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Seahawks on tape: Breaking down the Lions ahead of Week 8

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NFL: Detroit Lions at Miami Dolphins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The upcoming tussle against the Detroit Lions is virtually a toss-up. The home team being favored by 3 reflects this. The Seahawks must deal with a 10 am start but Russell Wilson is a respectable 10-9 in those games. The eventual winner of this match-up remains foggy.

What’s more certain is that I’m a football nerd. In this schematic look at what the Lions are as a team, I’ll be interviewing a fellow tape junkie and The Smiths listener who’s also a maths nerd: Bryce T. Rossler, who charts for Sports Info Solutions. As a Detroit Lions fan and writer for The Lions Wire, Bryce’s comments provide interesting perspective on the Seahawks’ upcoming opponent. They also represent nice areas to pivot off.

Matt Patricia’s Scheming

Matt Patricia’s defensive scheme follows the Bill Belichick philosophy: take away your opponent’s best facet. He did this against his old mentor, negating Rob Gronkowski—pretty much the only threat New England possessed—with constant disruption at the line of scrimmage and shading of coverage as the Lions beat the Patriots 26-10. The matching had Tom Brady bamboozled.

Figuring out what Patricia will run against Seattle is tricky though. This is because Detroit hasn’t faced a team in the mold of the Seahawks. A reasonable guess would be Patricia aiming to take away the run and contain Wilson. Rushing Wilson is a tricky business given his mobility but glancing at the Lions’ numbers they are clearly doing something right. I asked Bryce about the surprising sack totals—Detroit has 21 which places fourth in the NFL.

Matty F. Brown: Heading into this season, pass rush was a big concern for Lions fans given the poor depth and talent at EDGE. We’re now over a quarter of the way into the season, and the sack production is far better than expected. How can that be explained?

Bryce T. Rossler: I think the biggest problem the Lions defense will have against the Seahawks is containing Wilson. Their pass rush is predicated on getting coverage sacks, and quick pressure isn’t their calling card. I can see Wilson extending plays and/or having too much time to throw.

Most of the sacks have come from Patricia’s pre-snap disguise delaying an offense or confusing an o-line. The tape revealed the trickery forcing a quick checkdown. Similarly, quarterbacks would have their pre-snap diagnosis vanish. The period it took them to ‘get right’ gave the pass rush time to arrive.

According to SIS charting, Seattle gave up a pressure rate of 35% under Tom Cable in 2017. In the near-utopia of Mike Solari’s world, the figure is now under 29%. That’s close to the best in the league. They are, however, still 28th in adjusted sack rate. You can expect this to regress if they keep their pressure rate low. The offensive mess of the first two weeks certainly doesn’t help.

As a result, Wilson looks far more comfortable inside the pocket. Now trusting his protection, he has started navigating upwards into space and progressing through his reads with no happy feet—as covered in last week’s Seahawks on tape. If the Lions give him all-day to throw, especially off the play-fake, they are going to get DANG3RUSS’D.

This will be especially true if Detroit predominantly runs their preferred press cover 1 coverage. They don’t have the players to match-up with Seattle’s skill-sets, no matter how much they alternate. Jamal Agnew (now out for the year) struggled over the past two games with Kenny Stills and Davante Adams. His replacement aligning in the slot against Tyler Lockett is a clear mismatch given Lockett’s quick route-running ability. Wilson against cover 1 will feast.

It’s therefore more likely for Patricia to drop into cover 2 matching patterns, stuff Wilson struggles with more. Still, if Wilson has the time we expect he should still thrive. Staying out of third and longs is particularly important against Patricia, as it limits the funky stuff he can do at the line of scrimmage to confuse.

Detroit’s Run Defense

The issue for Patricia when trying to take the run away from Seattle is how bad his team has been at stopping the run. Detroit is 30th in run defense DVOA and gives up 5.7 yards per carry. They stuff opposing runners for a loss or no gain on just 12.6% of carries, 31st in the league.

Whether it’s misalignments, getting washed at the point of attack or over-aggressive backside pursuit, it makes for tough viewing. The situation has been so desperate they’ve even tried putting a linebacker alone in the a-gaps.

The acquisition of Damon Harrison for a fifth-round pick therefore makes a lot of sense. It gives the Lions the best run-stopping two-gapping nose tackle in the game. They can now move from odd to even fronts and be more hybrid on early downs. In clear passing situations, Harrison can be a lump to occupy double teams—freeing up lighter blitzers to loop.

It’s unknown how involved Harrison will be on Sunday, but encouragingly the Seahawks have better strategy for coping with dominant defensive linemen under Solari’s coaching. Their run game persistently gets double teams at the line of scrimmage inside and the o-line is so good at climbing to the second level.

