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Film breakdown: A serious running game will help Stafford thrive

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Even if it did not gain much yardage, running the ball was crucial against the Cardinals.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Do you want to throw deep?

Earlier this week, our Jeremy Reisman used the NFL’s NextGenStats site to point out how Matthew Stafford was throwing the ball down the field quite a bit in relation to the rest of the league in Week 1. Using the play by play data and the NextGenStats chart for Stafford’s game against Arizona, we see that the Lions completed nine passes more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. One of these plays was the 23-yard touchdown to rookie 88 TE T.J. Hockenson on a Stafford pocket escape in the back of the end zone, one was a sideline pass to 80 WR Danny Amendola up the left sideline for 15 yards, and one was a 13-yard completion in the first quarter to 19 WR Kenny Golladay to move the sticks on third down.

So, what were the other six completions?

Adapted from NFL NextGenStats

Here are the details for the seven longest plays on offense for the Lions (by yards gained) from the NFL game book:

7 longest plays, Week 1 at ARI

Down and Distance Clock Description of Stafford's Pass
Down and Distance Clock Description of Stafford's Pass
2-6-ARZ 47 12:34 deep right to D.Amendola for 47 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
1-10-DET 21 7:46 short left to T.Hockenson to ARZ 40 for 39 yards
1-10-DET 27 10:19 short right to T.Hockenson pushed ob at ARZ 45 for 28 yards
2-4-DET 39 2:44 deep left to T.Hockenson to ARZ 37 for 24 yards
3-14-ARZ 23 14:56 pass deep right to T.Hockenson for 23 yards, TOUCHDOWN.
1-10-ARZ 41 5:27 deep middle to M.Jones to ARZ 18 for 23 yards
1-10-DET 25 7:17 deep middle to M.Jones to DET 46 for 21 yards

Setting the touchdown to Hockenson aside (a phenomenal effort by a veteran QB), there is one common feature to the rest of these plays. The six passes identified earlier were all play-action passes. We went to the film and confirmed it. That means two-thirds of all of the long passes actually completed by the Lions against the Cardinals were play-action passes.

Freezing targeted defenders

In the past, I have broken out my “Matthew Stafford is a fantastic play-action quarterback” drum and banged on it from time to time. The basic idea of play-action passing is that defenders cannot simultaneously play aggressively against the pass and the run at the same time: they have different assignments for each situation and committing to one will likely take them out of position for the other. If an offense can get a defender to move up to play the run, they ought to be vulnerable and out of position to play the pass.

2019 Week 1 at ARI, 1Q (10:19). First-and-10 at the Detroit 27.

On the initial play of Detroit’s second offensive series, the Lions go with a heavy 12 personnel set with 83 TE Jesse James looking like a blocking H-back outside of 68 LT Taylor Decker’s shoulder and 88 TE T.J. Hockenson standing up like a wide receiver. Stafford flash fakes a handoff to 33 HB Kerryon Johnson, who immediately squares up as a middle blitz pickup man, meaning this is seven-man protection (James and Kerryon); only three receivers are going out into the pattern.

The key defender is 58 ILB Jordan Hicks for the Cardinals. The defense brings five, with a linebacker shooting the inside gap (picked up by Kerryon Johnson). Since Hicks must gap fill any lane the Lions try to run through, he has to stay home and watch the entire play fake until he is sure the ball is not actually in the running back’s hands.

As Stafford comes out of the fake, we can see Hicks’ head in the top panel is still turned to the backfield to confirm where the ball is. While Hockenson is running full steam into his route, Hicks cannot bail into pass coverage. In the bottom panel, as Hockenson completes the turn out of the break to the outside in the route, he has several steps of separation on the defender. Stafford makes a nice throw out of a clean pocket to hit Hock in stride, who then turns it upfield for a big gain.

2019 Week 1 at ARI, 2Q (7:46). First-and-10 at the Detroit 21.

Later in the first half, the Lions again run play action from 12 personnel, loading up the right side of the line with both Hockenson and James squaring up in the formation as if they are going to block. Prior to the snap, 11 WR Marvin Jones, Jr. went in motion from right to left to set both receivers to the formation’s left (dragging the deep coverage over). Once again, this is a seven man protection with Kerryon Johnson going straight off the fake into a middle pickup assignment and James blocking the back edge from the get-go.

The cool part of the play design is what Hockenson does: he acts exactly like a lead H-back blocker into the hole, except instead of actually blocking the gap shooter he lets the rusher through and blows right by into a crossing route. By design, the penetrator is who the running back Johnson is expecting to pick up.

