th in the NFL (4.0 average allowed). If the newfound success sticks, the Lions might just make some noise in a standing-room-only NFC North.
–Bama Boys putting the D back in D.C.
Washington hasn’t had a defense in ages.
The unit hasn’t ranked better than 13th in yards or 17th in points since 2009, and it has finished top 10 in both categories just once since 2005.
But through seven weeks, this year’s group ranks fifth in yards (325.7 per game) and seventh in points (20.2), thanks largely to the team’s last two first-round picks. Jonathan Allen (17th overall in 2017) and Da’Ron Payne (13th overall in 2018) have graduated from terrorizing SEC opponents at Alabama to hounding the NFL’s best O-line on Sunday.
Massive and country-strong, Allen and Payne apply their tools more effectively than most young players, consistently maintaining leverage with low pad level. While agile enough to shoot gaps, they both show excellent discipline in the run game, a credit to defensive line guru Jim Tomsula and their coaches at Alabama. They play through blockers (rather than around them) and simply discard them when the ball carrier nears. That brings fewer splash plays but translates to fewer holes and more clean-up tackles for linebackers.
The duo stifled the Cowboys’ league-best run game (5.2 yards per carry entering Week 7) all day on Sunday, allowing 73 yards on 22 carries (3.3-yard average), with 24 yards coming on two scrambles and 7 on an end-around to cornerback Jourdan Lewis, of all people. Ezekiel Elliott came in averaging 5.0 yards per tote but totaled 33 yards on 15 carries (2.2 average). After ranking in the bottom six in yards per carry each of the past three years, Washington is now up to seventh best (3.97).
Payne’s get-off and heavy hands repeatedly put center Joe Looney — who has actually impressed in relief of Pro Bowler Travis Frederick — two yards deep in the backfield after the snap. Allen shed blocks quickly throughout the day and rag-dolled any tight ends unlucky enough to draw him as their assignment.
But neither player is one-dimensional.
Both can affect the quarterback, a must for any interior D-linemen taken in the first round in the modern NFL. Allen leads the team with eight QB hits and is tied for the lead with 3.0 sacks, while Payne has four and 2.0, respectively. Even better, both players push the pocket when they don’t get there, which is how most of the team’s sacks have been created this season.
Allen is an excellent technician who rarely gets stuck on blocks. He picked up a sack off a stunt on Sunday, but spent much of the rest of the game haunting left guard Connor Williams. The Cowboys rookie dragged Allen down twice in the first three quarters to prevent sacks or QB hits, but avoided a holding penalty. He wasn’t so lucky early in the fourth, when he was forced to tackle Allen to avoid a sack, with the hold nullifying a third-and-4 conversion. Ryan Kerrigan strip-sacked Dak Prescott and Preston Smith recovered for a touchdown and a 20-10 lead on the next play.
Payne didn’t notch a sack but was arguably more impressive. He set up sacks by Kerrigan and Ryan Anderson by bulling blockers into Prescott’s lap, first going through Looney and then through Williams despite Looney’s help. Payne also looked like he belonged against Zack Martin, the NFL’s best guard. He backed Martin into Prescott on a few occasions, including one where he tipped a pass for a near-interception on the first play of Dallas’ final drive.
Supplementing the Allen and Payne duo inside is unheralded third-year man Matt Ioannidis, who has 3.0 sacks and four QB hits in just 181 snaps (48.3 percent). The 2016 fifth-rounder from Temple is more of a bull in a china shop who mashes right through blockers, but he also flashes craftiness, like on a hand-swipe, rip move for a strip-sack (and recovery) in Week 1.
Despite a lack of sacks (19th in sack rate), Washington’s defense ranks 11th in yards per pass allowed. But with this interior trio pushing pockets, it’s only a matter of time before the team’s edge rushers really get going. After entering with just two sacks all season, the outside linebackers combined for three on Sunday alone. Kerrigan, Anderson and Smith will get more chances as the season goes on, and this defense could be terrific if they can manage to get home.
–Fledgling stars shine in Santa Clara
You might have missed it as Todd Gurley piled up numbers in a 39-10 rout on Sunday, but the other side of the ball featured an excellent matchup of budding young studs.
By now, most know 49ers tight end George Kittle, whose stats (32 grabs, 527 yards, two scores) have him squarely on the fantasy map. While Kyle Shanahan’s scheme is certainly a big help, Kittle is well on his way to stardom.
The second-year pro is blazing fast (4.52 40-yard dash) and explosive (11-foot broad jump) for his size (6-foot-4, 247 pounds), and already flashes the craftiness to defeat man coverage as a route runner. His hands aren’t the most natural, but Kittle compensates with excellent run-after-catch ability, a weapon he can employ often with Shanahan springing him wide open. Just as important, he’s borderline dominant as a blocker — which he showed at Iowa — regularly stymieing defensive ends and driving smaller defenders into the turf or off the screen.
Two of the Rams’ unsung heroes — strong safety John Johnson and linebacker Cory Littleton — drew Kittle in coverage much of Sunday, and the ensuing battles were fantastic.
Kittle wound up leading all receivers with five grabs for 98 yards and a score, sneaking behind Littleton’s zone coverage a few times, including on a 35-yard gain late in the second quarter. He also used a crafty release, juking in and out before cutting back inside on a crosser to beat Littleton’s tight man coverage for 21 yards late in the third.
Against Johnson late in the second, Kittle got free with an inverted pivot route (a double move faking a quick out before breaking back in) to beat man coverage, but couldn’t corral a high throw from C.J. Beathard. One play later, he found paydirt in a zone pocket against Nickell Robey-Coleman, but Johnson would turn the tide after halftime.
On third-and-1 midway through the third, Kittle ran a crosser off of play-action and appeared to have a step on Johnson’s man coverage, but the safety broke hard to get a hand on the ball as it arrived. It tipped off both of Kittle’s hands and began to settle into his left before Johnson snatched it away for an acrobatic interception.
Johnson got a hand on the pass in part because Beathard couldn’t quite get enough on it, thanks to pressure from — you guessed it — Littleton. It was the second week in a row the duo teamed up for an interception, after Littleton carried a seam route in Denver and tipped the throw up for Johnson to corral.
Johnson, a 2017 third-rounder, and Littleton, in his third year after going undrafted, have quietly starred for Wade Phillips’ defense. They lead the team in tackles (43 and 58, respectively) while stuffing the stat sheet with a combined five tackles for loss (four for Littleton), four interceptions (three for Johnson) and 15 passes defensed (eight by Littleton). Littleton also had two sacks and blocked a punt on Sunday, his fifth (!) since the start of 2017 (one of the five, two weeks ago in Seattle, was not officially a block, as it traveled five yards beyond the line of scrimmage).
Rams coaches showed how much they value both players by pulling them for a rest in the fourth quarter Sunday, which they also did in a 34-0 win over Arizona in Week 2. Otherwise, neither player has missed a snap this year.
Aaron Donald (4.0 sacks, six QB hits on Sunday, plus one soul-snatching strip of Matt Breida) rightfully dominates headlines, while Ndamukong Suh and Marcus Peters are next in line for attention. But Johnson and Littleton are two pieces that tie the whole unit together, and their futures look awfully bright.
–David DeChant, Field Level Media