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Detroit Lions offense film breakdown, Part 4: Receivers need to help Matthew Stafford

Open the windows wider.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Oakland Raiders Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

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

A well-known quirk with the Detroit Lions wide receivers is that they statistically get much less separation than one would imagine given their relatively good reputations. One consequence of the tight coverage on the pass targets for the offense is that quarterback Matthew Stafford has to fit magnificent throws into tight windows. While this is very cool as far as SportsCenter and NFL Primetime highlights go, it would sure be nice if Stafford could get some easy wide-open throws more often.

Reduced-form box score stat scouting suggests Stafford’s task is not being made easier by the guys on the other end of the throws. For the eight games he played in 2019, according to the advanced passing stats on Pro Football Reference there were just nine credited dropped passes (3.2% drops). Through just the first four games of 2020, there are already 12 credited drops (9.0% drops). The bad throw percentage for 2020 is slightly higher (21.6% versus 20.8% last year), but there is a much bigger increase in the on-target throw rate for Stafford (76.9% this year versus 70.8% last year). So, while there are some bad throws in there on the quarterback’s side of the ledger, it looks like the people catching the ball are not helping much when the passes are being delivered fine.

You gotta keep ‘em separated

There is more to this than simply making separation moves against man coverage and avoiding drops, though. Many things the receivers do in terms of route running do not show up on even the advanced stat tracking by NFL NextGen Stats. Yes, the average separation is terrible for all three starting wide receivers (all are under 3.0 yards average separation) and even tight end T.J. Hockenson is only barely higher (3.1 yards). Can’t we scheme the receivers open more?

Week 4 NOR, 3Q (4:44). First-and-10 at the New Orleans 34.

Here is the long pass interference penalty against 47 LB Alex Anzalone on the deep post to 11 WR Marvin Jones. The Lions are under center with a play fake to 28 HB Adrian Peterson, who releases into a route on the left side. The action is all to the right, with 19 WR Kenny Golladay coming across the formation to make it a pair of deep routes down the right side. 22 CB Chauncey Gardner-Johnson will carry Marvin’s route while 21 CB Patrick Robinson will carry Golladay’s route up to the next level.

Here’s the problem. When Stafford is trying to find a “best” guy to throw to, he wants to see where the safety commits. In this case, 43 S Marcus Williams in on the right side (from the offense’s point of view) in a two-high shell. The Saints are effectively in a Tampa 2 defense, with Anzalone dropping very deep as almost a third deep zone defender (which is why he picks up Jones on the post and is in position to interfere and get flagged) with four clear underneath zones and both safeties in high halves.

Here is where the routes are as Stafford is setting up to throw. Golladay pretty much blasted right by Robinson (who did not even try to carry the route and passed it immediately) and was running free after about the 25-yard line. The deep safety Williams knows he’s the only guy left between Lions receivers and the end zone, so he must commit to picking up Golladay. Once Golladay sees this is true, he does not need to keep running straight up the numbers. Look where Williams is sitting at the windup: he has not really been forced to commit either way between Jones or Golladay. There is so little space between the two routes that Williams did not need to choose and could be in position for both.

Now suppose Golladay bent his route a bit and was somewhere further outside the numbers in the shaded orange zone. Williams would have had to drift over or risk allowing Stafford an open throw to his best receiver on the deep fade, an inexcusable proposition. Yanking the deep safety closer to the line could have helped Stafford by opening up room for Jones to work.

Here’s the thing, though. Kenny Golladay ran the route correctly and that is exactly the way the play is designed. The inside receiver (here, Jones) is bending to attack the post, but why not have an adjustment built into the outside route to widen and let veteran receivers like Jones and Golladay work the safety? They are already looking back to see where Stafford wants to go with the ball very early, so letting them space out the coverage with their routes and trust Stafford’s placement should work. It just seems really strange to force so much into such a compressed part of the field and not force the defense to defend more ground.

Week 4 at NOR, 4Q (8:01). First-and-10 at the New Orleans 43.

This is the long incompletion in the end zone in the fourth quarter of the recent loss to New Orleans. Detroit shows heavy 12 personnel and comes out with 88 TE T.J. Hockenson split wide right. Prior to the snap, though, Hock walks in and sets up next to 83 TE Jesse James for a run strength to the right seven-man line. The call here is play-action double posts by 17 WR Marvin Hall at the top and 11 WR Marvin Jones in the slot. The way double post is supposed to work is that the outer post is run more vertical (skinny) and the inner post is run flatter to force the safety to commit. The safety can stay deep and give up the flatter route (preferred), but if he jumps the bait post then you have a deep shot to the end zone with no help over the middle.

The read is by the bait post runner (here it is Jones) against middle of the field open or middle of the field closed. If the receiver believes there is a deep center third safety in a Cover 1 or Cover 3 type defense, he is supposed to bend flatter under the safety to try and lure the deep man up. If not, he is cutting under the coverage to a clear spot and can still be open for an easier but still good gain. The look presented by New Orleans is split safeties with Williams and Jenkins each seemingly taking deep halves.

