2018 NFL Season Preview: If not now for the Detroit Lions, then when?

2018 Season Preview, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

The Detroit Lions walked off Ford Field as winners in the final week of 2017 having pulled off a dominating victory against their arch-rival Green Bay Packers. The victory clinched a 9-7 record for Detroit meaning they had put together their first back to back winning seasons since 1995. It wrapped a season sweep of the Packers, the first over their NFC North foes since 1991.

Despite all of this 2017 will go down as a failure in the grand scheme of things.

Head Coach Jim Caldwell was fired and replaced by New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as the Lions ended the season without reaching the playoffs and their division title drought reached 24 years. Another year of Quarterback Matt Stafford’s prime went by without a playoff victory. They failed to produce a 100 yard rusher, marking four years since Reggie Bush completed the feat in 2013. Their retooled, rebuilt, offensive line couldn’t stay healthy and Stafford was sacked 47 times.

The Lions as a whole struggled in 2017. But the fact that they were able to post a winning record despite their struggles shows promise for the future. The future may not last as long as many Lions fans would like to believe, though.

TJ Lang and Rick Wagner, the two key pieces to 2017’s offseason offensive line retool, are 30 and 28 respectively. Lang will be a free agent after 2019, and both are on contracts that have potential outs after this season. Golden Tate, who has been the offenses best weapon since the departure of Calvin Johnson, is a free agent after 2018 and Detroit may not be able to retain him in an inflated receiver market.

For years we have been hearing about how the Detroit Lions only needed a few more years and a few more pieces before they could compete in the NFC. Eventually, the future will have to arrive in Detroit, and if not this year than the future may be further away than we think.

Offense  |  Defense Season Prediction

Is Darius Slay the next elite corner in the NFL?

Gif Breakdowns, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

Darius Slay filled a decade long need for the Detroit Lions when he had a breakout sophomore season in 2014. Stability at cornerback. Many players had come and gone, but none had made a lasting impact on the franchise. He has had his highs a lows since then, but he has emerged as one of the better corners in the league, and as a franchise player in the Lions secondary.

Slay was rewarded last offseason for his performance with a huge deal worth almost $50 million over four years. He is a key piece of the Lions long term plans, and they will hope to retain him for as long as possible.

“Big Play Slay”, a self-given nickname from Slay’s twitter, earns his money by not showing up on the box score. He has only intercepted six passes in his four year career, but his presence in man coverage can make a team’s best receiver a non-factor. He has the ability to smother his opponent and stay on them all over the field. Quarterbacks have to think twice before throwing in his direction, and when they dare test him his skills playing the ball usually end up leading to him swatting it away.

The most important play Slay made last season, and may be the most important of his career, came late during the Lions Thanksgiving match up against the Vikings.

Slay is lined up wide against a Vikings receiver. He initially turns his back towards the play to face the sideline, as corners generally do when playing in man coverage. When he turns around, though, he reads Sam Bradford and sees him throwing towards a shallower route. He breaks off his man and undercuts Bradfords pass for an interception to set up a game winning field goal.

His knowledge of the game and ability to read what receivers and quarterbacks are going to do allow him to stick with his man in man coverage, and break off of routes when he needs to. It does not always lead to a flashy game winning interception, but it usually removes an important weapon from the play.

Slay was an issue for the Titans all day during their week two matchup with the Lions.

On this play, Slay is lined up across Harry Douglas. Tennessee has overloaded their slot on the right side of the formation, causing Slay to line up just outside of his man. Douglas runs a shallow crossing route over the middle of the field. Slay follows him, and quarterback Marcus Mariota goes through his progressions. He looks towards Douglas first, who is being smothered by the Lions corner. The play breaks down and Mariota is forced to scramble to his left. Douglas, and Slay, follow the play towards the left sideline. A Lions safety picks up the receiver alongside Slay and Mariota takes a sack as he has nowhere to go with the ball since his primary receiver has been neutralized.

The ability to keep up with a receiver after his initial route is generally overlooked when evaluating a cornerback. When a play breaks down the receivers begin to improvise into less predictable routes. They scramble back and forth along with their quarterback to give them an option as the play extends itself. A defensive back is responsible with keeping up with them, and many of the busts in coverage we see on these plays are due to a defensive back either selling out for the quarterback of just getting entirely lost in the chaos.

