By Brandon Thorn – Contributor to The Football Educator
Setting the Edge – Advanced Scouting Report: Denver Broncos (2-0) vs Detroit Lions (0-2)
- Sunday, September 27, 2015 at 8:30pm
2014 Season: 11-5, lost wild card playoff game vs Dallas Cowboys (24-20)
- Head Coach: Jim Caldwell (2nd year)
- Offensive Coordinator: Joe Lombardi (2nd year)
- Defensive Coordinator: Teryl Austin (2nd year)
Detroit entered 2015 coming off of their best season since 1991, earning a playoff berth while boasting the league’s No. 2 overall rated defense to go along with a middle of the pack offense that continues to be a bit of an enigma.
The Lions have had a poor start to the 2015 season losing in week 1 to the Chargers 33-28 as well as in week 2 to the division rival Vikings 26-16. Both of these games were away games, undoubtedly a tough way to begin the year, particularly with their best defensive player (DeAndre Levy) missing for both contests.
Detroit’s defensive line came to play in week 1, pressuring Chargers QB Philip Rivers with 19 hurries, 2 sacks, and 3 QB hits. Detroit entered the 4th quarter leading 21-20 before being gashed with the short passing game, especially in the middle of the field on crossers and dump offs. Levy’s coverage prowess was sorely missed. San Diego went on to score two touchdowns in the 4th, one on a 6:14 drive which left Detroit with only 2:37 left to score two touchdowns which they failed to do.
In week 2 the Lions offensive line was the main issue in their 10-point loss. QB Matthew Stafford suffered bruised ribs (and is questionable for Sunday night) due to the harassment he took from Minnesota’s front seven.
Detroit’s starting OTs Riley Reiff and Cornelius Lucas gave up a combined 11 QB hurries and 2 hits. Through two games Stafford has been pressured on 39.3% of his dropbacks, 10th most in the NFL. Making matters worse, Stafford’s performance under the pressure has resulted in a 31% completion rate, ranking 31st in the NFL. This extensive pressure has led to Stafford being the 31st overall ranked QB in the NFL according to Pro Football Focus (PFF) through two games.
The subpar OL play continued in the running game as Stafford led the team in rushing with 20 yards. Rookie first-round pick OG Laken Tomlinson was benched for veteran Manny Ramirez who is the only Lions OL to have earned a positive pass protection grade from PFF this season.
Detroit has built their offense around rifle-armed QB Matthew Stafford and two Pro Bowl WRs in Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. The front office has attempted to bolster this side of the ball in the draft the last few years, with an emphasis on the offensive line. The team spent their ‘15 first-round, ‘14 3rd round, and ‘13 3rd round picks all on interior OL, two of which are currently starting. The team’s ‘14 first-round pick was spent on TE Eric Ebron who is currently listed as their starter as well. The backup TE is 7-year pro Brandon Pettigrew who was injured in week 1, missed week 2, and is listed as questionable in this matchup. His return is notable as he is one of the premier blocking TEs in the game today.
The Lions primarily run 11 personnel from the shotgun but incorporate a wide variety of sets and personnel. In charting their matchup versus the Vikings (aside from 11 personnel) I saw mostly 20 personnel followed by an equal amount of 12/10 personnel. On 3rd downs Detroit didn’t display an obvious trend in personnel aside from always having a back lined up next to Stafford. On 3rd and short the team lined up in 10, 11, and 22 personnel using a mixture of runs and quick passes (with a preference to the slant route vs man). Their TE Eric Ebron is used primarily flexed out as a glorified receiver or in-line off the LOS as a motion man.
The offensive line has been the offense’s achilles heel so far this season and really struggled to keep their QB clean in the pocket. The team’s worst performer so far this season has been 2nd year OT Cornelius Lucas who has replaced the injured LaAdrian Waddle. Waddle is expected to return for this game likely getting the start. Waddle is a much better pass blocker than Lucas, so there will be a much needed boost on the right side of Detroit’s OL on Sunday.
Detroit’s defense is coordinated by Teryl Austin who as of late, has been a hot name in head coaching searches across the league. Austin is a defensive backs coach by trade who has overseen extremely successful units and has been a DB coach in three Super Bowls with three different clubs (Seahawks, Cardinals, Ravens).
