For all its flaws, one thing the 2013 Detroit Lions offense did well was throw screen passes to its running backs. Ol’ Scotty "2 Hotty" Linehan loved himself some RB screens, to the extent that the Lions led the league in yards gained off those plays in 2013. This year, that play doesn’t seem to serve as much of a function in the Lions offense. That being said, I choose topics based entirely on random observations and conjecture, then do my research after the fact to see how accurate my assumptions are. This week, we’re taking a deep dive into the Lions’ screen game.
Like all aspects of this season’s Lions offense, the screen game has been a mixed bag. The Lions have totaled 232 yards on RB screens this season, so it’s not exactly absent. The best way I can put it is that RB screens in Joe Lombardi’s offense fluctuate between wholly predictable and wildly original. By my count (based off filters from NFL Game Rewind), the Lions have completed 22 screens to their running backs this season. A staggering 13 of those screens have been the same play, based off the same general look.
Here’s your boilerplate 2014 Lions RB screen: shotgun, offset RB, three- or four-wide. The running back’s route is based on the alignment of the receivers: If the Lions show an even split, as above, the play goes to the opposite side of Calvin Johnson (top). If the Lions line up more receivers to one side, the running back leaks out away from them, with the center and the playside guard in tow.
The Lions have run this screen to Reggie Bush three times this season, for a grand total of -4 yards. By contrast, the Lions have run this play to Theo Riddick six times this season, for a total of 102 yards. This should be the point at which I go on a rant about Riddick’s superiority in the passing game -- both in catching balls and accumulating yards after the catch -- this season. And rest assured, he has been superior in that regard (#TheoRiddickHypeTrain), but in this case, the discrepancy is a bit overstated. The bulk of Riddick’s yards on Lombardi’s go-to screens came in the Week 6 game against the Minnesota Vikings, which likely hadn’t game-planned against him as thoroughly as they should have, and in garbage time in the Week 12 loss to the New England Patriots. Those yards obviously count -- Riddick’s 41-yard gain played a huge role in the Lions’ win over the Vikings -- but his relative anonymity seemed to contribute to his success, as no one bothered to cover him on his first big play this season.
Bush does not enjoy that status. Whether deserved or not, Bush still draws more attention from opposing defenses when he’s on the field, especially when teams see that standard screen look. When Bush has enjoyed success in the screen game this year, it’s come off unique play designs. And this is where it gets interesting for Lombardi’s offense, because while 13 of those 22 completed RB screens came off the same play, almost none of the other nine mirrored each other.
For example, the Lions have only run a middle screen once this season.
You may remember this as the play the Lions used to bury the Vikings in Week 1 of 2013. I’m sure my memory of the play’s effectiveness last year is distorted by that one glorious example, but even this year, it netted 10 yards and a first down. Those 10 yards constituted the floor for that play’s gain. The ceiling was much higher.
Larry Warford misses his block here, but if Bush follows Raiola, he possibly breaks one for 30 or 40 yards. Instead, as we’ve seen multiple times this season, Bush stutter-steps and cuts back instead of accelerating into a gap. He gets brought down from behind shortly after this screenshot.
It’s not as though Bush is suddenly unable to win a footrace.
Take this play, for instance. Out of the I, the Lions flood the left side with a three-man vertical stretch, with Brandon Pettigrew coming across on a late drag. Bush leaks out to the right behind LaAdrian Waddle, who gets in a defender’s way long enough to let Bush fly by for 28 yards down the sideline.
Of course, not all of Lombardi’s most original screens have yielded success. Let’s start with my favorite play design from last week’s victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Prior to the snap, the Lions motion Golden Tate (a move I obviously support) into a bubble screen look to the left. They fake the bubble screen and come right back to Bush leaking out into the flats, who has oh so much room, and oh so many blockers.
When you talk about getting Reggie Bush in space, this is what you mean. There are two defenders in front of him and three blockers. Bush hesitates and cuts outside, where Jeremy Ross loses his block. The play gains 2 yards.
Unique screens to Riddick haven’t done much better. In fact, my favorite play design on a Riddick screen was his least successful of the season. (The Chris Tomke offense: TOO CUTE.)
In a true rarity, Bush and Riddick share a backfield on this play against the Miami Dolphins. The Lions fake the swing pass to Bush out of the backfield (a route that constitutes seemingly 90 percent of Bush’s targets this year). Riddick comes back across the formation behind Travis Swanson, Rob Sims and Dominic Raiola.
Naturally, Swanson completely misses his block, and Riddick gets brought down for a loss of 6 yards. You can also argue the effectiveness of the fake to Bush given that he’d previously left the game with an injury.
Analyzing screens is naturally more difficult given everything that goes into a successful screen pass: the down and distance, the score, the time, the flow of the game. The screen is inherently a boom-or-bust proposition. That’s why I’d like to close this week’s "Things of that nature" by celebrating the true king of the RB screen this season -- your friend and mine, Joique Bell.
Believe it or not, Bell has the highest yards per catch on screens of any Lions running back this season (13.7 -- Riddick is at an even 13). He does this despite his longest gain accumulating fewer yards than those of Bush or Riddick, which is a testament to his remarkable consistency. Even as the workhorse in the Lions’ backfield, Bell has only caught six screen passes this season, but only one of those receptions has gone for fewer than 10 yards. Most of his work comes between the tackles, and the Lions have used that to exploit defenses.
The Lions come out in the I and fake the handoff to Bell on a fullback lead behind Jed Collins. The Lions have enjoyed a lot of success on play-action out of this look, mostly at the hands of Calvin Johnson. Defenses know that. So, instead of that 15-yard slant to Johnson that the Lions have hit about 1,000 times in the past two weeks, Bell drifts left with Raiola and Sims shortly behind, while Collins gets downfield to make his block.
Bell doesn’t have noticeably more space than Bush or Riddick does on these plays. But he ends up making 27 yards out of it because he reads his blocks so damn well. He alters course without stopping, and his momentum carries him past defenders to get free down the sideline.
The Lions’ screen game is still a work in progress. At times, it’s boring and obvious. There are flashes when it’s a legitimate threat. As the passing game continues to hit its stride (fingers crossed), more opportunities for the screen game should present themselves.