Can the Detroit Lions' Run Defense Rebound Against Baltimore?

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Can the Detroit Lions' Run Defense Rebound Against Baltimore?
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After four weeks and three quarters of sheer dominance, the Detroit Lions' run defense suddenly morphed from impenetrable wall to single-ply tissue paper. 

Over a month of excellence was blown away in a blizzard of yardage by the Philadelphia offense in the fourth quarter of Detroit's 34-20 loss to the host Eagles

Here is what the Lions had done in the prior four weeks against the run:

Opponent Attempts Yards Yards Per Rush
Green Bay 15 24 1.6
Tampa Bay 24 22 0.9
Pittsburgh 27 40 1.5
Chicago 20 38 1.9

 

That is a suffocation of the opposing run offense, allowing just 124 yards on 86 carries. In addition, the Lions had not allowed a rushing touchdown since Chicago's Matt Forte ripped off a 53-yard touchdown in the second quarter of Week 4. 

For the first two-thirds of the snowy escapade in Lincoln Financial Field, the defensive whiteout continued. 

Philadelphia's first 14 carries produced 43 yards, 14 of which came on one LeSean McCoy jaunt. 

That means in 100 carries against them, the Lions run defense surrendered just 167 yards. For the opposing offenses, trying to run at the Detroit front seven defined futility.

Yet the slushy conditions forced the Eagles to keep on running, like the classic Journey song. And run they did.

Philadelphia ran around, over, past and through the suddenly hapless Detroit defense for an astonishing 223 yards on 21 carries. As noted on the Eagles' team website:

Coming into the final stanza, the Eagles had rushed 25 times for 76 yards, but reeled off 223 yards on 21 carries in the fourth quarter. According to Stats, Inc., that’s the most rushing yards by any team in a quarter since 1991 when quarterly stats were kept.

So was that historically inglorious quarter a snowy aberration, or rather a regression to normalcy? A bizarre confluence of bad weather and outstanding offensive line play by Philly, or a usable blueprint of impending doom for the Lions?

The answer lies within those two extremes. 

Other teams are highly unlikely to be able to replicate what Philadelphia did in the fourth quarter. LeSean McCoys don't grow on trees, after all; McCoy is an elite back, the NFL's leading rusher and arguably the most complete running back in the league. 

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The Eagles also have a strong offensive line, notably in guards Evan Mathis and Todd Herremans. They are the two highest-rated run blocking guards in the league according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). 

Philadelphia leads the league in yards per carry, and as Team Rankings notes, the Eagles rank third in percentage of run plays on the season.

Under new coach Chip Kelly, the Eagles run the ball frequently and quite successfully against everyone. Detroit was yet another victim, not some isolated incident.

While other teams might not have the resources to run so effectively, the Eagles did exploit a fundamental weakness in the Detroit defense that other teams had been overlooking. This is the primary cause for concern going forward. 

Philadelphia ascertained that when the Lions align in the Wide 9 technique up front, a distinct advantage can be gained by attacking the inside.

As an example, this is a picture of the alignment on McCoy's 40-yard touchdown run. 

NFL Game Rewind

The Eagles have six blockers to handle the Detroit front four. What the Eagles did that is different from what other teams have done is a stroke of coaching adjustment brilliance by Chip Kelly and his offensive staff.

Instead of trying to use the extra blockers to quickly get to the second level and attack the linebackers, the Eagles double-teamed both defensive tackles.

Because the ends are aligned so wide, there is no problem using a tight end to nullify one of them. In fact, on a handful of successful runs in that fateful quarter, the edge-blockers for the Eagles didn't need to block the defensive ends at all. By sheer alignment and initial upfield surge, they were out of the play.

The dual double-teams were especially effective on the slick surface, as Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley couldn't anchor against the attack.

The Eagles didn't sustain the double-teams very long at all. They didn't need to. Once the Lions' defensive tackles were moved, one of the blockers from each double-team peeled off and still had time to engage the second-level defenders.

NFL Game Rewind

Expect to see Detroit's remaining opponents try to do the same thing every time the Lions line up in the Wide 9.

Detroit gets a bit of a reprieve with the Ravens heading to town. Per Team Rankings, Baltimore ranks dead last in yards per rush, averaging just three measly yards per attempt. The Eagles gain a full two yards per carry more than Baltimore does on average.

Being back in the friendly confines of Ford Field should help as well.

Detroit Run Defensive Splits
Yards Per Carry Rank
Home 3.3 t-1st
Away 4.6 t-26th
Overall 4.1 t-13th

teamrankings.com

Between Baltimore's struggles running the ball and Detroit's bump from the home crowd, the odds favor a rebound this week.

The key will be handling much better rushing attacks in the final two weeks. Both the Vikings (4th) and Giants (5th) have earned lofty ratings in yards per carry over the last three games. 

Detroit fared reasonably well against Minnesota and Adrian Peterson in the season opener. After giving up a 78-yard romp on the first defensive snap of the season, the Lions clamped down hard.

After that game, I broke down how quickly and effectively the Lions turned things around in that contest and shut down McCoy's biggest rival for best runner in the league. There is little doubt the Lions can do that again.

They might not even have to, as Peterson injured his ankle and left Sunday's game on a cart. The most recent update is that he will not play this week, and his future for the rest of the season carries some doubt.

The Lions had better hope the fourth quarter in Philadelphia was an aberrant abomination. They had better do more than hope; they must restore the roar to the run defense.

If they don't, the playoffs will vanish like the white uniforms in a driving snowstorm on a cold afternoon in Philadelphia. 

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