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Analyzing the Detroit Lions passing game through 3 weeks

Who’s getting targets and where?

NFL: Detroit Lions at San Francisco 49ers Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

We are three weeks into the new NFL season and we have now gotten our initial glimpses into the Lions offense this season. Detroit has always been a passing based offense—no matter what happened against New England on Sunday—and the team is loaded with receiving talent. The Lions possibly have the best 1-2-3 receivers in the league and a myriad of receiving talent at running back.

Today we look at how the Lions are deploying their aerial attack through three games.

The NFL classifies any pass where the quarterback’s intended target is more than 15 yards beyond the line of scrimmage as a “deep pass”. Any other passes are considered a “short pass”. These are the definitions used for the stats below.

Detroit plays a version of the west coast offense. They use shorter passes to pull safeties closer to the line of scrimmage to open up shots downfield. Of Matthew Stafford’s 135 attempts this season only 18 were deep passes. Matt Cassel threw one short pass in his Week 1 performance.

Of the Lions 18 deep targets this season they have overwhelmingly been to the left side of the field. Marvin Jones Jr., who emerged as an elite deep threat last season, is Stafford’s favorite target downfield as he accounts for eight of the 18 targets.

Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay have four deep left targets each, but both have only caught one pass in that area. Golden Tate has only been targeted twice but his two receptions for 93 yards lead the team.

While the number of targets to the left side of the field may seem schematic, the Lions opposition plays a role as well. In Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman locked down the entire right side of the field and Stafford didn’t even want to bother testing the star corner. The only completion Stafford has to the deep right this season was the touchdown pass to Jones Jr. against the Patriots in Week 3.

On another interesting note, Luke Willson’s one downfield target in Week 3 is the only deep pass to a non-wide receiver.

The Lions short passing game is the crux of their offense and it is interesting to see how they distribute targets in the intermediate areas. One would expect that tight ends and running backs would play a larger role in the short game, but it is still receivers who dominate the target share.

Detroit loves using their receivers on screen passes and quick comeback routes, leading to their large target numbers on shorter routes to the outside. The running backs, specifically Theo Riddick, attack defenses on quick out routes and wheel routes earning them targets of their own.

The running backs fall out of favor on shorter routes over the middle. Tate is the favorite over the middle, as the shifty slot receiver can easily find space on quick slant routes.

One thing that sticks out no matter the direction is the tight end’s low target share. The Lions haven’t been able to replace the production of Eric Ebron so far this season, and it is hurting them. Willson’s three receptions for 23 yards leads the unit. Willson, Michael Roberts and Levine Toilolo combine for a miserable 45 yards on five receptions.

Marvin Jones Jr.

Jones Jr. set a career high with 1101 yards in 2017. It was a breakout year that announced his presence as one of the league’s top-end receivers. Last season, many of Jones’ yards came on chunk plays towards the end of the year. He struggled creating space for himself underneath, though, and wasn’t a reliable WR1.

That seems to have changed in 2018. The receiver has been working the shorter areas of the field and catching a variety of passes underneath. He still leads the team in deep targets this season, but an increased share of shorter targets makes him a more versatile target for Stafford.

While he has earned targets over the middle of the field he has not caught a pass in that area. That makes sense, though, as the receiver is not very shifty or agile and it’s hard for a player of his skill set to find space in the congested areas of the field. Most of his yards have come attacking the left side of the field, as that seems to be his preferred side to line up on.

The rise of Golladay this season may hurt Jones’ raw numbers at the end of the year. He probably won’t get as many targets or yards last season, but if he can become more of a threat for defenses underneath, then the entire offense will benefit as a result.

Golden Tate

Tate has been one of the best receivers in the league on shorter routes since he joined the Lions in 2014. His presence either in the slot or out wide pulls defenses in and opens up room for Golladay and Jones Jr. over the top. He is a good enough route runner to beat anyone one-on-one and has the long speed to take the top off of defenses himself. With two other deep options on the roster Tate gets most of his work underneath.

While Tate is usually targeted underneath, a large share of his yards this season have come downfield. Much of this is because of his 67-yard catch late against the 49ers in Week 2. If you remove that catch, though, then almost all his yards this season have come where you would expect. He catches passes underneath and runs after the catch to punish teams. While he his a known product and there is not much room for the veteran to grow, he remains the most important part of this offense.

Kenny Golladay

Golladay has been the Lions’ most reliable player on offense so far this season. He is one reception and one yard short of Tate statistically, who leads the team in both categories. He has at least six catches in every game this season and was the only bright spot of the team’s Week 1 bludgeoning suffered at the hands of the Jets.

Last season, Golladay struggled getting open underneath. He was similar to Jones Jr. as both were primarily deep threats who even bordered on being one dimensional. This season, he has seen a lot of targets underneath and has punished teams after the catch himself. While it may be a stretch to compare his style of play to Calvin Johnson that’s exactly what I’m going to do. While he isn’t—and will never be—the dominant player Johnson was, his ability to get open anywhere on the field and his athleticism combined with his 6-foot-5 frame brings a dimension to the offense that not many other players can.

The receiver has a good mix of shallow and deep targets this season.

His yardage distribution seems just as balanced as his target distribution.

Golladay may already be the best receiver on the roster. His skill set seems to be the perfect middle between Jones Jr. and Tate and by the end of the year he may be the guy that defenses are worried about the most.

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