The Stafford Offense: Curl Series, 1 of 3

The Matthew Stafford Offense Project

In a number of places, we've talked about how the Joe Lombardi scheme did not fit the personnel on the Detroit Lions and that players were being put in bad situations by design and playcalls. A particular bone of contention has been the run game, where many people have pointed out the zone scheme this season was not a good match for the linemen Detroit has. After the firing of Lombardi, the new point of contention is Matthew Stafford, who is now getting slammed from all sides - including PFF, who just declared him to be the worst rated starting QB in the league.

The notion that Stafford is a bad quarterback is ridiculous and can be dismissed at face value. Obviously some of the struggles this year are due to a lack of protection and running game - just go back to Jerry Mallory's comments in the PODcast #10 during the Stafford segment. As pointed out by McIvor, a quarterback that is truly not very good is very unlikely to somehow throw for 5000 yards and 40 touchdowns.

So what else is there to look at? Well, there's Joe Lombardi.

I'm just going to direct quote TuffLynx here:

The reason that Linehan’s offense worked better than Lombardi’s is because Linehan tailored his offense around what Stafford does well. I do not feel that Linehan did enough to make Stafford better, though. He just used what was already there properly. I still believe that, with the proper coaching and scheme, Stafford can become a better than average quarterback and take the team to a Super Bowl. We just have to stop forcing him to be something he isn’t. The same is true of the rest of the offense as well.

This meshes well with something that new Lions OC Jim Bob Cooter said after his promotion to take over for Lombardi:

Cooter, 31, and Stafford worked together closely for much of the past two years with Cooter joining the Lions as quarterbacks coach in 2014.

"I think he's done a good job of telling me plays he likes or plays he doesn't like, or maybe we should run this route at this depth instead of that depth," Cooter said. "So, it's his offense as much as it is mine — maybe even more.

"I've learned early in my career that if a quarterback really likes a play, he tends to make it work. So if he likes it, we'll get it in. If he doesn't like it, we'll try not to call it and we'll go from there."

Compare that to something TuffLynx linked us that came from Bruce Arians:

Well, what does Matthew Stafford tend to make work? What does Stafford appear to like? That should be the foundation of whatever offensive system the Lions run as long as Matthew Stafford is the starting quarterback.

This series of fanposts - The Matthew Stafford Offense - will explore the kinds of plays that have actually worked for Stafford within the Lombardi offense of 2014 and 2015. I have gone back through the film on NFL Game Pass for the 2014 games from the Giants win in week 1 through the playoff loss and combined that with observations from the ongoing review from this year to isolate five key components that I believe ought to be significant parts of any offense with Stafford at the helm.

I package these five components as:

  1. The Curl Series - A chain mover pass play package designed to pick up 8 to 12 yards and take advantage of the vertical threat from Detroit's outside wide receivers, especially Calvin and Tate.
  2. The Quick Post/Angle Iso Series - An underneath set of pass plays designed to attack the middle of the field by winning one on one mismatches with Ebron, Riddick, and Abdullah.
  3. The Power Game - The traditional core run package of Iso, Power, Counter, and Trap. This maximizes the value of athletic guard play and the fact we now have a superior blocking fullback, and minimizes negative yardage runs through aggressive gap blocking. Best against any two high defense that is strong versus the Curl or Quick Post/Angle Iso series.
  4. The PA Z Cross Series - A play action pass package built off the power run game that punishes zone coverages designed to take away the Curl Series or the Quick Post/Angle Iso series
  5. The Slant/Stick Series - A quick hitting three step drop package designed to get all wide receivers (both slot and outside) the ball quickly for YAC opportunities, specifically Tate, Moore, and Jones.

Each of these components will be broken down in turn, but first we'll deal with the Curl Series, whose underutilization in 2015 is (I think) one of the biggest differences between the production from last year's playoff team and this year's cellar dwelling team.

The Curl-Flat Read

Recommended reading:

Before we get into what exactly makes up the package of plays the Lions run in this series, let's go over the fundamentals of how these plays work. The key piece of this entire series of plays (and where I am taking the name from) is the two receiver Curl-Flat read combination. Like most hi-lo attacks, the idea is to present a single defender with two possible receivers in his area of responsibility - the quarterback simply throws to the guy the defender doesn't pick.

Here's Coach Hoover describing the action of what's going on (emphasis added):

Curl-Flat is possibly the best play in football. It is a horizontal stretch play designed to put the defensive Flat player in a bind of trying to cover both the Curl and the Flat route. If the play is properly executed, the Flat player will be unable to do both. Curl-Flat is a concept that has been around for quite a while and it has stood the test of time. Its cruel effectiveness is not hindered in any way by its familiarity; rather, the design of the play makes it almost impossible for Cover 3 defenses to stop, even if they practice against it extensively.

