The Detroit Lions and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin knew they'd have their hands full coming into Monday night's contest in Dallas with rookie running back Ezekiel Elliott.
"It's fitting the right gaps, making sure we're funneling the ball the right way, making sure that we're tackling," Austin said, when asked how they can be successful against Elliott, the NFL's leading rusher.
"Those things usually take care of themselves if you're playing well."
Austin knew all too well one missed gap or missed tackle with Elliott could mean a big play. Unfortunately, Austin watched that very scenario develop right in front of his eyes in the first quarter.
Elliott found a gap and made the Lions pay to the tune of a 55-yard touchdown run. That play is the subject of this week's Film Review:
Dallas is facing a 2nd and 3 from their own 45-yard line. First off, that's a dangerous down for defenses against the Cowboys, because it basically opens up the entire playbook for a terrifically balanced offense.
The Cowboys come out in their base three receiver set with tight end Jason Witten outside the left tackle and Elliott as the lone back.
Detroit counters with their nickel package (one extra defense back). The Lions show blitz pre-snap with nickel corner Asa Jackson and then linebackers Tahir Whitehead and DeAndre Levy in the A-gaps .
At the snap, Jackson continues to come on the corner blitz and is unblocked, while Levy and Whitehead both slough off the blitz to fit their gaps and play the run/pass.
The first mistake for the Lions is that Jackson doesn't read run soon enough, and takes a poor angle. He's already too deep when he reads run and is out of the play.
Right tackle Doug Free makes a great block on defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker, who was playing on the outside straight up across from him. Center Travis Frederick does a nice job pushing defensive tackle Stefan Charles out of the play, and right guard Zack Martin gets enough of Whitehead to affect his ability to react to Elliott's cutback into the B-gap before then helping Frederick on Charles.
Austin talked about being gap disciplined throughout the week, but when a player can cut back on a dime as well as Elliott, and then excel through the hole with his speed, it makes it tough on linebackers, as Whitehead found out.
Whitehead wasn't quick enough filling the open gap after the Elliott cutback, which sprung Elliott into the third level and off to the races.
Now, it's a foot race between safety Glover Quin and Elliott to the end zone. Unfortunately for Quin, Elliott was also a standout track star, winning the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, 110-meter hurdles and 300-meter hurdles to end his high school track career. He was the Gatorade Track & Field Athlete of the Year in the State of Missouri.
Elliott won the race to the end zone and put the Cowboys up 14-7 with a dive into the end zone.
Filling gaps and tackling was crucial coming into Monday night's matchup, and the Lions didn't do enough of it to win the game.