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Film Breakdown: The Lions are too predictable running the ball with Riddick

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Matthew Stafford is a golden god, but does running outside too often make it tougher for the offense to shine?

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Detroit Lions v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

No longer an “Ameer Abdullah” run game

Matthew Stafford may be a golden god, but the fact remains the halfback position is thin and there is a systematic problem with the way running plays are being called for Theo Riddick. Consider the mix of run directions for all of Theo’s 75 carries for 297 yards this season:

L End L Tckl L Guard Middle R Guard R Tackle R End
Opponent Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds
W1 at IND 1 -1 5 39 1 7
W2 TEN 4 17 4 17 2 2 1 1
W3 at GBY 3 -6 1 -3 2 11 2 0 2 7
W4 at CHI 1 6 1 8 4 0 4 15 1 2
W5 PHI 2 19 3 8 3 2 3 20
W8 at HOU 4 32 1 3 2 3 1 7 3 11
W9 at MIN 5 5 1 0 2 9 3 46 1 4 2 6
W1-W9 Total 16 55 9 28 6 17 18 122 7 4 11 44 8 27

While he is averaging 3.96 yards per carry, fewer than half of the called run plays for Riddick have been between the guards inside. It’s pretty obvious that the heavier inside run selection came really early: run directions more or less matched those for Ameer Abdullah. For the first two games—which, incidentally, were two of the best offensive games for the Lions and probably their best rushing performances—roughly half the yards gained on the ground by running backs came between the guards: 59 of 109 yards against the Colts and 47 of 106 against the Titans.

Now, there’s one glaring anomaly in the table that we will come back to: the 42-yard audible on third-and-7 in the first quarter against the Vikings. But set that aside and think about the called run plays since Riddick has come back from injury; in particular the prevalence of outside runs against the Texans and Vikings. Two things to consider: is this outside-focused run design specific to Theo Riddick, and might that have anything to do with the mediocre offensive performances in those two recent road games?

Check out the run directions from the two weeks in which he was out with an injury, Week 6 against Los Angeles and Week 7 against Washington:

L End L Tckl L Guard Middle R Guard R Tackle R End
Opponent Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds
W6 LOS - Forsett 1 -1 2 12 2 -6
W6 LOS - Zenner 2 26 2 3 5 27 2 0 3 2
W7 WAS - Forsett 1 2 1 9 5 20 1 2
W7 WAS - Zenner 1 1 1 4 4 14 1 -1 2 11
W6-W7 Total 5 28 4 16 16 73 6 -5 5 13

Not only were the Lions running the ball inside in Riddick’s absence, a full 44.4 percent of those running back carries were right up the gut. That is a huge change from what offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter does with Riddick in the lineup. Admittedly, this makes sense given the running style differences between guys like Zach Zenner or Justin Forsett versus Theo, who is a natural zone runner that reads for holes and dances around to make defenders miss. Here is an example from Week 9 of what we mean:

2016 at MIN, 3Q (10:29). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 23.

The Lions come to the line with 12 WR Andre Roberts in the slot to the right and 85 TE Eric Ebron in a two-point stance on 68 LT Taylor Decker’s left; Riddick is the lone back behind Stafford under center. Out of this passing formation, the Lions go with a power run to the right, pulling Decker as the lead blocker to establish the hole. There is a designated gap that the play is targeting, and Theo needs to attack it downhill at full speed.

On the defensive side, the Vikings have 96 DE Brian Robison on their edge in front of 70 RT Corey Robinson. When the B gap between Robinson and 75 RG Larry Warford widens, 52 WLB Chad Greenway moves up to fill and is supposed to get clocked from the side by Decker coming around the bend. While the rookie left tackle got over a little slower than he should have, everything played out pretty much according to plan:

Decker in this screenshot has Greenway walled off while Robinson is doing a nice job on the defensive end. Theo has a pretty clear lane that is open for a very short time which he must hit decisively. The problem with that scenario is you want a guy who will take the ball and go full blast to the hole with purpose like Zenner or Washington, not a dancer like Theo:

Trying to turn early to bounce it wide, Riddick runs into a backed up Decker and has to hesitate and sidestep back inside. While still picking up four yards by stumbling through the hole as it closed, the strong instinct to try and get a breakaway run rather than simply counting on the blockers and pounding the designated gap makes him a poor fit for gap blocked runs between the tackles. Now, we’ve seen him do it, but his penchant for making guys miss in space is better suited to outside runs.

Too much of a good thing?

Playing to the strengths of the talent on the roster is important, but there is a risk of specializing packages and plays to specific personnel so rigidly that the offense becomes predictable. In the case of Theo running the ball, he may be better on the outside toss or counter but other stuff has to be run at least a little to keep the defense off balance. If opponents can simply assume Detroit will only run him to the outside and be correct in that assumption, that is devastating.

