Led by the menacing Ndamukong Suh, the Lions’ defense is the biggest reason the team is in the race for the NFC's No. 1 playoff seed. Plus, examining Brian Hoyer and Tom Brady similarities and 10 more notes off film study
Hell has frozen over: this Sunday the Detroit Lions visit the Arizona Cardinals in a matchup that could ultimately determine the NFC’s No. 1 seed. With so much (justified) Cardinals coverage lately, my editor Mark Mravic suggested I focus this week on the Lions, specifically their first-ranked defense.
“I keep hearing that Suh is dominating games," Mravic said. “Could you go into what’s working for them?”
Trying to figure out how to put an answer into words, I went to my Lions file and did a quick search for “Suh.” The results speak for themselves:
- Suh stood out vs. run. Sheds doubles well. (Week 1 vs. NYG)
- Rookie RG Trai Turner had some good one-on-one battles with Suh, especially in pass protection. (Week 2 @ CAR)
- Suh and Fairly good gap control vs. run. Allowed LB’s to play clean. (Week 4 @ NYJ)
- Suh ability to get off blocks stood out vs. run. (Week 5 vs. BUF)
- Suh was active, showed up vs. the run a few times. (Week 6 @ MIN)
- Suh disruptive, a few times working against Jahri Evans. (Week 7 vs. NO)
- Suh played significant snaps at DE in nickel sub-package. (Week 7 vs. NO)
- Suh outstanding play from DE position in the 4th quarter, Penetrated upfield versus TE Hill preventing pulling OG Grubbs from getting to his block, Then Suh tackled Ingram for no gain. (Week 7 vs. NO)
- Tough to run shotgun draws at an angle vs. Suh. If you’re going to use deception of some sort, you need to get downhill in hurry, use Suh’s quickness against him. Can’t let his second effort become a factor. (Week 8 vs. ATL)
- Center James Stone bad holding penalty on Suh to stop clock late in game. Stone had not stood out negatively before that. (Week 8 vs. ATL)
- Suh TFL on first play but D front alignment made that zone block impossible for LG Thomas. Easy play for Suh. (Week 10 vs. MIA)
- Suh on second play burned Pouncey off LOS. Created group sack. (Week 10 vs. MIA)
- Suh was a menace as pass rusher. (Week 10 vs MIA)
Most of these notes pertain to Suh’s run defense, which can be an indication that he has not shown up quite as much as a pass rusher this season. But that doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous here. To complete the picture of Suh’s game, here’s a breakdown of his Week 3 sack on Aaron Rodgers.
Suh isn’t the only Lions defender playing well. Last week I wrote about the much-improved secondary. Equally important is the improved front seven. Suh is an extraordinary puzzle piece who naturally makes those around him better. And those around him have been getting better on their own, too, most notably Ziggy Ansah. Last year’s No. 5 overall pick, who entered the league rawer than a quartered carcass, has become a dynamic edge-rusher and movable chess piece. Ansah is learning more and more how to control his sensationally athletic body and execute NFL-caliber moves.
And then there’s the linebackers. DeAndre Levy, with his play recognition, closing speed and dexterity in space, has been the best outside ‘backer in the league this season. He’d be a Defensive Player of the Year candidate if J.J. Watt hadn’t secured the award back in, oh, early October.
Tahir Whitehead also has been a huge success since entering the lineup after Stephen Tulloch’s celebratory ACL injury. Whitehead, in fact, has been an upgrade. The 2012 fifth-round pick does not have all the intangibles that nine years of experience had given Tulloch, but he has better speed and quickness plus enough power to make plays in traffic.
This is a front seven that can beat teams with complex blitz designs or straight fundamentally sound football. And it’s a front seven that has become more consistent now that the secondary behind it can hold up in all varieties of coverage.
Jumping out on film
All season long, Brian Hoyer has survived and at times thrived in a Browns passing attack that does a lot with moving pockets. Last Thursday against the Bengals, Hoyer showed a new element: the ability to drop back in play-action and plant-and-throw perfectly within the timing of the play design. Most impressive was the way Hoyer’s ball cut through the wind—a testament to arm strength. Two great examples of strong-armed play-action: the 17-yarder on Travis Benjamin’s curl route and the 18-yarder to tight end Gary Barnidge.