The Lions also have longtime NFL defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham on staff as a “Senior Coaching Assistant” which is in a different, yet similar coaching arrangement as the Tennessee Titans have with Ray Horton/Dick LeBeau. It is unclear how much influence Cunningham has on the defense but it is a 4-3 base scheme built around their defensive line generating most of the pressure. Jim Washburn is also on staff (although on a leave of absence for health reasons) and you see his influence in the DL alignment. Detroit’s DEs often are lined up in 7 or 9 techniques with their ears pinned back.
Right defensive end (RDE) Ezekiel Ansah (6-6/279) is the team’s best all-around DL ranking as the No. 7 overall DE on PFF as well as the No. 1 overall against the run. Through two games this season Detroit has 3 team sacks, 2 of them from Ansah. On the opposite end is 8-year veteran Jason Jones (6-5/275) who is a better run defender than threat off the edge.
The coaching staff uses rotations with their DEs spelling Ansah/Jones with 10-year pro Darryl Tapp and 3-year pro Phillip Hunt, both 6-1 Washburn proteges who have followed the coach throughout their careers. The odd man out so far this season (23 snaps) is 3-year pro Devin Taylor, who was a healthy scratch in week 2 vs the Vikings. His status for Sunday’s matchup remains up in the air as the head coach Jim Caldwell has been vague about his standing with the team calling week 2s deactivation a “coaching decision.”
The team’s weakest players on this side of the ball are CB Rashean Mathis who has been targeted 15 times this season for 13 completions and DT Tyrunn Walker who along with Mathis is the only other negatively graded player by PFF.
Defensive tackle Caraun Reid hasn’t gotten on the field yet this season but is expected to be a full-go for Sunday’s game and I would expect him to spell Walker early and often if not start in his place.
Behind the front four in Detroit is a group of linebackers who have struggled so far this season with the absence of their best player DeAndre Levy. Starting in his place has been 4-year pro Josh Bynes who has been the unit’s best performer so far this season. Bynes even has taken some play-calling responsibilities from MLB Stephen Tulloch, perhaps a sign of him taking on a leadership role on this defense.
Against the Chargers in week 1 the LB core was dreadful in coverage, getting tore apart in the middle of the field (MOF) repeatedly by the Chargers’ receivers and tight ends on rub routes and crossers. Look for Denver to place an emphasis in this area on Sunday.
Detroit’s secondary is returning all 4 starters from the 2014 season with 3rd year player Darius Slay being by far their most effective starter. Slay is the defense’s left cornerback (LCB) and doesn’t move. Opposing him is 13-year pro Rashean Mathis who the defense does move around both to the slot as well as on the opposition’s tight end. Both safeties for Detroit are experienced, well-rounded players with FS Glover Quin being the better of the two. Quin hasn’t missed a game in the last 5 seasons and is their coverage specialist.
Weakest Position Group: LT Riley Reiff and RTs LaAdrian Waddle/Cornelius Lucas
I fully expect the Lions to come out in more 21, 22, and 12 personnel this game with Pettigrew slated to return and in order to establish their running game. Not only that, avoiding having this tackle group in the unfavorable position of facing 3rd & long or in any obvious passing situations versus Denver’s daunting pass rusher group is crucial towards earning a win.
So far this season Reiff and Lucas have struggled mightily against inferior edge players compared to the ones they will face Sunday in DeMarcus Ware and Von Miller. Ware and Miller are the highest rated overall players on Denver’s entire team this year by PFF and have 16 combined hurries between the two of them.
A big reason for their success has been the ability of Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips to sub each player out with very little drop off. Backing up these two edge players are rookie first-round pick Shane Ray and 2nd year pro Shaquil Barrett, two players who average about 15 snaps per game.
I put two right tackles in the title of this section due to the uncertainty in who will start Sunday. Cornelius Lucas has been the starter for the first two games with a seemingly healthy LaAdrian Waddle being declared inactive the first two games. Jeff Risdon, who covers the Lions at RealGM.com told me he spoke with Waddle before the 4th preseason game and Waddle explained to him that he felt good to go. This is an interesting story to watch moving forward and for Detroit’s sake they need to upgrade from Lucas in order to have a chance this Sunday in protecting their franchise QB.