Not letting your assignment escape you in a play breakdown is even more important when you face Aaron Rodgers and the Packers twice a year.

On this play during the Lions week 17 game against their division rivals, Slay is lined up across Jordy Nelson. Rodgers initially turns towards his trusted wide receiver on a comeback route, but Slay is in the area so he pulls back. As the pressure reaches him he enters a scramble drill. Nelson tries to loop back around to shake Slay off of him, but he can’t escape his opponent to get free. Rodgers ends up turning the other way and scrambling for a short gain.

Slay is one of the fastest players on the Lions roster and can keep up with nearly anyone. He avoids tangling his feet and catching himself flat footed, and has the ability to read the receiver to keep up with them on their route.

The lions defensive back does a good job keeping his hips facing his man to avoid getting turned around and lost. The sideline is a corners best friend in man coverage and he uses it to his full advantage to limit the room a receiver has to make a play. He blankets them, and does not leave much a window for a quarterback to work with when throwing in his direction.

If a quarterback does test him, Slay knows how to play the ball and more often than not sends it harmlessly into the ground.

He excels at getting around a receiver’s body to make a play without committing a penalty. Timing is key for him. When a ball his thrown his way, he has to be fast enough to close down on his man, strong enough to knock the ball away, and have the timing to make contact at the perfect time to avoid a penalty. Slay has defended 44 passes over the past three seasons, an impressive feat, and they have come against all types of receivers, routes and quarterbacks.

With great coverage skills and elite talent playing passes, Slay has all the makings to become a shutdown corner in the NFL. There are a few issues with his game, though.

As fast as he is, Slay struggles on certain routes. He is a liability when he is forced to line up in the slot, and often gets beaten on flare routes. The corner gets beaten by quick twitches at the line of scrimmage all too often. Smaller, faster, receivers can easily pick up a short five yard gain with Slay across from them, and the problem was exacerbated by the Lions awful linebackers in 2016.

On this play against the Redskins last season, Slay gets absolutely embarrassed by receiver Jamison Crowder.

Slay is lined up off of the line of scrimmage as there is a receiver and corner between him and Crowder. The Redskins receiver slowly jogs for a few steps then quickly turns his body right before breaking to his left. He sends Slay stumbling and gets wide open for a huge gain.

Short flare routes over the middle proved to be Slay’s kryptonite last season. He would often get caught over committing to the outside, and get left in the dust when the receiver quickly changed direction.

He is fast enough to keep up with many of the receivers he is facing on the inside, and has the physical tools necessary to deal with them for the most part. It is most likely a mental issue, and one that he should be working hard on this offseason.

Like many other corners, Slay also gets caught leaving to big of a cushion at times. This leads to receiver’s exploitating the gap he leaves for a quick gain on comeback routes. None of the gaps he leaves open are as obscene as the ones covered in the Kenny Stills breakdown, but it allows a team to quickly and easily move the chains to get a drive rolling. Continuously allowing these shorter gains also force safety’s and linebackers out of there natural position for more support near the shallow sideline, making it easier to beat the Lions deep.

A huge concern in Slays game has to be his inability to chase down a receiver once he is beaten. If he falls for a double move or gets caught flat footed early in a route, he then spends the rest of the route chasing. When chasing from behind he seems to throw away his fundamentals, and instead just focuses on catching up to his man. Receivers that excel at route running easily shake him off once he falls behind them, leaving them open.

Slay did not play for much of the Lions week 15 game against the New York Giants. Odell Beckham Jr. gave him a lot of trouble when he was on the field, though.

On this play, Beckham gets ahead of Slay early. Beckham is a little faster, but Slay stays in range to cover him for majority of the play. The Giants receiver deke’s towards the inside before breaking outside, and Slay falls for it. Slay gets turned around while Beckham runs wide open towards the sideline. Luckily, Eli Manning had already gotten rid of the ball. If he had waited another second, though, he would have had a wide open man on the side line.

Beckham managed to turn around Slay because he sold out on the fake. Once Slay realized he was slightly behind, he did everything he could to catch up. Beckham is one of the best receivers in the league, and Slay seemed unprepared to deal with a player of his caliber. Odell dominated the match up before Slay left with a second quarter injury.

