NFL analyst and gambling expert Warren Sharp did a statistical analysis of the Detroit Lions 2018 offense on Friday, comparing it to their previous two predecessors, and came to what seems like a pretty damning conclusion:
Sharp talks about the shift the Lions made from a pass-heavy team to a more balanced offense in 2018, and looked at how the offense compared to its 2017 version, which faced similar levels of competition.
He comes to the conclusion that head coach Matt Patricia ruined Detroit’s offense in a miscalculated experiment where he used an old-school, run first, offense. Sharp has a few statistical points that he makes to prove his thesis. I’m going to take a closer look at them.
First: Did better running backs and offensive linemen produce a more efficient offense? Both the 2017 and 2018 Lions faced the NFL’s fourth-toughest schedules of defenses. The 2017 Lions ranked 12th in total offensive efficiency. Last year, Detroit ranked 23rd. The 2017 Lions offense ranked fifth in yards per play. Last year’s Lions ranked 20th. The 2017 Lions ranked 17th in third-down conversion rate. Last year’s Lions were 25th. The Lions’ run-game improvement and shift to a run-centric team made the offense worse.
If you’re a regular reader here, or follow me on Twitter, you might already know how I feel about run-focused offenses in the NFL. Running the ball is significantly less efficient than passing the ball, and obviously a less efficient offense overall is going to have more trouble converting first downs.
The shift to a more run-focused offense did make the offense less efficient on a per play basis. On the other hand, one could argue that it is a valid trade off because Detroit plays a style of football that obviously focuses on time of possession and keeping the opposing offense off the field. I may not agree with that argument, but it is a valid one.
Second: Did play action work better? Defenses became programmed to sell out to stop the Lions’ running game, opening up the play-action game. Right? Nope. Matthew Stafford averaged 10.2 yards per attempt with play-action versus 7.3 without it in 2017. In 2018, Stafford averaged 8.1 YPA with play-action and 6.5 YPA without it. For the Lions, play-action has worked better when they have rarely run the ball.
This one is interesting. One would hope that a shift to the run would be a boon to Detroit’s play action passing, but the numbers show otherwise.
Sharp may be misattributing the blame here, though. He seems to blame it on Patricia and the coaching scheme, but the blame may belong to Matthew Stafford.
Stafford’s yards per pass on play-action plays decreased by 20.6 percent between 2017 to 2018. His yards per pass on non play-action plays decreased 11 percent. Play-action or not, Stafford became a significantly less efficient passer between 2017 and 2018. Whether you want to attribute this to his health, regression or scheme, that is obvious.
While the drop off in play-action efficiency was definitely steeper, isolating Patricia as the only factor that changed in the offenses play-action game from year to year seems dishonest.
Third: Did a run-heavier philosophy assist the passing game? Did it become easier to pass because defenses were playing the run? Stafford produced a substantially worse 2018 season than he did in 2017. Let’s start with early downs in the first half. The Lions moved from the NFL’s pass-heaviest team in such scenarios in 2017 to 20th most pass-heavy in 2018. In 2017, Stafford averaged 7.3 yards per attempt with a 48% Success Rate and 94 passer rating on these downs. In 2018, he dropped to 6.7 YPA with a 91.3 rating. No, running more did not help Stafford.
This point is similar to the last one. Stafford was much worse in 2018 than 2017, but there were more changes in Detroit than just Patricia. Golden Tate, Stafford's favorite target for the latter half of the last decade, left half way through the season. Theo Riddick heavily regressed and Marvin Jones Jr. could not stay healthy. These are factors that Stafford did not have to deal with in 2017.
Also, Sharp may be putting the carriage before the horse here. Did the Lions passing less cause Stafford to be less efficient, or did they pass less because Stafford was less efficient?
Fourth: Did teams blitz the Lions less? Not really. Stafford’s overall blitz rate dropped mildly from 30% to 28%, but he was still blitzed at a rate above league average (27%). More remarkable was Stafford’s production against the blitz; his passer rating when blitzed fell from 93.2 to 79.8 in 2018, and his yards per attempt against the blitz plummeted from 8.1 to 6.7.
Repeating the same point as earlier, Stafford also regressed when teams did not blitz. He regressed everywhere.
Fifth: Did running more make it easier to pass on third down? Nope. Stafford’s yards per attempt on third-down passes fell from 8.0 to 6.2, and his third-down passer rating sank from 110.7 to 76.8.
Again, Stafford got worse everywhere, but I do think this point has more merit than the others. One argument for running the ball often on early downs is that it pulls in defenses, making things easier when you take longer shots downfield. This obviously did not work out for Detroit, though, and a trade off they expected from running the ball more never materialized.
Sixth: Was it easier to pass in the red zone? No, the Lions fell from No. 10 to No. 24 in red-zone efficiency. In 2017, on early-down red-zone plays, Stafford produced a 97 passer rating, 50% completion rate, and 35% Success Rate. In 2018, Stafford’s passer rating was 87 with a 49% completion rate on early-down red-zone throws.
Something something Stafford was also worse outside of the red zone maybe the issue was just Stafford.
Seventh: Was it more efficient to run in the red zone? The 2017 Lions – with a talent-poor rushing attack featuring Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick – were successful on 50% of their red-zone runs, 5% above league average. The 2018 Lions – with second-round pick Kerryon Johnson and free agent signee LeGarrette Blount – were successful on just 46% of run plays, 4% below average.
A drop for a 50 percent success rate to a 46 percent success rate seems marginal. Also, Kerryon Johnson struggled with health issues for a lot of the year and LeGarrette Blount was an aging player on the last legs of his career. In whole, that running back room is only barely more talented than the duo of Theo Riddick and Ameer Abdullah.
In conclusion, did Matt Patricia destroy the Detroit Lions? Maybe.
Is it because of the reasons Sharp says he did? No.
The main argument for passing the ball over running the ball is that passing the ball is generally more efficient on a per play basis. There is an alternate argument that running the ball makes passing the ball easier, but that is not true.
Sharp proved the second argument false with this article. By running the ball more, the Lions offense did not get better in the passing game. It is hard to show correlation between running the ball more and the passing game being less efficient, though.
One could argue that Stafford’s 6.8 yards per passing attempt last season is still much better than the 4.1 yards per rushing attempt the team had and say that it is a reason for running the ball less. This is an argument that I would agree with.
Stafford regressed in 2018, and that is not Patricia’s fault. The Lions probably would have been better if they did not take the ball out of Stafford’s hand as often — regression or otherwise — and that is the fault of Patricia and his coaching staff.