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Film breakdown: Lions’ inside run game still needs work

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Third-and-short should be nearly automatic, but in Detroit it has not been so.

NFL: Preseason-Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers Jason Bridge-USA TODAY Sports

Same Ol Rushing Game?

It is no secret that the Detroit Lions are a pass-happy team with a low run-pass ratio: they usually call rushing plays less frequently than other teams in the NFL. Using the data tool from SportingCharts, we find that the Lions have not been in the top half of the league in run-pass ratio from at least 2009 (no easily available data prior to that), and were dead last in the league in 2011, 2012, and 2015. Just because the Lions are built to be a good passing team with a strong-armed quarterback and an array of good receivers (even at non-WR positions), it is possible to throw the ball too much.

Since being hired, head coach Jim Caldwell has stressed the importance of running the ball better. Here he is in January 2014, shortly after being hired:

"The things we want to make certain we do, when we talk about how we win football games, No. 1, we want to make sure we control the line of scrimmage," Caldwell said. "I think offensively you need a team that can run the ball."

At the start of the 2014 season, Papa Jim declared a run game to be necessary for success:

On needing to run the ball better: "If it was just one simple thing we could correct it rather quickly. We run a variety of plays and the breakdowns have been different locations, different issues whether it's a second level blocker or first initial contact on the line of scrimmage. It could be combination blocks, things of that nature, but we're trying to make certain that we sure all of those things up. I just think just like anything else you achieve what you emphasize and that's going to be a strong emphasis for us not only in terms of this game but every game. In this league you have to be able to run the ball consistently in order to be I think a solid football team, a real good football team, so we'll continue to work on those things."

Between the 2014 and 2015 seasons, the theme came up again as a point of emphasis in offensive improvements:

“I think I’ve talked about the benefits of that, you know, just in terms of being able to control the clock, the dirty work that has to be done in the running game,” Caldwell said.

“It’s not pretty, it’s hard, it’s tough, but it makes a difference. It helps you close out games. It helps you get some of that tough yardage, so we’re working at improving it in every phase. You can give it lip service all you want, but we also have added personnel to kind of help us do that. So, we intend to get better and we must.”

That improvement obviously did not happen, as Detroit cranked out a league-worst 83.4 rushing yards per game. So here we are again talking about necessary improvements to the Lions’ run game. Whether this is Ameer Abdullah getting more comfortable in the offense, Theo Riddick taking on a bigger role running the ball in addition to catching it, or better blocking, whoever is carrying the ball needs to get better results in 2016.

First, a hole must exist

Let’s be clear from the outset that the problems in the run game are not exclusively the fault of the running backs. Some of it is on play calling, and a lot of it is on blocking. Last Friday in the first 2016 preseason game against Pittsburgh, there were some blocking issues even with the first unit players.

2016 Preseason at PIT, 1Q (12:56). First-and-10 at the Detroit 10.

The first rushing play called in the game by the Lions was an off-guard run to the right. Most of the offensive line blocked down and to the left while 71 RT Riley Reiff kicked out 55 OLB Arthur Moats to create a run lane down the right hash. The lane briefly appears, but is wiped out by a defensive lineman coming across the formation late.

Boxed in pink is 97 DE Cameron Heyward, who initially gets walled off but not locked up by LG 72 Laken Tomlinson. Heyward comes off the block and scrapes behind 91 DT Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt is pushed up and to the left by the combo block of 75 RG Larry Warford and 64 C Travis Swanson.

You can see Riddick take the hand-off, advance, and then plant his foot around the nine yard line to cut it back into the mush. That is not really Theo’s fault because he really had nowhere to go. The sudden appearance of Heyward in the lane forces 25 HB Theo Riddick to push back inside and get swallowed up in the pile for an okay four-yard gain, but the play should have gotten much more:

Had Heyward (again boxed in pink) been adequately blocked from the get-go by Tomlinson (whose head is in the pink box behind Heyward), there was a huge hole with 80 WR Anquan Boldin ready to block downfield on rookie 28 S Sean Davis.

2016 Preseason at PIT, 1Q (3:49). Second-and-5 at the Detroit 29.

Detroit comes out in a regular 12 personnel strong I-formation with 82 TE Matthew Mulligan in-line next to Reiff on the right side. 19 WR Andre Roberts started as a flanker wide right but motioned back into the formation and set up next to Mulligan. The run call is power to the right side D gap between Roberts and Mulligan. The key here is Roberts must set the edge and wall off 29 S Shamarko Thomas in front of him; Tomlinson and 46 FB Michael Burton will then exploit the hole and pry open the second level of the defense for 34 Zach Zenner to shoot through.

The orange zone on the ground is the hole that Detroit is attacking. We can see Mulligan completely turned and down blocking with the rest of the line. Everyone is so completely turned to push the defense laterally that the numbers on the backs of Swanson and Warford’s jerseys are clearly visible. In any case, Roberts fails to establish the outside edge of the hole, and Thomas worms his way right to collapse it. Tomlinson and Burton, who are both approaching said hole in the screenshot, have hardly any room to squeeze through.

