Happy holidays, y'all.
Sports are simultaneously great and terrible because the same situation can yield drastically different responses. When Calvin Johnson isn't involved in the offense during a Lions loss, it's symptomatic of the team's broader failings. When he isn't involved during a Lions win, it's because the team is able to spread the ball around to its wealth of playmakers. I'm not here to add any fuel to that fire; lord knows there's plenty of speculation out there already. Rather, I'd like to talk about one of those other playmakers. Golden Tate is fun to watch, guys.
Since the switch from Joe Lombardi to Jim Bob Cooter, Tate has become a noticeably bigger part of the offense, averaging two more catches per game and scoring five touchdowns during the Cooter era, as opposed to one under Lombardi this season. Multiple times per game, Tate gets the ball immediately off the snap on a quick WR screen. Most of the time, this produces yards for the Lions. So, has something changed with the Lions playbook?
As much as it might seem otherwise, the wide receiver screen (i.e., bubble screen, tunnel screen, or rocket screen) isn't a foundational play in the Lions' (or any other team's) offensive playbook. That is to say, in neutral circumstances, given an expected look from the defense, the offense looks to run something from it's staple set of plays -- favorite pass concepts against Cover-3, runs against certain front-seven alignments, that sort of thing. However, football is a fluid, ever-changing environment, and defenses vary their approaches week-to-week or play-to-play. Shown similar looks over the course of a game, defenses will cheat to take away what an offense runs well. They'll slide an extra defensive back to the box if they're getting gashed on the ground, or drop additional men into coverage when teams are beating them through the air. Plays like the quick screens -- what Chris B. Brown would call "constraint" plays -- exist to curb those tendencies and give the offense something as close to what it expects as possible.
If defenses show favorable numbers against certain wide receiver splits, Matthew Stafford will check into the quick screen time and time again. Of course, the play call itself doesn't guarantee success; you need a receiver who can take advantage of the extra space provided by the defense. Thankfully, Tate is just about the perfect player for this.
The Lions love to throw the screen to Tate out of the stack with Johnson. The offense doesn't even technically have numbers here, with two defenders lined up over the stack. But the depth of the second DB puts one man on the line of scrimmage for Tate and Johnson. Furthermore, the Rams show pressure from the opposite side, with a single deep safety and eight men in the box. That leaves a lot of field to Tate's side. The Lions block power up front, and Stafford gets the ball out immediately. Johnson (who has always been an effective blocker) does his job, and Tate displays his inhuman ability to make the first man miss, moving the chains for a fresh set of downs.
The Packers also show pressure from their right side here, and give the Lions essentially two against three to the trips side. Again, the Lions block power off the snap, and Tate gets the ball immediately. To his credit, the flat defender for Green Bay lays the ball well. Corey Fuller doesn't so much make the block as he absorbs a defender's hit three yards backward, but that defender's forward momentum pretty much drives him out of the play, providing Tate the room he needs.
The Lions don't only run the screen to Tate off the power look from the line. Numbers are numbers, and space is space.
Notice a pattern? The Lions have three-on-two up top, and the Packers are showing blitz from the opposite side. At best, the 3-4 OLB makes a third defender to the trips side, but you're asking a stand-up rusher to beat Tate to the sideline. If you're the Lions, you'll take that matchup. By the time the OLB gets a hand on him, Tate is already six yards upfield.
Oh hey, more space. Tate and Johnson have room up top, the New Orleans Saints bring numbers on the opposite side, and even go as far as bringing James Anderson (No. 42, lined up over/inside Tate) on a blitz off the snap. Thanks for the first down!
The Lions will motion into this look, as well. The Philadelphia Eagles fail to bump coverage over to the play side, with a blitz coming around the opposite edge, resulting in another three-on-two. Tate's eight-yard gain on first-and-10 is actually a relative failure, by his standards.
Golden Tate is the great leveler for the Lions offense. His presence is one of the biggest factors in ensuring that defenses show what the offense wants to see. When they don't, well, this happens. We may justifiably bemoan Megatron's lack of involvement as of late, but Tate's role has only increased under Jim Bob Cooter. And, when Tate gets the ball in his hands, good things happen.