NEPD Staff Writer: Oliver Thomas
The Detroit Lions defeated the New England Patriots, 40-9, in a gruesome preseason Week 3 contest at Ford Field. But the one-sided final score of the Aug. 22 tilt was a byproduct of more than New England’s secession in all three phases of the game and four first-half turnovers.
It was a byproduct of the line-of-scrimmage battle between the Patriots’ offensive line and the Lions’ defensive line.
New England’s ground game was able to muster just 68 rushing yards on 29 attempts against a stout Detroit front. LeGarrette Blount led all Patriots halfbacks with 26 rushing yards. Leon Washington finished second with 13 yards. Stevan Ridley, Brandon Bolden and Shane Vereen totaled just six yards each.
The Lions kept the pedal down and forged through protection to net nine tackles for loss. And despite notching just two sacks, Detroit was able to register two quarterback hits and 15 hurries. In turn, the Patriots’ suddenly one-dimensional attack – consisting of 46 pass attempts – was stifled.
Now given that it was an exhibition game, all must be taken with a grain of salt. Yet with the starters remaining on the field until intermission, plenty could be gleaned from what transpired in regards to the Pats’ protection.
It’s time look between the lines.
First Quarter, 1st-and-10 – In-the-Box Safety Halts Ridley
On the third play New England’s opening drive, the offense came out in “12” personnel with one back and two tight ends. Tight end Jake Ballard lined up in-line while tight end Zach Sudfeld lined up at the flex spot, and Ridley was set to take a handoff from quarterback Tom Brady.
In preparation, right tackle Sebastian Vollmer targeted left end Jason Jones, backup right guard Will Svitek targeted left defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh along with left guard Logan Mankins, center Ryan Wendell targeted middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch, left tackle Nate Solder targeted strong-side linebacker DeAndre Levy and Ballard targeted left end Ezekiel Ansah.
The Lions countered with a 4-3 front seven. But safety Louis Delmas snuck up into the box to cover the tight ends. That decision made the difference.
As Brady snapped the ball and turned to Ridley, it became apparent that no Patriot was assigned Fairley on the interior. With three of New England’s blockers running up to fend off the trio of linebackers, a void was apparent.
Svitek merged upfield as Fairley sliced by him. Delmas followed suit, and Sudfeld was left alone shielding two tacklers.
By the time Ridley took the carry, there was nowhere to run. Consequently, Delmas was there to bring him down for a one-yard loss.
The Patriots couldn’t detect the discrepancy within the numbers. This negative output was more so about recognition than it was about technique.
Second Quarter, 2nd-and-6 – Weak-Side Heat Sacks Brady
Early in the second frame, the Patriots found themselves down by 10. Aiming to close the gap, the offense implemented “20” personnel, with Ridley in the backfield and fullback James Develin flanked outside the left tackle. Detroit sent out a 4-2 sub package.
With a bunch formation to the left and no extra men in to protect, Solder matched up with Ansah, Mankins and Wendell matched up with Fairley, Svitek matched up with Suh, while Vollmer matched up with Jones.
Brady took the snap from center and turned to Ridley for the play-action fake. But as he turned, he soon realized that Svitek had given up the B-gap to Suh, and that Vollmer would soon give up the C-gap to Jones.
Suh knifed towards Vollmer and cut back, which freed him from the right guard’s extending arms. That sudden movement detracted attention from Jones off the right side of the line, where he was able to bull rush his opponent back towards the hashes.
Suh’s inside presence made it so Brady couldn’t step up into a throw. And Jones’ last-second swim move outside Vollmer’s right shoulder made it so he couldn’t escape outside, either.
Brady couldn’t get off a pass. Instead, he was wrapped up by Jones, who had beaten New England’s right bookend from the seven-technique.
The Lions got to Brady for the sack. It was a nine-yard loss.
According to Pro Football Focus, Brady was 14-for-18 when in the pocket for 2.5 seconds or less. When he was in the pocket for 2.6 seconds or more, he was 2-for-6 and sacked twice.
Second Quarter, 1st-and-10 – Outside Rush Interrupts Pass
By the time New England was out for its third drive of the second quarter, the score read 13-0. The offense broke the huddle in “12” personnel and intended to run a play-action pass with tight end Michael Hoomanawanui, slot receiver Julian Edelman and “X” receiver Aaron Dobson all loading the right side.