The Giants were not the only team Slay had trouble against, though. Jordy Nelson was his primary foe for both of the Lions match ups against the Packers. As we saw earlier, Slay fared a lot better against his division rival. Nelson did get the better of him a few times, though.

Nelson initially fakes a comeback route, then instead turns up field. Slay covers him well on the first part of his route. The receiver then hesitates before continuing his route, catching Slay flat footed and forcing him to play catch up. After running a few yards up field, Nelson then breaks hard towards the side line. At this point Slay is still in good position. He is still in the passing lane between Rodgers and Nelson, and if the ball comes his way he can make a good play on it. Instead of instantly breaking towards the sideline with Nelson, Slay mimics his route. He runs upfield himself leaving the receiver wide open heading towards the side line.

(At this point neither Slay nor Nelson are aware Rodgers has rolled out of the pocket the other way. They are both turned around the entire play, and Nelson even calls for the ball when he realizes Slay is lost.)

One would expect Slay to instantly turn as Nelson did, limiting the potential window of opportunity. He is generally a good decision maker but he seems to enter panic mode when finds himself slightly behind his man.

Whether it’s at the sideline or on a double move down field, Slay, like all corners occasionally falls behind. He does not recover well, though. Usually he gets away with it, but occasionally it leads to him getting beaten downfield for a huge gain.

The final criticism on Slay is one often overlooked in the secondary. Slay is an awful tackler. He generally just dives towards the ball carriers’ feet while swinging an arm out in an attempt to trip them. This leads to a lot of missed tackles, and often when he does make the tackle he ends up allowing an extra three or four yards on the play. He is accustomed to being able to just throw someone out of bounds or just tripping them from behind, but he is terrible in the open field.

Darius Slay has all the tools needed to one day become an elite corner back. He is not there yet, but the Lions are betting on him. His has good instincts and play making ability, and all the physical tools needed to deal with majority of NFL receivers. He needs to polish up his game to take the next step though.

2017 should be an exciting year for Slay, and for the Lions secondary. He will return healthy after missing time last season with a hamstring injury, and the additions of DJ Hayden and Teez Tabor provide the Lions with desperately needed depth at corner back. Glover Quinn returns as a veteran voice in the Lions defensive backfield, and there are high expectations riding on sophomore safety Miles Killebrew.

With Matthew Stafford entering his prime, the Lions window for playoff success may be wide open this year. They made the playoffs despite injuries all over the roster, but they still have many question marks entering this season. Their defense was obscenely bad last season, and Slay will be one of the key pieces needed to turn that around heading into 2017.

For more NFL breakdowns and Detroit Lions news follow me on Twitter!

More Lions Breakdowns:

Jarrad Davis: The newest Lions LB

How the Lions beat the Redskins

More from BirdBreakdowns:

Jalen Ramsey delivered in his rookie year

Joey Bosa; the Chargers new beast

Header via GettyImages

Is Jarrad Davis the Lions answer at linebacker?

Gif Breakdowns, NCAA Football, NFL Draft

Mansur Shaheen

As the Lions first round pick in the 2017 draft, Jarrad Davis is heading to Detroit with all kinds of expectations surrounding him. The linebacker is joining what was the worst defense in the NFL in 2016, and he’ll be expected to contribute immediately. Detroit parted ways with long time linebacker DeAndre Levy at the beginning of free agency, leaving the rookie with big shoes to fill.

Linebacker is the biggest point of concern for the Lions entering 2017. The unit was depleted by injuries last season, and the linebackers that were on the field were awful. Detroit elected not to chase any big name free agents, and instead used the draft to fill the team’s biggest need.

Davis will have a lot of pressure on him to succeed from day one in Detroit. It was already announced last week that he will most likely be the team’s starting middle linebacker come fall. This means he will be one of the most important players on the Lions roster.

So does Davis have what it takes to be the player the Lions need?

One big point of concern for the Lions defense last season was their awful run defense. Their front seven was weak between the non-existent linebacking corps and a defensive line that disappeared consistently. Opposing running backs, especially power backs, got to the second level with ease. They weren’t burned for huge yardage that often last season, but consistently allowing six or seven yard carries took its toll over time.

