Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Lions observations: T.J. Hockenson, Trey Flowers rise up vs. the Falcons


By Chris Burke and Nick Baumgardner Oct 26, 2020


There’s an old saying in baseball, reserved for check-swing singles or 400-foot fly-ball outs: “They all look the same in the scorebook.” It applies to wins and losses, too, across all sports. Did the Lions catch a huge break late in Sunday’s 23-22 escape at Atlanta? Absolutely. Does it make the win count for any less in the standings? Nope.

No matter how it happened, Detroit has clawed its way back to .500 at 3-3, matching its win total from a season ago. Ten observations off a wild Week 7 game:

1. The past two opponents have been far from dynamic rushers, but the Lions’ adjustments after the bye week continue to help. Moreover, the Lions are starting to get more consistent physicality at the line of scrimmage from their rotations up front. John Penisini has been able to help set more of a tone early, as he did Sunday in a package with Danny Shelton and Nick Williams. This might have been Da’Shawn Hand’s best game from a run-defense perspective.

Detroit is no longer asking its middle linebacker to two-gap the center as much, and while the Lions went with more odd fronts again vs. Atlanta after sprinkling in some last week against Jacksonville, the fight at the point of attack felt better. Atlanta has rushed for more yards this season than New Orleans, for whatever it’s worth. The Lions allowed just 66 yards on 26 carries. It wasn’t perfect. It got worse as the game wore on. The tackling still comes and goes.

But most important: The Lions are forcing teams to earn what they get. Just do that. Against Green Bay and New Orleans, Detroit’s schemes and disorganization resulted in far too many free yards. The last two weeks have been better. — Nick Baumgardner

2. Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said last week that the next steps for T.J. Hockenson — how the second-year tight end could earn a bigger share of the passing attack — were “to continue to gain some separation and kind of come through with some big plays for us.”

Check and check on those notes.

Obviously, Hockenson had the game’s biggest catch on the final play from scrimmage. All told, though, he finished with five grabs for 59 yards and that TD, which put him back in line with his Weeks 1-3 performances (4.3 receptions, 57 yards on average). Better yet, ahead of the Monday night game, here are the players who created more separation on their targets in Week 7, per Next Gen Stats

  • Deebo Samuel, 49ers (7.0 yards)
  • Evan Engram, Giants (5.2 yards)
  • Christian Kirk, Cardinals (5.1 yards)

That’s it. That’s the whole list. Hockenson checked in at 5.0, matching Seattle’s D.K. Metcalf, Carolina’s Curtis Samuel and Atlanta tight end Hayden Hurst. It marked a big jump from performances like he had in, for example, Week 6 (3.5 average yards of separation) or Week 3 (2.3).

Those numbers can be juiced a bit — Hockenson’s final grab, on Detroit’s final drive, featured a sizable cushion as Atlanta tried to prevent anything deep. They also can look more impressive when a defense plays a lot of zone, as the Falcons appeared to do Sunday. Still, pass catchers have to find the space within those zones.

Bevell’s critique of Hockenson was a bit of self-scouting, too. The Lions have to keep working to help get Hockenson open, be it via alignment or motion.

His catches Sunday spread the field, sideline to sideline. That’s a good sign. — Chris Burke

3. The injuries to Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman have heaped so much work on Amani Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah. There have been some hair-pulling moments of frustration on the back end, but you can already see what extra time is doing for Oruwariye’s growth. And while it doesn’t seem like it as much on the surface right now, this should help Okudah so much as he goes forward.

Okudah’s far from a finished product and is still struggling in certain spots. But he’s improved each week. He does need to trust himself more, though. He got flagged for defensive pass interference Sunday on a route that he covered perfectly. He shoved a receiver at the last second and didn’t have to. If he trusts his technique there and doesn’t panic, it’s a pass breakup or an incompletion.

We’ve seen this a few times from Okudah, but he has to continue to find ways to build his confidence. Oruwariye, meantime, was a bit more up-and-down Sunday. But he’s still growing, too. Getting one of Trufant or Coleman back should help at corner. But Oruwariye and Okudah still need more reps, as there’s plenty of growth potential with each. — Baumgardner

4. Matthew Stafford had been fine through the Lions’ five games, but the passing attack as a whole was struggling to attack two key areas: downfield and between the hash marks. Then, Sunday, this:

The Falcons gave Stafford a handful of those throws, on Detroit’s drives at the end of the first half and end of the game. But the Lions’ QB also looked a lot more like his old self in his willingness to attack tight windows. That was especially true with Kenny Golladay, at all levels, and with Marvin Jones, across the middle.

“It felt like everybody had 50 yards at least,” Stafford said. “Everybody was involved. Still some plays out there I wish we could have back, but from a pass-game standpoint, it felt good.”

With just Monday night’s game left, Stafford sits atop the Week 7 leaderboard in average completed air yards (per Next Gen Stats) — how far downfield his throws traveled before reaching their receivers. He clocked in at 9.8 yards Sunday, at least a full yard out in front of every other quarterback, save for Carson Wentz (9.3).

It’s a massive uptick from Stafford’s first five games: 7.1, 5.5, 5.1, 7.5 and 6.1. The Lions’ late-game desperation offers some of the explanation, of course, but not all of it. According to that chart above, Stafford hit on 13 of 15 throws beyond 10 yards, and on all seven of his attempts of 10-plus yards between the hash marks. — Burke

5. Halapoulivaati Vaitai can be really impressive in the ground game, when he’s fresh. He’s big, powerful and bends pretty well for someone with that frame. A lot of power both in his base and upper body. Vaitai still has the occasional swing and miss in the run game. But when he engages, it can be impressive.

