Lions in London: Kicking For the Win

The Detroit Lions executed the two-minute drill to perfection Sunday in London, defeating the Atlanta Falcons on a last-second field goal. Mark Schofield chronicles the Lions’ good decisions on the final drive.

Maybe it was jet-lag. Maybe the braised duck ossobuco at Maze was slightly undercooked during at dinner Saturday night. Maybe the guys had a pint too many at The Green Man Hotel & Pub. Whatever the reason, the Detroit Lions in London got off to a sluggish start Sunday, trailing Atlanta 21-0 at halftime. However, Jim Caldwell’s men roared back in the second half, finally getting the ball back deep in their own territory with less than two minutes remaining and needing a field goal to avoid a loss. Placekicking has been a thorn in Detroit’s side all season and the offense needed to cover lots of ground in a short time. Matthew Stafford delivered three big plays and the Lions got a much-needed 22-21 win at Wembley Stadium.

Play One

The Lions take over possession at their own 7-yard line with 1:38 remaining in the contest and no timeouts left. Stafford is in the shotgun and Detroit has 11 personnel on the field with a slot to each side of the formation. Atlanta has its nickel personnel in the game and show Cover 2 in the secondary:

Everybody Go Long!

Strong safety William Moore, circled in black, will come forward at the snap as the Falcons adjust their coverage to Cover 3. The Lions use a four-vertical concept on this play and, given the Cover 3 alignment from the defense, Stafford looks to one of the inside receivers. Golden Tate, the eventual target, is circled in white:

The defensive back over Tate takes an outside alignment knowing he has help to the inside from the strongside linebacker. The corner peels off to his flat zone responsibility as Tate continues his route down the seam. The outside vertical route has drawn the attention of the outside cornerback, while the free safety has backpedaled deep because of the four downfield routes:

Hole in the Zone

The pattern works as designed, opening up a big soft spot in the zone coverage for Tate’s seam route. The linebacker, cornerback and free safety form a nice triangle around Tate, but none of the defenders are within five yards of him:

Stafford finds his slot receiver for 32 yards and the Lions are on the move:
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Play Two

After an incompletion, Detroit faces 2nd and 10 at its own 39-yard line with 1:07 remaining in the contest. Stafford is once more in the shotgun and the Falcons show Cover 2 again in the secondary:

This time, the defense stays with Cover 2 and man coverage underneath. The two safeties each retreat to a tremendous depth, almost playing prevent, as the play develops:

Check Baby, Check

With the vertical receivers blanketed by Atlanta’s secondary, Stafford pulls the ball down and consults his check down route, running back Theo Riddick. Second-year linebacker Paul Worrilow has man coverage on him:

Stafford finds Riddick on the dump-off and the running back delivers a huge catch-and-run. Turning to the end-zone camera you can see how Riddick beats the linebacker. Worrilow has inside leverage on the running back:


Riddick utilizes a hard step to the outside, fooling Worrilow about his intended direction:

This leaves no one over the middle to contend with the now wide-open running back.

Twenty yards later, the Lions are on the cusp of field goal range:

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Play Three

After Stafford clocks the football, Detroit now faces 2nd and 10 at the Atlanta 41-yard line. While their recently acquired kicker does hold the NFL record for the longest field goal in history, Matt Prater will not be attempting the game-winner in the thin air of Denver. A field goal from this spot will be a 58-yard try on the “soft” Wembley Stadium turf. To increase the chances of a win, the Lions need a few more yards.

All Hands on Deck

The Lions empty the backfield and Stafford stands in the shotgun. The Falcons nickel defense shows Cover 3:

As Atlanta drops three deep defenders, the two outside receivers run deep routes along the sideline. To the inside, the three offensive players each run a route toward the left sideline:

Stafford finds wide receiver Jeremy Ross in space between zone defenders with a short curl route. He secures the ball and cuts back to the inside, picking up a few more yards before the tackle is completed:

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The Lions spend the next few plays bleeding off the clock and positioning the football toward the middle of the field. Prater does his job and Detroit escapes London with a one-point win.

Now, A Word From Our Kicker

While this was a big kick and victory for the Lions – such success has not been the norm for them this season. To dig a little deeper into these struggles, I asked Inside The Pylon colleague Chuck Zodda, a former collegiate kicker himself, for his take:

“To say Detroit has had kicking problems this year would be like saying Apple Maps was a little buggy at first. Lions kickers are a combined 9-for-19 on field goals for the year, “led” by Alex Henery ‒ who was 1-for-5 before being cut. That came on the heels of Nate Freese starting the season 3-for-7, leading to his release. Which means that at this point, Matt Prater, the current Lions kicker, and his 71.4% field goal percentage is actually an improvement for this team ‒ in a league that has not averaged below 80% on field goal attempts since 1999.”

“However, the Lions kickers are not entirely to blame for their struggles. The long-snapping battery is the major issue. Detroit’s snap-to-kick times are consistently longer than the 1.2 seconds typically required for a clean get-off on a kick. Their snaps are often bobbled and/or misplaced by the holder, punter Sam Martin, who is the weak link in this operation.”

“So why does Martin still have the job? I have absolutely no idea. Martin is a tremendous punter, planting 45% of his kicks inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, well above the league average this year of 34%. Many teams will pick the best holder from their backup quarterbacks and punters, as those players tend to have the best feel for controlling the ball with their hands. So while Martin is not a good option, he is most likely the strongest of the candidates on the roster, which does not bode well for the Lions kickers over the rest of the season.”

Exploiting Coverage

On each of the plays on the Lions’ final drive the secondary executes their coverage assignments, but Stafford and the offense do a better job of finding holes or exploiting mismatches. On the first play, Atlanta’s Cover 3 works to take away the outside vertical routes, but the quarterback admirably stays with his read, working between the two inside routes and putting the football into that soft spot between the three defenders. The only potential mistake here is the depth from the free safety. He plays this very conservatively, almost to a fault. The expanded gap in coverage extends the size of Stafford’s throwing window.

You Get What They Give

Riddick’s catch-and-run is a great example of a quarterback taking what the defense provides. The Cover 2 on that play swallows the four receivers, so Stafford quickly gets the ball to his running back in a personnel mismatch. Riddick’s move to beat the linebacker is textbook. Atlanta played conservatively on the final completion, and their two-deep zone underneath shell opened opportunities for what Detroit wanted: a gain of 10 yards and better field goal position. Out of these plays, this might have been the one where the defense wanted to force a quicker throw using a blitz. Falcons coaches might have been worried about giving up a quick touchdown on such a play, but in my estimation they miscalculated. Stafford and Ross pick up the additional yardage and the kick for Prater is that much easier.

Follow Mark on Twitter @MarkSchofield.

Mark Schofield has always loved football. He breaks down film, scouts prospects, and explains the passing game for Inside the Pylon.

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