Breaking Down The Detroit Lions Offense

Since this game is meaningless to the Packers and I have already covered their offense, I'm going to take the time today to break down the Lions' offense.

It feels as if this NFL season has passed by in a flash. The Detroit Lions sit at 10-5 and have a playoff berth in hand going into their game on Sunday against the arch rival Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field. The Lions haven’t won a game at Lambeau since the 1991 season, a fact that we are constantly reminded of every season when the Packers away game comes around. However, the Lions go into this year’s game with their best shot of winning it since ... last season when they lost to the Pack by a score of 28-26.

Leading the Lions in this game will clearly be their offensive unit that is ranked fourth in the NFL this season and is putting up close to 28.9 points a game. The Lions have won all 10 games in which they have scored 20 or more points and have flirted with the 50-point mark several times this season. Clearly, this is the vision that Martin Mayhew, Jim Schwartz and Scott Linehan had for this unit when they spent draft picks and money bringing in guys like Matthew Stafford, Brandon Pettigrew, Jahvid Best, Nate Burleson, Tony Scheffler and Titus Young, among others.

When you have talent that is wide ranging like the guys mentioned above, it is really tough to side with one scheme or system over another. I remember sometime last offseason there was a debate here on POD about what to call this offensive system. Is it a West Coast or a Spread or even an Air Coryell? The answer is that Scott Linehan runs a system that takes into account all of the major passing offenses, including a few college ones. The great thing about having such a versatile and open-minded coordinator is that you can fit multiple pieces -- even the ones that aren’t currently on your roster -- into your offense quickly.

One thing that decides which we see more is who is playing quarterback for the Lions. For instance, the Lions were more or less a typical mid-range West Coast offense when Shaun Hill was leading them last season. You saw lots of check downs to tight ends, screens to backs and receivers (read tight ends), and not too many (if any) vertical passes downfield. That is obviously something to be expected and really something that makes sense. You wouldn’t want Hill running an offense that features deep, vertical routes. It would just end up being an ugly mess.

In the same way, you wouldn’t want someone as inexperienced as Drew Stanton running a pure NFL offense. You would want to put him in an offensive system where he has experience and is comfortable. That is why we saw the Lions in college style formations like the pistol (basically, a shotgun formation, but the quarterback is in a shallower drop with a back behind him) when Stanton was under the helm. In that manner, Stanton’s Lions managed to beat both the Packers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

The beauty of having a quarterback like Matthew Stafford is that you can really run any scheme you want. He is accurate enough -- though streaky at times -- to run a West Coast, but he also has the arm strength to run a high flying offense like an Air Coryell offense. With him at the helm and the talent around him, Scott Linehan can basically run any type of passing play he wishes to, a luxury that he has taken full advantage of this season after a couple of previous lackluster years as Lions offensive coordinator.

Still, I would classify the Lions as an Air Coryell team if you were to put a gun to my head and told me to pick one scheme. This is still the Calvin Johnson and Matthew Stafford show in Detroit, and this team is fueled by big vertical plays on offense most of the time. The Lions are second in the league in passing plays of 40 or more yards this season with 15; just one behind the New York Giants for the most in the NFL.

The great part about this offense really is the fact that it’s not completely built yet. The Lions still constantly rely on the shotgun formation to help the offensive line buy time for Matthew Stafford. The Lions still have one of the weakest rushing attacks in the NFL, one that is currently ranked at 29th and averages only about 97 yards a game. If the Lions can go into the 2012 offseason and acquire a few better offensive linemen and go into next season with a full complement of backs in Best, Mikel Leshoure and maybe even a rookie first-round pick, the sky really is the limit for this offense in the future.

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