Coming into the season, a lot of Dallas Cowboys fans like me were looking at the game against the Detroit Lions as a likely win. Now, the resurgent Lions at 3-0 are looking to be perhaps the biggest test for the Cowboys so far this year.
I watched the video of their game last Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings. If you aren't aware, the Lions came back from a 20-0 deficit to win the game 26-23. That was impressive, although the 0-3 Vikings have given up big leads in all three of their games so far. But the Lions certainly have some impressive weapons. Matthew Stafford is a big part of the story this year, and had a 108.8 QB rating in the Vikings game. His most potent deep target is WR Calvin Johnson, AKA Megatron. And TE Brandon Pettigrew led all receivers in the game with 112 yards.
Defensively, the beast in the middle is Ndamukong Suh. The Lions are also hoping to see first round draft pick Nick Fairley get his first action of the season. I also noticed some guy named Bobby Carpenter on the team. Don't know if he's any good, but he does have nice hair.
OK, enough of that. Here's what I saw in the game.
One thing I have to take into consideration watching this is that the Vikings are a very different team than Dallas. They play a 4-3 defensively and they have one of the best rushers in the game in Adrian Peterson. And although Donovan McNabb had a pretty good game, I think Tony Romo presents another set of problems entirely for them. There are certainly going to be some differences in how the Lions approach Dallas.
The Lions predominantly use the shotgun, running 58 out of their 72 offensive plays this way (81%). Going under center was more of a change of pace. The team also uses very little motion and a limited number of sets.
Almost all the shotgun formations involved one TE in the normal position with one RB next to Stafford and three receivers split out, two on one side and one on the other. They flip the formation from left to right, but otherwise it is set up like that almost every time. When they do go under center they will use a single back or a standard I-formation almost exclusively. They did have a couple of plays with an end around or a fake end around, but most of the sets are pretty basic. What the coaches seem to do is use the route running and some talented receivers to create opportunities, not a bunch of shifts and movement.
One thing they did not have was a running game. The Vikings held them to 20 yards on 19 carries, which may explain the preference for the shotgun, since rushing wasn't doing anything for them. And the Minnesota front seven gave the offensive lines fits, with five sacks, nine tackles for a loss, and seven quarterback hits. Jared Allen got three sacks and two each of the other category. When I look at his performance, I think Rob Ryan has to be planning to send DeMarcus Ware and Anthony Spencer after Stafford, especially with the anemic running game. He was vulnerable to pressure, although the Lions obviously made some adjustments at halftime to give him a little more time to work with. But the Ryan Chaos might give the Lions line fits. There were times the commentators talked about Stafford being off-rhythm, which often was because of the pressure.
However, Megatron, Pettigrew and RB Jahvid Best were able to get open a lot. If the pressure did not get to Stafford early, he was able to find his receivers and get the ball to them. The Detroit receiving corps is going to be a challenge for the Dallas secondary. Terence Newman and Mike Jenkins need to have good games, and the linebackers will have to cover the TEs and RBs coming out of the backfield. There were frequently five receivers in the pattern, and when they kept someone in to pass protect, they often snuck out into the flat. Stafford is pretty nimble and you have to get to him quick. This game may see some of Ryan's odd formations with extra DBs on the field to take away some of the passing lanes. A four man rush can certainly get into the backfield if the secondary can keep a target from coming open fast, and a three-man rush may do the job on occasion given the way the Detroit line was struggling.
One of the best plays of the night for the Lions was the first touchdown. With a first and 10 at the Vikings 32, they went into a rare two-back shotgun set with Calvin Johnson split wide right and another receiver wide left. The Vikings came with their basic four man rush, the extra backs bought some time, Johnson ran a steak down the sideline, and Stafford threw a pinpoint pass right to the pylon which Megatron went up and hauled in. If the Cowboys let that happen, it will be trouble.
Just like the offense, the defense doesn't use much trickery. They just line up in their basic 4-3 and rely on Suh and company to try and overpower the offense.
Here was one area where the opponent dictated a lot of the scheme. When the Lions were expecting run, they would put eight and even nine into the box, bring a CB or S up in run support. It was moderately successful, holding AD to 78 yards. He was getting 4.5 a carry, so there is a question if the Vikings went away from him too soon, particularly on a 4th and 1 call at the Detroit 17 early in the fourth, when they gave the ball to Toby Gerhart who did not make the yard. One of the most effective running plays the Vikings had was a 39-yard end around to Percy Harvin. The Vikings caught the Lions with nine in the box and led Harvin with a running back who took out the only player that could have stopped him near the line of scrimmage. Their other long run was a patented AD run off right tackle for 43 yards. There did seem to be much more room going to the edges than going up the middle.
The Vikings also used several different sets, which seemed to give the Lions a little trouble. They scored a touchdown out of a diamond set, with one back (or receiver) directly behind McNabb under center and two backs or tight ends lined up directly behind the tackles about half way back. (I was going to try to include a screen shot, but the replay of the game is not available tonight for some reason). They only used the formation a few times.
As the game went on the Lions defense got better or the Vikings offense got worse. It was probably a little of both. They definitely bottled AD up as the game went on, which forced the Vikings to go to their passing game. This in turn allowed them to put in extra backs and play to stop the pass, while Suh and the rest of the front four still kept pressure on McNabb. There was also the emotional side of the game. Having already lost two games they had substantial leads in, the Vikings were getting tight as they saw it happening again.
Lions Special Teams
One of Minnesota's touchdowns was set up by a 53-yard punt return, with a facemask penalty thrown on top. The return came right up the middle. Minnesota had 250 yards total in returns to only 132 for Detroit. This is something that Dallas may be able to exploit.
To sum it all up, the Lions are a much improved football team. The defensive front four is strong, as are their receivers, and Stafford can be dangerous if you give him time. The offensive line has issues and can be penetrated, and they had no running game at all. The secondary did pretty well, especially when they knew the Vikings were going to throw. Linebackers were OK, not spectacular but not bad.
Dallas needs to get to Stafford and needs to have an answer for that pass rush. If they do, they certainly are capable of winning the game. But it is going to take a much better effort than last Monday. If they miss on a few snaps again, then I don't think Tony Romo will be able to continue with his magic act keeping the ball in his possession.