With Week 3 officially in the books, it's time to shine a spotlight on the league's standout performer and hand out a "Game Ball." I will do this every week from now until the end of the season. Take a peek at the previous winners if you missed those.
Week 2: Houston Texans WR, Nico Collins
After grinding every single snap from the week, I will be bringing to the table a combination of film analysis and advanced data to break down the week’s most outstanding player or unit.
In a league driven by superstars, it is common for accolades and game balls to get handed out to the usual suspects, the guys you expect to put up jaw-dropping performances week in and week out. This week there were plenty of those instances to choose from. From Tyreek Hill and Justin Jefferson to Keenan Allen and Kenneth Walker III, there were some monster individual performances I could highlight. This week I am choosing to go a different route, however — I am going with an entire unit, a unit that left most scratching their head just a week ago. Their performance itself this week is worthy of discussion for the opposite reasons as last, they were utterly dominant. The adjustments and bounce back it took to get here make it worth my Week 3 Game Ball.
My Week 3 Game Ball goes to the ENTIRE Detroit Lions defense.
THE LIONS DEFENSE ROARS BACK
If you watched last week's game from the Lions, you likely came away very concerned about their pass rush. I could have certainly alleviated some concern by pointing out that the scheme and game-plan philosophy likely held them back as much as a lack of pass-rush winning. Granted, both things were concerning, but one is very fixable. Sunday, the Lions and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn got some things fixed. Let’s take a look at what changed.
LIONS PASS RUSH SETS THE TONE
Flash back to Week 2 against the Seahawks. Frankly, the Lions came in with one of the weirdest game plans imaginable. In a game in which the opposing team was down BOTH starting offensive tackles, the Lions never went on the attack with their pass rush and dropped at least one defensive lineman into coverage on 15 of 44 dropbacks (34%). A major change came this week against the Falcons — they did so on just 5 of 47 dropbacks (11%).
They timed and disguised these moments much better than last week as well. Against the Falcons, the Lions used a standard 4-down look with no SAM or RUSH LB for the obvious replacement rusher. They did incorporate a delayed blitz from one of the STACK LBs to ensure the ball still came out quickly — it’s a much better way to confuse both the quarterback's sight picture and internal clock.
This paid dividends on a second-and-17 play in the third quarter when Romeo Okwara, the dropping DL, got his hands on a ball that likely would have been an easy completion.
Another notable transformation was the Lions' shift from a containment-focused pass-rush philosophy to actively pressuring the quarterback — get the QB off his spot or force the ball out quickly. The Lions predominantly deployed 4-man rushes and consistently found success with just 4 rushers. In fact, the Lions generated 7 sacks on the day and did so while only sending an extra rusher on 6 of 47 dropbacks (13%). This was a massive turnaround for the Lions' defense, especially considering the Falcons' OL is much better than the Seahawks’.
The philosophical change was met with high-level execution from the Lions front as they got a combined 20 pass-rush wins from Aidan Hutchinson (12) and Alim McNeill (8). ( Last week, McNeill gave them zero.) They also got six pass-rush wins on just 10 pass-rush snaps from Derrick Barnes and a variety of other smaller contributions from the likes of Charles Harris, Jack Campbell, and Benito Jones, all of whom were near a net zero a week ago. Simply put, the Lions were winning their 1v1s rushing the passer.
Lastly, after a rough outing against the Seahawks, coach Dan Campbell emphasized transitioning from keying the run to pass-rushing much quicker against play action, and the Lions did just that, formally registering pressure on five of 12 Desmond Ridder dropbacks featuring play-action and getting pass-rush wins on several others where the ball came out too quickly to call it pressure.
IMPORTANT PASS-RUSH DATA POINTS
Generated pressure on 38% of Ridder’s dropbacks, a 10% increase from their first two games. Resulted in 7 sacks.
Forced an average Time To Throw (TTT) of 2.6 seconds, down from 3.4 vs the Chiefs and 3.2 vs. the Seahawks.
Standout performances from Aidan Hutchinson (12 pass-rush wins), Alim McNeill (8), and Derrick Barnes (6).
LIONS RUN DEFENSE CONTINUES TO TAKE SOULS
What if I told you the Lions' run defense has actually been very good for the last 20 games (minus Carolina)? It has been especially good this season. Heading into their game vs. Atlanta, the Lions' front-7 was allowing a 5th-best 0.62 yards before contact (YBC) — essentially meaning, on average, the Lions first hit opposing ball carriers just past the LOS.
Gap integrity, trust, and discipline is the focal part of what makes this run defense effective. Atlanta and their dominant run game, led by RBs Bijan Robinson and Tyler Allgeier, was set to be their biggest challenge yet. The Lions' defense answered the call and did so while actually raising the bar. They allowed an average YBC of just -0.6! You read that right — on average, the Lions' defense hit Falcons ball carriers behind the LOS. The end result? A mere 2.6 yards per carry allowed and stopping 11 out of 18 designed runs for 2 yards or less. For the first time in his young NFL career, Bijan looked mortal.
The Lions run D has been dialed in this year. Constantly getting their hands on opposing RBs in the backfield.— Brett Whitefield (@BGWhitefield) September 26, 2023
Two of my fave plays from Alim McNeil Sunday vs the Falcons. pic.twitter.com/7LZgM7PNpM
The Lions have huge aspirations this year, and if they are going to reach the goals they have set for themselves, they will need many more of these types of defensive performances. The young core of Hutchinson, Alim McNeill, Brian Branch, Derrick Barnes, and Jack Campbell look ready to carry the torch. Perhaps we witnessed a turning point for the Lions franchise on Sunday.