We Thought They Were Better Than This!
A great deal has been said this week in the wake of the Detroit Lions’ loss to the Chicago Bears about who should be held accountable, whose fault it is, and what can be done to fix the team. The answers are simple and you are not going to like them. They are likely to make you either angry, or in the case of those of us who’ve seen this five or six times now, just kind of sad. I am going to tell you the story of this game in two plays. The Bears’ first touchdown, and yes we’re going to talk just one more time about the Eric Ebron play. These are the two times during the game where I was screaming at my television in shock and anger; but in neither case was I doing so because of the reasons you might think.
I was already losing my mind at the television when the throw was made to Eddie Royal. He wasn’t really even open, he simply made a great play to score and in the NFL that just happens sometimes. I had already completely come out of my skin in anger before Ebron did what he did. It was inexcusable, and when I had calmed down and backed it up a little bit to see what the hubbub had been about I was pretty disappointed with his reaction, but I think he was probably upset for the same reason I was. I was watching professional athletes doing things that I had been benched for in my freshman, and sophomore years of high school. The other option is that I was watching players being told to do things so fundamentally flawed that they can never, and will never work.
The Bears’ Touchdown
The first thing that needs to be said is that every player on the field but one played this play perfectly. That is all it takes in the NFL; a single player who decides not to do his job, who thinks he knows better than the playcall, or who is just unaware of the basic principles of his position. On this play that player was Kerry Hyder. Much has been said about how Kerry Hyder is the only Lions player applying any consistent pass rush and that’s not wrong. The problem lies in the manner in which he is getting that pressure. He is doing it in ways that often take him out of position to fulfill his responsibilities on the plays where he is not the person successfully applying the pressure. His stats look great, but on as many other plays what he does deprives the team of its goal. This is just one example.
The first thing a player learns about the defensive end position in a 4-3 defense, specifically pass rushing off the edge, is that the play cannot be allowed to escape to your outside. Pass rush 101 eventually gets to the spin move, it is an incredibly useful tool when employed properly. When the offensive tackle has side-stepped too quickly, trying to stop the DE’s speed rush around the outside shoulder during pass protection, and the OT is still leading the DE after they are beyond the depth of the quarterback. That is when a defensive end spins quickly underneath the block, disengaging from the offensive tackle at or beyond the depth of the quarterback’s drop. As you can see, Kerry Hyder, the outside pass rusher on the left side has employed the spin move, without having gone past the depth of the quarterback.
This is the moment where Brian Hoyer can no longer stay in the pocket. Tyrunn Walker has pushed the pocket into the quarterback’s face, A’Shawn Robinson is eating multiple blockers, Tahir Whitehead is in coverage, Kyle Van Noy is moving toward the quarterback’s possible lane to become a runner and get the touchdown himself in the middle of the field, and Rafael Bush is covering that same possibility on the right. Devin Taylor is coming off the edge against a tight end, which is a sack in the making if the quarterback stays in the pocket.
Hoyer slips out to his right, escaping the rush, evading the existing pressure from Walker up the middle, and Taylor coming from his left. Walker is actually standing on the quarterback’s drop point. Hyder makes chase, but he has to close eight yards of depth, and keep up with Hoyer’s lateral movement. There will be no pressure on the quarterback to make a quick decision, he will have open throwing lanes in all directions. Losing contain during the pass rush made this possible.
How was the Coverage?
The coverage was perfect at the moment Hoyer had to make the decision to break to the right or to throw the ball away. Each Bears receiver is completely covered, and Walker is about to walk a guard in to Hoyer’s chest. Without an escape route one of three things happens here. The first possibility is that Hoyer throws the ball away, losing the down but not field position. The second is that he tries to run the ball in the middle, likely being corralled by the combination of Van Noy and Bush spying the quarterback as their coverage responsibility is trying to block Taylor. The third is that the quarterback forces a throw, and this is Brian Hoyer we are talking about, he probably tries to throw the ball through Glover Quinn in the end zone, who he very well may not be able to see because of the pressure in his face.
Instead Hoyer buys the time his receivers need to get some separation. He has open throwing lanes to three receivers and no pressure. This makes it all but impossible for the secondary to maintain coverage. Losing contain, is literally – and I mean that literally – the worst thing a defensive end can do on almost any play where it is his responsibility. The Bears may have scored anyway, this was not a third down play, but they also might have turned the ball over, the Lions might have gotten a good clean hit in on the quarterback, or the Lions may have held them to a field goal. Instead the Lions gave up a touchdown.
Alright, Lets Talk About the Ebron Play.
This is the formation that the Lions ran the ball out of for the most part on Sunday. Occasionally they would back Stafford up a yard, and put Riddick beside him to one side or the other but the plays they ran were almost identical other than that slight alteration. Eric Ebron would motion from one side to the other, and on the snap would explode either forward to lead block for Riddick to the strong side, in the above case the left, or back across the formation in a trap block against the outside linebacker. This motion was a run almost every time the Lions ran the ball, and was the formation that all of the Lions negative yardage runs came from. The ten times they ran the trap play, five were stopped at or before the line of scrimmage, three were stopped short of four yards, and two made nice gains. In short, this formation and particularly this play were not working consistently at any point in the game.
