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TBT Film Breakdown: Megatron’s most unstoppable route under Linehan

When the Lions' coaching staff was cleaned out in 2014, new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi replaced Scott Linehan. And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost.

Scott Linehan

Calvin Johnson’s Signature Linehan play: "97"

Most of the best players of the modern era had favorite go-to plays that served as the backbone for their statistical records. For a quarterback like Peyton Manning, it was the levels concept. For Troy Aikman and Michael Irvin, it was the Air Coryell bang 8 route. The classic Joe Montana to Jerry Rice play for big yards after the catch under Bill Walsh was flanker drive. Everyone had a signature play that could be counted on in clutch situations: how could Calvin Johnson put the team on his back in the Scott Linehan offense?

Obviously there were the crazy triple coverage busting touchdowns, the early career deep jump balls, and unbelievable sideline fades. But the routes that Calvin Johnson ran in the Linehan offense that most reliably contributed to his record breaking production were less flashy. As time went on, the "prayer to Calvin" style deep throws for him to adjust to and run under became rarer and rarer. After reviewing every reception by Calvin Johnson from 2009 to 2013 that gained 12 yards or more (and for which tape exists on NFL Game Pass), I consider these five routes to have been his "bread and butter" producers:

  1. Quick Slant
  2. Shallow Cross
  3. PA Post (mostly 2012-2013)
  4. Flat-7 Corner/Deep comeback coverage read (especially in 2013)
  5. And the one I consider his best and most reliable: the Steve Spurrier "97" route combo

Wait, what? Steve Spurrier?

The Head Ball Coach to think about is not the early South Carolina Spurrier, the failed NFL coach version, or even the late career South Carolina version. What we want to look at is the mad scientist creator of the Fun ‘n Gun offense at Florida from the 1990s to early 2000s. Here’s the diagram for the "97" pass from Spurrier’s 2000 Florida playbook:

The key here is the combination of the hitch in front of the quick post route. Similar to the mills concept (also a Steve Spurrier creation) or the sucker concept, the idea with the "97" play is to put some bait in front of the underneath coverage for the defense to jump. When the linebacker or strong safety comes up to take away the slot or tight end hitch in front, it leaves space for the No. 1 receiver at the X to angle into. Since the X is breaking to the middle of the field, it makes for a simple straight-ahead completion for the quarterback. On a good throw that hits the receiver in stride, this can go for a long gain.

Notice this is a 3 step pass play, getting the ball out quickly. The No. 1 WR (Calvin) drives forward and then break to the post to catch the ball about ten yards deep. The No. 2 WR (or TE - anyone to the inside of the No. 1 WR) runs the hitch in front as bait. Why is this particular combination so effective? Consider an earlier hand drawn diagram of the play from Spurrier’s 1995 Florida playbook:

When you look at the "Trips Rt. 97" diagram on the left hand side, you can see that Spurrier has the slot receiver running the hitch to hold the strong safety for the Z receiver split wide right to break in behind. The dotted lines that Head Ball Coach has drawn onto the diagram provide a nice clue as to what makes this work so well: the quarterback is looking for the Z as his main target, but the strong safety doesn’t know where the Z is. It appears to the strong safety like the quarterback is looking at the bait, inducing the safety to move up and jump the hitch. This is exactly what the offense wants him to do because it clears out even more room for the Z to work.

2011 at OAK, 4Q (7:03). Second-and-10 at the Oakland 40.

85 TE Tony Scheffler starts as an in-line blocker, coming out of a three-point stance to hitch up and drift to the outside. 34 CB Michael Mitchell takes the bait and jumps Scheffler’s hitch route. This leaves a clear throwing lane for 9 QB Matthew Stafford to deliver the ball to Calvin for what ended up as a 24 yard gain into the red zone (Calvin spun out of that tackle at the end of the GIF).

2011-2012: Discovery

The play was in the playbook from the very beginning of the Schwartz era: with 1:07 to go in the second quarter on First-and-15 against the Vikings in 2009, Linehan called the "97" combination for an 18 yard gain to Calvin bending behind 84 TE Brandon Pettigrew. Due to a rash of injuries early in Stafford’s career, however, the Lions were forced to play a mix of Daunte Culpepper, Shaun Hill, and Drew Stanton for much of 2009 and 2010. It’s not clear why Linehan felt the concept could not be used with any of the other quarterbacks (not enough zip?), but it was shelved until Stafford came back. For example, here’s Stafford to Calvin for 15 yards in one of the few 2010 games Stafford played:

2010 WAS, 3Q (2:24). First-and-10 at the Detroit 20.

In 2011 when Stafford finally played a full season, I found eight receptions by Calvin on either a pure "97" route combination or a close variant of the concept. On those eight receptions, Calvin gained 155 yards with no catch gaining less than 12 yards. For the entire 2011 season, Calvin had 96 catches for 1,681 yards, so nearly ten percent of his production came from this concept once Stafford was healthy.