On a related note, another QB who has shown similar traits is Tom Brady. New England currently has the best play-action game in football. Brady’s arm strength has always been outlandishly underrated but still regarded as strong enough to cut through most gales. Where Brady has unexpectedly drawn parallels to Hoyer is in his passing on the move. Brady has played outside the pocket more this year than at any point in his career, thanks in part to the ups and downs of New England’s O-line. And almost unfathomably, Brady has also gotten better with his in-pocket footwork and movement.
Hoyer and Brady: two first-place quarterbacks who lately have been making all the throws both in and out of the pocket.
Smart watching for Week 11
Keep track of all the ways the Chiefs get the ball to tight end Travis Kelce this week against Seattle. That’s their best chance at beating a Seahawks club that, despite injuries at linebacker, safety, cornerback and defensive tackle, remains stingy. With Kam Chancellor having missed the past two weeks with a groin injury, the Seahawks could have a little trouble matching up with the rising tight end. The beauty of Kelce’s plays is that they’re designed in a way that creates a defined read for Alex Smith—things like screens, shallow crosses that go underneath vertical seam routes, and corner patterns against zone coverage. That’s what the veteran quarterback needs in order to play in rhythm.
The Patriots, coming off a bye and traveling to Indianapolis this week, are becoming a more diverse defense—at least up front. Against the Broncos two weeks ago, linebacker Jamie Collins blitzed with more frequency and great effectiveness. King-sized cornerback Brandon Browner was moved around to take away big wideout Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas. And, playing single-high coverage all game, the Patriots had an extra defender around the box, which helped propagate disguises and pressure designs. The best was Rob Ninkovich’s interception. On that play the Pats showed man-free blitz but dropped into a Cover 3 after the snap. That’s not common for them, and it fooled Peyton Manning. Expect to see similar tactics against Andrew Luck and a Colts offense that, like the Broncos, puts the ball in the air a lot.
We had Rams middle linebacker James Laurinaitis on the show last week. He provided transparent, high-level football analysis. There’s too much to share, but have a listen. Laurinaitis begins at the 23:00 mark.
On this week’s podcast (which comes out Thursday), Greg Bedard will join and explain why he hates Andrew Luck and all the people like me who think Luck is on the verge of being the NFL’s best quarterback. (Just kidding, Greg. Sort of. Let’s talk Thursday.)
10 Film Study Quick-Hitters
1. A growing concern for San Diego is a lack of a natural pass rush. No one, including Dwight Freeney, has flashed the past few games.
2. In recent weeks, and especially since DeMeco Ryans’ Achilles injury, the Eagles have replaced some of their nickel packages with more dime concepts. We’ll see a lot of this Sunday when they face a Packers offense that likes to go 3-WR to the same side of the field.
3. Speaking of the Eagles, they’re better with Mark Sanchez. He’s a quicker progression reader and in-pocket athlete than Nick Foles.
4. The Bengals need Vontaze Burfict healthy. Without him, their blitz packages become vanilla.
5. The Bills often look like they’re blitzing, but they rarely do. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz has done an excellent job with zone exchange concepts, rushing a linebacker or defensive back while having a defensive lineman drop into coverage.
6. Derek Carr’s rookie mistakes are starting to pile up. At least he plays aggressively.
7. The Packers have one of the NFL’s best backfield screen games. And who would have thought that the slow-chugging Eddie Lacy would be at the forefront? He’s had screens of 56 and 67 yards over the past two games.
8. With struggling right tackle Paul Cornick out injured against the Raiders last week, the Broncos shuffled 60 percent of their offensive line, moving right guard Louis Vasquez to right tackle, center Manny Ramirez to right guard and backup Will Montgomery to center. Going to all that trouble tells you how little they think of original starting right tackle Chris Clark, who was completely healthy.
9. Washington fourth-round rookie cornerback Bashaud Breeland is the league’s most improved player since September.
10. The Bears remain the worst thing you can be: a straight zone-based defense with no pass rush.
For Film Study tweets throughout the week, follow @Andy_Benoit
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