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Things of that nature: Offensive identity crises

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Going into Week 3, the Broncos' and Lions' offenses have performed far below expectations. What gives?

Bruce Kluckhohn-USA TODAY Sports

Well, this got dark fast. If there's any consolation to the Lions' 0-2 start, it's that we're not the only panicking fan base of a 2014 playoff team. (Consider this your opportunity to get on board with the 2015 Jacksonville Jaguars!)  Oh wait, that's no consolation whatsoever? Right.

As strange as it seems to say given their opposite records and recent offensive outputs, the Lions and the Broncos enter Sunday night's game facing similar problems on offense. Some quick parallels:

  • Neither team can run the ball. You already knew this about the Lions. The Broncos, somehow, have been even worse.
  • Both quarterbacks are taking some alarming hits. Exhibit A. Exhibit B.
  • Neither team can push the ball deep. This was always likely to be the case with a 2015 Peyton Manning offense, but deep ball or no, the Broncos' longest play from scrimmage so far has been a 22-yard gain. Meanwhile, Matthew Stafford is on pace to set a career low in yards per air attempt.
  • Both teams feature multiple new starters on the offensive line. To varying extents, the previous three bullets are reflections of this.

Beyond the easy factual similarities between the Lions' and Broncos' offenses, there's one more that I'd like to discuss. Through two weeks, both teams seem to lack an identity on that side of the ball. Now, normally, "lacking an identity" is a catch-all phrase meant to politely say "this unit sucks." And if you want to say the Broncos' and the Lions' offenses suck right now, I won't fight you--they're not good! In this case, though, "identity" really does appear to be an issue for both teams. There are serious questions about what these offenses should look like, and what they do look like. At the moment, it appears as though the preferences of the coaches run contrary to the preferences (and skills) of the quarterbacks.

For the Broncos, that conflict is easy to spot. Since the team hired Gary Kubiak as its head coach, questions about the look of the offense have abounded. Kubiak is famously known for the under-center, zone-heavy, play-action based offense that made Matt Schaub a legitimate NFL starter in Houston. Manning has spent virtually his entire career working out of the shotgun and running the no-huddle offense. In Week 1, we saw a glimpse of what that combination could look like:

Manning PA

That's just weird to watch. Fortunately for Manning, those rollouts haven't been a common theme since early in Week 1. However, the Broncos have still attempted to employ Kubiak's methodical, run-intensive attack for large swaths of the first two games, resorting only to an up-tempo offense sporadically or when forced to do so out of desperation. And wouldn't you know it, Manning tends to look a bit better when it happens! I'm about the 300th writer to discuss this topic, though, so to avoid belaboring the point, I'll just say the Broncos' strange, inconsistent blend of offensive principles should start to lean Manning's way as the season progresses. A run-intensive attack is all well and good when you can run the ball and have a great defense backing you up. Only one of those two statements are true for the Broncos. Unfortunately for the Lions' offense, it's the second.

Things are a little more difficult to figure out for the Lions' offense, just because it's hard discern what they do well. But I think if you squint hard enough, there were glimpses of a good (or at least solid) offense last week against Minnesota. The Lions had two back-to-back 70+ yard scoring drives at the end of the first half. They were certainly different in terms of pace—one lasted more than seven minutes, the other less than two—but both featured large amounts of Stafford dealing out of the shotgun, where, like Manning, he just seems more comfortable as a passer. The more you watch those drives, though, the more you notice that the Lions almost exclusively pass out of shotgun: From the gun, Stafford was 13 of 17 for 136 yards and 1 TD; no rushes were attempted. From under center, the Lions had four carries for 9 yards; no passes were attempted. I was curious if that had been a trend, so I went and looked through all the Lions' offensive plays so far this season. The Lions line up in the shotgun a lot, and almost never rush the ball from it. By my count (based on ESPN game logs), out of 117 plays this season, the Lions have rushed the ball only three times out of the shotgun. And somehow, one of those was the galling two-point conversion attempt from last week.

Some of this is obviously based on situation—the Lions aren't going to run the ball in the two-minute drill, and they probably aren't doing so in third-and-long, either—but the splits are stark the opposite way, as well. When Stafford's under center, the run/pass ratio leans at least four-to-one in favor of the run. (And when they actually try to take advantage of play-action, missed assignments continue to defuse opportunities for big gains—for an example, read this excellent FanPost from earlier in the week.) For all the talk about this offense running the same plays out of multiple formations, that certainly doesn't seem to extend to where the quarterback lines up.

Looking to Sunday night, the thought of Stafford dropping back from under center against Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware honestly terrifies me. But, if the Lions are going to spend plenty of time in shotgun this week against a terrifying Broncos pass rush, it would behoove them to at least consider implementing some rushing principles from it. And, if you're going to run at the Broncos, the place to do it is probably up the middle of their defense. Last week, the Kansas City Chiefs actually managed some success on the ground doing just that.

Charles IZ

On a couple occasions last week, the Chiefs hit inside zone runs out of the gun for moderate gains. Sylvester Williams (92) actually spins himself out of the play, while Shaquil Barrett (48) is frozen on the edge by the implied threat of Alex Smith pulling the ball and throwing to the flat (or, theoretically, bouncing outside with his legs, though I haven't seen the Chiefs actually do that).

As it happens, the Lions ran a similar play on their one successful shotgun run of the season.

Abdullah IZ

Manny Ramirez and Laken Tomlinson both do an excellent job of sealing their assignments off to the outside, allowing Travis Swanson to get quickly to the second level and essentially ride the linebacker out of the play. Abdullah isn't necessarily Jamaal Charles—honestly, who is—but he should be able to emulate Charles' acceleration and quick jump-cuts in tight spaces, at least to a degree. These inside runs by nature have to hit quickly, which means I'd rather not see Joique Bell getting the carries.

If the Lions are going to find a way to mitigate the effect of Miller and Ware on the outside, being able to hit on fast inside runs like these would go a long way toward accomplishing that goal. (A healthy dose of draws or screens might not hurt, either.) The Broncos have been bailed out by their excellent defense so far this season; the Lions do not have that luxury. Detroit's offense is going to have to figure out an identity and improve quickly if the Lions are going to walk away from the home opener with a win. I'd really like to write about something positive next week.