I'll be honest, I feel a little weird writing this column after a win. I consider myself Pride Of Detroit's foremost Kool-Aid drinker, and it's not in me to get too down on the Detroit Lions (unless I'm in my cups). But, I planned this topic a week ago, so I'm tied to the offense, for better or for worse.
The Lions' offseason was supposed to prevent this sort of thing from happening. The Golden Tate signing and the Eric Ebron pick both pointed to an offense that could stay afloat without Calvin Johnson. Matthew Stafford's inconsistencies are well-documented by this point, but few people probably anticipated the regression by the offensive line or a kicking game that has reached the point of dark comedy. Fortunately, the same number of people probably predicted the Lions defense would be this dominant through six games. The Lions can still win without Megatron, just not in the way anyone envisioned.
I don't think Calvin is coming back until after the bye week. I don't think he should come back until after the bye week. A run at the playoffs will require a healthy Megatron down the stretch, and life is more fun when Calvin isn't hobbled.
For the purposes of this week's column, let's assume I'm correct. That means the Lions have two more Calvin-less games to worry about, so let's try to figure out what's going on with the Lions offense in the meantime.
I doubt this comes as a revelation, but the Minnesota Vikings didn't exactly respect the threat of the deep ball against the Lions last week. Those two-high looks the Lions are used to seeing were mostly absent. When the Vikings did line up that way, it was either an obvious passing situation or a feint before bringing a safety into the box. For most of the game, the Vikings rolled with one high safety and kept plenty of defenders in the short and intermediate areas, limiting damage on the quick throws that made up most of the Lions' passing game.
The Lions run a double-slant with the bottom two receivers in the image here, the lowest of whom is Tate. It's an easy, quick read for Stafford, which is important given that the Vikings send Harrison Smith on a blitz from the slot.
Tate makes a catch for 7 yards but is brought down almost immediately by the surrounding defenders. As a point of reference, here is Tate catching a slant with Megatron on the field against the New York Jets:
I'm using an extreme example to make a point, but you get the idea. Megatron has the gravitational pull of a large celestial body. The safety lined up on Tate's side is 20 yards downfield from him. When he catches the slant above, there are three defenders within 10 yards of him. All the reasons the Lions signed Tate still apply -- he's sure-handed and remarkable after the catch. But there's only so much you can do after the catch when defenses don't have to worry about anyone else.
The Vikings' defensive alignments took away the deep middle and dared the Lions to beat one-on-one coverage outside the numbers downfield. They couldn't, for a number of reasons. That's not to say the Lions didn't try, though. On a couple occasions, Stafford tried to hit Ebron on a deep out or cross, which I've been clamoring for, to no avail.
This is the attempt at the deep out. It's just another two-man stretch, with Tate running a 5-yard curl, sucking in the shallow defenders while Ebron turns out 10 yards downfield. The play is there, but pressure comes early, forcing Stafford to unload before he should, resulting in an incompletion out of bounds.
These are tight windows, but they are windows Stafford can hit. This play falls more on the protection, but a failure to hit on a later deep cross falls squarely on Stafford.
Stafford has plenty of room around him and Ebron has plenty of room in front of him. For an offense starved for big plays, this miss is more glaring than most. You can pick your reasons for the Lions' lack of success last week -- inaccurate throws, poor blocking up front, receivers not getting separation. At some point, they all played a role. Until the Lions can actually hit some of these plays, I'd expect most defenses to mimic Minnesota's approach.
It wasn't all terrible, though. Besides, I really don't want to end two columns on a negative note, so let's buy a ticket and take a quick ride aboard the THEO RIDDICK HYPE TRAIN.
This is a pre-snap shot from Riddick's touchdown on the first drive of the game against Minnesota. The Lions show almost a mirror image of the play we looked at back in Week 1 featuring Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles: the dynamic tight end draws coverage up the seam while the shifty running back gets out into open space in the flats.
Erin Henderson certainly seems to anticipate that. However, once Ebron gets behind him, the tight end's route breaks to the outside. As Henderson commits hard to the flats, Riddick cuts back inside, breaking the linebacker's ankles in the process. A second later, the Lions took a lead they wouldn't relinquish. Here's to hoping we get to see more of that as the season goes on. My personal dream is to see two-back sets with Riddick and Reggie Bush, but I'm not sure those packages exist, nor am I sure the two will ever be healthy at the same time.
The Lions offense has been pedestrian at best for the past couple weeks, but I still think there are reasons to be optimistic. The biggest is that, barring catastrophe, the defense should keep the Lions in every game going forward. The offense doesn't have to be dynamic to win; it just has to be competent. Besides, as mediocre as the offense has been without Megatron, the next two defenses the Lions face have been downright putrid. The coming games against the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons should be matchups of strength-on-strength and weakness-on-weakness. I think the Lions are better in both areas, respectively.