Ballard – on an island – was focused on right end Willie Young, Solder and Mankins were focused on Suh, Wendell and Svitek were focused on Fairley, while Vollmer – also on an island – was focused on Jones.
Using a 4-3 alignment, with Delmas dropping down to act as a fourth linebacker, the Lions kept the Patriots honest off the snap. But with two tandems blocking Detroit’s two defensive tackles, the one thing the pass rush wouldn’t achieve on the play was inside pressure.
They didn’t need inside pressure.
As Brady faked the handoff to Ridley and set his sights downfield, it quickly became apparent that the outside pressure was going to be the problem for the Patriots.
Ballard was unable to get his pad level low, which thrust Young past him. Simultaneously, Vollmer was unable to get his feet up to speed, which blew Jones past him and around the corner.
With Ballard getting shoved upright into Brady’s arm by Young, and with Vollmer getting eclipsed as Jones dove low into Brady’s back leg, the Patriots’ QB saw his release disrupted.
The ball was jarred out prematurely.
Brady’s pass flailed through the air like punt off the side of the foot. It landed quietly on the ground. But it could have been far worse than an incompletion.
Per Pro Football Focus, Brady was 3-of-8 passing when under pressure, having to throw two away.
Second Quarter, 1st-and-10 – Edge Lapse Tackles Ridley in Backfield
Trying to stick with a balanced approach in the midst of the second quarter, the offense displayed “21” personnel and called Ridley’s number for a run up the strong-side A-gap.
At the line, New England prepped for the Lions’ base formation with Ballard versus Levy, Solder versus Ansah, Mankins versus Fairley, Wendell and Svitek double-teaming Suh, all while Vollmer set up versus weak-side linebacker Ashlee Palmer.
There was a misread in New England’s blocking duties, though. And Jones – who stood in a three-point stance off the left side of Detroit’s D-line – knew it.
By the time the ball was snapped and Brady handed off to Ridley, it was too late to make a change. Jones fired off the edge on a runway to the ball-carrier.
Soon after Ridley got the ball, he got the turf. Jones’ clear lane gave the Patriots’ play call no chance. It didn’t matter that Develin was there to block Tulloch, or that Mankins was there to block Fairley. Because once the outside wall was permeated, it could not be patched back up.
The Lions forced New England back another yard for a 2nd-and-long.
Second Quarter, 1st-and-10 – Right-Side Duel Yields Sack
Midway through the second, the Patriots’ offense was back on the field aiming to close the 13-3 Lions’ lead. On a 1st-and-10, the team showed “21” with Ridley back and Develin offset.
It was the beginning stages of another play-action pass. Ballard was orchestrated to guard Ansah with some delayed help from Solder, Mankins guarded Fairley, Wendell and Svitek tag-teamed Suh. And Vollmer met his match, yet again, guarding Jones.
Brady took the snap under center, tricked the handoff to Ridley – who stayed in to block – and planted his feet as he negotiated his reads.
But while the pocket in front of Brady was vacant, he knew that it soon wouldn’t be. Vollmer was clubbed at, lunged head-over-heels to recover leverage, and gave up the arc to Jones in the process.
Shortly thereafter, Jones had his hand clenched to No. 12’s jersey and ripped him down for another sack.
This time, the sack was for a 10-yard loss, which put the Patriots in a 2nd-and-10 situation.
The Patriots didn’t get much more competitive from that juncture forward.
In regards to both pass protection and run protection, Thursday night’s game in Detroit was uncharacteristic for the Patriots blockers. Well, for all intents and purposes, it was an uncharacteristic game for almost every Patriot.
Nonetheless, the Lions’ fast and physical defensive fronts were what shut the door on New England. Time has shown that the Patriots are susceptible to teams in Detroit’s aggressive makeup. The Lions didn’t meet much resistence in rushing four down linemen. They were loud. They were hungry. They were exploiting miscues.
And those factors went a long way towards the Patriots averaging a modest 4.3 yards per play.
Looking ahead, there is plenty of room for improvement on both sides of the ball. There were issues with both responsibilities and fundamentals in every phase of the game. But offensively, it took more than three fumbles and an interception for the Patriots to lose.
It took the battles between the lines.