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Film breakdown: Lions’ run game needs its veteran tight ends badly

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Get well soon, Brandon Pettigrew. You too, Eric Ebron.

NFL: Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Detroit Lions Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

Tight ends are not just “big” wide receivers

One of the more interesting things that happened personnel-wise for the Detroit Lions’ offense in the Week 5 win over the Philadelphia Eagles was the use of 70 OT Corey Robinson as a tight end. 85 TE Eric Ebron sat on the inactive list Sunday due to ankle/knee injuries. That left the Lions with 86 TE Khari Lee, newly-signed 84 TE Clay Harbor, and 89 TE Cole Wick. Although Wick came out of preseason looking pretty good, by the road loss in Week 4 to Chicago he lost the backup job to Lee.

To get an idea of how dissatisfied the Lions’ coaching staff was with the quality of blocking out of the tight ends, Wick went from the primary backup to Ebron to just three offensive snaps against the Eagles. Lee, who appeared to be the blocking tight end against the Bears, played only 13 offensive snaps. The new guy Harbor, who had only been with the team for five days, played more snaps (23) than both of them combined. Consider this: Harbor was signed by releasing the other tight end that was on the roster at the time, Orson Charles.

It is not clear why finding a good blocking tight end has been so difficult for the team, but it is taking a toll on rushing production. When we think of bad blocking on running plays, the first instinct is usually to look at the offensive line. With the Lions, an emerging problem is that even when the offensive line blocks well, the run can be blown up on a crucial failure by a tight end.

2016 at GBY (5:41). Second-and-5 at the Green Bay 25.

The alignment in this play is favorable, with Detroit’s two tight ends (Ebron outside and Wick inside) lined up opposite 56 DE Julius Peppers and 24 CB Quinten Rollins. Interestingly, 15 WR Golden Tate had started wide to the right side of the formation and motioned to a spot right behind the tight ends. This actually created a five-on-four numbers advantage to the left, but the play required Tate to come back across as a pass option to the right flat. In any case, what was supposed to happen was Ebron and Wick hit Peppers at the first level and then Ebron releases to the second level to take Rollins; Riddick follows around end and gets a shot at making a move on the deep safety for bigger yards.

What actually ends up happening is Ebron merely gives a token shove to “help” Wick on Peppers, but Wick never establishes control. The angle of the off-balance stance on contact shows the rookie is toast immediately after the snap and initial burst off the line. Unless Ebron stays to help Wick re-anchor against Peppers, it’s over: the defensive end’s inside shoulder is in contact with his blocker’s outside shoulder. That gives the defender leverage to the outside, and indeed he charges into the backfield for a huge negative play:

Going six yards backwards pushed Detroit into a terrible down-and-distance spot, threatening to end the drive. Stafford would hit Ebron down the seam for 14 yards to move the chains, but another poor effort in the run game by the tight ends put the offense back behind schedule on the next play.

2016 at GBY 1Q (4:15). First-and-10 at the Green Bay 17.

The Lions are in a double tight end pistol formation, with 11 WR Marvin Jones stacked in front of 15 WR Golden Tate to the right and both tight ends in-line to the left. The play call is a staple: run-screen option with Stafford reading the defense to decide whether to throw the perimeter to Tate or hand off to 25 HB Theo Riddick up the gut. Since Green Bay has two defensive backs in front of the WR stack and a safety backing them up (you can see the shadow all the way at the right edge), he sticks with the run play.

At the snap, the blocking at the left edge where the tight ends is worth checking out. 68 LT Taylor Decker pulls and looks down the line for someone to seal on the backside. Ebron as the outside tight end is responsible for blocking 53 OLB Nick Perry, while Wick as the inside tight end will release to the second level and is supposed to pick up 21 FS Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. In this screenshot taken after the snap, we see Perry beating Ebron to the inside: what happened to Wick? It turns out Wick didn’t bother helping Ebron at the first level and rushed off downfield to look for his guy.

Thanks to poor support by Wick and the missed block by Ebron, Perry shoots through and crushes the play in the backfield for a three-yard loss. Even worse, Wick did not even successfully engage Clinton-Dix at the second level after abandoning Ebron. Two unproductive plays later, the Lions settled for a 42-yard field goal after a long and successful drive from their own 25. The Lions can only come away successful on second-and-long and third-and-long so many times; this is how poor blocking from tight ends end up stalling drives.

Super-heavy blocking tight end

To solve the problem of mediocre (at best) tight end play and demonstrate what can be done when adequate blocking is provided from those spots, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter shifted Robinson to act like a tight end against the Eagles. Of the 19 offensive snaps Robinson played, 14 were rushing plays. While nothing can guarantee every play will work to perfection, the miracle of even occasional solid blocking from the tight end position kind of made me wish we had an athletic big body who could line up at TE with the blocking training of an offensive lineman. Until Pettigrew comes back, maybe Corey Robinson will have to do.

Charles Davis on the broadcast for the Lions-Eagles game kept referring to the Lions’ offensive plays with Robinson on the field as “unbalanced formations.” Normally, when an extra offensive lineman is on the field or when a tackle is shifted so the line has more offensive linemen to one side of the center than the other, that’s correct. In this case, though, Robinson is not really playing tackle; he’s a tight end with the reverse skill set of Cole Wick.

2016 PHI, 3Q (9:12). First-and-10 at the Detroit 18.

This is the same play we just looked at from the Green Bay game, this time flipped from right to left with 86 TE Khari Lee replacing Ebron on the outside and Robinson replacing Wick on the inside. The corresponding puller (Decker when it was on the left side) would be 71 RT Riley Reiff.

Post-snap, 91 DT Fletcher Cox advances on the back side of 75 RG Larry Warford through the hole vacated by Reiff. The veteran right tackle dives at the feet of the rusher in an impromptu cut block to seal the back side for Riddick. Now, some will probably argue that Reiff merely fell down (Cox does push down on his shoulder), but whether by accident or design it is effective. Meanwhile, look at the rest of the back side being blocked by the tight ends: both Robinson and Lee have their guys locked up.

Riddick hits the middle of the line with a full head of steam, pushing the pile forward for four yards. Not the most elegant rushing play in execution, but it’s hard to argue with the results.

2016 PHI, 1Q (12:25). Second-and-10 at the Philadelphia 37.

Rewinding a bit to the first quarter, here is the longest rushing play of the game for Detroit. Same formation, same WR action to the outside by Marvin and Tate, but this time the puller is the outside TE Lee. Robinson must control 75 DE Vinny Curry lined up in front of him to set the edge; Lee will loop inside to blast 58 OLB Jordan Hicks in the right hand C gap, which is Riddick’s targeted hole.

First, notice the screen action at the bottom. For everything except the stuff going on at the right edge of the offensive line, this play looks identical to the defense to the one we examined above in the third quarter. Turning to that right edge of the line, it is clear that Robinson has Curry under control and Lee is about to wall off Hicks. The man Riddick must beat is 21 CB Leodis McKelvin, who is the unaccounted for defender in the eight-man front.

Robinson’s absolute control of Curry presents McKelvin with a dilemma. Instead of one hole to move up to fill, he has two holes that are vulnerable. McKelvin commits hard to the inside when Riddick gets the handoff, and is unable to recover and redirect when the ball bounces outside:

On the replay close-up, Robinson is visible grasping the right armpit and employing a quick bit of the Green Bay sleeve technique with his left hand. McKelvin comes running in and can be seen stumbling backwards to try and recover at the left edge of the GIF. Obviously, he has no chance to try and catch Theo running downhill at full speed to the outside. Is there any healthy tight end on the roster from whom we could expect that kind of blocking? Unfortunately, I believe the answer right now is no.

Another way to substitute for tight ends

In the week leading up to the Philadelphia game, one of Jeremy’s open thread questions of the day was “Which Lions player would you like to see get more playing time?” My answer was 46 FB Michael Burton, and he presents another way to fill the blocking void from the tight ends on the roster. Although he is too small to put on the line of scrimmage, he can be effective from an H-back position set back a little off the line.

2016 PHI, 1Q (1:36). First-and-10 at the Philadelphia 21.

Here is a play from near the end of the terrific first quarter against the Eagles featuring an odd personnel set. The Lions have three wide receivers on the field with Tate in motion across the formation and two running backs. Stafford and Riddick are in the pistol with Burton lined up where we would normally expect to see a tight end. Blocking-wise, there are two really interesting things to see here. First, obviously, is the trap block that Burton executes, which is just a shorter distance version of the usual slice block we get from Ebron or some other tight end on a split zone run.

The other thing that’s worth noting here—especially for all you fanatics on board the Graham Glasgow hype train—is the excellent hand-off of 96 DT Bennie Logan after first contact to the trap block trailing behind. Glasgow flows naturally on a complicated assignment to knock the guy in front of him, release, and then latch on to 98 DE Connor Barwin to the outside.

This yielded just four yards up the middle, but I think the Lions will take that on first down every time instead of negative plays. Burton as a blocker at the point of attack is so good that it is hard to believe he is so underutilized. I mean, who doesn’t want more of this?

2016 PHI, 2Q (10:21). First-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

Lacking uninjured quality tight ends on the roster against Philadelphia, Jim Bob sent in plays with a fullback on the field 13 times. Cooter Ball diversified to tackle eligible plays featuring Corey Robinson and greater involvement of Michael Burton when it was forced to deal with a personnel shortage. Such weird package mixes—common in the first half but mostly absent in the second half—may have contributed to Detroit’s early offensive success by presenting new looks that made the defense hesitate (or just generally wonder what the heck Detroit was thinking). Until the veteran tight ends are ready to play, look for the offense to continue to send in wacky packages and modified plays.