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Detroit Lions offense film breakdown: Use motion shallow cross more

You don’t always need to throw deep to get big yards.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Billy Hardiman-USA TODAY Sports

Third in a series of film breakdowns on the state of the Lions passing offense. Catch up on previous installments here:

One of the problems with the way the Detroit Lions built their wide receiver corps is that it felt very slow compared to what we had in the past. In recent years, the team drafted multiple receivers who are big but lack high end top speed. Even the best receiver in the bunch, Kenny Golladay, is only “fast for his size” and mainly a deep threat due to frame and ability to contest 50-50 balls. The Lions addressed this lack of speed among pass catchers by doing a couple of things:

The 64 dollar question then, is what to do with all this speed that we haven’t seen in the past? In order to go forward, the Lions went backwards in time and pulled out the old reliable shallow cross. We have talked about Matthew Stafford’s long history with the shallow cross, but in 2020 the team has really put it front and center as a core part of the offense in a way they have not in the past. Aside from quarterback comfort, a major plus for doing this is all the speed now available on the roster.

Detroit is weird when it comes to motion

ESPN’s Seth Walder checked the pre-snap motion usage of all teams for 2019 and it turned out that offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell was among the league’s lowest (seventh from the bottom). At just five percent, the Lions used motion less than half as often as what the rest of the league averaged. Low motion usage carried over to 2020, and the Lions are again among the lowest in the league at about six percent:

Okay, that’s more than five! Not a lot of motion going on, but it’s interesting to note why the Lions are using motion. In most setups, the reasons you use motion is to get a pre-snap read with additional information on coverage (if a defender follows your guy, you might be more likely looking at man coverage) or to throw off run fits and coverage assignments. The Lions are obviously doing some of that, but the other thing they are doing is using it as an Arena football style means of getting their speedsters an advantage in space. We are talking about getting our guy the ball one-on-one with momentum and a free release to beat their defender.

Week 3 at ARI, 2Q (1:53). First-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

Here we have 39 WR Jamal Agnew at the bottom of the screen in motion at the snap coming full blast. The defense does not know if he is going to end up drifting right to loop behind the offensive line as a jet sweep option or if the ball will be snapped before he gets to the tackle box. It is a designed clearout with all other receivers running vertical stems to carry their defenders out of the way.

As Agnew passes in front of Stafford, he is running full speed across the face of 59 LB De’Vondre Campbell. It is an incredibly easy quick game throw that allows Stafford to get the ball out before any pass rushers can threaten him. The behind-the-LOS pre-snap running start almost ensures that Agnew gets a clean release off the line, and a good pass hitting him in stride puts Campbell at an impossible disadvantage. The return demon managed to turn it upfield for 20 yards down the right sideline on about as safe a pass play as you can get.

Week 1 CHI, 2Q (0:35). Second-and-3 at the Chicago 41.

This is the same thing with 88 TE T.J. Hockenson starting at the bottom of the screen and going into motion just prior to the snap. The potential defenders in the way are 24 CB Buster Skrine lined up over 80 WR Danny Amendola in the slot and 33 CB Jaylon Johnson at the top of the screen over 87 WR Quintez Cephus. The Lions receivers run both corners out of the way with vertical routes and clear the entire left underneath area for Hock to run into.

Stafford dumps the ball in stride to Hockenson streaking in from of 59 LB Danny Trevathan, who has no chance of keeping up from a flat-footed start. Although Hockenson is no jet sweep threat, using him as the crosser gives the Lions a bigger mismatch body to drop the ball to when they absolutely need to get a modest number of yards on third or second-and-manageable. Hockenson did not get out of bounds, but he picked up a nice chunk of 16 yards with that run after the catch.

Have we got your attention?

The defense will not continue to get eaten up by simple pitch and catch plays like this all the way down the field; eventually, they start keying on the crosser and jump it to prevent big gains. When sequencing the plays he is calling, Bevell will be watching for this and start to throw changeups at the defense based off the same look to punish them for jumping the crosser.

Week 3, at ARI 3Q (10:43). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 25.