Now look at what this does to the defense. In the upper left panel, 59 LB Joe Walker is boxed in pink and charging the line in run support when he sees Stafford hold the ball out for Johnson. Boxed in cyan we have Hockenson moving up into what would normally be the lead Iso hole in the right B gap.

In the upper right panel, Walker is flat footed and stacked up at the line in traffic while Hockenson has already started full stride into his release. Stafford is scanning the deep left side of the field and gets a good view of Marvin and Golladay clearing out the back end with their vertical stems. Marvin’s break to the inside pins the deep safety over the top, preventing him from moving over to the crosser. In the bottom panel, we can see just how much open space the wideouts have cleared for Hockenson to operate in as well as how thoroughly Walker is beaten at the time of the throw.

Isolation designs

The other thing Darrell Bevell’s play designs did was to get playmakers in space at full speed and the opportunity to beat coverage in space. Consider these two long plays that helped build a large lead for the Lions.

2019 Week 1 at ARI, 3Q (2:44). Second-and-4 at the Detroit 39.

Leading by two scores in the late third quarter, the Lions come out in a running situation with 22 personnel and put 46 FB Nick Bawden in front of 26 C.J. Anderson for some I-formation power football with Hockenson and James to the left of the formation. Prior to the snap, Hockenson moves right, dragging 25 CB Chris Jones with him. Responding to the heavy formation, Arizona has the box completely stacked and shows man free with 32 S Budda Baker over the top. Bawden, James, and Anderson all stay in max protect, leaving just two routes in the pattern, but it does not matter.

Jones starts with inside leverage on Hockenson, but the rookie bends his route under the defender and accelerates, crossing Jones’ face to throw the defender off balance and get a step. This is the kind of one-on-one isolation route that will allow Hockenson’s elite agility and acceleration to take over and produce big plays.

2019 Week 1 at ARI, 2Q (12:34). Second-and-4 at the Arizona 47.

This is the Amendola touchdown in the second quarter, and really shows a nice modification of a staple play in the Detroit repertoire: my old friend PA Z Cross. On the far left, we have Golladay as the vertical clearout, Marvin Jones from the right side coming across on the over route, and Hockenson simulating a split zone slice block on the back side for the run action.

The funky part is Amendola inside Golladay on the left side dragging back against the grain under the linebackers. The defenders to watch are 55 LB Chandler Jones and 20 CB Tramaine Brock. At first, Brock rides Marvin Jones up the stem and passes him to... nobody in particular. As the play develops, Brock jumps down onto Amendola’s drag, but then suddenly turns his back and starts looking for the crosser he’d passed off (Marvin).

Normally for the sneak play design, Amendola (the sneaker) converts his drag into a wheel up the sideline and uses a running start coming across the field to blow past underneath defenders who are presumably backpedaling or drifting sideways. Since Brock was completely turned around, Amendola did not even need to try and lose his man since he had none on him. Very easy loft toss for Stafford to put in a huge hole for his receiver to run under.

2019 Week 1 at ARI, Overtime (7:17). First-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

There is a PA Z Cross to Marvin Jones crossing left to right behind the underneath defenders who have jumped the run.

2019 Week 1 at ARI, Overtime (5:27). First-and-10 at the Arizona 41.

Later in that same drive, Detroit goes back to the well, this time with outside zone action to the left. Stafford looks right, then comes back to Marvin Jones cutting across the grain right-to-left (this was the upheld catch in overtime).

This is not Madden

When Darrell Bevell says he wants to be able to run the ball, it is not because he just wants to blindly call running plays. The point is to tell opponents the Lions are going to run, bait them with formations that say the Lions are going to run, and then you run it. Then run it again. Eventually the defense gets sick of letting you nickel and dime them all day. Then when they start cheating up to stop the run, THAT is when you unleash Stafford to make them pay. The PA passes that are built off the rushing formation and run action looks are the true shot plays of Darrell Bevell’s offense, and in Week 1 they were six of the seven longest plays from scrimmage for the Lions.

Setting up defensive coordinators and defensive players to gamble poorly is what “establishing the run” is actually about. It is not a caveman philosophy that wants to grind it out three yards at a time like this is the 1970s and Woody Hayes is trying to power out another national championship in the Big Ten. It is really about taking your time to carefully set up favorable chances for big plays by goading the defense into taking itself out of position. That’s why aspiring playcaller C.J. Anderson thinks even he — an actual running back — is not as hardcore about running the ball as Bevell:

If fans want to see Stafford taking deep shots through the air, they ought to support Bevell calling enough run plays over the course of a game to set up high percentage play-action shot calls. Without first establishing credible trends running the ball, Detroit’s offense will have a tough time manipulating defenses into giving up good looks down the field.