Where LT Riley Reiff struggles on tape the most is in adjusting to speed rushers off the edge who use leverage and speed to get to the QB. Reiff overextended and was off balance against Melvin Ingram in week 1 several times in attempting to counter his inside moves. In week 2 Everson Griffin also gave him fits with inside counter moves off the edge, knocking Reiff off balance and forcing a holding penalty.
Another reason worth noting for struggles on the left side of the OL was rookie LG Laken Tomlinson, who made several critical communication errors with Reiff. Tomlinson gave up hurries by failing to pick up blitzing backers and failing to work in unison with Reiff, making them both look bad in the process.
In week 2 Reiff was put to the test against San Diego’s Melvin Ingram and rookie Kyle Emmanuel, giving up 1 QB hit and 6 hurries. On the other side RT Cornelius Lucas struggles with his body control in stopping rushers who use leverage, speed, and bend. Part of it is Lucas’ disadvantage of being 6-9 and lacking the flexibility in his hips to sink and win low. This set of deficiencies will be an area Denver can severely expose with Von Miller being who Lucas would primarily face on Sunday if he were to get the start.
Defensive Coordinator Wade Phillips is surely watching the same film I am and devising ways to continue and make life miserable for Lions QB Matthew Stafford on Sunday. The easiest way to do that is through Detroit’s offensive tackles. This matchup does not bode well for the Lions, who will need to leave in a TE to block, chip RBs, and use slide protection to mitigate their weaknesses on the edges.
Key Matchup: DET C Travis Swanson vs DEN NT Sylvester Williams:
I previously mentioned a few areas Detroit will look to in order to win this game on Sunday, none being more paramount than establishing the inside running game. I say inside rather than outside for the simple reason that the Broncos boast arguably the fastest defense in the NFL from front to back, so effectively running between the tackles is how to best circumvent their speed.
Swanson is a 2nd year pro who is 6-5/307 pounds who through 2 games has shown a disconcerting lack of functional strength at the POA (point of attack) and has been susceptible to the bullrush. NT Williams has been outstanding throughout preseason and regular season games thus far, showing off extremely strong hands and rare functional strength at the POA. The strengths of Williams match-up ideally versus the weaknesses of Swanson’s.
The area where this can be remedied for Detroit is in having former Bronco LG Manny Ramirez alongside Swanson to aid in double teams and generating movement in the run game. Before Ramirez was put into the starting lineup last week versus Minnesota, LG Laken Tomlinson really struggled blocking the right man in pass protection so Ramirez’s experience should help twofold on Sunday.
The most concerning aspect of this matchup is Swanson will be counted on heavily to aid in establishing the running game regardless of which RB is running the ball. He has two capable guards flanking him, but oftentimes he will be the primary man asked to start a double team versus Williams. Williams demonstrates the leverage, hand use, and functional strength to ragdoll OL and reestablish the LOS (line of scrimmage) 2-3 yards back consistently. This matchup is one where Denver needs to and should win on Sunday. If they do, it will go a long way towards ensuring a victory.
Detroit is at home for the first time this season, in primetime nonetheless, without a win on their record. The crowd and players will likely have a little extra juice for this one as they host a team in Denver who doesn’t have a loss on their record. The Broncos have gotten by the last two weeks by the skin of their teeth against two of the most stout defensive teams in all of football, largely due to the stoutness of their own defense.
This game for Denver is a bit of a trap game because – at least offensively – there is a drop off in the caliber of defense they will face on Sunday. Head Coach Gary Kubiak knows how fortunate he is to have gotten out of his last two games with a win, so don’t expect Denver to come into Detroit full of themselves. This is an opportunity for the Broncos to go out and win a game with authority, something they surely need to boost confidence in themselves moving forward.
Detroit will look to play up to their potential offensively for the first time this season against arguably the best defense in the NFL, with major concerns on their offensive line. If Denver can shut down the running game early, this game could get ugly fast in Motown.
With that being said, pay attention to the Lions offensive line up front and their LB core in defending the pass. These two areas have been their weakest and will be where Denver will look to test them early and often to see if their problems have been fixed.