Detroit Lions' Abysmal Rushing Defense Could Doom Playoff Push

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Detroit Lions' Abysmal Rushing Defense Could Doom Playoff Push
Jeffrey G. Pittenger-USA TODAY S

For the last month, the Detroit Lions run defense had been nothing short of outstanding. 

Here is what that Lions defense had accomplished in the last four games:

Opponent Attempts Yards Rushing First Downs
Green Bay 15 24 0
Tampa Bay 24 22 1
Pittsburgh 27 40 4
Chicago 20 38 1

That is stifling run defense, allowing just 1.4 yards per carry. 

Detroit continued the suffocation in the first half against Philadelphia. In the first quarter, the Eagles netted negative rushing yards and failed to record a single first down. Philadelphia struggled with their typical east-west offensive system, and the Lions easily snuffed out their rushes.

The wall cracked a little in the second quarter, as LeSean McCoy figured out that he needed to abandon jump cuts and wide steps. McCoy started running with more power and sticking behind his blockers. 

Philadelphia ran for 59 yards in the second quarter, more than the Lions had surrendered in any of their last four games. 

Detroit appeared to regroup at halftime, as they held the Eagles to just 21 rushing yards in the third quarter. Between the snowy conditions and the stout play which produced two tackles-for-loss in that period, it looked like Detroit's run defense was once again set to be a key to victory.

Alas, NFL games are four quarters. And in the fourth quarter, the breakdown of the run defense was one of the most cataclysmic collapses in NFL history. 

McCoy thrashed Detroit for 148 fourth-quarter rushing yards. He kick-started that epic quarter with a 40-yard touchdown on the fourth play of the period.

On that run, he smartly darted from behind great blocks by his line and exploded through a weak tackle by safety Louis Delmas. Cornerback Rashean Mathis looked like a matador with a flailing arm tackle that McCoy easily pranced through on his way to the end zone. Backside safety Glover Quin never appeared in the picture. 

That touchdown tied the score at 14, but it fundamentally changed the timbre of the game. Even after Jeremy Ross returned the ensuing kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, the Eagles still, strangely, held the momentum. 

On the third play of the next drive, the dam completely broke. 

McCoy took the handoff and darted to the left B-gap, the same hole he exploited on his prior run. Tackle Nick Fairley was easily moved out of the hole, while linebacker Stephen Tulloch raced up the field and completely abandoned his gap integrity. 

Good second-level blocks by the Philadelphia receivers made it easy. McCoy was not touched as he sprinted 57 yards to the end zone. Poor pursuit angles and lack of positional discipline doomed the Lions once again. 

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The Eagles kept on running like Forrest Gump. On Philly's next play from scrimmage, McCoy ripped off another 26 yards as Delmas wildly missed another tackle. Quin was faked to the snowy turf on another tackle attempt. He won't be credited with a missed tackle because he never made contact, but make no mistake—Glover Quin was culpable on this play.

When Nick Foles scrambled for another 20 yards on the next play, the dispirited Lions defense was done. Foles finished off that drive with a touchdown plunge behind a strong goal-line surge to propel him into the end zone. 

McCoy would go on to become the first Eagle to rush for more than 200 yards in a game since Deuce Staley lit up the Dallas Cowboys for 201 in the 2000 season opener. He finished with 217 yards on 29 carries, with 132 of those yards coming in the fourth quarter. 

Third-stringer Chris Polk ran for 50 yards on four carries, including a 38-yard touchdown. The Eagles finished with 299 yards on the ground, and that includes three deferential losses to run out the clock. 

The mighty beast has been tamed. What had been such a strength for Detroit reared up and reemerged as a major thorn in the Lions' paw. 

 

What seemed like such a formidable asset was exposed in Philadelphia. The Eagles offensive line dug in its heels and pushed around the Detroit front. Runners found lanes, and the second level of the Detroit defense could not tackle. 

Some of this must be attributed to the snowy conditions, but this was not a fluke. When the Eagles determined they really wanted to run the ball right at Detroit, the Lions offered less resistance than the Iraqi army in the first Gulf War. 

Future opponents are going to take notes and apply them. Here's what they will glean:

  • The Lions' ends continually rushed too far, too fast up the field. That left wide lanes which were easily blocked. 
  • Runs across the formation are gold, particularly when following double-teams on Ndamukong Suh inside.
  • The Detroit safeties lack discipline when forced to operate in space

 

Not every team is equipped like the Eagles to exploit these vulnerabilities, but the upcoming opponents will try. Even though the Ravens, Detroit's opponent next Monday night, have struggled to run, they can follow the Philly blueprint. 

The final two games could be especially challenging. The New York Giants and Minnesota Vikings both feature strong power runners in Andre Brown and Adrian Peterson, respectively. 

Heading into Week 14, those two ranked third and seventh in yards per carry over the last three games, per Team Rankings. 

Detroit squandered an excellent opportunity to seize complete control of the NFC North because of its leaky run defense. If the Lions ultimately miss the playoffs, they must look back at the fourth quarter in Philadelphia and the abysmal breakdown of the rushing defense.

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