The Saints offense’s mirrored post-outs play
Last week we saw how Scott Linehan’s offense used shallow hitch bait to pin the underneath coverage and get Calvin Johnson open down the hash in space. Running a quick post cutting behind the linebacker or safety on the short route allowed Calvin to break into open space without anyone in the way: as Stafford looked at Calvin, to the defender it would seem like a check down to the hitch. When the underneath defender jumped the hitch, the throwing lane to Calvin would clear out for a high percentage completion.
That play, utilizing the Spurrier "97" pin route combination, was not a part of the Sean Payton offense brought over from New Orleans by Joe Lombardi. The most similar play in Payton’s playbook, which was rarely run by the Saints, was a mirrored post-outs combination. Like in the play we saw Linehan run with the Lions, Payton’s play has shallow routes designed to manipulate the underneath defenders and clear out the seam throwing lane to hit the post.
2013 DAL at NOS, 2Q (0:25). First-and-10 at the Dallas 47.
From an empty gun set, 9 QB Drew Brees will have the outside wide receiver on each side (84 WR Kenny Stills to his right and 12 WR Marques Colston to his left) run ten yards then break to the post. Underneath each post route is a quick out route intended to drag the curl-flat defender to the outside: HB 43 Darren Sproles on the left and 16 WR Lance Moore on the right. Smack dab in the middle of the field, 80 TE Jimmy Graham runs right at 52 LB Justin Durant to force him to stay away from either hash.
Defensively, Dallas is pattern matching, and both outside corners carry the post runners when they commit to vertical stems. 32 CB Orlando Scandrick (on Moore) and 42 S Barry Church (on Sproles) near the 40 yard line in the alleys read the release of the receivers off the line and follow them shallow to the sidelines.
Instead of pinning the defenders in place and breaking the receivers’ routes away from stationary coverage like the "97" concept, the Saints stretch the coverage horizontally to actively pull cover men away and create windows for Brees to look the ball through. This is more in line with the way this offense tries to create opportunities down the middle: "Payton's first order of business is often to spread the opposing linebackers out with quick outs to Graham or wide receiver Lance Moore."
This particular play went for 19 yards and set up a deep shot two plays later for a touchdown before halftime. The post-outs play was not run very often by New Orleans: this game against Dallas is from Week 10 of 2013, the last season Joe Lombardi was on their coaching staff. I started at Week 1 and kept looking at tape until I found a clear cut example of the play to use, and this is how far into the season I had to go.
The presence of this play in the New Orleans playbook is relevant because Joe Lombardi ran the same play in Detroit as its offensive coordinator. All of Lombardi’s experience as an offensive coach at the NFL level prior to being hired by Detroit was under Payton at New Orleans, so it made a lot of sense when Lombardi said Payton’s playbook would be the starting template for his offense.
On the other hand, the Saints did not run the "97" combination at all and neither did Lombardi. In 2014, the Lions instead ran the above mirrored post-outs play a number of times as a sort of substitute to attack the middle of the field. The timing and mechanics of the throw are superficially similar even if the overall theory and play design are not. In any event, Stafford was able to make this play work in place of the old Linehan play.
2014 MIN 3Q (10:59). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 14.
This is essentially the same play we saw the Saints run in 2013 against the Cowboys. Instead, Detroit has the center pin being run as a delayed release by 35 HB Joique Bell and the quick outs being run by flexed 87 TE Brandon Pettigrew and stacked 12 WR Jeremy Ross. The main targeted routes are the posts by 15 WR Golden Tate at the top and 81 WR Calvin Johnson at the bottom.
On the transition from the Linehan offense to Lombardi’s new system, it seems like Lombardi was more willing to run plays that — at least at some level — resembled the Linehan plays the Lions veterans were used to. The mirrored post-outs play was actually quite successful in 2014, and appeared to be part of a move away from using the quick post as a way to set up Calvin toward its use as a more general tool for Stafford to employ.
2014 at GBY, 4Q (8:38). First-and-10 at the Detroit 26.
On the road at Lamborghini Field, Stafford throws to his right to Ross for a 20 yard gain. This is an empty gun look with a little twist at the bottom: 25 HB Theo Riddick runs the quick out underneath Calvin and actually turns vertical into an out and up. How closely does this parallel the way the Saints ran the mirrored post-outs? You can see 85 TE Eric Ebron on the center pin target the middle linebacker, run up in his face and bump him the same way Jimmy Graham did in the 2013 example from before.
2014 CHI, 2Q (15:00). Second-and-22 at the Chicago 49.
On second-and-long, Stafford throws to his left and hits 10 WR Corey Fuller on the post for 21 yards in front of a quick out by Tate. Due to the down and distance situation, none of the Chicago defenders bothered accounting for Bell on the center pin check down but Stafford still had a fairly easy throw for big yards.
2014 at NED, 4Q (12:19). First-and-10 at the New England 38.
Here we have Detroit running the mirrored post-outs against New England in press man coverage. Although Ross is blanketed by his man at the top of the formation, Stafford has a clear shot. There was no opportunity for yards after the catch, but it’s hard to be upset about a safe throw that went for 13 yards and a first down.
To get an idea of how much space there is in the throwing lane, look how open it is to Stafford’s right after Ebron pulls 23 S Patrick Chung to the middle between the hashes. How do you know this is the right kind of route to plug into a play designed for Matthew Stafford? The last three examples involved neither Calvin Johnson nor Golden Tate catching the ball. If the design of the play can get Jeremy Ross and Corey Fuller this open for big chain moving plays, shouldn’t this type of thing be a regular part of the offense?