Jarrad Davis excels at defending against the run. He has great vision and anticipation from the backfield. He plugs up gaps, and knows how to read the offense to stay a step ahead.

On this goal line play during the Florida Gators match up against Ole Miss in 2015, he saves touchdown by stuffing a running back in the back field.

He uses the first second after the ball is snapped to read the offense. Davis quickly sees the gap right up the middle and jumps it to stuff the ball carrier in the backfield.

His ability to shed off blocks is even more valuable than his vision, though. Davis is strong in the trenches, and can easily create separation between himself and a blocker. Even when he doesn’t get a clean run into the backfield, which is rare in the NFL, he can break a play up.

During the Gators 2016 match up against UMass Davis displayed his ability to shed blocks on this play. He reads the offense and puts himself in position to make a stop on the ball carrier. The guard gets in front of him though. He quickly dispatches the offensive lineman, and bursts into the hole for the stop. UMass isn’t prime opposition, but he made big plays like this against even the best of teams.

That right there is Jarrad Davis stuffing Leonard Fournette at the line of scrimmage and shoving him back a few yards. Fournette, who already is one of the more terrifying running backs in the NFL only days after being drafted. Davis is strong.  Combine his strength with his vision, and you have a potential elite run defender.

He made plays like these all season for Florida, and if his talent translates into the NFL the Lions may revive their amazing rush defense from only a few years ago.

His anticipation doesn’t only help at the line of scrimmage. Davis has a knack for sniffing plays out and breaking them up before they get going. The most impressive example is how quick he is to screens.

On this play against Vanderbilt in 2016, Davis takes a second at the snap to digest what is happening in front of him. He treads to the side a bit, but doesn’t not commit to the play until he is sure to what is happening. The linebacker see’s the screen developing in front of him and manages to get to the running back as the ball does. He takes down the runner at the line of scrimmage and forces a third and long.

His natural instincts and vision allow him to sniff out play actions. In the 2015 SEC championship against Alabama, he reads the play action into a reverse and chases down the receiver on the sideline. Just like the previous plays, he takes a second at the snap to just watch what’s happening. His patience allows him to stand pat when the ball is faked to the running back. He then see’s the reverse and quickly reacts. His acceleration allows him to break to the sideline fist and make a tackle for minimal gain.

Davis made a name for himself making quick reads from the linebacker position, and breaking up plays before they could truly get going. It’s a skill vital to a middle linebacker in todays NFL, and allows him to serve the same role DeAndre Levy did on the Lions previously. This was not always the case though, as we will see later.

Instincts fail Davis at times, though. Sometimes he isn’t as patient as he should be reading a play, and makes costly, embarrassing, errors.

On this play against LSU in 2015, Davis tries to make a similar play to the one he made against Ole Miss above. He tries to shoot the gap at the goal line and stuff the runner in the backfield. Fournette beats him to the spot, though, and waltz’s around the corner for the easy touchdown. If Davis had instead taken a step back then treaded towards his left he would meet Fournette at the goal line. Trying to take down Fournette at the goal line is tough, but it’s better then letting him walk by you for an easy score.

His struggles against LSU didn’t end there. He fails to sniff out a screen on this play and ends up in no man’s land.

Davis reads the screen, and positions himself well. There are blockers in front of him, though, so he guesses which way the runner will go. He goes the wrong way and get stuck on the wrong side of the play. If he had stayed in position he could have stopped the play for medium gain. Instead LSU got by Florida’s first defender and the rest of the defense had clean up the play.

The one benefit from Davis’s move, though, was it kept the ball carrier away from the side line. He cut off the corner and forced him towards the inside.

Davis’s tendency to sometimes get to far ahead of a play really hurts on play action. On this play against UMass, he gets a clear run into the backfield, and the quarterback. He falls for the play action and decks the empty-handed running back while the quarterback runs by him.

He times the snap perfectly and should have had an easy tackle for loss. His instincts fail him, though, and he makes an embarrassing error.

Play action is something Davis struggled with a lot during him time at Florida. He tries to over anticipate plays, and finds himself turned around chasing a ghost while the play continues behind him.

