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Detroit Lions’ mock game hints at offensive changes

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Slight changes to old plays suggest Jim Bob is tweaking the offense rather than completely overhauling things.

NFL: International Series-Detroit Lions Practice Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Bob is a man of his word

A while ago, Pride Of Detroit showed offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter walking the walk when it came to tailoring the offense to what his players do well. This continued last Saturday at Lions Training Camp Family Day, when fans got to see parts of the new Jim Bob offense in action for the first time during a mock game. POD’s Ryan Mathews, Alex Reno, Chris Lemieux, Justin Simon and Kent Lee Platte were on hand to observe and report their impressions from the game. Since I was unable to attend, Ryan’s exclusive footage was of particular interest to me.

At first I thought these looked like familiar plays from last year, but closer inspection revealed some subtle changes. It brought to mind a pair of quotes from Jim Bob last year on how he liked to make system adjustments:

“It’s really just tweaks here schematically,” Cooter said. “You may be simplifying a protection or two. You may be making things a little bit easier on guys, hopefully. Try not to put too much on their plate.”

“(Stafford has) done a good job of telling me plays he likes or plays he doesn’t like, or maybe we should run this route at this depth instead of that depth,” Cooter said.

When examining the mock game plays, you can see core concepts getting tuned to do the same things slightly differently. While Lombardi’s plays last year might have had some good ideas in the general sense, Jim Bob is building on them and implementing practical versions specific to the Lions’ personnel. We’ll take a look at two plays here to illustrate the kinds of adjustments we’re talking about.

Marvin Jones’ not-so-deep out

From Ryan’s description: “First play of the drive, Stafford completes a pass to Marvin Jones for a first down.” Now compare that to a play the Lions ran last year on the road in Green Bay:

2015 at GBY, 1Q (3:19). Second-and-4 at the Detroit 21.

This is play action with 81 WR Calvin Johnson and 16 WR Lance Moore on the outsides running deep outs while 15 WR Golden Tate has a short crossing route. 35 HB Joique Bell releases to the flat after the fake handoff from 9 QB Matthew Stafford. 87 TE Brandon Pettigrew is held back to block.

Stafford’s first read was to Calvin, who was covered well. Pulling the ball down and coming back to the right, Stafford got the ball to Lance Moore. Moore had to come back from his deep route and caught it at the sideline around the 31 yard line.

Here’s what the play in that first mock game video would have looked like:

First, notice the play fake is more serious: Abdullah fakes up the gut on a believable run path rather than immediately flowing outside to the flat. I feel this gives the play action a better chance of fooling defenders. Second, Boldin’s route out of the slot was a sharper quick dig instead of a rounded crossing route. If the primary receiver is to Stafford’s left, then keeping at least some vertical stem instead of immediately flowing that way lets the slot receiver help keep the underneath area free of congestion.

Finally, the big difference is the depth at which Marvin and Tate run their out routes. Instead of breaking late at 15+ yards deep into the route, they both break much earlier at around 12 yards into the route. This makes for a faster developing play, which combos well with improved play action.

That Darrin Walls interception

According to Ryan: “Stafford intercepted by Darrin Walls on the third play of the drive.” The play does not end well for the offense for reasons we’ll come back to, but for now let’s compare the play design to something against Oakland last year:

2015 OAK, 4Q (11:52). Second-and-2 at the Oakland 23.

This was the 18-yard scramble by Stafford to set up a QB draw for touchdown. What we have here is a three route combination on the left side with a post by Golden Tate, an intermediate dig by Calvin on the outside, and 21 HB Ameer Abdullah releasing for a wheel route behind them both.

On the right side, the shallow cross by 85 TE Eric Ebron and angle route by 46 FB Michael Burton combine with Tate’s post route to get the same effect of the hi-lo triple-in route combination. For another example of the Andy Reid hi-lo triple-in, Arrowhead Pride used it as an example in a breakdown of the Chiefs’ passing attack back in 2013. The route combinations in play are a modified post-wheel to the left and hi-lo triple-in to the right.

Here’s what the play would look like from the alignment and routes used on Saturday in the mock game:

Instead of a slot post, TE crosser, and FB angle to form the hi-lo triple-in, we see a slightly different mix to go with the slot post. The crosser is now Marvin on the backside with Abdullah running the angle. The formation spreads the defense a little more because now they have to account for a legitimate deep threat split wide (in the play against the Raiders, the TE was lined up to the right with no flanker).

The other thing different here is that moving Ebron from right to left and assigning him the flat route speeds up the action there. Instead of Abdullah having to run wide and then turn up into a wheel, Ebron goes directly into the flat as a quick dump option for Stafford. Finally, the other difference is Boldin running a 12-yard curl instead of a dig. This means we have a different pair of route concepts at work in the play now: curl-flat-post to the left and hi-lo triple-in to the right.

Why does this change make sense? Previously, the dig by Calvin was a wasted route doing nothing: Calvin was taking his defender away from the area the HB wheel was attacking, but had Detroit lined Calvin up on the other side of the field there would not have been a defender there to begin with! That dig did not combo with anything to get an extra stretch against the defense.

Instead, the play the Lions are running now is packaged better for Stafford. Curl-flat-post is something the Lions have run in the past, and now all three routes on the left side work together to attack that side in a cohesive manner. The right side spaces out the coverage better, making it easier for Marvin and Abdullah (or Riddick) to find weak spots for the “lo” components of the hi-lo triple-in.

Wait, if this new play is so great, how did Walls get the pick?

The key here is that Stafford’s timing was thrown off by 68 LT Taylor Decker losing on the edge. Normally, Stafford is supposed to take his drop and when the back foot hits he uncorks it. The footwork and route are synchronized: the ball is on the way as 80 WR Anquan Boldin is turning on his curl for the ball, giving the defender no chance to react to the sudden stop by Boldin. When Decker got beat by whoever was playing left defensive end as a sub for Ziggy (I can’t tell who it is), Stafford had to step up, re-set his arm and then throw the curl. By then, Walls had enough time to recover and get back in position.

If you look at the bottom of the screen, you can see Ebron is wide open. 50 LB Zaviar Gooden got carried up and out of the picture by the vertical stem on Tate’s post route. Once Stafford lost the timing advantage of the curl and saw that all of the coverage was deep, he probably should have thrown the flat for some easy yards on second down. This is okay - it’s what practice is for.

These types of small changes to existing plays are the best of both worlds. It retains a lot of what was learned and practiced for the past two seasons in Lombardi’s playbook, so that effort wasn’t wasted. At the same time, instead of trying to shoehorn the players into the plays, Jim Bob can flip it around and mold the plays to what the players are good at:

“You know, we try to have conversations with those guys, especially the quarterback. I talked about it a bunch last year, what does he like? What does he not like? Same thing’s going on with the receivers, same thing’s going on with the tight ends, running backs, O-line, and right now we’re putting in a system,’’ Cooter said. “We’re putting in a lot of things and sometimes it’s important to get all that stuff taught and get reps of it out here before you figure out what you’re good at, what you’re not that great at, what you like, what you don’t like. So, we’re still kind of in that process, but at the end of the day we’re going to try to do what our guys do best.”

It is a better way to design the offense, but everyone should keep in mind it is still technically a “new” scheme and will take a bit to get used to. I am looking forward to seeing more of what Jim Bob has changed against the Steelers in the preseason opener this Friday.