Yet another reason to miss Calvin
Blocking on the outside is crucial for success in the outside running game as well as the screen game: anything that hits the perimeter, really. There is nothing fancy about effective blocking by receivers. Former Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur thinks it is an underappreciated contribution that can create big plays:
"I think our guys … have done a good job with perimeter blocks," offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur said, "and that really helps, whether we're just throwing a simple bubble with two blockers out front or if a ball splits out.
"Sometimes we talk about turning a bad into good and good into great and great into touchdowns, and a lot of times it's the perimeter blocks that do that. So you may have a good run that's going to go for 6 or 8. If the ball spits out to the perimeter, then that can go for 8 to 20, and then sometimes that goes from 20 to a touchdown, and I think a lot of that has to do with the receivers.
"A lot of times, blocking on the perimeter is all about effort and angles. You know, you've just got to fight to the whistle and take the right angle on your guys, and I think our guys have done a good job."
Shurmur is the current Minnesota Vikings TE coach, which says a lot about how seriously he takes the blocking role by pass catchers. The best wide receivers in the game — Julio Jones, Larry Fitzgerald — these guys throw full effort into blocking as part of being a great receiver in all phases:
Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan said a receiver’s size doesn’t really matter.
Blocking is all about attitude.
"It doesn’t have to do with whether you’re big or small," Shanahan said. "It has to do with the ‘want to.’ Usually, if guys are willing and their technique is good, they can be an effective blocker."
Obviously, some receivers are more willing to block than others. Frankly, top players such as Jones and Fitzgerald could get away with giving it the matador treatment. It’s not like they’re going to get dumped because they can’t block.
For others, it’s a necessity for staying in the league.
"Some guys don’t like to get in there and get messy," Shanahan said. "Usually those guys, if they’re not extremely talented and making up for it in other places, it’s tough for those guys to last."
Guess who else was a great blocking wide receiver? It wasn’t just Calvin Johnson drawing double teams and over the top safety help all the time that made everyone around him better; he also blocked a lot better than just about anyone else in the league at the position for his teammates. Here’s former Lions (and current Dolphins) WR coach Shawn Jefferson on Calvin’s blocking back in 2012:
"Calvin is just a monster, perfect technique," Jefferson said while running through film of Johnson’s block. "What we teach here is you want Calvin, when he’s about to make contact with the defender, we want him to bend his knees and explode through the defender."
Jefferson, who played wide receiver for 13 seasons in the NFL, said he stresses in the receivers’ meetings the importance of helping out on blocking.
"This is where Calvin defines what a receiver truly is," Jefferson said. "We always have the adage in our room, if you want the ball you better be ready to block for your teammates. . . . Here you have the best receiver in the league sacrificing his body for his teammate to get in the end zone."
In case you didn’t already miss Calvin enough for his ability to beat triple coverage on third-and-forever in the end zone, you can add perimeter blocking to the list of things that need to be replaced by our current WR corps.
Fuller doesn’t need to be Calvin to be useful
Corey Fuller is equipped with decent hands, but has never been anything but average as a component in the passing game. It is unlikely he will be a better deep threat than Marvin Jones, a better underneath route runner than Jeremy Kerley, or a better mismatch than either Theo Riddick or Eric Ebron. If Fuller wants to establish himself as an important part of the offense, one way to take his sixth-round acceleration and physicality and gain value through sheer effort is to block (notes added for identification):
There are indicators, [Jets running back coach Anthony] Lynn proceeds, present in teams that run well, signs of unselfish play and a determination to out-work and hit opponents.
"When you look at the teams that have the most explosive runs, you look at the wide receivers," Lynn adds.
While Jets wide receivers combined to catch merely six passes for 83 yards, that is not to say they weren’t heavily involved in the offense.
[WR Stephen] Hill has not caught a pass in two games, but against the Saints he acted as a key blocker on runs by Chris Ivory of 27, 30 and 52 yards -- the running back’s longest gains this season. Each play, Hill bullied a Saints defensive back as Ivory arrived, and on each drive the Jets scored a field goal.
Normally, wide receivers are thought of primarily as pass catchers. But as Complete Wide Receiver by Jay Norvell points out, there are more downs on which a receiver can help the team by blocking well than he can by making a play on a throw:
Good receivers play hard without the ball. Playing unselfishly is a big part of being a team player. A typical college football game has an average of 72 offensive plays. A good receiver will be lucky to get 8 to 10 passes thrown his way during the course of a game. That leaves 62 plays a game on which the wide receiver won’t get the football. This chapter is about how the receiver can still be a team player and help his team win even when the ball doesn’t come his way.
