Taming the Lions Pass Rush

The New England Patriots posted 34 points on the Detroit Lions and the Lions still lead the NFL in fewest points allowed. Before the game, Mark Schofield previewed the Lions scheme and talent combined to make opposing offenses miserable. Brian Filipiak reviewed the Patriots film to find out the keys to taming the Lions pass rush.


A major concern going into Week 12 centered around the matchup between the New England Patriots offensive line versus the Detroit Lions front seven ‒ in particular, a fierce defensive line headlined by defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and defensive end Ezekiel Ansah.

Heading into Gillette Stadium atop the NFC North at 7‒3, the Lions brought with them the top defense in the NFL based on total yards and points allowed per game.

While only ranked in the middle of the league in sacks with 26 registered, the Detroit defense had shown a penchant for punishing opposing quarterbacks with 19% of drop backs faced resulting in QB hits through Week 11; that comes to 71 out of 375 drop backs, though that does not account for scrambles ending in positive yards.

With premium talent combined with defensive coordinator Teryl Austin’s aggressive scheme, the Lions posed perhaps the most challenging threat to the much improved Patriots offensive line to date.

Yet, even with quarterback Tom Brady dropping back to pass 53 times (the most drop backs seen by the Detroit defense in a game this season), the offensive line held strong, allowing zero sacks and just four QB hits (8%).

Whether the product of solid execution in pass protection or keen awareness and improved pocket maneuverability by the quarterback – and sometimes both – the Patriots seemingly had all the answers for everything the Lions threw at them.

Who’s The Mike?

Late in the first half with the Patriots looking to extend a 14‒6 lead, the New England offense faced 3rd and goal with 8 yards to go. In shotgun formation with 12 personnel on the field, Brady starts with an empty backfield as running back Shane Vereen splits out wide. The Lions counter in their nickel defense with a 4‒2 alignment up front:

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With Brady recognizing an overload to the side of right tackle Sebastian Vollmer ‒ not because of numbers, but by the technique shown ‒ the quarterback motions Vereen into the backfield with just under 10 seconds on the play clock. Vereen will align offset to Brady’s right and on the outside hip of Vollmer. Brady’s first read will be tight end Rob Gronkowski.

The overload, as mentioned, is not a numbers advantage ‒ although the nearby linebacker, DeAndre Levy (#54), will end up rushing ‒ but rather a show of pressure to the gap to either side of Vollmer with Suh (#90) lined up in a 4i‒technique (“i” standing for “inside” shoulder of tackle) and defensive end Jason Jones (#91) wide of the tackle. Post-snap, Suh’s goal is to engage Vollmer, not right guard Ryan Wendell. We’ll get back to this matchup in a moment.

With 7 seconds left on the play clock, Brady appears to identify linebacker Tahir Whitehead as the “Mike,” which is acknowledged by center Bryan Stork. By declaring the Mike linebacker ‒ the defender designated by the offense to be the middle linebacker of the defense on that given play no matter the actual position played ‒ Brady is centering the blocking scheme. To simplify, he’s assigning Stork to block the Mike if he rushes while the rest of the line will block accordingly.

As the play clock reaches two seconds, both Detroit linebackers creep up to the line of scrimmage to show blitz. One is coming (Levy), one is not (Whitehead). But no matter who comes, and even if both do, Brady has set the pass protection up to succeed by motioning Vereen into the backfield to account for the linebacker on the weak side.

At the snap, Suh slants down hard on Vollmer. But the big right tackle avoids the defender by being sound in his technique, executing a smooth kick slide to get back in pass protection and mirror the edge rush from Jones. Wendell is then able to clear out Suh with a block from behind. Vollmer’s ability to get off the line quickly, avoid Suh, and engage Jones ultimately forces the pass rush from Levy well wide and into Vereen.

While the right side of the line has bunched three defenders together and behind Brady, the left side is faced with just one defender to block since defensive end George Johnson has dropped into a short zone; meanwhile the Mike linebacker ‒ not blitzing ‒ has picked up Brady’s first read, Gronkowski, in coverage.

With Gronkowski covered tightly by Whitehead and heading into bracket coverage from the nearby defensive back, Brady progresses to his second read. Due to the complete clear out of defenders to both his left and right, Brady is allowed to freely move up into the pocket, survey the field to his left, and casually connect with his second (if not third) read in tight end Tim Wright for the touchdown.

In just a matter of seconds, Brady was able to read the likeliest pressure schemes and account for them, placing his blockers in better position to win their individual battles, which they did with sound technique and execution.

Cross and Loop? No Problem

With only seconds to go before the end of the half, the Patriots received another chance to extend their lead. Using 11 personnel, New England once again works out of the shotgun. Detroit is in their nickel package and will bring heat:

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Utilizing a line stunt in which the defensive tackles (C.J. Mosley and Suh) will cross and exchange gaps to attack, the Lions hope to cause confusion along the interior. To cap off the maneuver, Detroit also has the weak side linebacker (Whitehead) loop behind the crossing defensive tackles. The blitz scheme is designed to entice the third lineman to help on one of the stunting tackles and then bring a third defender through the A gap.

However, by blocking the gaps, not the man, the Patriots interior linemen handle the stunt.

First, with Suh slanting to the weak side A gap, Wendell chooses not to engage, instead passing him off to Stork. The center picks up Suh and Wendell is now free to scan for the linebacker looping around the defensive tackle. On the left side, guard Dan Connolly engages Mosley, staggering the defensive tackle back a step and delaying his cross rush into the strong side A gap. Offensive tackles Nate Solder and Vollmer force both of their defenders wide, forming a clean pocket for Brady.

With the weak side linebacker blitzing, but not getting home due to Wendell’s block, the Lions zone coverage has a large hole, which is compounded by the strong side linebacker being frozen by Shane Vereen releasing into the flat.The throwing lane emerges, Brady hits a wide open Gronkowski breaking slightly off the seam route and the gain sets up an eventual field goal before the end of the half.

Conclusion

The New England offensive line tamed the vaunted Lions pass rush throughout the game, guiding the team to another impressive victory of a (then) division leader. Not to be ignored was offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels game plan which called for an array of quick passes to keep the Lions defenders off‒balance and a no-huddle approach to prevent a tiring front from substituting. And, as always, Brady’s awareness pre-snap as well as his pocket mobility and field vision made the task at hand easier.

But for Brady to even have a chance to effectively orchestrate his offense, it all starts up front. With a healthy offensive line intact starting in the Week 8 match-up against the Chicago Bears, Brady has been sacked just once in his last 172 drop backs. The confidence along the line continues to grow ‒ and Brady’s confidence standing behind it only makes the quarterback and the offense more dangerous.

All video and images courtesy NFL.com and NFL Game Rewind.

Follow Brian on Twitter @Brian_Filipiak.

Brian Filipiak knows about proper blocking technique, the basics of run defense, how to defeat an overload, and the point-of-attack.

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