There was 12:21 remaining in the fourth quarter as the New York Giants’ defense tried to get the Detroit Lions off the field so the offense could complete a furious comeback. The Giants trailed 24 - 19, but with the Lions’ running game out of commission, the Giants’ defense looked like it could give the offense a chance if they could make a play against Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ passing game.
But then the worst happened. The Lions dug into their playbook and dialed up a deep pass that had the Giants’ secondary completely fooled. The resulting 41-yard touchdown strike essentially put the game out of reach for the Giants.
The Lions come out in the venerable Pro I Wing formation with two tight ends on the left side of the offensive line, Stafford under center, and with a fullback and running back behind him. The Lions had run the ball on early downs throughout the game and it certainly looked as though they were going to do so again.
The Giants respond as you would expect, with eight defenders close to the line of scrimmage, while both safeties and Janoris Jenkins stay within 10 yards. The Lions’ personnel grouping and formation has them expecting a run, and that’s exactly what the Lions show them.
Just before the snap the Lions motion one tight end from the left side of the formation to the right, hoping to expose the Giants’ coverage scheme. The Giants’ players do shift, concentrating more defenders around the line of scrimmage and weighting to the offensive right. Their shift also shows that they are in a Cover 4 defense, with zone across the board so their secondary can keep their eyes in the backfield and avoid being hung up on any blockers.
It’s not a bad call against the run. The Giants would have roughly enough defender to put a hat on a hat while keeping Antoine Bethea and Janoris Jenkins free to either make the tackle or force the running back out of bounds.
Unfortunately, that also means they are looking in the backfield and see the running back get the toss, convincing them to commit to the run, so nobody picks up Kenny Golladay as he runs the deep crossing route.
“A little run fake,” Golladay said after the game. “Once I saw the safety shoot, I just took off.”
Golladay’s quote after the game highlights one of the weakness of quarters coverage, that run/pass conflicts put a strain on the safety position. As the widest player, it is Janoris Jenkins’ job to come down and make sure the running back doesn’t get the edge. But as the strong safety, Antoine Bethea has to make a quick decision whether to come down and help support the run or drop into coverage and pick up Golladay.
As we know now, he made the wrong choice. If the Lions had played this as a simple play-action fake, perhaps Bethea wouldn’t have come downhill so hard and might have been in position to pick up Golladay in coverage and challenge the pass. But considering how hard the Lions sold the run, complete with the toss to the outside, the Giants can’t be faulted for biting just as hard — right?
Perhaps we can’t fault them too much for being completely fooled by a very well executed fake late in the game, but they had to have at least been aware of the possibility. This isn’t a “trick” play, but rather a regular feature in the Lions’ playbook. They broke out a very similar concept on their first play from scrimmage against the Green Bay Packers just two weeks ago.
To quote podcast co-host Joe DeLeone as we were talking after the game “The Lions had some real [guts] calling that flea flicker after showing it two weeks ago.”
And he has a point.
That play went for 66 yards and was the first play of the game. Something like that just sticks in the mind, and considering the groove Matt Stafford has been in — he completed 12 of 13 passes on third down and didn’t throw a single incompletion in the second half — and the fact that the Lions’ couldn’t run the ball on the Giants, something was probably up. Bethea probably should have picked up Golladay as he released upfield and through his zone.
Again, it’s hard to get on any one player too much for this particular play. Well-executed play-action is basically free yards in the NFL, and well-executed play-action from a heavy package is even harder to defend. Defending the run first, coming down to fill gaps and execute run fits is hard-wired into defenders and defensive schemes. You hear it in every defensive coordinator’s press conference: “We’re going to defend the run and rush the passer.”
Play-action exploits that and always has. Plays like the ones called by the Lions here take that to another level and force defenses to play the run by showing them a running back running the ball from a running set.
The larger issue is how many big plays the Giants have given up.
A year ago the Giants gave up the second-most passing plays of 20 yards or more in the NFL with 61. After eight games in 2019 they are giving up the second-most passing plays of 20 yards or more with 35, and no team has given up more than the Giants’ nine passing plays of 40 yards or more.
So as an individual play, the Lions’ flea flicker is an interesting example of how offenses can manipulate defenses with personnel packages, alignment, and play design. But it is also part of a larger trend, and it’s a trend that the Giants need to address if they want to get their defense on track.