Fuller has 18 career receptions for 288 yards in 579 offensive snaps over the last two seasons. When he is in an offensive formation, he is clearly not the primary or even secondary offensive focus of the Lions’ attack. Of course if he’s targeted you want him to catch the ball, but the biggest contribution Fuller can make is to help the other guys break big plays.
What good WR blocking does for Detroit
Let’s start with an example from 2014 that demonstrates good alignment and execution by the perimeter blockers to spring 15 WR Golden Tate for a big gain. This play does not even feature the Lions' most athletic or talented players: it’s 87 TE Brandon Pettigrew and 12 WR Jeremy Ross paving the way.
2014 at NED, 1Q (15:00). First-and-10 at the Detroit 20.
The Lions come out in a standard 2x2 shotgun set and bring Golden Tate across the formation left to right. This creates a bunch right with three Lions (Tate, Ross, Pettigrew) against three Patriots (24 CB Darrelle Revis, 23 SS Patrick Chung, and 25 CB Kyle Arrington). From the initial set, the assignments are Revis on Tate, Chung head up on Pettigrew, and Arrington on Ross.
What the Lions want to do is give Golden Tate space to work one-on-one with room to break some ankles. The idea here, then, is to create some momentary confusion and delay among the Patriots by forcing them to switch assignments: either Ross or Pettigrew need to force a switch by blocking Revis. Ideally, we want Tate to end up with the ball on the WR screen against Arrington, who is the furthest back from the line:
Pettigrew engages Chung immediately and walls him off to the inside. Ross tracks and attacks Revis, who followed Tate outside: notice how Ross takes the smart angle and uses the inside leverage he got from starting the play aligned inside to keep Revis outside. These two blocks create a lane for Tate to go one-on-one with Arrington and nearly eight yards of green to make a move.
I don’t know about you, but I will take Golden Tate versus anybody in space one-on-one all damn day. Arrington commits hard to take away the tunnel inside, letting Tate plant and break back outside for 24 yards. Yes, Golden Tate is awesome, but the play never happens if Pettigrew and Ross fail to make those blocks.
2014 London ATL, 4Q (10:45). Second-and-5 at the Detroit 36.
During the comeback against the Falcons in London late in the fourth quarter, the Lions ran a WR screen with Tate lined up outside of Fuller. Here Fuller needs to start into a route to pull the man in front of him (26 CB Josh Wilson) away and then break off to lay a block on Tate’s defender (21 CB Desmond Trufant). This causes an assignment switch that should delay Wilson momentarily as he realizes that he needs to switch off to Tate:
Tate takes the ball outside at first to widen against Wilson, then bends back inside Fuller’s block. The resulting nine yard gain is more than enough to move the chains.
Fuller’s blocking is adequate enough to allow Tate to squeeze through, but if you watch him the whole way you will see him pull up and shuffle. Remember what coach Jefferson said above: "What we teach here is you want Calvin, when he’s about to make contact with the defender, we want him to bend his knees and explode through the defender." Instead of going aggressively at Trufant to provide a wider lane to Tate, Fuller gets away with doing just enough.
How bad WR blocking costs Detroit
Also recall Shurmur from earlier: angles and effort can turn short gains into long gains, and long gains into touchdowns. Put the ball in the hands of a dynamic runner like Theo Riddick or Golden Tate with good blocking and you have the potential to break big plays in any situation. But without the blocking in front of them, they never get the opportunity to win a one-on-one and get swarmed by the defense.
2014 BUF 4Q (14:05). Third-and-30 at the Detroit 23.
This play demonstrates how good wide receiver blocking can make the difference between big gains and big disappointment. Still a one score game in the early fourth quarter at 14-6, this was an important drive. But following a terrible three-play sequence of stuffed run for no gain, ten yard penalty, and ten yard sack, the Lions were in the worst kind of third down situation you could imagine.
There are really not many things you can do to try and convert a third-and-forever, but the play sent in by the Lions was actually not bad. From an empty gun set, everyone would block the cover man to his left like a punt return wall with Golden Tate crossing the field behind it. If everything went well, Corey Fuller would read the final two defenders and block one of them, leaving Tate running full speed to beat the last guy one-on-one at the perimeter.
Amazingly, Tate actually cut all the way across and eluded a diving 20 CB Corey Graham near the numbers at the 30 yard line. Remember how Fuller pulled up against Atlanta and danced around in front of the guy he was supposed to block instead of attacking the defender? Watch him here:
Tate goes down well short of the sticks, but actually had a shot at this. If Fuller even gets a partial block on 21 CB Leodis McKelvin at full depth, there’s a realistic chance Tate not only turns the corner with a better angle but converts the thirty yards for a first down. And Tate knows it:
I can’t believe i’m saying this, but it’s too bad we didn’t have Jeremy Ross lined up there (cram9030 is on the damn money with his reply to me there) instead of Fuller. That’s right, I said JEREMY ROSS. Good grief.