Early in the second half of the road win at Glendale, the Lions run motion shallow cross again with 19 WR Kenny Golladay as the crosser from the bottom. 21 CB Patrick Peterson follows him up to the tackle box, but then peels off as Golladay continues across the formation. This time, the Cardinals are ready and 58 LB Jordan Hicks pounces on the crosser for just 1 yard.

When Bevell knows he has the defense squatting on the crosser, he has some nasty surprises that attack the adjustments. Some offenses like to adjust deep and throw over the defense coming up to stop the short stuff, but that is not the only way to go.

Week 3 at ARI, 4Q (13:49). First-and-10 at the Arizona 44.

Early in the fourth quarter trailing by three points, the Lions are driving near mid-field and try to take advantage of the defense looking for the shallow cross. Again, Golladay is at the bottom of the screen and comes in motion. This time, Peterson follows him all the way across in straight man coverage. The Cardinals have their best guy running with the crosser and are primed to shut it down again.

What happened on this play? 98 DT Corey Peters sacks Stafford for a 10-yard loss and Brady Quinn puts it this way as the replay rolled of the tackle box: “Right here in the middle of the screen, and this is just... this is just a missed assignment. There’s no other way of looking at that. You don’t want Kerryon Johnson trying to block a 330 pound defensive lineman, okay?” There is a missed assignment here, but it’s not what that comment makes it sound like.

In the screenshot above from the overhead All-22, this is the point at the end of the play where Peters has Stafford wrapped up for the sack in the orange box. We have the window dressing boxed in purple: Peters is at Golladay’s hip while Hicks is sitting in the hook/curl zone ready to jump down on the route. The curious stuff is in the cyan box where we see 73 LG Jonah Jackson and 77 C Frank Ragnow running downfield and then in the yellow box is Kerryon turned around after having chip-released from Peters. This is a yellow box screen pass trying to attack the left side of the field with purple box decoration on the right side of the field.

Why didn’t it work? This looks like it is supposed to be a 6-man slide protection with a quick release by the back into the screen, so the offensive line is supposed to take the down linemen on defense (bigs on bigs). If so, Ragnow probably should have given Peters an initial shove rather than let him advance untouched through the line since the center would usually take the nose. The other way to look at it is that Jackson has positioning from the play side where the Lions want the screen to go, so he is in a better alignment to impede Peters within the design of the play.

Either way, somebody getting Peters off his full stride and slowed for Kerryon to then bump again at the next level before turning to catch the screen pass would have given Stafford time to set up. Although the play failed miserably, this is a very interesting design that makes a lot of sense if it is primed with play sequencing and executed well.

Or, just go old school

The Lions run shallow cross plays roughly three to four times per game. Assuming they get about 70 offensive snaps and run the ball a little less than half of the time, we’re talking about 10% of the entire passing offense. It’s a great choice on first down because it is nearly as high-percentage as a run play while still providing the possibility of checking to something deeper. Other routes built into plays designed around the shallow cross can get the team solid chain-moving yardage even when the defense wants to take away the crosser.

Week 1 CHI, 1Q (0:33). Second-and-12 at the Detroit 23.

That’s Hockenson at the top of the screen coming in motion to run the shallow cross. What the Lions do is have 11 WR Marvin Jones Jr. run a curl at the top behind the linebackers the crosser is baiting. The same goes for Amendola at the bottom. The read here is shallow to curl, just like this play diagram from the 2011 Cincinnati Bengals playbook (interestingly, from a page in a section titled “Man to Man Beaters”):

We can even see this from the replay angle that’s focused on Stafford’s eyes. The duplication of the curls on both sides of the tackle box provides a very quick progression read; to move his vision from the crosser to the curl behind it takes almost no head movement or refocusing for the quarterback:

Know what else this looks like? Mark Richt’s 2004 playbook from Georgia, where Stafford played college football.

As long as the Lions can effectively run the shallow cross for chunk yards, that will grate on a defense and make them chase the route. It is infuriating (as Lions fans know) to see easy completions underneath turn into big gains, so why not have the Lions do it?

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