Detroit Lions fans got their first real look at the offense under new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell last Sunday. The Week 1 matchup against the Arizona Cardinals was the first regular season game the Lions played under Bevell, and the offense looked great.
Quarterback Matthew Stafford posted a 110.0 passer rating. He threw for 385 yards and three touchdowns on 45 pass attempts in what was one of the more efficient performances of his career. The running game was quiet, averaging only 3.6 yards per carry, but with Stafford playing at a high level they can live without a running game.
Obviously, it’s important to keep in mind strength of opponent. The Cardinals were without their top two corners, and they sport one of the weakest rosters in football. They are still an NFL team, though.
Taking a look at the personnel packages the team used the most—and which they were most successful with—gives us a good look at what Bevell’s goals were in Week 1. They could also give us a good idea as to what to expect going forward.
First, let’s look at each personnel package by its total use by both the running and passing game.
*Notes: Orange denotes pass play, blue denotes rushing play
*Notes 2: Plays are counted as either pass or run by intention, not result. For example, a play where Matthew Stafford was sacked gets counted as a passing play even though Stafford did not throw a pass. Plays where Stafford dropped back to pass and then scrambled were also counted as passes. Designed runs by Stafford were considered run plays. Plays where Stafford spiked the ball were not counted.
*Notes 3: Personnel was counted by where a player lined up rather than their listed position. For example, tight end T.J. Hockenson and running back C.J. Anderson both lined up at wide receiver during the game despite not being listed as such. When counting personnel packages both players are counted as receivers when they lined up as such. If a player motioned from one position to another pre-snap, then they are counted as the position they held when the ball was snapped.
*The first number of the personnel count is the amount of running backs, the second is the amount of tight ends. Example, 10 personnel means that the Lions had one running back and zero tight ends on the field. There are five skill position players on the field on every play, those not counted are wide receivers. Empty set means that all five skill players were wide receivers.
As expected, the Detroit ran the ball much more often when they had the bigger bodies like T.J. Hockenson, Jesse James and Nick Bawden on the field. When they took them off the field and spread the offense out with wide receivers, or sent Hockenson out as a wide receiver, they almost always passed.
Despite the Lions offseason moves to sure up their tight end position, signing James and drafting Hockenson in the first round, and holding on to Bawden as a fullback, they most often kept three receivers on the field. Detroit lined up with three or more receivers on the field for around 62 percent of their snaps.
This is a positive change. The team did not use many empty sets under former offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, and the Lions struggled because of it. Bevell understands that spreading out the opposing defense with receivers is the best way to beat NFL defenses.
When looking at the personnel usage when split between plays when the team ran and plays when they passed, it shows that their personnel may be telegraphing their play call a bit. They rarely passed out of loaded formations and rarely ran out of emptier formations. Spreading out defenses with receivers and running into the gaps they leave is an efficient way to run, especially with a speedster like Ty Johnson on the roster. As Johnson grows, we may see the Lions use him more as a runner in spread formations, as they already teased it in Week 1.
Plays like this keeps defenses on their toes and gives players with overflowing speed a chance to find lanes and zoom through them.
One of the best ways to judge how successful a team was in each personnel grouping is to count how many yards they averaged on each play they ran out of each.
Detroit was clearly most efficient when running plays with 11 personnel, while also finding a lot of success with 10 and 12 personnel. As mentioned earlier, they seemed most successful on a per-play basis when running plays out of emptier sets, although this could be an unfair conclusion to make as passing the ball is always going to more efficient than running the ball.
You can see which personnel groupings are the best when you split passing and running plays.
Interestingly enough, the Lions were more efficient passing out of loaded formations and more efficient running out of emptier formations. On the passing side, this is easily explainable. When lined up in empty or 10 personnel, Detroit often ran plays where Stafford’s primary target was far downfield. This meant that Stafford was either throwing a low percentage pass, or he did not have an opportunity to find his man downfield then he would check it down. Also, all of the sacks Detroit suffered (which were counted as passing plays) came out of either empty in 10 personnel. This makes sense, as the team would have a harder time dealing with pressure with no tight ends on the field.
Detroit only ran the ball once out of 10 personnel, so small sample size contributes to its success. As mentioned earlier, though, running the ball out of emptier sets is something the Lions may want to do more of going forward. Detroit ran the ball seven times out of 11 personnel, and they averaged an efficient 6.7 yards per carry—the highest of any grouping. Similar to what I said about 10 personnel, teams are best when they spread out the opposing defenses with wide receivers.
These numbers are only from one game, and we will learn more about Bevell’s play calling tendencies as the season goes on. For now, though, it looks like he is using heavier sets less often then previously thought, and that Detroit’s offense may not be the old school ground-and-pound offense they were speculated to be throughout the summer.