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Film breakdown: Packaging the Matthew Stafford offense

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A nondescript 2014 play against the Buccaneers demonstrates the potential of what Jim Bob Cooter could unleash in the new Lions offense.

Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Kill! Kill! Kill!

Back in Week 1 of the 2014 season, the Detroit Lions hosted the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. Early in the second quarter (about 11:55 on the clock), Jon Gruden talked a bit about the changes being made to the Detroit offense by new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi:

Gruden: Listening to Matthew Stafford, he's struggling with the terminology, the nomenclature of this offense. He's got to call formations, shifts, motions -- but he's not just calling one play in the huddle, Mike (Tirico), he's calling two plays. He'll call one play and kill it with another. So if you see him killing it, making that signal, he's activating the second call. But he's having a hard time calling the first play, let alone the second.

It's not quite clear why Gruden thought Stafford was having a hard time calling the plays given the Lions were up 14-7 at that point in the game. In any case, the offense played well and built a 27-14 lead by the middle of the third quarter. On third-and-5 at the 50 yard line right at the 9:00 mark, Stafford killed the call at the line and threw an alert slant to Calvin Johnson for 11 yards. As the chains moved, Gruden came back to the subject:

Gruden: I just like what Stafford's doing in this system. You can hear him "kill kill kill" activating the second play. He sees the blitz coming, he kills the first play that was called in the huddle to a quick developing slant route. Calvin Johnson beats Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, but Stafford's done it all tonight. He's audibled, he's made some great throws from the pocket, and he's made three surprising scramble plays that have resulted in touchdowns. You got to be happy that he hasn't turned the ball over as well.

Obviously, Gruden meant first downs since Stafford had not rushed for three touchdowns. After a nice toss sweep gain on the subsequent first down play by Joique Bell, Mike Tirico kept the discussion of the play kill going:

Tirico: Ask you about something you just said with Stafford, he's coming to the line and killing one of the plays. So when he comes to the huddle, he's calling two plays at once?

Gruden: Yeah, he gets in the huddle, he might say "hey it's 96, i'm killing it with 97." So if he walks to the line of scrimmage and just runs the play, it's 96. But if he says "kill kill kill," we're running 97. So in the huddle, he'll call two plays, and if he activates the second one you'll hear him say "kill kill kill."

(Lions come to the line, Stafford points out something and calls for the kill.)

Gruden: Hard to do, a lot to say, here he is again killing it -- he's got one play and he's activating the second one.

(Stafford hands off outside zone right, Joique Bell picks up 11 yards)

Gruden: That's great blocking and a heck of a run by Joique Bell, but that's as much Matthew Stafford recognizing the defense -- the weakness in the front -- and going to there, killing it. This is great stuff. Stafford, we know he can make all the throws but if he can take his game to another level as a pro quarterback with these audibles, look out.

Tirico: You come to the line, you've called two, you check out the defense and you've got like two seconds to decide i'm going with the first one or the second one.

Gruden: Exactly right.

The advantage of coming to the line with multiple options and going with the one better suited to attacking the defense Stafford is looking at is obvious. But the system being described here is cumbersome since you need multiple play calls every time the team huddles and then clear communication to make sure everyone gets the signal if Stafford kills the first call and goes with the second. In difficult road games with crowd noise, this can be risky even if the team prepares for it.

Terminology Review: Packaged Plays

One way to provide some choice at the line for Stafford without having to actually call two plays is to combine the elements of more than one play into a single "packaged" call. An article at USA Football by Keith Grabowski titled "Combining two concepts into one for a more dynamic play" explains:

In any packaged play, the quarterback is given both presnap and postsnap keys that help him determine which concept to distribute the ball to. The packaged plays concept has been around for a while. It became popular within the spread offense with the advent of the zone read-bubble play. The play packages the inside zone with a perimeter bubble screen, and the defense is forced to defend the entire field.

Suggested reading:

Coming back to Grabowski's article, he says "(t)he creativity that packaging plays allows gives the coach the ability to develop a diversified attack while easing the burden of making the right call every time." As pointed out by a section title in the Eleven Warriors article linked above, the goal is to "make the defense wrong every time" by seeing what their alignment should be tough against -- and taking the option in the packaged play that goes away from that strength.

Chris Brown in the linked Grantland article elaborates further (emphasis added):

"Combination" or "packaged" plays have been sweeping across college and high school football over recent years, enough that NFL coaches are clearly taking notice. The Bears, Panthers, Bills, Eagles, and Chiefs each ran a number of them in their exhibition games, combining running and passing concepts — meaning the offensive line typically blocked a run play while receivers ran pass routes or screens, leaving the quarterback to decide whether to hand off or throw it out wide — often at a no-huddle pace.

If this sounds familiar to anyone who has read my Matthew Stafford Offense Fanposts, it should. Packaging a run play with a screen is something we have definitely seen the Lions do in the past.