2016 at MIN, 1Q (10:58). First-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

Lined up with double tight ends on the left side with Mulligan in the game, Detroit shows a heavy run lean to the left. The play call is a toss sweep with Mulligan and Decker blocking down while Ebron and Glasgow pull to lead. The Minnesota defense has it scouted well, though:

At the snap, 97 DE Everson Griffen pushes forward but immediately pulls back upon reading run. Looping back around Mulligan’s block, Griffen immediately moves laterally down the line to cut off the sweep.

Having seen so many end runs to the left by the Lions, the defense diagnosed and reacted so fast that there are four Vikings ready to meet the ball-carrier before the run can be turned upfield. They knew what was coming, and knew where to be to crush it for no gain.

2016 at MIN, 2Q (5:56). First-and-10 at the Detroit 43.

The play sent in by Jim Bob here looks like split zone with Burton out of the H-back spot and an end around fake by Golden Tate. The players on defense to watch here are 23 CB Terence Newman and 22 SS Harrison Smith. First dealing with the Tate fake end around, Smith runs up from his safety position to cover. Second, look where Tate started the play: in front of Newman. Now without a receiver to cover, Newman in zone coverage can aggressively play the run if he wants to. Instead, he sits down in the flat and forces Theo to stay inside where all of the defensive help is.

Minnesota took away the edge runs like Theo’s bounce option to the right and Tate’s end around, and we can even see Anthony Barr from his linebacker spot flowing toward Tate as well. Now, Detroit had six in-line blockers and Burton on the field for seven total blockers in the box to take on seven run defenders up front. That the play was still stopped for no gain when two defenders (Barr and Smith) committed wide on the back side and one committed wide on the front side (Newman) is indicative of how bad the execution was.

Sometimes you just need to know when to pound 50 Gut

Mike Zimmer’s defense knew the Lions were attacking the edge a lot, and spread out even against the ground game. When reading run, defenders were aggressively looking for things like Tate coming around wide or a toss sweep to the front side. What do you do when the defense wants to guard the perimeter? Start delivering body blows. Here’s Russ Grimm giving it to Joe Theismann and Joe Gibbs’ playcalling back in the heyday of “the Hogs” in Washington via Mike Wise at the Washington Post:

"So all of a sudden I get in the huddle and I call '60 Outside.' And Russ looks at me and he says, 'No.' "

Which made Theismann do a double-take.

"I said, 'What do you mean no? Joe [Gibbs] wants to run 60 Outside.'

"He says, 'I want to run '50 Gut' right at Randy.'

"Well now I gotta make an executive decision, you know, I'm middle management."

They ran the play Grimm, not Gibbs, wanted. White was run over and the Redskins gained four yards. Theismann looked back toward Joe Gibbs, two weeks before he guided the franchise to their first of three Super Bowls. The coach wanted his play run.

"Joe signals in 60 Outside," Theismann said.

"I step in the huddle. I go, 'Spread right, short motion, 60 Outside.'

"Russ goes: 'Didn't you hear me? No!'

"I said, 'Okay, fine.' We run 50 Gut again."

And White goes to the ground again. First down.

"Next play, I don't even look at the sidelines anymore," Theismann said. "We ran like 11 consecutive 50 Guts. It was just Russ Grimm against Randy White and we were going to absolutely pummel him to the ground. When I think of Russ Grimm and all the memories, this was his moment."

2016 at MIN, 2Q (6:36). Third-and-1 at the Detroit 38.

This is the play right before the failed split zone we just looked at. The interesting thing? It is the same play—split zone—in a totally different down and distance situation, but look how the Vikings play it. In this screenshot taken an instant before the snap, we can see 55 SLB Anthony Barr cheating way over to the outside and lining up almost stacked behind 97 DE Everson Griffen. That alignment gives 68 LT Taylor Decker a positional advantage to get inside leverage against Barr.

Then look over at the deep secondary: 22 FS Harrison Smith is also aligned wide, in position to provide deep help only against 11 WR Marvin Jones if Detroit goes to the air. What Barr and Smith are doing here is guarding the wide back side of Detroit’s formation: since Riddick is standing to Stafford’s left, the natural run direction is to Detroit’s right. Barr and Smith are in good position to stop trickeration like a Golden Tate bounce pass jet sweep.

To the right side of Detroit’s offense, look at 34 SS Andrew Sendejo up on the line but to the outside of 85 TE Eric Ebron. Again, the Vikings have great edge protection, but that leaves them vulnerable inside. Only 52 WLB Chad Greenway is in any kind of position to help fill against a run up the middle.

