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Anquan Boldin will win those contested balls Calvin used to snag

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Unless the Lions retire the number, get ready to see #81 hauling in 50-50 balls again.

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Wild Card Playoffs - Baltimore Ravens v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Unicron just brought in Galvatron

Although the Detroit Lions no longer have Megatron, Bob Quinn has been on an unending quest this offseason to assemble forces to replace the mightiest of wide receivers. Shortly after the Anquan Boldin news broke, our fearless leader Jeremy Reisman commented on how it was interesting to see Quinn piecing together the various things that Calvin did for the offense, only this time embodied in multiple receivers: “like Megatron was really a Megazord all along.”

Now Bob Quinn has summoned a new warrior to destroy the Green Bay Packers and the Minnesota Vikings: Anquan Boldin is a guy wearing a #81 jersey who has done Megatron deeds. An experienced and powerful combatant who can fight for the ball in traffic, he is exactly the “big body” many of us believed the Lions needed (emphasis added):

The reason i’d get Burbridge in the mid rounds even if he doesn’t have the speed to go down the field is that he and Ebron would become the corner fade from inside the 10 yard line guys. Hands and decent enough size to box out and play physical against press coverage will be valuable since there are no true big bodies left among our wide receivers.

So no, one does not simply replace Calvin Johnson – but you can piece together the components we need out of our receiver corps by obtaining guys to fill needs in the offensive design.

I’ve thought a little about what a "Post Calvin Lions Offense" could look like – and have put off writing up the last part of the Matthew Stafford Offense series because it affects what kinds of packages we’d want to put in. Admittedly, some of what worked post-Schwartz were sort of "Calvin specific," so whatever we go after in FA or the draft is going to be targeted at the kinds of things only Calvin could run effectively in 2014 and 2015.

Megazord indeed! As pointed out by Kent Lee Platte, “the team will be looking to emulate some two tight end packages using Boldin as that inside physical threat opposite Eric Ebron.” All the size mismatch and contested ball throws that Calvin used to run for us? Papa Jim just got the guy who used to do it for him before he had Calvin.

The Ravens’ 2012 Playoff Run: Boldin Reborn

In the aftermath of the Ravens’ last Super Bowl win in the Harbaugh Family Grudge Match, Larry Holder of the Times-Picayune wrote up a nice piece about the role Boldin played in the postseason (emphasis added):

As the Ravens' offense sputtered for much of the 2012 season, Boldin’s production suffered as a result. And as the Ravens' offense improved after offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell took over for Cam Cameron, Boldin’s production improved considerably in the postseason.

For example, Boldin only had four touchdown catches in the regular season. Boldin caught four TD passes in the playoffs.

I’m not just stumping for Jim Caldwell here. The takeaway is that that our coaching staff should have a very good idea of what they can do with Boldin. Assuming Jim Bob is good at taking advantage of what his players do well, let’s go back to that tremendous postseason by Boldin on the 2012 Ravens squad to see what we might be getting:

When you win the Super Bowl, it’s usually because more than a few players on your roster have upped their games at the right moments. Boldin was one of those players in Baltimore, producing 22 catches for 380 yards and four touchdowns in the four-game span that led to the Ravens hoisting the Lombardi Trophy in New Orleans.

Winning contested jump balls

Time and again, Lions fans marveled at the way Matthew Stafford could throw the ball high and just let Calvin go get it. Until Boldin was signed, the only wide receivers on the roster taller than six feet with any pro experience were Marvin Jones (6-foot-2) and Corey Fuller (6-foot-2). Unlike Fuller, Boldin is known for being a muscular load that can get contested balls:

Boldin is about 220 pounds of bad news for defenders, with trademark toughness, body control, sound hands and precise routes to overcome his lack of speed.

"Anquan is one of the most physical players in the game that I've ever seen," said Pollard, a strong safety who earned the nickname, "The Bonecrusher," for his hard-hitting ability. "Anquan is a guy who's respected by so many. He's a guy who will tussle with you. I love the way he plays."

"I refuse to be the guy that's taking the punishment," Boldin said. "I'd rather be the guy dishing it out."

2012 Wild Card, 4Q (9:22). Second-and-10 at the Indianapolis 18.

The call by offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell is targeting Boldin one-on-one in the corner. The Colts are rolled up in press coverage with two deep safeties: the vertical route up the seam by 88 TE Dennis Pitta is designed to hold one of the safeties while the deep in by 82 WR Torrey Smith to 5 QB Joe Flacco’s left will hold the other one. 17 WR Tandon Doss has the check down shallow cross, which drags reserve 27 CB Josh Gordy standing in front of him away from the numbers. Boldin is isolated on 20 CB Darius Butler, and this is what happens:

Flacco throws it up high for Boldin, who adjusts to the ball in flight and goes up and over Butler to make the catch. For a full appreciation of just how “contested” this catch is, let’s go to the close-up:

That’s the kind of catch I can imagine a different #81 making. It is truly ridiculous — Boldin is catching the ball through face guarding, securing it around Butler’s upper arm, and bringing the ball into his body while Butler’s forearm rips down with full force on his right wrist.