This was a trap play. How that works is that Riddick takes the hand-off right where Stafford is putting the ball in this picture, and follows Ebron’s lead, cutting up the field behind him after he takes out the linebacker. It’s a common play, and at this point, it has potential a big gain. Riley is about to unload on an inside linebacker, Ebron is going to push the outside linebacker out of the running lane, and then it’s just the safety between Riddick and a touchdown. This play is going perfectly until this moment.
This is where I am not sure who to blame. Did Riddick just decide to go to the wrong side, and hit the hole that was about to develop faster? If so this play getting blown up is on him. Taking the handoff on that side makes it so that Ebron has no chance to get to the linebacker before he gets to Riddick, as in stead of going for a spot to the left of Stafford, he is able to stay clear of Ebron’s trap block. Ebron is expecting the linebacker to be taking a much shallower angle, because Riddick should be two yards to the left of where he is standing. Ebron is a terrible blocker at the best of times, and useless at finding defenders in the open field, if they don’t come at him, he is going to blow the block every time. The linebacker starts the play closer to the hand-off point than Ebron is to where the block will occur, and he’s in a sprinter’s stance. If this is the way the play was drawn up, then Jim Bob Cooter is not as smart as we thought he was because this play simply can not work as it was carried out. If it’s not than Riddick blew a basic handoff and Stafford’s reaction was superb to get him the ball.
Theo Riddick wrapped up by the linebacker is the last thing Ebron sees before he gives up. This is either the inevitable end of the most poorly designed offensive play that has ever seen an NFL field, or it’s a running back being eaten in the backfield because he doesn’t understand how a basic trap play works. At best with the game on the line the offensive coordinator called up the same play that had not been working all day. At worst the offensive coordinator drew up this horrendous and grotesque thing trying to fool the defense with Lombardi like trickery. Even when it was blocked reasonably well on Sunday, Theo Riddick would cut in to the back of his blockers, or the only tackler within three yards of him. He quite obviously does not trust the blocking in front of him, so even when it is there, he isn’t hitting the hole. He is trying to make a play, rather than take the play in front of him. That worked for Barry Sanders, but Riddick is not even a pale copy of the GOAT, despite the slick broken tackle resulting in a negative yardage play that truthfully did remind me of every Sanders carry against the packers in the playoffs. God I miss the days when I was watching them lose to the Packers in the playoffs.
Nobody will condone the next three seconds of Ebron’s life. I just wanted to help you understand his frustration in that moment. Ebron himself has admitted that giving up on the play was the wrong move. That’s not up for debate. You’re not wrong that it is an unacceptable and childish reaction. The Lions were supposed to be built on intelligence, integrity, and discipline. On Sunday they showed none of those traits to the point that it is incredibly determine who is at fault for this mess. These are just two examples of things I saw on the against the Bears that made this loss a hard one to swallow, but it is all fixable. My high school coach quit giving me the ball on trap plays as a freshman until I understood what I was supposed to do. He moved me to outside linebacker as a Sophomore, then benched me for three games for the exact same spin move employed by Hyder. If he could get the point across, shouldn’t an NFL coaching staff be able to as well?
Kerry Hyder did not play in the next defensive series, but his replacement was Brandon Copeland, a human pylon at the defensive end position who is not quick enough at his current weight to rush the passer, and not stout enough to hold up against the run. Hyder was back in very quickly because none of the men behind him are going to step up.
So What Can the Lions Do?
The Lions roster is not terrible, with a few position groups excepted primarily due to injuries, and this week’s opponents are proof of what a difference getting the right coaching in place can do for a decent roster being asked to do the wrong things. The Eagles last season were an awfully coached team, if you’ll recall they kept single covering Megatron all the way to a 3 TD performance when it was clear their corners were not up to the task. In each of the Lions losses this season I have seen a similar blind refusal to change the game plan despite ample evidence that it was not working.
Mike Tyson once said “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” but the Lions’ opponents have not been overwhelmingly dominant like Iron Mike in his prime. The first punch in the mouth has been a relatively light tap in every loss, but the Lions just keep plodding forward, taking that punch every time it’s thrown. The Lions coaches are not adapting to what’s happening in front of them and the players know it. The Lions have a fullback who excels at lead blocking, and in stead they’re putting that role on Ebron. He knows he is awful at it. Theo Riddick knows Ebron is terrible in that role and runs like he is assuming Ebron will fail. The opponents know that Ebron is horrendous in that role and are just relying on their player to beat him rather than scheming a solution. The only people who did not seem to realize it on Sunday were the Lions’ coaching staff.