2014 at MIN, 4Q (3:23). Third-and-7 at the Detroit 23.
To be fair, 66 RT LaAdrian Waddle also whiffed, so the play would have lost yards even if Fuller hadn’t completely failed on his block here.
2015 GBY, 3Q (11:32). Second-and-7 at the Green Bay 29.
Even when Fuller manages to get his hands on the guy he’s supposed to be blocking, poor technique results in him giving up ground. The dark blue line is the line of scrimmage here, so you can see Fuller is engaged about two and a half yards downfield with his left foot on the edge of the zero painted on the ground. At this point with the ball in the air, it looks like Tate can break outside around the corner if Pettigrew keeps his guy to the inside.
After securing the ball and turning upfield, this is what Tate finds in front of him. Recall where Fuller had first engaged his man and now look where he is. 29 CB Casey Hayward has driven Fuller back to the line of scrimmage and wide enough to force Tate to flatten his approach. By taking away the edge, Hayward has robbed Tate of his acceleration and bought time for previously walled-off 91 LB Jayrone Elliott to get in position. Instead of Tate flying full blast down the corridor outside the numbers, Hayward even manages to get an arm out to slow him down for Elliott:
Corey Fuller, put your damn hand down and think about what you just did.
2015 at STL, 1Q (4:33). Second-and-8 at the Detroit 18.
Early in the road game against the Rams, the Lions put Tate in motion right to left across the formation and got an extremely favorable alignment to run the WR screen. Pettigrew and Fuller are in good position to open a middle lane for Tate to burst up for a decent gain. Both 31 SS Maurice Alexander (the deep safety near the 30 yard line) and 20 CB Lamarcus Joyner (the inside defender near the first down line) are in poor position and very far back from the line of scrimmage to make a quick stop.
Fuller completely misses the block and 47 CB Marcus Roberson takes Tate down for a loss of a yard. The next play on third-and-9, Stafford hit Tate for eight yards: one yard short of a first down. Fuller’s inability to consistently block on the outside killed the drive.
2015 at STL, 3Q (1:54). Second-and-8 at the Detroit 43.
Late in the third quarter of the same game the Lions are down only 14-7, so this is still winnable and the offense is in good field position. On second down, the Lions run the stack WR screen to the right with Fuller stacked in front of Tate. This is a great alignment to run the screen against: the Rams are shifted over to take away a run to the Lions’ left with only 47 CB Marcus Roberson split wide over the WR stack.
When Stafford lets the ball fly, it’s clear that Tate could have had at least ten yards of green space before running into support defenders outside the numbers. 26 SS Mark Barron and 20 CB Lamarcus Joyner were not really fooled by the token play action to 21 HB Ameer Abdullah, but their tight positioning in the box made the WR screen throw the correct choice for 9 QB Matthew Stafford.
Unfortunately, Roberson runs right past Fuller again and drops Tate for a four yard loss. Instead of a first down or at least third-and-short, Detroit frittered away good field position and end up punting after failing on third-and-long.
The fourth man: value added?
As far as pass catchers go, the priorities on Detroit’s offense probably go something like Tate, Marvin, Ebron, Riddick, and then a huge gap, and then everybody else. Even the third WR — whether Kerley, TJ, or someone else entirely — is not going to be a serious production receiver in terms of receptions or yards. Fuller, at best, will be the fourth WR in the depth chart, which is an okay role for his route running and hands.
Assuming he’s not going to be thrown the ball too often, Fuller has to provide value in other ways. Typically, this is the kind of logic used for UDFAs trying to make the 53-man roster by playing special teams or returning kicks. After two years of posting a handful of highlights and little else, Fuller ought to consider himself in a similar situation. If he’s not going to field kicks or otherwise contribute heavily on special teams (224 career special teams snaps — Isa Abdul-Quddus had more in 2015 alone), he needs to do some of the lunch pail things like block consistently for screen passes.
We think about tight ends in terms of downfield threats and so-called "blocking tight ends." Why not a specialized blocking wide receiver who has so-so pass receiving skills but gives maximum effort on perimeter blocking and special teams? If Detroit is not going to get much offensive stat production out of the fourth or fifth wide receivers on the roster anyway, how about ensuring they can run the support roles to help the Lions' top guys succeed? Similar to committing a running back or wide receiver spot on the roster to a dedicated kick return specialist, that would guarantee Detroit gets real value from the spot without taking the ball out of our best playmakers’ hands. Could Fuller be that guy? Sure, if he dedicates himself to improving his blocking technique and effort — but I doubt it.