2012 AFC Championship, 4Q (15:00). First-and-goal at the New England 3.

This screen capture shows Boldin bringing in a touchdown at the start of the fourth quarter in the AFC Championship Game in Foxboro. Look at the placement of the ball by Flacco: this is what we mean by “go up and get it.” The throw is off play action, with Flacco locked in on Boldin the whole way:

Flacco even makes the throw while backpedaling, simply lofting it up high for Boldin to out-jump 32 S Devin McCourty. As much as I love Golden Tate, he is not going to be able to run that play. Before signing Boldin, Ebron and Marvin were pretty much the only options for this type of jump ball over the middle.

Super Bowl XLVII, 4Q (7:14). Third-and-inches at the Baltimore 45.

To get an idea of the supreme confidence Baltimore had in Boldin’s ability to win contested balls, consider the play mentioned in the articles above like this bit from PFF:

If you need any further evidence of this just take a look at one of the defining plays from the Super Bowl. With the Ravens facing 3rd-and-inches with 7:14 left in the game, Flacco checked out of a run and instead opted to connect with Boldin downfield. Beating cornerback Carlos Rogers, he was able to hold onto the ball and extend a drive that eventually would see the Ravens take a five-point lead late in the game.

Remember, this was a Ravens team featuring the 11th ranked rushing offense in the NFL. On third-and-inches clinging to a slim lead late in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, Joe Flacco audibled out of a run to throw a back shoulder fade to Anquan Boldin. While not quite on the level of Beast Mode from the 1 yard line, this is a hell of a line check by Flacco to throw instead of pounding the ball.

Here’s why he was comfortable doing it:

During the replay, Jim Nantz recalled the touchdown catch against the Colts: “Now, how many times have we seen Boldin make a catch with the defender’s arm wedged right in there and he’s still able to grip it and hold on?” That 50-50 jump ball was an offensive option largely missing from the Lions’ Calvin-less offense — until now.

What about the middle of the field?

The back shoulder fade and other short yardage jump balls are great in the red zone, but what else can the Lions do with this kind of weapon? Here is one basic route combo featuring a back shoulder fade throw on the outside that I believe utilizes Eric Ebron in his best role in the offense. The Lions’ example comes to us from Calvin Johnson’s last game on the road in Chicago.

2015 at CHI, 1Q (13:38). First-and-10 at the Detroit 34.

The important elements to take note of are the routes run by 81 WR Calvin Johnson, 85 TE Eric Ebron, and 83 TE Tim Wright. Ebron has a vertical stem going straight down the seam, which will control the coverage over the middle of the field and pin the deep safety. The slight bend in the route has an extra chance of helping Ebron keep the safety centered. Underneath, Wright has the usual crossing dump route in front of the quarterback in case Stafford needs to throw hot against a blitz.

Then there’s the actual route Stafford is trying to hit: Calvin near the right sideline on a back shoulder fade throw. Ebron’s seam control route gives Calvin a one-on-one outside with no deep help for the cornerback. Forced to play safe against a deep shot, the cornerback will take himself out of position to play the shortened throw.

On the back side, 15 WR Golden Tate has a man-beater comeback route on the edge while 25 HB Theo Riddick does his F Post thing inside. But the point here is “Ebron down the seam gets the jump ball open outside.” Stafford to Calvin went for 25 yards on the play. Now let’s look at the 2012 Ravens and Anquan Boldin.

2012 AFC Championship, 3Q (14:15). Third-and-9 at the Baltimore 26.

Although Boldin is operating out of the slot, the major elements are here: 12 WR Jacoby Jones runs the crossing dump route, Pitta has a seam control route down the hash, and Boldin will set up a back shoulder throw to the outside away from the pinned deep safeties. On the back side, Torrey Smith has a man-beater intermediate dig route.

The completion from Flacco to Boldin here was for 26 yards, so it was kind of close to the same timing and gain as the Stafford to Calvin play. Diagrammatically, the play the Ravens ran under Caldwell and the play the Lions ran under Jim Bob may look different, but the fundamentals are the same (both seem like variants of smash divide). If you replace Pitta with Ebron and Smith with Tate, you have the necessary elements to run the Baltimore play with a strong armed quarterback and Anquan Boldin.

Now, scroll back up to the top part of this article and look at the Wild Card game touchdown against Indianapolis. That is basically the same Baltimore play except it is flipped. This general concept is good whether the offense is in the red zone or in the field.

A great addition to a “crowded” field

Heading into training camp, the Lions now have thirteen wide receivers (if you include PUP-listed Corey Fuller) on the roster. The team has a lot of guys who can technically play the position, but Boldin brings such a different mix of abilities and credentials than even the other veterans Quinn has acquired — so signing him really is a big deal. With Brandon Pettigrew on PUP and nobody else besides Ebron in camp with any pro experience at tight end, Boldin’s presence will mitigate some of the depth issues there.