Health has been an issue up front all year. As this game got longer, Vaitai’s effectiveness at the point of attack seemed to wear off. He wasn’t alone there either, but it felt far less dominant. He’s had a foot injury to work through. He was dehydrated last week in Jacksonville. It’s hard to say where his health is at right now, but it’s probably not 100 percent.

So, now, the question. If/when Joe Dahl is ready to come back, do the Lions push Vaitai out to tackle and essentially replace Tyrell Crosby with Dahl? Tough call. Crosby has been up-and-down, too. Both he and Vaitai allowed a pair of pressures last week. The Lions’ offensive line is fighting through injuries right now, but it’s still fighting. — Baumgardner

6. Where would this Lions pass rush be without Romeo Okwara? He had both of his team’s sacks in Atlanta, including the forced fumble that helped Detroit to a 16-14, fourth-quarter lead. He also accounted for half of the Lions’ six QB hits, he’s leading them in QB pressures for 2020 (10) and he’s already halfway to his career high of 7.5 sacks for the season.

“I think Romeo has been unbelievable,” Matt Patricia said. “Really, he and Trey Flowers are two guys that come to work every single day and they make each other better.”

Flowers, by the way, is playing at an extremely high level right now, across the board — see: the fourth-down pass break-up he had while dropping into zone coverage Sunday. But Patricia trusts both in all situations, which is more of a revelatory statement on Okwara, whose exact role this season was uncertain headed into training camp. He’s only logged one official start (New Orleans), but he’s playing upward of 60 percent of the defensive snaps.

Under-the-radar example of Okwara’s impact: On multiple occasions Sunday, Atlanta QB Matt Ryan ran a play-action and bootlegged to his right … only to find Okwara waiting for him, having read the misdirection. Ryan threw at least two incompletions off those setups. — Burke

7. It feels like this has to stay as close to situational as possible. But when Jarrad Davis comes in as a third-down bull-rusher — preferably up the middle against a running back — the Lions’ pass rush basically doubles in effectiveness. Davis had two quarterback hits in this game, both at critical times.

The Lions have started to carve out more of a specialty rush role for him the past few weeks and when he’s been able to focus on that and little else, Davis has been effective. Same time, Detroit also had him on the field for non-rush reps last week and things were — as they have been the last few years — inconsistent. He can’t be trusted much in coverage and his dependability as a tackler against the run is just too hit-or-miss right now.

If he can pick up the rest of his game as he focuses on pinning his ears back and causing havoc in the backfield, the Lions can absolutely use Davis as a complementary piece the rest of the season. — Baumgardner

8. OK, it can’t all be fun and games. The Lions were at the absolute brink against a 1-5 team under an interim coach, so a few things went wrong before the Stafford-led, late-game miracle.

Atop the list: Detroit’s continued insistence on force-feeding Adrian Peterson, especially in short-yardage spots. Were it not for the offense’s heroics on the final drive, it would’ve been easy to point way back to a fourth-and-1 attempt from the Atlanta 3 — Stafford under center, Jones motioning across, Peterson as the single back for a telegraphed run. The Falcons stuffed Peterson in a similar situation (third-and-1) in the fourth quarter, only for a too-many-men-on-the-field-penalty to save Detroit.

Plain and simple, the offense is more predictable with Peterson on the field, especially in those likely run situations.

That’s certainly not all on Peterson, either. The Lions left Dante Fowler unblocked on the fourth-down try, expecting Jones’ motion to hold him — it didn’t. Multiple Falcons came crashing through the B-gap on third down, as Jonah Jackson lost his balance. But when the Lions have between 1 and 3 yards to go, Peterson is converting about 54.5 percent of his carries; Swift is at 62.5 percent. The rookie has a much smaller sample, but he’s shown he can be effective in those spots.

And his presence alone forces opposing defenses into different looks and personnel, because they have to account for him as a receiving threat. The Lions still need to be able to run in short yardage. There’s no rule, though, that says they have to go with heavy looks and a bigger back when they do. — Burke

9. The coverage mixing felt pretty darn close to even in terms of man vs. zone. The Lions really had Ryan crossed up early in this game. Atlanta was clearly expecting man in a few situations where the Lions surprised them with zone looks.

The Lions are also mixing up some of their standard man-free looks as well. On one third down early in the game, Detroit showed two deep safeties only to roll into man coverage with a robber in the hole just before the snap. Ryan was late to adjust and there was nowhere to go with the ball. Eventually, though, adjustments were made. The Falcons started to find underneath stuff in the middle of the field, yards the Lions were going to give them so long as they weren’t allowing deep shots.

And while the overall discipline with regard to technique in coverage is still, at times, suspect — again, defensive coordinator Cory Undlin has done a better job of giving the team a chance the last two weeks. They’re not as predictable. Sometimes the call gets beat, but that’s football. When the same call gets beat over and over again and it keeps coming back — that’s problematic. Undlin and Patricia have started to settle in with what this group can and can’t do, and they’re finding ways to keep the team alive. — Baumgardner

10. Big-time bounce back performance by Jones, who caught five passes for 80 yards. Four of those receptions moved the chains. This was much more reminiscent of the Jones we’ve come to expect, and the Jones who was on display during training camp: a still-exceptional physical specimen with the body control and positioning to make difficult catches.

What did look different Sunday was how he made those grabs — as mentioned before, several came over the middle of the field. Too often in previous outings, the Lions allowed opposing defenses to take Jones out of the mix simply by draping deep safety coverage over top of him. Against the Falcons, Bevell utilized his veteran receiver instead as a zone-busting weapon between the second and third levels. (The Falcons employed a similar tactic with Julio Jones as the game progressed.)

The resulting 80-yard performance was Jones’ best since Week 9 in Oakland last year, Stafford’s final game of 2019. — Burke

(Photo: Dale Zanine / USA Today)

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