The familiar triangle snag read is related to the curl-flat combo. In any case, the Curl-Flat read is great against Cover 3, good against loose man coverage, okay against Cover 4, and weak against Cover 2. The progression is almost always for the quarterback to read the curl down to the flat and then check to something in the middle of the field if neither one is available.

To see how the read works first think about what happens on Cover 3 or man coverage outside against the curl receiver. The assignment under either coverage is for the defender to not get beat deep: if they believe the receiver is a viable vertical threat, the defender must honor the deep route and guarantee he does not give up a big play. Consider Calvin Johnson working against 25 CB Richard Sherman in week 3 at Seattle. This is 3rd and 9 in the First Quarter with 13:31 to go. Sherman is one on one with Calvin in Seattle's hybrid Press Cover 3 look, which essentially works like man coverage and converts into Cover 3 after passing the underneath zones:

Sherman doesn't know if Calvin is going to run deep and plays man coverage inside, squeezing Calvin toward the sideline to take away the fade. Calvin abruptly stops, but Sherman has no chance to recover and get back in position because the ball is already on the way and arrives immediately after Calvin turns for it. This is why the Curl route is an excellent chain mover: it can pick up a first down on 3rd and long against man coverage.

The other part of the Curl-Flat combination is throwing to the flat. In a single high Cover 1 or Cover 3 look, the outside corner will run with the outside man. Remember the read is not that guy playing the deep ball, but the guy playing the short alley: what we want to know is if the flat defender is choosing to stand in the throwing lane against the curl or if he tries to go over and cover the arrow route to the flat.

I am cheating here a little by using a mirrored Post-Flat play against Arizona in the Second Quarter with 7:34 to go, but the read and the concepts are similar enough. Here we have Calvin at the top running a vertical stem that turns into a post. 34 HB Zach Zenner is the flat route behind Calvin. What Matthew Stafford needs to know is what is going on in the yellow shaded box underneath Calvin's route. Whoever moves into the coverage area there will either be floating in front of Calvin's post or charging Zenner to cover the flat. Stafford's job is to read that area and throw to whichever route is going to have a clear lane.

Standing up in front of 66 RT LaAdrian Waddle is 96 LB Kareem Martin. Martin actually turns his back to run to his coverage spot as fast as possible, and ends up sitting in front of Calvin's route. Stafford registers this really fast, and does a little shoulder shimmy to 87 TE Brandon Pettigrew sitting down in the middle of the field before turning and firing to Zenner in the flat. By alignment and the drop of the flat defender, Stafford knows he has Zenner completely undefended and doesn't need to actually see that Zenner has nobody near him. The ability to take the flat (or the center checkdown that Pettigrew was running) for a handful of easy yards makes these types of stem-flat outside combinations good choices to run in medium yardage situations as well; Zenner ended up going for 7 yards here:

Incidentally, this is what makes the Curl-Flat combination somewhat weak against Cover 2. The defender for the flat area is in a pretty good position to move to take away either route and is initially watching the QB (since he is a zone defender and not a man to man defender). Furthermore, in Tampa 2 style Cover 2 looks, you'll get a press shove against the curl receiver to throw off the timing. Even in standard Cover 2, the QB has to wait for the short cover guy to come off the curl receiver and move away before he can throw the ball - eliminates a big advantage of the play being relatively fast acting and taxes your protection scheme. If we came to the line and saw two high with rolled up corners, i'd want Stafford to check out to something else if we didn't have the automatic Corner/Flat adjustment in place (which we ought to have, since it's in the playbook).

Basic: Mirrored All Curls

From Trojan Football Analysis, here is a Texas Tech Air Raid All Curls play:

The simplest play to implement the Curl-Flat combination is a mirrored play that has Curl-Flat reads to both the left and right sides of the formation plus a checkdown or another curl in the middle of the field. This gives you three major benefits:

  1. The read is greatly simplified for the quarterback, since he has identical reads to either side. This not only helps him to "play faster," it allows him to pick a side to attack if he thinks he is getting a hybrid scheme like Cover 6 or looking at an alignment that has an obvious weakness.
  2. The play can be run from a huge number of formations because at core you only need two receivers to a single side, unlike three receiver combinations. Since one part of the combination (the flat) can be a HB or FB, it can be used to attack a side of the field with only one wideout. Our execution will be great if we can run this from a lot of different formations since they are all basically reps for the same play.
  3. Mirrored Curl-Flat combos to both sides and a middle attack route spreads the field horizontally. The center route can be run by a free release back, a slot receiver, or a tight end, so again we have good versatility in terms of what kinds of looks we can give the defense and still run the same play.

Let's look at three examples of Detroit running this play successfully from three different looks.

