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Film review: More proof that Jim Bob Cooter adapts to what his players do well

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In crucial situations against the Falcons, the Lions ran a concept their quarterback has a long history with.

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2009 Capital One Bowl - Michigan State Spartans v Georgia Bulldogs

The Matthew Stafford Offense

Last year, when Jim Bob Cooter took over as the full-time offensive coordinator for the Detroit Lions, we here at Pride of Detroit got excited about his comments on tailoring the offense to his players. In particular, there was this choice quote reported by Justin Rogers at the Detroit News:

Cooter, 31, and Stafford worked together closely for much of the past two years with Cooter joining the Lions as quarterbacks coach in 2014.

"I think he's 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. "So, it's his offense as much as it is mine — maybe even more.

"I've learned early in my career that if a quarterback really likes a play, he tends to make it work. So if he likes it, we'll get it in. If he doesn't like it, we'll try not to call it and we'll go from there."

I have pointed this out before and will do it again: sounds a lot like a really good head coach named Bruce Arians (hat tip to POD reader Tufflynx):

How much of a difference did it make to have Jim Bob at the helm instead of Joe Lombardi? Our Kyle Yost explained earlier this year how the Lions had one of the most efficient offenses in the league in 2016, after taking into account field position. We know that given a healthy Stafford to run the system, Jim Bob can cook up some pretty good game plans, but an interesting wrinkle showed up in the tape of Stafford’s performance from Detroit’s heartbreaking loss to Atlanta.

Review: Mark Richt’s Shallow Cross System

Matthew Stafford was the starting quarterback for three years at the University of Georgia under head coach Mark Richt. Possibly the signature component of the “Mark Richt offense” at Georgia (and now Miami) is the use of shallow cross (drag) routes to create space for mid-range attacks down the seam. Most commonly, as pointed out by Ian Boyd from SB Nation’s Football Study Hall, this takes the form of a curl-flat combination with an added drag across the face of the defense:

This is the Mark Richt method and it's pretty potent because it combines two routes that are very dangerous and hard to stop in the shallow cross and the curl. The shallow cross is a difficult route to stop because it involves a receiver catching the ball on a quick, easy pass at high speed, for that reason it has a tendency to suck in linebackers and open space behind them for the curl since they don't want the shallow cross receiver to catch the ball in enough space to burn them after the catch.

Now, the more general use of the drag route is in a dig-drag combination which is trying to do the same thing: exert a hi-lo stretch against the linebacker (or safety) covering the seam where the dig or curl are being run. If the defender jumps the shallow cross, the quarterback has space to hit the deeper route for medium yards, so the offense will often get the crosser running free.

As noted by Inside the Pylon’s Sean Cottrell, Richt’s use of the shallow cross goes back to his days as offensive coordinator at Florida State. Indeed, he highlights this play from the Florida State playbook:

For comparison, consider this play from Richt’s 2004 Georgia playbook, which would have been a part of the offense when Stafford was quarterback a few years later:

Notice that Richt actually runs it like Mike Leach and the read progression is shallow to deep. That box at the bottom under the shotgun 3-step drop instruction to the quarterback is the read progression: shallow cross, choice, then safety valve to the running back in the flat. When called, the play wants to go short and throw the crosser, and is probably intended to pick up around 6 to 8 yards.

When running the seam attack and drag from the same side, there is an extra benefit built into the vertical stem of the Y choice route. Since the crosser runs at the stem from a nearby alignment, there is a chance to run man-coverage defenders into the traffic jam and create separation.

The ideal type of WR for this route

That shallow crossing route across the vertical stem is phenomenal for a receiver who is able to create yards after the catch. In the old Walsh offense in San Francisco, this was the “flanker drive” play:

Drive, or the drag or shallow crossing route, is a play concept that was made famous by the greatest receiver of all time, Jerry Rice. Playing in Bill Walsh’s west coast offense, Rice’s ability to catch the ball in traffic and explode for yards after catch made him a dangerous threat over the middle. Walsh schemed up a play called “Flanker Drive,” where Rice (the Flanker receiver) would come in motion towards the center, then run about 4-6 yards past the line of scrimmage crossing the field.