Looking at how Aaron Donald was handled in the run game is a useful indicator. His willingness to get upfield was used against him on draw plays, and Seattle offensive linemen were able to handle him 1v1 on routine handoffs. The Seahawks’ run game lives for the cutback, and with the vision of Chris Carson they hit it repeatedly.

Solari’s tasty combination of zone and gap principles saw Donald “pinned” inside on outside runs—preventing him from using his incredible athleticism to wreck the more lateral flow.

Harrison is a very different player to Donald, being an immovable rock as opposed to a twitchy first-step penetrator. Still, Seattle’s blocking rules will work well for him too.

Jarrad Davis

MFB: How is 2017 first-round pick Jarrad Davis doing? He’s been branded a spacecadet by sections of Lions twitter. From what I’ve seen of the linebacker he is a liability who needs to be hidden in the scheme.

BTR: Davis had what I would call the best game of his career against Miami last week. Throughout his time in Detroit, he’s struggled with angles and play in space. He’s explosive in a straight line, but is a bit stiff and needs to play with better control in pursuit.

Patricia has done a good job thus far of mitigating his coverage woes by using him as a blitzer in passing situations and asking him to play downhill as a zone defender. He’s putting Davis in positions to limit yards after the catch as a zone defender, instead of tasking him with erasing route runners in man.

MFB: Is he the rat in cover 1?

BTR: Sometimes, it depends on the game situation. He’s often a blitzer or a spy on 3rd and long.

MFB: That makes a lot of sense. Is it a matter of time before a smart team manages to shift or motion into Davis checking into 1v1 man coverage?

BTR: The Pats did it.

Bryce is right, the Patriots did try and get Sony Michel one-on-one with Davis but they couldn’t execute. It’s at this point that we all salivate over that C.J. Prosise performance against New England and imagine what he could do to linebackers. That’s not going to happen. Yet finding a way to get Davis on Rashaad Penny might. The result would be deadly. (It was tempting to add some Davis on Davis crime as well.)

Offensive Identity

MFB: Somewhat linking to Davis, it seems the team took a while to get used to the scheme and the coaches needed to find out the individual skillsets. That extends to both sides of the football, where Detroit appears to have found an identity. In that sense, a clear parallel can be drawn with the Seahawks. What do you think of the attack?

BTR: Offensively they’re interesting. If they’re not taking shots downfield they’re more about Yards After Catch. It’s not a particularly downfield offense though. They move horizontally a lot: like getting their guys the ball on drags, slants, digs, deep crosses, etc. Jim Bob Cooter’s done a good job of reining in Stafford. The shots are more controlled.

Though it took them some time to get going, they’re now roaring.

Offensive Line

Like the Seahawks, the Lions fired their offensive line coach in the offseason. The departure of Ron Prince has resulted in much better performances.

MFB: The real strength of the run game appears to be one of the best interior trios in the league. Drafting Frank Ragnow into that left-guard and center combo is nasty. Can you sum up what the three allows the Lions offense to do?

BTR: Having Ragnow, Graham Glasgow, and T.J. Lang allows the Lions to be multiple in the run game. All three are plus athletes and can effectively pull, reach block, climb to the second level, and work in space.

Rookie running-back sensation Kerryon Johnson is showing all the burst people doubted he’d possess, making the Lions’ run game is fun—or terrifying—to watch. Even their counter-punch is excellent in the form of LeGarette Blount.

This cut-up shows their most effective run, a nasty counter that gashes Miami. The pre-snap motion gets the linebackers over-shifted and the point of attack is capacious.

The Lions are smart and layer off their rushing with creative play-action stuff—including a similar throwback screen to Seattle’s. K.J. Wright, albeit playing in spot duty, is returning at just the right time.

Wide Receivers

MFB: Another effective triumvirate is the Lions receiving corp. The full emergence of Kenny Golladay, combined with Marvin Jones and Golden Tate, gives the Lions the best group of three receivers in the entire NFL.

Seahawks fans will be familiar with the skillset of Tate, who brings running-back like run-after-catch ability. But what about the other two? It seems the talents are complimentary and a nice mix for Matt Stafford to enjoy.

BTR: Since arriving in Detroit, Marvin Jones has made a name for himself with highlight reel plays and winning vertically in contested catch situations, but he’s a complete receiver who can operate in the short-to-intermediate areas as well. Kenny Golladay wins as a deep threat and over the middle.

The SIS numbers show that the Lions massively favor the 11 personnel grouping. This is smart given the talent of the three receivers. However, the charting also reveals that the Seahawks allow a quarterback rating of just 80 against 11 personnel. What’s more, facing 11 personnel, Seattle is one of just two teams with more interceptions than touchdowns allowed.

