First half: Stafford keeps Brees off the field
During the second quarter of the Lions’ win on Sunday against the Saints, the broadcast team of Chris Myers and Ronde Barber started talking about time of possession. Somehow, the Detroit Lions were controlling the clock! By the end of the game, Detroit built 16 minute advantage in that department. Our Jeremy Reisman noted a massive disparity in the number of plays run by each team in the snap counts:
First off, it's important to note just how many snaps the Lions offense took. 70 offensive snaps was the Lions' second highest total all year, and it was a big reason Detroit held the Saints to 13 points. New Orleans' offense was on the field for nine less snaps.
Coming back to the broadcast, here are two graphics shown by Fox during the second quarter:
This was a big deal, as it kept the New Orleans offense on the sideline. Normally a ball control offense means running the ball to control the clock, but in 34 first half snaps, the Lions called run plays just eight times:
|QTR||Clock||Down||To Go||Field Position||Hole||Gain||Runner||Check?||Notes|
|1||12:42||2||1||NOR 44||RG||2||Riddick||No||Dive play for first down|
|1||12:00||1||10||NOR 42||LT||3||Washington||Yes||Double guard pull, off left tackle|
|1||8:57||3||1||NOR 6||LT||-3||Riddick||No||Looked like same dive, unblocked edge blew it up|
|1||5:28||1||10||DET 8||LG||4||Washington||No||Split zone style cutback, no push frontside|
|1||4:11||1||10||DET 23||LG||3||Washington||No||Shotgun power vs. 6 man box|
|1||0:47||2||5||DET 39||RT||5||Washington||No||Unbalanced "3TE" left inside trap|
|2||10:42||1||10||DET 13||LT||2||Washington||No||Unbalanced "3TE" right dive|
|2||2:46||2||1||DET 49||LT||4||Washington||Yes||Same double guard pull as 1Q|
(“3TE” is Ebron/Mulligan with Boldin lined up tight—almost like a third TE.)
Notice two of those run plays were not even called by offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter: 9 QB Matthew Stafford audibled at the line into an inside run play with both guards 60 G Graham Glasgow and 75 G Larry Warford pulling. So in reality, less than one out of every five plays called by Jim Bob were running plays. Of the runs actually carried out, three were in short yardage situations to convert a single yard to move the sticks and four were in first-and-10 situations. Just one run was in any other down and distance mix in the first half.
How did the Lions control the clock without running the ball? Look at the other graphic to the right side of the image before the table. Overwhelmingly, the Detroit offense completed high percentage short passes to backs and receivers and looked for YAC. In last week’s fantasy column, POD guru Ryan Mathews noted the Saints defense’s weak tackling and opportunities for extra yards in space:
This season, Tate is Detroit’s leader in targets with 85, and it’s pretty clear Stafford and Cooter like to get the ball to him in areas where he has space to create after the catch. Tate is third in the NFL in yards after catch (YAC), with 422 of his 617 yards coming after the reception. New Orleans’ defense is 25th in the league in yards allowed after the catch, giving up 132.9 YAC/G. Look for the Lions to capitalize on the Saints poor pursuit and tackling on Sunday.
**For those of you who have read this far, here’s a bonus tidbit of advice for you: remember Theo Riddick who I said was a start this week? He’s seventh in the NFL in YAC, gaining 7.6 YAC per reception.
Guess who accounted for more than a third of Detroit’s total offense?
Tate was Golden— NFL Fantasy Football (@NFLfantasy) December 5, 2016
Did you start him this week? pic.twitter.com/aNbQoh0JN9
Early second half: Jim Bob springs his trap
Much of the early third quarter continued the short passing attack of the first half, but the Lions also began systematically attacking 40 CB Delvin Breaux (who they tested in the first half - see below). Recently returned to the lineup from a major leg injury (broken fibula), he had not looked good in the weeks leading up to the game against the Lions and again played poorly:
Delvin Breaux struggled once again, grading below average (45.9) for the third time in his last three games. He made two plays in the third quarter to cut off WR Andre Roberts' route, but otherwise was flagged twice for coverage penalties and ended the game with five catches allowed for 97 yards.
HOW DID HE CATCH THIS?!— NFL (@NFL) December 4, 2016
@ShowtimeTate #DETvsNO https://t.co/YkENWOlAxt
During the opening Detroit drive of the second half at the 13:00 mark, Breaux was flagged for defensive holding against 13 WR TJ Jones on a deep route up the left sideline. Three plays later on third-and-16, Stafford hit TJ Jones on an out-and-up against Breaux for 36 yards. On the next drive, Stafford continued challenging the defense deep with two shots to 12 WR Andre Roberts (both incomplete) - one of them against Breaux.
Then in the fourth quarter, there was this:
THE @LIONS CANNOT BE STOPPED!— NFL (@NFL) December 4, 2016
66-yard TOUCHDOWN! #DETvsNO https://t.co/fJbKdfkc7E
Look at the coverage by the cornerback that Tate sneaks behind for the wide open catch and run: he’s sitting there, waiting to jump short routes but has no deep help in position to take over on Tate in the corner. What was going on? The Saints were reacting to what the Lions were doing earlier, bringing defenders up to take away short passes and limit YAC. In light of the first half short passing game run by Jim Bob and Stafford, going single high with heavy focus underneath made sense but left the deep sidelines vulnerable.