Davis has a knack for over committing. His mistakes on play action plays are not the only times over commitment burns him.  His issues with over anticipation also lead to him whiffing on tackles. He will chase down a runner at full speed, then get his ankles broken trying to make a tackle.

Against UMass last season, he was juked out by the Minutemen’s QB, and allowed a preventable touchdown.

Davis knows where the QB is running, and tries to beat him to the spot. The UMass QB sees him coming and hesitates. The small hesitation sends Davis flying by and the Gators give up a touchdown.

Against Alabama in the 2015 SEC title game, he misses out on a sack due to an over commitment.

The play breaks down and Davis manages to chase down the quarterback. That should have been a sack for a huge loss, but instead Davis is left grasping the air. Luckily, his teammates cover him and his error only costed Florida five yards.

Still, there is no reason for him to miss the tackle.

Davis struggled with open field tackles against Ole Miss in 2015 as well.

Neither of these misses were that costly, in the second one he still technically made the tackle. But the Lions play Aaron Rodgers twice a year. Rodgers will make a team pay for whiffing on sacks.

Both issues are coachable so Lions fans should not have too much to worry about surrounding their new first round linebacker entering the season.

The key to everything Davis does, whether it’s the good like stuffing an RB and the goal line or the bad, like bursting into the backfield to tackle the wrong guy, is his speed.

Davis fly’s around the defensive backfield to make plays all around the field.

On this play against Alabama he partially redeems himself. Davis quickly closes on the quarterback as he leaves the pocket. He gets into the backfield fast when the play breaks down and doesn’t make any errors tackling the quarterback. The play is ruled an incompletion as the ball was quickly thrown out of bounds, but his chase stopped the Tide from converting on an easy check down.

Against Vanderbilt he again forced an incompletion with his blazing speed into the backfield.

He erupts through the line after the snap. Davis shoves off a blocker in the backfield then goes full steam ahead towards the quarterback. He forces a bad pass and an incompletion despite still being a few yards away. Just his speed and presence his scary for an opposing quarterback.

All year his speed was the most important factor to his game, he was everywhere at once and always happened to be at the right place at the right time. He had the ability to take a second to scan a play because he knew he was fast enough to get to the spot he needed to be.

Davis is an exciting prospect for the Lions and will fill their biggest need this season. He makes a few errors at times, but he is a pro ready player with potential to hold down the middle linebacker spot for years down the line.

For more NFL film, and Detroit Lions news follow me on Twitter!

All film courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com

Another Week, Another Game Winning Drive for the Lions

Gif Breakdowns, NFL

Mansur Shaheen

For the third straight week, and the fourth time this season, Matthew Stafford has put together a late game winning drive to propel the Lions into victory. After failing to do so against both the Chicago Bears and Tennessee Titans, Stafford has found his rhythm late game and may have even put himself in the conversation for NFL MVP.

The Lions led for majority of Sunday’s match up against the Redskins, but the offense was never able to put the game away and allowed the Redskins to take a lead with just over a minute to play after a long Kirk Cousins run for a touchdown.

Yet again, it was up to Stafford and the offense to pull out another late victory.

After a touchback on the kickoff, the Lions got the ball at their own 25 with 65 seconds to play.

The Lions got the drive off to a fast start, as Marvin Jones (#11) got open down field and caught a 23 yard pass over the middle to get the ball around midfield after Stafford managed to use his feet to get out of the pocket and avoid the pass rush.

Jones was able to find so much room over the middle of the field for two reasons. First, while he ran a deep crossing route, Andre Roberts (#12) ran a shallow route that attracted the attention of Redskins safety Will Blackmon (#41). Blackmon vacates the exact area Jones makes the catch and allows the play to get behind him.

snap1

Linebacker Will Compton (#51) also dropped back into coverage, and picked up Roberts over the middle, the defenders both covered the same zone, and Roberts ended the play surrounded by three Redskins while Jones had acres of room downfield.

The Redskins were also playing in prevent defense. Although this makes sense as they do not want to give up easy points late on a deep pass, their coverage was way too soft. Quinton Dunbar (#47) was playing man coverage on Jones but maintained a 5 yard cushion throughout the route, and despite following Jones the whole way still managed to leave him wide open. This cushion would have been fine, had the defenders in zone coverage read the play correctly and not have all chosen to chase down Andre Roberts. If Matt Stafford had the time to find him, Anquan Bolden was wide open down the left sideline.

Stafford used his feet again on the second play of the drive, and this time turned up field and scrambled for a 14 yard gain and another first down.

The Redskins rushed four on the play, but they only rushed the edges. Will Compton and Su’a Cravens (#36) both dropped back into zone coverage, clearing the entirety of the middle of the field.

snap2

This may have been by design though. Ryan Kerrigan (#91) pulled a late stunt to collapse back on Stafford when he first stepped up in the pocket, but was late and missed a tackle.

If Kerrigan had been there earlier, he may have even had a sack on the play, but an execution error by the Pro Bowl Linebacker allowed the Lions to keep the drive rolling.

With the ball on the Washington 38, the Lions were now within striking range.

Washington elected to go right back into a soft prevent defense, and again gave up a pass over the middle. Will Compton dropped way back into deep coverage, along with both safeties, upon the snap. Cravens and Kendall Fuller (#38) also dropped back, and yet again the Lions had full use over the middle of the field.

snap3

The Lions started the drive with all three timeouts, and had only used one to this point. With over 30 seconds to play and two timeouts remaining, there is no reason for the Redskins to play so conservatively. They only rushed four and cleared the middle of the field, giving Stafford enough time to find Roberts over the middle for another 20 yards.

Now within 20 yards of their own end zone, the Redskins decided to finally get aggressive.

They rushed five on the play, but Stafford immediately lobbed it towards Golden Tate (#15) on a fade route to the corner of the end zone. The play was executed well, and if not for great positioning by Greg Toler (#20) to force Tate out-of-bounds, would have been the winning touchdown.

The defense remained aggressive on second down, rushing six.

The blitz caught the Lions off guard and Stafford was forced to quickly throw the ball towards Tate to avoid a sack.

snap5

Su’a Cravens burst through the front line untouched, and throws off a block by Zach Zenner (#34) to get to Stafford. On the other side, Kerrigan absolutely man handles Riley Reiff (#71) and shoves him back into his quarterback.

Andre Roberts had space just beyond Tate, but the pass rush made sure Stafford didn’t have time to get the ball to him.

After a more aggressive pass rush with more men playing zone over the middle of the field worked on both first and second down to force the Lions into a third and long, the Redskins chose to go back into prevent defense, and lost.

This time, the defense did their job to near perfection.

snap6

None of the Lions receivers had much separation on the play, and the eight men who dropped back into coverage seems to have well communicated their roles.

prevent

About a half second before Stafford throws the ball, you can see the smothering coverage the defense had on the play. None of the Lions four receivers have much room, until Anquan Bolden (#80) beats Kendall Fuller on a double move allowing him to get behind the corner. Even after getting behind Fuller, Bolden was still surrounded by both Quinton Dunbar and Will Blackmon.

For a quarterback like Matthew Stafford, there was enough room. Stafford delivers a near perfect pass into a small window of space, a “Stafford Window” as they are called, and Bolden made the catch and managed to fight through two men to get into the end zone for the game winning score.

The Redskins let the game slip through their fingers, and it was due to play calling on defense.

Matthew Stafford is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the NFL. He is a very accurate passer, and although he is too confident in his arm to make tight throws sometimes, his aggressive decision makes a dangerous quarterback in clutch situations.

How do you beat him?

Pass Rush.

Stafford has shown some scrambling ability this season, and even picked up a first down on this drive with his feet, but he is not fast or agile enough to dodge heavy pass rush on his own. The Lions pass protection has been awful this season, and the best way to Stafford is to not give him enough time to look downfield. The Redskins only rushed more than four players twice on this drive, both plays led to an incompletion.

Dropping into deep pass defense and allowing a team shallow passes over the middle is usually a sound strategy late in a close game. But execution errors allowed the Lions to move the ball with ease, and the lack of overall pass rush on a quarterback with Stafford’s skill lost them the game.

Matthew Stafford is one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, and the Redskins gave him just enough time to prove it.

 

 

Header via GettyImages