Deluxe Packaging

It's one thing to combine a run and a pass into a two-for-one play, but adding even more options can take gift wrapping to the next level. We've already seen how Stafford can make good reads at the line of scrimmage and check to quick throws when he spots a vulnerability in the defense. Here he is in 2015 Week 2, on the road against the Vikings, checking out from under center to a shotgun quick post throw:

Suppose we take the frontside run-backside bubble screen alert packaged play and add that quick post from the near slot. Instead of two options for Stafford, the play would have three options.

2014 TBY, 1Q (3:48). First-and-10 at the Tampa Bay 19.

Detroit comes to the line in a shotgun formation with 12 WR Jeremy Ross, 85 TE Eric Ebron, and 15 WR Golden Tate to Stafford's left and 81 WR Calvin Johnson by himself wide right. 21 HB Reggie Bush is in the backfield to the right. Tampa Bay's defense shows two high safeties and is easily identifiable as a pretty vanilla Cover-2. What gives it away is that only two defenders follow the three Lions to Stafford's left: if the linebacker was playing man coverage on an agile mismatch like Tate, he would be walked off rather than stacked in the box.

The vulnerable keyed defender is identified in the screenshot above: 29 CB Leonard Johnson. He is lined up between Ebron and Tate with deep safety help playing way back. The call from the huddle has a frontside shotgun draw with Bush to the right paired with a backside bubble screen to Ebron. Below where you can see the play run in full motion, watch the offensive line blocking (C 51 Dominic Raiola releases forward to run block). Ross has the lead block on the outside while Tate runs a seam clearout to draw defenders away from the action to Ebron.

But then Stafford does something else prior to the snap. Recognizing he has a three-on-two to the left, he motions Bush over:

Now, even if 51 MLB Danny Lansanah is helping in coverage it's still four-on-three to Stafford's left in the underneath zones. Moving Bush to that side puts more responsibility on Lansanah. Suppose Bush ran a swing route to the flat; it would be pretty much impossible for 54 WOLB Lavonte David to get over and cover the swing. Only the closer linebacker (Lansanah) would have any chance of making it in time.

But look at how that changes the control element affecting Lansanah. Before Bush moved over, it would have been Tate pulling coverage inside; now it's Bush, and that puts CB Johnson in a bind. Does he go with Ebron to the outside? Does he go with Tate inside? It's impossible for one guy to cover both routes moving in opposite directions.

The play has effectively become a three option packaged play:

Stafford now has ways to hit the right side of the tackle box with an inside zone handoff to Bush, the backside perimeter on a bubble screen to Ebron, or down the seam on a vertical stem to Tate. Almost the entire field is in play, and Stafford can choose to attack whichever area he thinks is the most vulnerable.

Stafford holds the ball out for Bush and pulls it back zone read style, but instead of keeping his head up to read an unblocked defensive end he is checking to see which way the coverage in the left alley plays out -- in particular, how Johnson plays Ebron and Tate:

  • If Johnson jumps Tate and Lansanah follows Bush frontside as run support, they are wrong and Stafford hits Ebron on the bubble screen.
  • If Johnson jumps Ebron and Lansanah jumps Tate, they are wrong and Stafford hands off to Bush with five blockers taking on the five remaining defenders in the box.
  • If Johnson jumps Ebron and Lansanah follows Bush frontside as run support, they are wrong and Stafford throws the seam to Tate.

As long as Stafford executes, the defense is always wrong. Johnson stays wide and Tate blows past him up the hash. This is an easy completion for 13 yards down to the 6:

Two plays later, Stafford hit Calvin on the fade in the back right corner of the end zone for the first of three touchdown passes on the day.

Let Stafford Be Stafford

Over the course of the Matthew Stafford Offense series of Fanposts, we looked at a lot of different things the Lions can do very well on offense. Isolation plays on the outside using the Curl-Flat combo can move the chains and act as a nice medium range complement to vertical plays. The F Option and quick post let Ebron, Riddick, and Abdullah victimize linebackers with their quickness and agility between the hashes.

Power football allows the team to get the most from its pair of young guards and excellent lead blocking fullback. Just think how ridiculous it will get with Taylor Decker pounding on the right edge. That run game in turn sets up a devastating play action game. Going inside out from the the power game and play action, we finally arrived back at the perimeter, where quick throws could set up inside runs.

One constant throughout is that success using all of these aspects of the offensive playbook rely on sound decisions by Stafford. The comfort and speed at which he can make the pre-snap reads, progressions, and throws expands his ability to look off safeties or manipulate linebackers with ball handling. When given a smorgasbord of choices he likes, Stafford has shown he can be a solid decision maker that gets his playmakers involved. I hope Jim Bob's new offense gives him that flexibility to spread and shred opponents.