Notice Roberts starts the play standing on the right hash and ends the play near the left hash. That is awful considering he was supposed to establish the edge on the right hash. Zenner has no hope since there is no hole to run through, and 31 CB Ross Cockrell comes around the outside — where Roberts blocking Thomas should have been in the way — to make the tackle.

2016 Preseason at PIT, 2Q (13:58). First-and-10 at the Detroit 15.

Here the Lions offense runs iso out of a strong I-formation straight up the gut. Adding Mulligan on the right edge of the line and Burton in the backfield to the regular line, there are seven blockers for the seven defenders in the box. This is a fantastic opportunity for the Lions’ ground game.

Unfortunately, RG Geoff Schwartz (boxed in orange) engaged 79 DT Jason Hargrave but for some reason decided not to keep blocking him. Instead, Schwartz shucked him off to his right and focused his attention on 50 LB Ryan Shazier (boxed in purple). The problem for the Lions is that Burton (boxed in pink) is also focused on Shazier since that was Burton’s assignment. Nobody picks up Hargrave, who gets fantastic penetration to blow up the play:

I have no idea if there is some kind of iso play the Giants ran where Schwartz would pass the down lineman to a fullback, but this is the kind of opportunity the Lions cannot afford to screw up with bad communication or missed assignments. If the run game is going to help the quarterback get better looks, it must win when the defense allows us to match numbers hat on hat.

Sometimes it really is the runner’s fault

Not everything is on the blockers, though. If the play design calls for a certain point of attack on a non-zone play, the runner has to attack the designated hole. If the runner deviates from the preselected gap, it undermines the design of the blocking and can actually cause missed blocks.

2016 Preseason at PIT, 1Q (10:43). First-and-10 at the Detroit 41.

This was a contentious play among the POD staff because there are enough weird things going on that it’s hard to tell if Chris Spielman’s commentary was correct (I agree with Spielman):

Matt Shepard: Again on the ground on first down.

Chris Spielman: Missed the hole.

Shepard: Is it to the outside?

Spielman: Yeah.

Shepard: Behind the right side behind Larry Warford and Riley Reiff are.

Spielman: And Theo’s a lot, you know, a third down back, and sometimes he’s a little bit impatient. You’re going to see the hole right to the outside. Right here to the outside - right there’s the hole. And see here’s the eighth man in the box (circles 21 S Robert Golden on replay); you gotta make that guy miss. That’s how you get a running game. I’m not just talking about push on the line of scrimmage on the offensive line, you have to make the eighth man in the box miss.

First of all, this is clearly a gap blocked play with the line down blocking and Tomlinson pulling. Second, by Theo’s run path to the outside immediately after the handoff, it’s clear where the point of attack was supposed to be. The play was made by the safety, coming up from deep in the secondary: Robert Golden was lined up about 12 yards deep and standing just outside the right hash. Here’s the decision point for Theo:

Boxed in pink is Golden coming up to make the play. Tate has an angle to try and make a block or at least impede Golden’s pursuit to the ball-carrier. 31 CB Ross Cockrell is following Tate due to pass coverage assignments. If Theo flattens to the outside and puts Tate between him and Golden, Cockrell is turned around and running in the wrong direction to pursue.

Instead, Riddick tried to cut it back inside of Tomlinson, who is blocking his man 50 LB Ryan Shazier to the inside where Theo cuts into. Riddick runs into Shazier because that’s where Tomlinson was supposed to put him. At the very end of the replay, Tate enters the frame but with no chance to even attempt to block Golden. Theo’s cut-back pulled Golden’s approach path away from Tate; flattening to the outside could have drawn Golden into Tate instead.

2016 Preseason at PIT, 4Q (7:07). First-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 28.

We’ve covered the split zone play in the past and how the Detroit Lions use it as a designed cut-back play. Here’s Chris Spielman on the broadcast:

Matt Shepard: Ridley again. There’s the seam he was looking for, a little late to it.

Chris Spielman: Nice job by Orson Charles. That’s a designed cut back. Any time you see that tight end come behind the line of scrimmage to cut off the back side pursuit - Orson Charles did just that top enable that seam for a good gain.

As pointed out by Shepard, 39 HB Stevan Ridley did not aggressively hit the cut back lane to take the good gain Spielman was talking about. Instead, Ridley hesitated then danced through the lane and was caught for just one positive yard.

Ridley surely ran some split zone with the Patriots, so it was surprising to see him get stuffed in this manner. His post-cut running looks strange to me, almost like he’s shifting or wobbling back and forth. Detroit ran split zone several times during the game, suggesting they might be looking at this as a bread-and-butter run play so it is important they get its execution down cold.

Will Detroit finally put it together?

The Lions enter the season with a ton of draft capital invested in the offensive line, a ferocious blocking fullback, and an explosive runner. It can no longer be argued that the pieces to run the damn ball are not present on the roster. But will the Lions do it? Can the Lions do it? For all of the talk over the years of establishing the run, we’ve only ever seen brief flashes of an effective run game; nothing lasting more than a week or two at a time.

Better play calling thanks to Jim Bob becoming the permanent offensive coordinator should help. Hopefully the second preseason game on Thursday against the Bengals is a better outing for the first and second offensive units on the ground. Zach Zenner looked okay at times against the Steelers, and Bane did not make an appearance in that first preseason game, so there is no need to panic. Yet.