It turns out the Detroit Lions have a few players who are pretty good at running with the ball in space after they catch it. Possibly the most fearsome of all the YAC monsters on the roster is Golden Tate:

Like Peas and Carrots

While reviewing the tape from Sunday’s loss to Atlanta, there was a curious reaction from Matthew Stafford following the curling celebration touchdown in the third quarter. The FOX broadcast replayed him motioning to the bench in acknowledgement of something that Jim Bob Cooter called:

Naturally, this led us to wonder what was going on here. There is a bond here between quarterback and play caller, and it looks like Stafford is really pleased with something in the offensive design. In addition to that touchdown play, two other plays during the game would confirm the answer to the following question: What would you include in a game plan as a go-to pass play when you have a former Mark Richt All-American quarterback and one of the most dangerous YAC runners in the league as your No. 1 wide receiver?

2017 Week 3 ATL, 2Q (2:53). Second-and-10 at the Atlanta 40.

Trailing 17-3 late in the first half, the Lions faced second-and-long near the edge of 5 K Matt Prater’s range. Moving the chains at least once more would give the reigning NFL Special Teams Player of the Month a legitimate shot at putting points on the board, so a good series was important here. Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter dialed up a variant of the shallow cross play to get 15 WR Golden Tate the ball over the middle.

As can be seen in the image above, long verticals on the edges of the formation by 11 WR Marvin Jones and 13 WR TJ Jones help clear the outsides while 34 HB Zach Zenner’s chip and release to the flat and 85 TE Eric Ebron’s option route over the middle carry away the middle coverage. That gives Tate a good amount of room to work against 34 CB Brian Poole.

As Tate makes his cut, all of the vertical stem routes are carrying defenders away from the underneath area. The only other player who could have posed a problem, 45 LB Deion Jones, follows Zenner way outside. Stafford is able to catch the snap, take a leisurely drop, and get the ball out quickly to his main target:

Short throws over the middle like this, with the throwing lanes cleared out, are such high percentage “safe” passes for Stafford. Tate gets the ball in stride and tacks on a couple more yards to make it to the sticks. Three plays and eight yards later, the Lions would in fact add a field goal to the scoreboard.

2017 Week 3 ATL, 3Q (5:11). Second-and-7 at the Atlanta 11.

Down by ten points and threatening in the red zone for the first time all day in the third quarter, Jim Bob sends in a shallow cross play again to give Tate a chance to make something happen. Once again, vertical stems by 19 WR Kenny Golladay, 87 TE Darren Fells, and Marvin through the heart of the defense carries most of the coverage away from the underneath area. Just like we saw with the flat route by Zenner earlier, 25 HB Theo Riddick leaking into the strong-side flat pulls 22 S Keanu Neal outside.

The interesting things to see in the GIF:

  1. Marvin Jones’ vertical up the middle holds Deion Jones deep until he crosses the linebacker’s face. This prevents him from switching in time to cover Tate.
  2. Tate bends back toward the ball, creating even more separation. That is a veteran play on the ball to make sure he is not messed with as he tries to bring the ball in and buys him space to re-accelerate to full speed after securing the catch.
  3. Really easy throw for Stafford, but watch his head and not his arm. The veteran glances to the right toward Riddick to help look off Neal to the flat, but knows he is going to Tate the whole time. By the time his back foot hits, Stafford is tracking Tate for the routine pitch and catch.

2017 Week 3 ATL, 4Q (11:57). Third-and-8 at the Atlanta 38.

On the move in the early fourth quarter, the Lions faced a tough third down and Jim Bob sent in a shallow cross call to pick up the first down. This formation put three receivers (one of them being Ebron) to the left but TJ split wide right instead of an in-line tight end like Fells. Although the personnel and alignment was a little different, the core play was the same: shallow cross combination over the middle to Tate with vertical stems clearing the outside and middle of the field. Since the Falcons rushed five, Zenner stayed home to pick up the blitzer (Deion Jones off the edge).

Not a great middle clearout by Ebron since he flattens off the angle too early; there is not much obstruction provided via vertical stem on Poole to help Tate get separation. The ball was tipped and thus there was no chance the pass could be completed, but this was a solid call. Even with a mediocre pick effort in the middle, it is possible Tate could have gotten the first down if the throw caught him in stride at full speed.

What game plan is this?

I still remember how just a few years ago we wondered why the Detroit offense refused to give Stafford easy dump throws like slants and drags, even if it was obvious that such throws were effective. Shallow cross plays are particularly good for the Detroit offense because it has a quarterback who has a tremendous amount of experience making the reads involved and a primary weapon whose strength is extending short passes into long gains.

By including these plays in the call sheet against the Falcons, Jim Bob played to the strengths of his top skill position players, and came equipped with the best sort of game plan: the kind that accounts for the talents of the available personnel. According to Pro Football Focus, Stafford’s quarterback rating when targeting Golden Tate in all situations was 117.9, so any scheme element to keep that connection going is a welcome addition.