2014 Dallas Wild Card Game, First Quarter (4:34). 1st and 10 at the Detroit 43

When Stafford comes to the line, he sees single high safety and reads man coverage due to the rolled up corner on the left side (in front of 15 WR Golden Tate). The play will attack the right side of the formation, which has 39 CB Brandon Carr backed off in front of 81 WR Calvin Johnson. 35 HB Joique Bell is to Stafford's right, and will run the flat component of the Curl-Flat to that side. The center attack route is 87 Brandon Pettigrew, who is flexed out left in front of 45 FB Jed Collins (who will run the flat component on the left side behind Tate).

At the snap, Stafford looks off 55 MLB Rolando McClain by staring down Pettigrew's middle route. McClain takes the bait and sits on the seam, waiting to make a tackle on Pettigrew. When Calvin is about to make his break, Stafford turns and fires through the open alley that McClain is not standing in:

The way Stafford makes this play work is he recognizes the alignment weakness with Carr backed off from Calvin and has the timing down to where he can look off the underneath defenders and throw the top of the curl on time where Carr has no time to recover. Stafford keeps his head left until his back foot hits on the end of the 5 step drop, at which point he whips around and unloads. The value of Stafford having a great feel for this play is obvious when you look at how clean a throwing lane he creates for himself with his eyes:

McClain is boxed in red and Calvin is boxed in purple. Just look how much separation Calvin has on his break with Carr flat footed.

2014 at Carolina, Third Quarter (11:40). 1st and 10 at the Detroit 43

The second example is from the third quarter of the 2014 Carolina road game, and shows how Detroit can add wrinkles by merely changing who runs which routes. Normally, from this tight flip set, you would have the outside receivers on the line run the curls and the two "slot" guys set back from the line run the flat patterns with a HB leak to the middle of the field.

At the top of the formation, this is what Calvin on the outside and 21 HB Reggie Bush are doing: Calvin on the curl and Reggie to the flat. But at the bottom of the formation, we have Tate and 12 WR Jeremy Ross changing it up a bit. Instead of running the curl straight ahead on the perimeter, Tate runs the inside middle attack route. Ross runs the curl from the inside setback position while 35 HB Joique Bell supplies the flat route out the backfield.

The assignment switch confuses 23 CB Melvin White, who begins the play on the outside and is initially looking at Tate in front of him. When Tate goes inside, White is slow to react and drifts backwards into his default Cover 2 assignment and does not pick up Ross. 58 ROLB Thomas Davis jumps Tate coming across his face, pulling the inside zone defender further toward the middle of the field. This widens out the seam for Ross to settle into, and in fact both Ross and Bell (boxed in purple) are open; White (boxed in red) is out of position to cover either one of them.

Stafford actually intends to attack the right side of the field, and starts his dropback looking right for Calvin. Both Calvin and Reggie are covered on the right side, so Stafford continues his progression across the field to Tate. Finding Tate covered, he keeps reading and ends up on his fourth possible target: Ross. Look how fast Stafford is able to cycle through the progression; the mirrored play and shared depth of the three main targets (Calvin, Tate, and Ross) let him scan across really quickly for a 14 yard pickup.

2015 Arizona, Second Quarter (10:11). 2nd and 8 at the Detroit 35

Finally, we have a variation on the formation in the previous example. To the left is a tight set with Calvin to the outside and Tate in the slot. The single setback is Zenner. On the right, we have 16 WR Lance Moore split away from Pettigrew as an in-line TE. The Cardinals are in a Double A gap look, so Detroit slides the protection left and has Zenner pick up the frontside rusher (97 DE Josh Mauro).

Prior to the snap, the alignment of 21 CB Patrick Peterson and 25 CB Jerraud Powers - both facing inward - suggest Arizona is playing zone coverage and not man coverage. Indeed, they drop everyone into coverage and rush 4. This play is a nice example of how the flat route clears out the throwing lane in loose man or Cover 3: 22 SS Tony Jefferson runs with Pettigrew to the right flat (boxed in red). This leaves a nice alley for Stafford to throw the curl.

Again, Stafford lets his feet mark the timing for him as he reads the coverage. As soon as Stafford's back foot hits, he starts his throw to the curl, and you can see that he's already delivering the ball before the curl receivers have completed their stopping moves (boxed in purple).

Stafford also helps hold the two A gap droppers (20 SS Deone Bucannon and 51 LB Kevin Minter) slightly nearer to the line with a token fake to Zenner. Even if the frontside curl was covered, the backside curl was open as well but Stafford doesn't need it. The ball is out in a hurry and the Lions pick up 9 yards for a first down.

Next time: Motion Variants

Thanks for reading part 1 of the Curls Series. Sorry this fanpost was so long, but from now on I won't need that big intro part at the beginning. In the next post we'll look at how Detroit uses motion to expand the amount of personnel and formations they can run the same basic All Curls play. Finally in part 3 for the Curls Series, we'll expand to a three route Curl-Flat-Post combination that can be run from a trips side but works from the same fundamental read.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of Pride Of Detroit or its writers.