IN DEFENSE OF THE LIONS LONG BALL
By Chris Pflum
In the run-up to the New York Giants game against the Detroit Lions, there was a definite worry about how the Giants’ secondary would cope with the Lions’ ability to beat teams deep.
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has been playing some of the best football of his career in 2019, and it is showing up all over the field.
The Lions came into this week on a three-game skid following losses to the Green Bay Packers and Minnesota Vikings.
But while they were sporting a 2-3-1 record, Stafford and the Lions’ passing game were playing well above their win-loss total.
Despite playing two of the best pass defenses in the NFL, the Lions were able to air the ball out and come up with significant gains through the air.
Considering the Giants came into this week giving up the second-most passing plays of 20 (or more) yards and third-most of 40 or more yards, that had to be a concern.
The Giants came in with a plan against the Lions’ passing game, though its success is debatable.
At first blush—and it’s difficult to say more without having access to the All-22 tape yet—the Giants decided to call more zone pressure than usual, trying and disrupt Stafford while putting players in place to capitalize on any mistakes.
The Giants also found themselves in the spot of having to match smaller corners in Janoris Jenkins, DeAndre Baker, and Grant Haley up on bigger receivers like Kenny Golladay and Marvin Hall.
The decision to run more zone looks might have been to try and avoid having their players bullied by the Lions’ receivers.
There was also the question of how the Giants would work new moneybacker Deone Bucannon into the defense. The answer turned out to be “sparingly”.
The Giants didn’t play Bucannon until the second quarter, sprinkling him on first and second downs and letting him play downhill.
While it was hoped that he would help their coverage over the middle, Bucannon was primarily used as a run defender, matching up on the running back.
We should probably expect to see more from him in the coming weeks, but he wasn’t used on third downs or when the Giants were in their defensive two-minute drill.
Considering that while Bucannon knows the defensive scheme but he is still new to the team, that makes sense.
The Giants did have success with their defensive scheme, holding their running game to a paltry 59 total yards, winning the turnover battle 2 to 1, and sacking Stafford four times.
The Giants routinely put the Lions behind the chains and forced them into uncomfortable downs and distances.
While the Giants couldn’t play to their strength on defense, they were able to come up with positive plays on defense and put themselves in a position to get off the field after first and second down.
Unfortunately, they weren’t able to slow the Lions’ passing game down by much.
Stafford still had passes of 25, 49 (touchdown), 25, 18, and 41 (touchdown) yards.
As of this writing, Stafford threw further down the field than any quarterback in the NFL by Sunday afternoon.
Per NextGen Stats, his average pass attempt traveled 11.7 yards in the air and was second in the league with an average completion of 9.5 yards in the air.
The Lions did a good job of scheming him completions, with an expected completion percentage from NextGen Stats of 64 percent despite all the deep passing.
But between a combination of poor play from the Giants’ secondary and some great throws by Stafford, he outperformed his expected percentage by 14 points to complete 78 percent of his passes.
Ultimately, the Giants’ decision to play more zone coverage worked out on early downs. They were able to force Stafford to hold the ball and generate some pressure with their defensive front and with blitzes.
But between their usual struggles playing in zone and off-man coverages and the aptitude of the Lions’ receivers, they found themselves unable to get off the field.
That’s a risk a team takes when it is forced to play against its strengths, and Stafford’s uncanny ability to deliver the deep ball this year meant that even if the Giants were able to stay ahead of the chains, the Lions still had a chance even on third and very long.
The Giants played well enough on offense and defense to give themselves a chance and stay in the game despite falling behind early.
There were certain things in this game on which they can build going forward, but they need to figure out how to finish and come up with the big play instead of giving them up to the other team.
Daniel Jones: After his struggles of late, it was good to see Jones’ game take a big-time uptick with his 28 of 41 for 322 yards, four touchdowns, and no interceptions performance.
Two of his touchdowns went to intriguing rookie receiver Darius Slayton, he completed eight balls each to Golden Tate and Saquon Barkley, but we were most impressed with how Jones ran the offense, got the ball out of his hand on time, and moved around so smartly.
The coaches also put a couple of semi-rolls into the game plan for him to execute, which he did sublimely, but they still need to do a better job of exploiting his under-rated mobility.
Jones did run with the ball four times, his longest a scramble of 9 yards, and he drew a big second half personal foul on a slide at the end of one of his runs.
But it was Jones’ ability to handle situations that impacted this game.
He read blitzes and went to his correct hot read consistently, and he seemed to be calling out his protections smartly.
He looked off the safety on both touchdown-throws to Slayton, while hitting both of his short red-zone touchdown throws decisively and accurately.
We have zero issues with Jones’ throwing talent; he’s always on the money. Accuracy will be one of his calling cards when it’s all said and done.
The growth process of a rookie quarterback includes reading what the defense is doing and making them pay. To date, it’s been a lot of one step forward, two steps back.
Against a mediocre defense like Detroit’s this week, Jones had a better chance to show off what he can do and start building on an offensive group that will hopefully and eventually scare opposing defenses.
People talking about trading Barkley and Engram are crazy; they need to be part of the solution, as does Sterling Shepard and others.
This offense needs a better skill group and more speed on the outside, but in the meantime, Jones can spread the ball around, as he did this week, and continue to find the best match-ups, as he did this week.
On the negative side, Jones put his team in a big hole early on when he reacted late to an unblocked blitzer (he did NOT set this protection correctly).
He also once again held onto the ball too long, turning what should have been an incomplete pass in the general direction of Barkley in the flat to a backward pass that was returned for a touchdown, giving the Lions a cheap 7-0 early lead.
That one was all on Jones, but as he always does, he put it behind him and responded with a very positive performance, which he did without much of a running game.
If Jones ever does get himself a running game, we’re not sure he’ll know what to do with it. For now, all he can do is continue to drop back, stand tall in that ever-collapsing pocket of his, and make plays.
No matter what Jones did, his defense was never going to win him this game. The defense is that bad.
The good news is that the Giants rookie quarterback took a step in the right direction, he looked more like an NFL quarterback, and after that early turnover, he took excellent care of the ball.