In 2012, Calvin had 157 yards on 8 receptions from clear Spurrier "97" style route combos. Another 3 catches for 46 yards were on related variants of the concept (similar to slant-flat plays). Out of 122 catches and 1,964 yards in the record season, that’s again about ten percent of his production from pin combos. The "97" and its variants were solid intermediate to long gains that year, averaging almost twenty yards per catch on those plays.

To realize the full value of this concept in a playcaller’s arsenal, you have to consider that it is a quick developing three-step play featuring a very high percentage throw that almost always picked up 14 yards or more. The "97" route combo play was generally called only once or twice per game, and was good for first down conversions just about every time it was run. It’s nice to get those 40 yard shot plays, but such throws are low percentage and slow to develop. With a bad offensive line, taking too many long drops is likely to get Stafford blasted.

2013: Mastery

Scott Linehan made this route combination a key part of the offense once he realized Stafford and Calvin had gotten so proficient at it that they could work it repeatedly for first downs. Calvin had 14 receptions for 246 yards on "97" route combination plays that year. As a share of his 84 catches for 1,492 yards, this was more like sixteen to seventeen percent of his total output for the year. Every one of these receptions moved the chains and gained at least 14 yards; five were converted third down situations.

To get an idea of how well Stafford and Calvin could run this play, you have to focus on the little things. For example, the speed with which Stafford was able to locate and hit Calvin allowed him to look off defenders.

2013 at CHI, 4Q (4:05). Third-and-3 at the 50 yard line.

First take a look at the play in general. The situation is this: third down on the road late in the fourth quarter with a slim lead. Detroit would like to put Chicago away with another score, and is in good field position to do just that. To keep the drive alive, Linehan goes to the "97" combo: 81 WR Calvin Johnson is at the top of the screen and wraps around behind 87 TE Brandon Pettigrew (coming out of a three-point stance). Stafford reads the defense and comes back to hit Calvin cutting to the middle of the field for 14 yards. Now let’s look at Stafford at the snap:

When you watch his head, Stafford gives a neutral look down the middle of the field to make the safeties hesitate. Then he turns to his right and looks at the 12 WR Jeremy Ross (slot) and 18 WR Kris Durham (split wide) side of the field in front of him. That affects the middle linebacker 57 MLB Jon Bostic: go back up to the GIF of the play and locate him in the center of the defense. When Stafford turns his head and rotates his body to the Ross-Durham side, Bostic turns and commits that way.

Come back down to the zoomed in GIF of Stafford and check his feet. Now that Stafford has the defense moving in the wrong direction, he resets to neutral down the field. As his feet are resetting on the two rapid repositioning hops, he locates Calvin and fires the ball.

The replay view on the receivers clearly shows Pettigrew hitching up to suck in the underneath defender. As Calvin passes him, Pettigrew starts to drift toward the sideline (recall the earlier play in this article with Scheffler doing the same thing), further pulling his man out of the throwing lane. On the post itself, Calvin presses on 33 CB Charles Tillman with his left arm to threaten the vertical and keep Tillman outside; he is patient and makes a crisp break to the inside on time to turn for the ball. Everyone shown here is working the play with a high level of proficiency, making it a reliable play call for important game situations.

2014: Tragedy

Going back to the tape from 2009 and 2010 made me wonder what could have been possible if Linehan had those early years with a healthy Stafford to run a real offense instead of something cobbled together for backups without Stafford’s arm. As time went by, Jim Schwartz wore out the goodwill he earned from the playoff appearance in 2011 and Linehan’s playcalling and creativity came under fire. While at first glance it looks like Linehan had five years to install his offense, a more realistic way to frame it is to say he had half a rookie season out of Stafford in 2009 then started over in 2011 (which, of course, was a pretty decent offensive year).

As Alex Reno has pointed out in the past, Linehan was actually pretty damn good at his job. Really! It was only when we were saddled with Joe Lombardi’s playcalling and scheme that fans realized what Detroit gave up. A good example of this is the progress that had been made under Linehan with the "97" route combo. Just as the Lions were starting to use it more often to get Calvin clean high percentage looks down the field in space, that adjustment largely left with Scott Linehan.

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