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Things of that nature: Why is Theo Riddick so productive?

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The Lions' third-year running back isn't just great in space; he's great at creating it.

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

This article feels overdue. We at POD have long been fans of Theo Riddick, and now we're finally seeing his emergence into the national consciousness. Riddick currently leads all NFL running backs in receptions, and his dominance has extended to more obscure metrics, as well. The Lions third-year player currently leads all backs in Football Outsiders' receiving DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement), while sitting at third place (one-tenth of a percentage point from second) in DVOA. Those rankings encapsulate Riddick's continued brilliance as a receiving threat—not only does he create enormous amount of total value as a pass-catcher, he's also tremendously valuable on a play-by-play basis. The man catches an absurd volume of passes while dropping literally none of them. The Hype Train is on the tracks and chugging along the tracks with unprecedented speed; Riddick himself even seems to emit bursts of steam with every change of direction.

Of course, this is preaching to the choir. We are all converts to the Church of Theo, and the congregation grows by the week. For this week's sermon, I'd like to discuss how the Detroit Lions offense is able to maximize Riddick's value as a receiver.

Following the Lions' Week 11 victory over the Oakland Raiders, Matthew Stafford was asked about Riddick, who made a couple critical plays to extend drives late in the game. Stafford's response was as follows:

"There were a couple last-second communications between me and him right before the snap, where he's got a route where he's supposed to just check and stop no matter what. And I knew we were getting two-man [coverage] on the one that I flipped to him, and as I'm calling the ‘Set, Hut,' I'm telling him, you know, ‘Do whatever you need. Option route. Just get open,' and he did a great job of winning. That's what he does. He doesn't usually get covered one-on-one."

In a sport that prides itself on impenetrable, byzantine schemes, "just get open" sounds like an anachronism. But sometimes, that's all it takes. Backyard football. Just a couple of boys playing catch, just having fun out there.

Considering this only happened two weeks ago, you probably remember the play Stafford was referencing, but let's revisit the play.

Riddick 4a

Right off the bat, you can see the Raiders defense showing what Stafford mentioned: two deep safeties, with all other defenders up tight, showing man coverage underneath (i.e., "two-man"). It was at this point that the quarterback issued his edict to the running back. And man, did Riddick oblige:

Riddick 4

With Malcolm Smith isolated on Riddick, and nothing but empty space around them, Riddick was free to work his route as he saw fit, sprinting outside before pivoting back to the middle, leaving Smith in the dust. Stafford, with pressure bearing down on him, was able to flip the ball to his open running back, who ended up converting a crucial third down late in the game.

This play serves as a microcosm of what Riddick brings to the table. You often hear teams talk about players who need to "get the ball in space." That description could apply to dozens of players in the NFL, but what makes Riddick so special is that the Lions don't have to work very hard to get him the ball--Riddick creates plenty of space on his own. Teams that choose to isolate defenders against him—especially those foolish enough to try it with linebackers—often pay a steep price.

Do you know what the Lions' most effective play has been this season? It's not the goal-line fade to Calvin Johnson (though that seems to be doing just fine). It's this:

Riddick 2

If you've been reading Morgado01's excellent fanposts (particularly this one), a lot of this is going to look familiar.

Here are the general staples of this play:

  • Riddick is the lone back, lined up to the single-WR side in a 3 x 1 set. (The Lions will also line up Riddick in the slot in a 3 x 2 empty look.)
  • The WR to Riddick's side runs a vertical/clear-out route.
  • The innermost WR opposite Riddick runs an out-breaking route, drawing a defender away from the middle.

These three points combine to achieve one goal: provide Riddick with an enormous amount of field to work with, against as few defenders as possible.

The Philadelphia Eagles seem to have a breakdown here—Connor Barwin looks like he tries to drop into zone as everyone else shows man—but even against prepared defenses, Riddick makes this stuff look easy. In his ascent to the throne, Riddick has left a trail of shattered ankles in his wake.

Riddick 12

As mentioned, the Lions also love to run this out of empty sets, with Riddick in the slot. The results stay the same. Riddick runs straight at his defender, almost getting on top of him before breaking into his route. From that distance, his quick step and ability to create inside leverage make him almost uncoverable.

Riddick 5

Riddick's stutter-step into that quick F-post is absolutely filthy. No matter how many times the Lions hit on it, no matter how aware of it defenders should be, Riddick is still able to make these poor souls commit outside before getting free up the middle. Covering him man-to-man is a fool's errand:

Riddick 9

The Lions will vary the backfield on the call when it suits them, as it did for Riddick's touchdown catch on Thanksgiving.

Riddick 1

I'm sure you've all gotten the point by now, so apologies if this is getting redundant. I just really enjoy watching Riddick incinerate isolated defenders.

Though Riddick obviously has a go-to move/route, there is some amount of choice built into what he does. When he runs straight defenders off the snap, he's able to identify whether the linebacker/safety is cheating one way or the other. If the man in coverage stays square, Riddick will create inside leverage and go to that short post as much as he's able, but his decision-making isn't written in stone. If someone cheats on the post, he'll adjust accordingly.

Riddick 10

Little bit of a different look from the Lions here. Riddick is lined up as the H-back on the left side of the formation. Watch the inside linebacker sit down hard to the inside off the snap in order to take away the short post. Someone watches his film! Of course, cheating that hard to one direction makes Riddick's choice easy. He breaks his route outside, makes the catch, and scampers forward for his customary first down.

It's impossible to know the extent to which Riddick is given the true RB option route without knowing the exact play call, but quotes from Stafford imply that it's a regular occurrence. Riddick's inside move is obviously his best, but Stafford and the Lions grant him the freedom to improvise based on how defenders approach him. Great receivers with unbelievable physical tools can be ineffective in such assignments, while players with more modest gifts can excel with instinct and technique. Riddick seems to have a bit of both.

Of course, these plays are two-way streets. The quarterback is obviously every bit as important as the receiver. As simple as "just get open" sounds, this kind of thing requires chemistry, timing, and an almost preternatural sense of the other's tendencies. Those things don't develop overnight. "[Riddick] used to juke me out all the time," says Stafford. "Just, I'd throw one way, he'd go the other." That doesn't seem to be the case anymore. With the comfort level the two have developed, the people getting juked out these days are the ones wearing different jerseys.