It will be gone and he’ll bring it back
After the transition season in 2014, Lombardi went to the full install of his offense, taking the Lions closer to the original Saints offense. But this meant phasing out the mirrored post-outs play in 2015, running it as sparingly as the Saints instead of ramping its usage up to take advantage of Stafford’s proficiency at it. Like Lombardi’s commitment to zone run plays in spite of the better results doing the power stuff that Detroit’s players were actually good at running, the play did not fit his vision so it was out.
Midway through the 2015 season, Lombardi was replaced by Jim Bob Cooter, who had a new dream for what the Detroit offense should be. By working closely with the players to determine what they believe they can execute best, Jim Bob would get the offense back to producing:
Cooter, 31, and Stafford worked together closely for much of the past two years with Cooter joining the Lions as quarterbacks coach in 2014.
"I think he's done a good job of telling me plays he likes or plays he doesn't like, or maybe we should run this route at this depth instead of that depth," Cooter said. "So, it's his offense as much as it is mine — maybe even more.
"I've learned early in my career that if a quarterback really likes a play, he tends to make it work. So if he likes it, we'll get it in. If he doesn't like it, we'll try not to call it and we'll go from there."
Crafting the system with input from the players themselves is a great way to ensure buy-in by the team. But we’d heard this before:
Caldwell ultimately aims to construct a playbook built around the strengths of his players.
"I think that's really our job, just in terms of coaches, is number one to implement a system we think is going to be effective, that we believe in," Caldwell said. "It's structured as such where most of them are pretty voluminous, but we structure them in such a way that we make certain we try to use the best of a player's ability. We have to look at everyone, particularly the quarterback because he's the guy that's going to run the show. He's the trigger man."
That’s from back in early 2014 before Joe Lombardi designed his system. Clearly, that system was not tailored to the strengths of the players, which led to some pretty poor results. Once Lombardi was shown the door, Jim Bob Cooter made some changes and Detroit finished the season with a pretty nice run.
Or did he? Were there real changes made or did a weaker back end of the schedule make the team look better? As Chris Lemieux pointed out, even if Jim Bob wanted to make changes they were constrained by virtue of the fact that it was already midseason. For better or for worse, Jim Bob was stuck with Lombardi’s general offensive framework:
With Lombardi out, a book falls into the lap of Cooter. It is the playbook; Joe's playbook. There is no way to dramatically change the scheme midseason. The job of coaching in the NFL demands long hours, terrifyingly long, the denial of sleep and dreams and family interaction. Life is drained by a Dark Crystal machine demanding victory; we are dead, we go into battle to reclaim our lives. Even still, there is not enough time to change everything significantly. The staff has four days and a transatlantic flight. That whiteboard isn't going to fit on the jet.
The immediate hope is re-sequencing. Shuffle the deck, throw in a joker. Make sure that bastard the dealer doesn't see you slip in an extra ace. For now, the playbook will be set. Come the bye week, there will be more chances for even less sleep and further rejiggering. For now, Cooter's still playing the shoe Lombardi started.
Limited changes does not mean zero changes, though. When Jim Bob used those limited opportunities to make changes to the playbook, he made them count. Reintroduction of the "97" route combination is an excellent example of a good change in the second half of the season that set the Lions’ offense up to succeed.
Throw in a joker
To recap, here’s Detroit’s use of the pin combo quick post:
- 2009: Scott Linehan is hired to be Jim Schwartz’s offensive coordinator. His playbook includes the "97" pin route combination.
- 2010: Stafford hardly plays, and Linehan shelves the "97" combo.
- 2011: Stafford comes back healthy and puts up ridiculous numbers. Linehan starts experimenting with the "97" combo.
- 2012-2013: Stafford and Calvin get really good at the "97" play. Linehan decides to start using it more.
- 2014: Linehan leaves town when Schwartz is fired as head coach. Lombardi throws out the "97" play and sporadically uses a related Post-Outs play a bit with some success.
- Early 2015: Lombardi tries to phase out the Post-Outs play, leaving the passing game without a quick acting intermediate way to consistently get Calvin the ball over the middle.
As a refresher, here’s the Steve Spurrier "97" diagram we had when discussing the Lions running the combination under Linehan:
2015 OAK, 2Q (1:36). First-and-10 at the Detroit 24.
Calvin Johnson at the bottom of the screen runs a quick post bending behind the hitch by Lance Moore in the slot. This play was good for 20 yards and a first down.
2015 at CHI, 2Q (1:35). First-and-10 at the Detroit 44.
Once again, Calvin at the bottom of the screen bends a quick post behind Lance Moore on the short hitch. This time the Lions gained 14 yards and a first down.
Whether it’s because Jim Bob knows the film on his guys inside and out, because he has a tremendous knowledge of the game, or just communicates better with the players, it is clear he’s making real changes with the specific strengths of his players in mind. Instead of discarding a wonderful play that showcased the best of Stafford and Calvin because it "wasn’t part of the system," Jim Bob put it back in there anyway and made it part of the system.
This is why I believe Lions fans may rightly be excited about Jim Bob Cooter finally taking over the offense and giving it a full install. He’s not just saying he’s open to ideas from everywhere and determined to match the offensive design to his players, he’s already shown us he’s doing it.