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Things of that nature: Motion in the Lions offense

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For Week 14, we're examining the ways and extent to which the Detroit Lions use pre-snap motion on offense, particularly as it relates to Golden Tate.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Like virtually every Detroit Lions fan, I spent a lot of time prior to Thanksgiving discussing what was wrong with the offense. One topic that kept coming up in talks with my editorial advisory committee (i.e., my brothers) was the extent to which the Lions use pre-snap motion and shifts. Before the season, there were a number of statements regarding how Joe Lombardi's offense would frequently incorporate those elements. To quote the man himself:

"This offense will have a lot more motion, a lot more moving parts. So it will be a lot harder to defend than it would a standard offense."

Anecdotally, it seems as though the Lions' best plays come out of motion sets, but those sets don't often seem to be significant parts of the offense. Is that necessarily true? How, and how often, do the Lions use motion?

The Lions offense came out of its funk during the Thanksgiving slam-jam of the Chicago Bears, but those questions stuck in my mind. Besides, I'm not sure that housing the Bears is the most meaningful indicator of the state of the Lions' offense. So, for this week's "Things of that nature," I went back and looked at every offensive play the Lions have run over the past four games, since Calvin Johnson's return. I answered three questions for each play:

  1. Did the Lions run or pass?
  2. What were the net yards from the play?
  3. Did the Lions shift or use motion before the snap?

After going through and looking at the numbers, the results were... inconclusive. The Lions were marginally better on a per-play basis when incorporating motion, but the differences were small enough to be nearly negligible. Interestingly, when the Bears game was removed from the equation, the Lions' average net yards per pass play was 1.5 yards higher with motion than without (6.53 to 5.0). That's roughly the difference between Aaron Rodgers and Matthew Stafford (or more specifically, between Nick Foles and a sub-Geno Smith quarterback). I'm tempted to say this is reflective of the Lions' need to scheme more to get open against good secondaries. But, we're also talking about 28 pass attempts featuring motion, and my parents raised me better than to trust small sample sizes. I'm not sure the Lions are actually better passing the ball out of motion sets, but it's intriguing enough to keep an eye on moving forward.

The fact that the Lions use motion so infrequently on pass plays is itself another discussion, because motion and shifts appear constantly in the run game. The Lions incorporate motion into more than half (55 percent) of all run plays, and for the most part, those same motion sets are what the team uses in the passing game. Of course, motion is a luxury afforded to teams that have time, so some of that discrepancy can be explained by game situation. Regardless of context, the Lions offense infrequently uses shifts on straight-up pass plays, so let's take a look at some of those sets in the play-action game. For all Lombardi's talk about moving Johnson around, Golden Tate seems to be his favorite chess piece.

Tate 1

One of the most common motion sets involves Lombardi motioning a wide receiver inside to serve as an additional blocker on zone runs. That receiver is normally Tate (shown coming in from the right), though Jeremy Ross will also play that role. (You obviously don't want to bring Johnson and all his additional attention inside on run formations.) At the snap, the offensive line blocks a zone lead to the strong side, but Tate leaks behind to the backside of the play while Stafford rolls out with him. Ryan Mundy (No. 21) will bite on the play fake enough to spring Tate.

Tate 2

As we're used to seeing, Megatron stays on the outside and gets vertical, leaving plenty of room underneath for Tate. Having Mundy bite on the play fake is clearly the goal, but even if he doesn't, Tate has the ball in the open field against one player. This season has proven that those are good odds.

Even when Tate isn't the recipient of passes, his use in motion creates opportunities for the Lions.

Tate 3

Another of the Lions' most frequent motion sets involves Tate showing the end-around with an inside zone from Joique Bell. If Tate doesn't get the ball (and most times, he doesn't), the motion freezes the backside defensive end and linebacker to create more room for Bell inside. Against the Bears, the Lions faked both the inside zone and the end-around and had Bell leak out into the flats with blockers.

Tate 4

Tate essentially takes two defenders out of the play, leaving the Lions with favorable numbers as the ball comes back across the field to Bell for 10 yards.

The Lions will also occasionally keep Tate wide and motion a tight end into the backfield to show that same zone look.

Tate 5

Eric Ebron shifts into the backfield on this play, and the Lions run a play-action off the zone, with Ebron coming back across the formation to kick out the edge rusher. Johnson, as you might expect, goes deep, while Tate (top of the image) comes behind the New England Patriots' linebackers on a deep cross.

Tate 6

With the linebacker accounting for Bell coming out of the backfield and the corner/safety combination running with Megatron, Tate comes open as he passes the hash marks. Stafford hits him for 42 yards on the play, the Lions' biggest gain of that game.

Motioning into favorable matchups on non-play-action passes, while infrequent, has yielded some success. To keep with the theme, we'll use another example with Tate.

Tate 7

This is the Lions' first play from that ill-fated game against the Patriots. Tate motions across the formation from the left to line up outside Ross and Brandon Pettigrew for a quick WR screen. Because the deep safety stays to Johnson's side, only one defender stands between Tate and the open field (accounting for successful blocks, of course). By this point, we should reasonably expect such a play to be successful.

Tate 8

Naturally, Tate shakes Kyle Arrington (No. 25) and scampers down the sideline for 24 yards.

The problem is that these plays have been few and far between. For every play-action pass out of motion sets, there are two or three from static lineups. Shifting to create favorable matchups for arguably the best one-two WR combo in the NFL shouldn't be the exception; it should be the rule. It's easier to attack a defense if you make players think. Going straight at them does not do that.

Beating up a lackluster Bears secondary is one thing. I'm curious to see what Lombardi and the offense do down the stretch.