Orchestrator Matt Stafford Versus Middle of Field Closed

MFB: Let’s move on to the most important position: quarterback. Matt Stafford has carried this team for years and it finally feels like the Lions are surrounding him with ALL the pieces needed to succeed.

There are two elements which really jumped off the tape to me.

1) His pre-snap command of the offense is incredible, He makes so many adjustments at the line of scrimmage, be it to the protection or the route combinations. This orchestration might be the most extensive in the league. It often proves effective too.

2) Stafford excels at throwing to the perimeter. Due to his fast pre-snap diagnosis, he is confident and quick in knowing where to go with the football. This results in him carving up single-high defenses with beautifully driven underneath or outside routes, plus superb downfield sideline accuracy. He also throws a gorgeous pass in the honey-hole of a cover 2, beating the underneath corner and over-the-top safety.

BTR: Progression speed when Stafford sees something he likes pre-snap is an undoubted strength. He will, however, lock on to guys and become determined to make it happen. His aggressive decision making is a double-edged sword, though he’s much tamer than he used to be. He’s tough, aggressive, and has arm talent, and that poses a problem for defenses. He had a really bad game against [the New York Jets], but I don’t put much stock into that due to the cracked code/signals malarkey.

Bryce’s charting for SIS reveals that Stafford is a bad match-up for the Seahawks’ favored defense. The league average for middle of the field closed coverages, cover 1 and cover 3, is 64%. Seattle runs MOFC coverages 77% of the time.

Stafford ranks top five in attacking the deep outside of MOFC coverages—a sign of the aggression Bryce mentioned. In these situations, the quarterback averages 89 Expected Points Added per 100 plays, the highest in the league. “Stafford will take shots on the outside against MOFC, for sure,” remarked Bryce.

The below is Stafford dicing up variations of cover 3, flashing accuracy as his receivers show off their ability to win above the rim. Observe the back motioning in from out wide and the play-action helping Stafford execute:

And here is Stafford threading precise passes against tight man coverage stemming from versions of cover 1 defense. Again, marvel at the anticipation:

Tre Flowers in Trouble?

So far it’s been difficult to remember that Tre Flowers is a sixth-round, rookie safety convert starting at cornerback in the National Football League. He’s been solid if not flashy, giving up the usual expected hitches but rarely getting beat deep—I recall one play, against the Rams, where he was out of shape, but Jared Goff didn’t throw his way.

Sunday is the true test for Flowers. The best quarterback he’s played has been Case Keenum. One of the quarterbacks he’s duelled has been Mitch Trubisky, who appears to have a severe aversion to throwing left.

Stafford will rapidly read the coverage and go after Flowers, not just over the top but in the short and intermediate with his anticipation skills. The remaining non-divisional passers on the schedule are the same. Flowers is going to get picked on, a lot. His off man clicking-and-closing plus cut aiming points are still third-string raw.

To ease Flowers’ hard task, we’ll surely see more of the split-safety coverages that the Seahawks have in their playbook. These were wheeled out against the Raiders. The disguised ones are particularly appealing, as they can potentially bait Stafford into reading the wrong thing and throwing a fast interception on an out, or a long pick into what turns into three-deep—not two.

Variations of two-high, cover 6 matching coverages can prevent Flowers from being put in one-on-ones vertically, instead relying on a safety to focus on less space but get over the top. Or they put Flowers in less space himself; a deep quarter. The impact of these effects could be transforming a potential “OH WOW TRE IS STILL A LATE ROUND ROOKIE SAFETY CONVERT,” into “OH WOW TRE DID WELL AGAINST TOP QUARTERBACKS DOWN THE STRETCH.”

It’s vaguely similar to Panther, answers on a postcard

Playoff Ramifications

This Lions match-up matters.

Seattle makes the playoffs 51% of the time with a win, and just 23% of the time with a loss. Assuming the Seahawks sweep San Francisco and Arizona that would put them on six wins. The rest of their schedule after Detroit is: vs. Chargers; @ Rams; vs. Packers; @ Panthers; vs. Vikings; and vs. Chiefs. Brutal.

Ignoring the postseason hopes, this game will reveal a lot about the 2018 Seahawks. They have yet to beat a good team. And we can’t really be sure what sort of team Seattle is. The Lions are similar, Bryce saying: “I have no idea what Detroit is.”

If the Seahawks stick to their schematic adaptations, they should win. They can double-team and climb plus pin in the run game to deal with Harrison. Brian Schottenheimer can build off his methods of beating stacked boxes. Furthermore, with the way the offensive line is pass protecting and the ability of the receivers to separate against trail man coverage, Wilson should explode. On defense, disguising split-safety coverages as single-high will slow Stafford down. Wright’s return will help against a powerful run game. Seahawks by 1000.

A big thanks to Bryce Rossler for giving me his time and to Sports Info Solutions for releasing their figures via their podcast, a great listen.