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Film breakdown: Play action in a post-Calvin world

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If you can’t stretch the defense deep, try stretching it shallow.

Detroit Lions v Pittsburgh Steelers Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Revisiting PA Z Cross

Last year, I said my favorite play in the entire Detroit Lions playbook was a play-action pass that targeted an intermediate crossing route. In the past, Detroit typically sent Calvin on a go route to one side and Golden Tate crossing the field behind where the linebackers would be standing in underneath zone coverage from the other side. The primary target would be the crossing route with Calvin pulling the deep help out and the play-action fake drawing the shallow coverage in. Tate, TJ, or whoever else was running the crossing route could then find a nice corridor to give Stafford an easy throw (the pink area here):

Partly because everyone knows Detroit runs that play, and partly because they no longer have Calvin to threaten the deep safeties, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is throwing a little extra into the mix with play action. Instead of running a simple Z Cross, last Friday against Pittsburgh we got to see Detroit run a more complex version which is less reliant on the vertical clearout receiver being named Calvin Johnson.

What’s even more interesting is that it turns out Jim Bob gave us a look at this play last year against New Orleans — I just did not realize it at the time.

2015 at New Orleans, 3Q (12:40). 1st and 10 at New Orleans 35.

At the time, I had concentrated on the deep safety 31 S Jairus Byrd and how the pivot by 13 WR TJ Jones in the slot induced Byrd to commit to the cross before breaking back to the left. But there is an additional thing going on underneath worth explaining. Watch 24 CB Kyle Wilson, who is lined up over the slot on TJ, and 35 HB Joique Bell in the replay from behind the offense:

When Bell releases to the flat, Wilson comes up and follows him. The pivot by TJ and the flat route by Bell creates a delayed hi-lo vertical stretch against Wilson. Once Wilson moves up to cover the flat, the throwing lane to TJ coming back to the left becomes very safe. Also notice how Bell’s break even gets 50 LB Stephone Anthony at the line of scrimmage to turn at the waist away from where Stafford fits his throw to TJ.

Now, what would happen if Detroit had put TJ on the other side of the formation?

2016 Preseason at PIT, 1Q (4:25). First-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

This is the play in the first preseason game leading to Chris Spielman’s growl story on the broadcast about why he believes play action is not that effective (see the most recent PODcast for details if you missed the game). The same components are present: vertical clearouts on the left (13 WR TJ Jones) and right (19 WR Andre Roberts) outside the numbers to spread the defense, a route that ends up at intermediate depth near the sideline by 12 WR Jeremy Kerley, and a delayed release by HB 34 Zach Zenner after the play fake. Instead of a pivot from the near side like TJ ran against the Saints, this is a regular crossing route by Kerley against the Steelers. The route and alignment are different, but combined with Zenner’s post-fake release it yields the same hi-lo effect.

In the 2015 play against the Saints, the defender targeted by the hi-lo moved up to help against the shallow release route by Bell. Here, 24 CB Doran Grant moves deeper to defend against the cross by Kerley, giving 8 QB Dan Orlovsky a pretty good direct throw to Zenner in front of 50 LB Ryan Shazier.

Easy 5 yard pickup. The Lions came back to this play from a different formation right before the two-minute warning in the second quarter.

2016 Preseason at PIT, 2Q (2:07). First-and-10 at the Pittsburgh 48.

The clearout routes are run by the two wide receivers on the left side of the formation, 84 WR Jay Lee to the outside and Kerley in the slot. The hi-lo combination involves Roberts crossing the field from right to left and Zenner out of the backfield. The key defender is 98 LB Vince Williams, boxed in yellow. Once Williams commits to the short route like Wilson on the Saints did last year, it opens up Roberts on the deeper crossing route that Orlovsky actually wants to hit:

This was a nice 20 yard completion which set up another pass from Orlovsky to Roberts on the next play for a touchdown. It is worth noting that the entire Detroit roster got to work this play, including third string quarterback Jake Rudock.

Want to guess what the play call on that lone deep incompletion was a variant of?

2016 Preseason at PIT, 4Q (6:26). Second-and-9 at the Pittsburgh 27.

Despite staring down 16 WR Jace Billingsley the whole way, Rudock had his man wide open and simply missed the throw. 51 Steven Johnson jumped 39 HB Stevan Ridley’s release to the flat, leaving a great window for Rudock to push the ball down the field.

Er, never mind.

A broader play action arsenal

Although the Lions no longer have Calvin to stretch the field at the deep end, they can still get a vertical stretch to open up the underneath corridor behind the linebackers on play action by tugging on the shallow end. Friday’s preseason game against the Steelers showed three different looks on a hi-lo concept to do just that.

Matthew Stafford is outstanding on play-action passes, so this is definitely a part of the playbook worth expanding. More variety and (hopefully) a better rushing attack should make play action a big part of the Lions offense in 2016.