The bubble formed by Barr vacating the B gap lane is very obvious in the All-22 angle from behind the defense. Theo takes the ball and does the right thing on third-and-1: he blasts forward into the hole before anyone can react on the other side. In fact, Theo bursts up so fast that he beats Ebron coming across on the back side slice block. When we look at a defense lining up so spread out on third-and-short like this, that communicates a total lack of respect for the offense’s ability to run the ball inside with force; the Vikings dared the Lions to run it up the middle here.

2016 at MIN 1Q (9:32). Third-and-7 at the Detroit 27.

Earlier, we said we would come back to the 42-yard run by Theo up the middle off Stafford calling an audible at the line: here it is. Before getting into anything having to do with the play itself, look at the pre-snap alignment by the Vikings. On third-and-7, they are obviously expecting the Lions to pass, and Zimmer sends in a double A gap look with Harrison Smith feigning an edge rush. The defensive call is actually a true double A gap blitz (both Barr and Lamur do in fact rush at the snap with no run-pass read) with man coverage across the board: Smith backs out as coverage on Ebron, who is standing up on the edge of the Detroit line in the right hand panel.

The other very interesting thing to note here is how clear and obvious the audible at the line is taking advantage of something Stafford sees in the defense. In the initial screenshots, the big hint that the play change is pretty drastic is where the running back lined up. Theo began on Stafford’s left and most likely a run call or even a check would go to the Lions’ right (into the teeth of where Harrison Smith was aligning wide in run/blitz support). In all likelihood the Lions intended to pass, and Theo re-aligning differently means Stafford checked specifically into a run that hit a different spot than a regular check would.

Again from behind the defense, the absolute disrespect for the Lions’ run game is apparent; there is nobody home if it’s a draw play or any other kind of run at the second level. The offensive line is five-on-four between the hashes if they let the guys way outside go unblocked—and they do. Stafford checked to an inside trap: 59 LB Emmanuel Lamur was allowed to rush upfield, only to be cut off from the side by 75 RG Larry Warford short pulling. 70 RT Corey Robinson almost missed blocking 96 DE Brian Robison and 60 LG Graham Glasgow almost let 92 DT Tom Johnson go too early, but both blockers got enough to stall their assignments for Riddick to get clear.

Also worth pointing out are solid downfield blocks by Decker (on the deep safety Sendejo) and by Ebron (to occupy Smith). A great read at the line and willingness on Stafford’s part to attack the middle of the field on the ground with Riddick against tendencies resulted in the longest run of Riddick’s career.

Some wild speculation appears!

Everyone hates seeing Theo Riddick run the ball up the middle, and I’ve been right there complaining with people about it at times, too: it’s a wasted down; that’s not his style; there’s no power. But this shows why the Lions need to keep it in the mix, if for no other reason than to force defenses to play personnel packages with Riddick on the field neutrally. Instead of simply guarding the edges and ignoring the tackle box, using a more balanced assortment of running plays makes opponents cover the full width of the field.

Going back to the games where Riddick was out of the lineup and the character of the offense changed, I offer another reason why this is a big deal. Running in the middle of the field not only helps the run game succeed by keeping the defense honest and away from the perimeter, it also helps the passing game succeed by keeping the defense away from the perimeter. How so? Think about the critical role the WR screen to Golden Tate on the outside plays in the short to medium yardage passing game. If the defense can get away with leaving the middle weaker and cheat over to the boundaries even against the run, what does that do to defensive closing distance against the Tate screen? Against the jet sweep?

Here’s a copy-paste of the stuff from the top of this article—run directions from Week 6 against Los Angeles and Week 7 against Washington:

L End L Tckl L Guard Middle R Guard R Tackle R End
Opponent Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds Att Yds
W6 LOS - Forsett 1 -1 2 12 2 -6
W6 LOS - Zenner 2 26 2 3 5 27 2 0 3 2
W7 WAS - Forsett 1 2 1 9 5 20 1 2
W7 WAS - Zenner 1 1 1 4 4 14 1 -1 2 11
W6-W7 Total 5 28 4 16 16 73 6 -5 5 13

Look at Jeremy’s game ball articles from those two wins:

Los Angeles:

Golden Tate

Reports of Tate’s disappearance appear to have been premature. Tate had a few huge plays including the aforementioned 61-yard catch on a free play and a 34-yard gain on the Lions’ first drive of the game. Then he followed it up with a late fourth quarter touchdown and this:

Washington:

Golden Tate

If you thought Tate’s game last week was an aberration, you were wrong. Why would you think such a silly thing? Tate had another big game, hauling in a team-high six catches for 93 yards. Tate was his shifty self that the Lions have missed for the majority of the season.

I really do not think that is a coincidence. Do you?