Late game: ZZ Top
The following table shows all of the called running plays in the second half. Look at where the run game starts to appear in earnest; two runs in the late third quarter and then the mid-fourth quarter carries by Zach Zenner:
|QTR||Clock||Down||To Go||Field Position||Hole||Gain||Runner||Check?||Notes|
|3||13:39||1||10||DET 46||RG||0||Washington||Yes||2TE dive play|
|3||12:53||1||10||NOR 49||LE||-3||Riddick||No||Bunch left, TE right - crack toss off fake Tate bounce sweep|
|3||6:15||1||10||DET 46||LT||8||Zenner||No||Pistol bubble-zone option vs. 6 man box|
|3||4:04||1||10||NOR 26||RG||5||Zenner||No||Bubble-Zone option vs. 6 man box|
|4||13:25||1||10||DET 22||LG||6||Riddick||No||TE Inside trap vs two high|
|4||10:16||1||10||DET 46||RG||6||Zenner||No||2TE Split zone|
|4||9:38||2||4||NOR 48||RG||9||Zenner||No||2TE Bunch right TE inside trap|
|4||8:52||1||10||NOR 39||LG||9||Zenner||No||"3TE" left dive|
|4||5:23||1||10||DET 44||RT||1||Zenner||No||2TE right zone run down from behind|
|4||4:41||2||9||DET 45||LT||2||Zenner||No||Zone left, no push|
|4||4:35||1||10||NOR 48||RG||1||Zenner||No||"3TE" right dive|
|4||3:51||2||9||NOR 47||RE||-1||Zenner||No||Zone right, no push|
Carved up by precision short passing in the first half then deep sideline shots in the early second half, the Saints backed off to help their guys getting torched deep. Remember that the lead was just 25-13 with more than ten minutes left in the game. Despite the obvious incentive for Detroit to run the clock, New Orleans stayed deep and wide in hopes of stopping the aerial assault; Stafford was looking at more and more two high defenses and six-man boxes.
Again, Jim Bob was ready to pounce.
2016 at NOR, 3Q (6:15). First-and-10 at the Detroit 46.
The call is the standard bubble-zone option play where Stafford reads the defense and chooses to either hit the perimeter for a WR screen to Golden Tate or hand off inside to the running back to attack a light box. In this case, the Saints have two deep safeties and a six man tackle box, so the right call is to blast Zenner up the gut.
Worth mentioning: 85 TE Eric Ebron coming across the formation on the slice block against 94 DE Cameron Jordan lays out and blocks 4 keeps. The entire offensive line got a huge push and wins six-on-six for a solid eight yards.
2016 at NOR, 3Q (4:04). First-and-10 at the New Orleans 26.
Once again, this is the bubble-zone option play but this time featuring WR screen action from Boldin on the right side of the formation. Stafford gets a light front (six guys in the pale purple box) and two backed off safeties (boxed in red). Of course Stafford takes the run here:
Great spacing and wide running lanes for Zenner to weave through, and just look how much of a push downfield the offensive line gets. In particular, Warford fires out really fast to stonewall 52 LB Craig Robertson at the second level. Zenner gets an easy five yards on the carry.
2016 at NOR, 4Q (9:38). Second-and-4 at the New Orleans 48.
The Lions came to the line here with two tight ends on the right (Ebron in a three-point stance and 82 TE Matthew Mulligan set back from the line) and 80 WR Anquan Boldin tight to the formation. The Saints defense counters by bringing nine to the front, but look how spread out they are. Supporting the defensive line in the middle are 48 FS Vonn Bell and 59 LB Dannell Ellerbe.
The blocking scheme here is interesting, and worth taking a look at because it is built to fool aggressive defensive linemen. 71 RT Riley Reiff will ignore the man in front of him and immediately release to lock up Bell. Similarly, 60 LG Graham Glasgow releases immediately to find Ellerbe. The first level defender bypassed by Glasgow will be picked up by 64 C Travis Swanson, who shoves the guy in front of him and releases to move over onto Glasgow’s man. On the other side, 75 RG Larry Warford turns outward to pick up Reiff’s man. What happens to Swanson’s rusher? Mulligan comes in behind him and trap blocks that guy:
This looks like total chaos with blockers going in all directions, but it is carefully orchestrated to make a whole bunch of defenders think they are coming unblocked -- only to be slammed from an unexpected direction at the last second. Here is the play at full speed:
While the Pride Of Detroit staff had some quibbles with red zone play calling, the phases of the game in New Orleans revealed an offensive game plan that stayed one jump ahead. Jim Bob first spread the Saints out horizontally, daring the defense to move up to make tackles in space. When they did, he unleashed Stafford deep in an unpredictable manner, targeting Tate, Roberts, and even TJ Jones. Finally, with the secondary playing on its heels, Detroit threw a bunch of body shots in the run game at the heart of an unsupported defensive front.
This was the Detroit Lions offense forcing an opponent to make adjustments to what the Lions wanted to do, rather than the other way around. While thoroughly unconventional in how the plan maintained control of the game, it is awfully difficult to argue with the results: