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Film breakdown: Lions must establish the run to throw deep against Seattle

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Detroit’s deep passing repertoire is severely diminished if the team cannot run the ball.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Dallas Cowboys Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Run to set up the pass

In Detroit’s offense, the notion that the run sets up the pass is possibly more true than most fans realize. Although offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s offense has been derided as a dinking and dunking, safe throw offense, there are still big plays to be had—and a good deal of them come from play action. Consider the Week 17 loss to the Green Bay Packers. Matthew Stafford completed 26 of his 41 pass attempts, and 15 passes gained ten yards or more after including YAC. According to Pro Football Reference’s play by play logs, only five of those long passes were considered “deep” throws (the rest show up as completion to short left, short middle, or short right).

Now consider this: through the middle of the fourth quarter before the Packers shifted to a soft prevent-ish defense, the Lions used play action nine times:

Play action calls against Green Bay W17

Quarter Clock Down Position Outcome
Quarter Clock Down Position Outcome
1 3:50 1-10 DET 39 Stafford quick slant left to Tate for 17
1 2:41 2-9 GBY 43 Incomplete screen to Zenner
1 1:27 2-7 GBY 23 Tate right sideline comeback for 14 - Offensive PI
1 0:27 3-15 GBY 30 Screen to Tate for 11 before missed FG
2 9:32 2-10 DET 36 Stafford sacked on failed blitz pickup by Zenner
3 7:50 2-10 DET 40 Rollout pass to Ebron in flat for 5
4 15:00 2-13 DET 31 Incompletion - Tate misread came back instead of fly
4 9:19 2-5 DET 36 WR screen to Tate for 5
4 8:47 1-10 DET 41 Z Cross to Marvin for 23

Notice first that two of these nine plays did not even involve an official pass attempt that counted in the stats: the called back completion to Golden Tate in the first quarter for a push off and a five-yard sack in the second quarter. We are left with 5 of 7 passing on play action throws for completions of 11, 17, 5, 5, and 23 yards. The two incompletions were the failed screen to Zenner over rushing defensive linemen and a missed read by Tate when he had his man beat deep in the fourth quarter. The bottom line here is that Stafford completed a great share (71.4 percent) of his play action attempts for 61 yards. Had the weak offensive pass interference flag not been thrown against Tate, that is another completion for 14 yards. These are high percentage passes that often yield ten yards or more.

Scheming receivers open

Our first play is play action off the split zone staple the Lions like to run with Zenner. Personnel-wise, the offense has 85 TE Eric Ebron out of the game and 82 TE Matthew Mulligan on the field, so the defense is already pre-disposed to thinking run. A quick run fake coupled with the usual pre-snap shift of Mulligan from one side to the other gets the Packers committing hard to stop the run.

2016 GBY, 1Q (3:50). First-and-10 at the Detroit 39.

The routes are a simple bunch of clearouts to set up the post to Tate. 11 WR Marvin Jones at the top of the screen to the far right of the formation goes vertical and gives a stop and go move before breaking to the sideline. That pulls the coverage deep and wide, isolating 80 WR Anquan Boldin in the slot against his man. Boldin pushes up the seam deep, forcing the deep safety 42 SS Morgan Burnett (boxed in yellow) to drift over and watch it in case he needs to help prevent a bomb attempt. 15 WR GOLDEN Tate on the far left of the formation runs a post into the void vacated by Burnett. Obviously, if Burnett tries to jump the post and ignores Boldin, Stafford will know there’s nobody home up top and will launch it deep.

The other player to pay particular attention to here is 21 FS Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix (boxed in orange). He is up in the box playing close run support because Mulligan is on the field instead of Ebron, so the tendencies point to a run on first down by the Lions. Immediately after the snap, when Stafford turns to fake the hand-off to Zenner, look how aggressively Clinton-Dix moves up to fill a gap:

You can see Mulligan faking his slice block action across the formation. Both corners are dropping in loose man coverage with Marvin and Tate on the outside, and Boldin has his one-on-one in the slot. As Stafford turns to throw, check out the clear passing lane thanks to the efforts of the defense to stop the run:

Clinton-Dix is barely to the point where he is changing direction, and Stafford is already tracking Tate for the throw. Burnett is stuck watching Boldin up the right side, so he cannot move up to try to break up the pass to the post. The run defense is best seen from behind the defense in the close up tackle box All-22 angle.

If you first watch the left side of the offensive line and Mulligan, it looks a lot like a regular run by the Lions with a funky frontside “Power G” style lead guard pull by 72 LG Laken Tomlinson. As far as the defensive front is concerned, this certainly looks like a run play to the C gap outside of 68 LT Taylor Decker on an exchange by Decker and Tomlinson to widen a hole for Zenner to punch through. A hole in fact opens up, which is why Clinton-Dix steps up to fill (just watch him and you’ll see him really propel forward).

2016 GBY, 4Q (8:47). First-and-10 at the Detroit 41.

Ah, my old friend Z Cross. In this particular variant, Stafford waves over Marvin Jones to come nearly stacked behind Boldin to the right side of the formation. This is a cue for the WR screen, so the CB who was on Marvin (36 CB Ladarius Gunter) backs off in case that is what the Lions try to pull. Instead, Boldin pushes vertical and carries Gunter deep and away from the middle of the field. On the far left side of the offense, Golden Tate has the vertical to control the deep safety, 29 S Kentrell Brice.

Once again, Clinton-Dix charges up to fill a perceived hole on a faked hand-off to Zenner. After the fake to the hole, Zenner immediately turns to the flat and pulls Clinton-Dix with him to the sideline. This leaves Marvin Jones on the intermediate cross wrapping around 47 OLB Jake Ryan into an open spot with a clear throwing lane.

Prior to throwing the ball, Stafford looks left and actually has to step back inside and up into the pocket. The ball is only delivered after he resets himself. In the screenshot above taken before the reset, Stafford’s eyes are downfield at Tate on the vertical because the deep safety Brice is so far over on the side of the field with Boldin and Marvin. That look spurs Brice into action to commit deep against Tate, leaving a soft spot for Marvin Jones to run himself open into behind the second level of the defense.

Notice where both Tate and Marvin will end up when the ball is delivered: it is all in that same vision cone that simultaneously lets the passer keep an eye on the deep safety. That is why I love the core design of this play so much and why it is so deadly with Stafford at the helm.

Non-running teams still need to run the ball

We’ve talked a lot in the past about how good a play action quarterback Matthew Stafford is. This offense is clearly built around a top shelf passer and his stable of high-end pass catching targets. But getting the most out of this passing attack requires a credible threat on the ground to open up the playbook. Play action throws down the field have been some of the most successful calls at getting chunk yardage for the Lions. If shots down the field are what you want to see, the first thing to root for is a punishing inside run game to put the safeties in a bind and set up play action opportunities.

Both Lars Russell (on the First Byte podcast) Kenneth Arthur (in our Five Questions Q&A) from Field Gulls talked about vulnerabilities in the deep middle third of the field between the second level and injured all-universe safety Earl Thomas’ replacement Steven Terrell. As shown above, that part of the field is exactly where Detroit’s play action passes attack. Russell mentioned how Detroit’s ability to run the ball (or lack thereof) would influence how effectively that weakness in Seattle’s defense could be exploited. Look for Jim Bob to try and establish the run game to set up Russell for some deep shots later in the Wild Card playoff game on Saturday night.