The coverage is actually disguised, and Jenkins (boxed in purple) is not over-the-top help for two corners covering deep but is immediately passed Jones’ inside route by Gardner-Johnson. Meanwhile, from the back side of the formation, Williams is charging up to take Hockenson’s crossing route as Robinson passes him off. What had been middle of the field closed (let’s call it MOFC) is now effectively middle of the field open (MOFO) because the Lions have all of the back side coverage flowing opposite the double post runners.

Marvin Jones now has one-on-one against Jenkins and he continues along the MOFC path in dark blue to stay narrower as the play design dictates. But consider what happens if he switches to the MOFO path in pink. That puts Jenkins in a bind because there is no “true” middle of the field defender and Robinson is too far to take an opposite corner route; Jenkins must follow Jones if he does that, and by doing so widens the area between the post routes as open space for Hall to work.

Not only would that create a bigger window for Stafford to drop the ball into (potentially changing the run angle for Hall to be flatter as well), but it would make the actual target more obvious. At the end of the play, it is pretty clear that Jones is trying to run under the throw and probably thinks the ball is being thrown for him. All that manages to do is bring more defenders into the area and increase traffic. I get that this is a disguised coverage and it’s intended to fool the receivers, but Jones is a solid veteran who we expect to be able to adjust on the fly to help the play design.

Week 3 at ARI, 1Q (4:38). Third-and-7 at the Detroit 35.

This is the drive after the Duron Harmon interception in the first quarter of the road game in Arizona. Detroit faces a tough third down conversion and sets up a play to clear the middle of the field for Amendola to find the sticks. Both Hockenson at the top and Jones at the bottom will run straight go routes to carry their defenders out of the picture while Golladay chips and peels to the flat. Protection with Kerryon Johnson staying in to block is looking at a Double A-Gap threat from which Arizona ends up rushing six.

Behind the six-man pressure, 43 LB Haason Reddick drops off the edge and 31 S Chris Banjo drops down to form basically a double “rat at the sticks” coverage with a deep safety and man coverage outside. This is going to take away the easiest throw to the center of the field, which is what Amendola is actually going to try for.

On the broadcast replay, it looked like Stafford threw behind Amendola, but what he really wanted was for his receiver to slow up at the sticks and sit down in the seam between the two rats. In true robber coverage with only one “rat in the hole,” the defender would have been dead center, but in this case there’s a soft spot between them that Stafford is hoping Amendola is going to bend towards - but he does not. The Lions fail to capitalize on the interception and go three-and-out to punt the football back to the Cardinals.

Missed Rubs

Another thing Lions fans get incensed over while watching the squad play defense is when opponents throw legal pick plays at defenders. Route combinations can interfere with cover men trying to stay with receivers by deliberately crossing paths to put someone else in the way. We see the Lions torn up underneath by these dodgy “rub” routes, so why doesn’t their own offense do the same thing? Well, they do. Or, at least they try to.

Week 1 CHI, 2Q (1:23). Third-and-2 at the Detroit 33.

Looking to respond before halftime after trading field goals with the Bears in Week 1, the Lions have a third-and-short to keep the drive going. They come out in 11 personnel and have their best pass-catching running back 32 HB D’Andre Swift motion out from Stafford’s left side to just outside the numbers and 87 WR Quintez Cephus. With that action, Swift drags 58 LB Roquan Smith out with him. This is exactly the look the Lions want to see: running back on linebacker, clear man coverage assignments.

The play is a pick at the top of the screen with Cephus breaking out and up into Smith’s way. At the same time, Swift has to break quickly inside off the pick for a slant. This is a very bread-and-butter rub combo that the Lions have as part of their base offense. Given the down and distance, it is an excellent call and the offense has a solid match-up advantage.

At the snap, we see in the top panel Cephus goes for Smith and Swift is cutting behind. Stafford in the yellow box is already watching and has the ball high and preparing to fire. This is an automatic designed play that is only focused on getting that slant to Swift, so as the pick is developing, Stafford is already starting his throwing motion. The problem is that in the middle panel boxed in orange, Cephus completely whiffs on the rub and gets nothing. Instead, Smith actually grabs Swift to prevent him from getting away, and Johnson has time to react and also wall off Swift’s path.

Stafford’s arm is coming forward in the pink box, and he has to pull the ball down because the slant is not there. By the time Cephus wriggles free on the outside, it is too late and Stafford has no time to ready another throw; the offensive line is expecting to only have to block for 2 or 3 seconds. Instead of a rubbed slant to Swift to move the chains, the Lions failed to convert and punted on fourth-and-1.

Week 2 at GBY, 2Q (8:18). Second-and-10 at the Detroit 37.

Still clinging to a narrow lead on the road at Lamborghini Field, the Lions go for a standard run and shoot switch at the bottom of the screen. 87 WR Quintez Cephus will go first and essentially set a pick for the slot receiver 80 WR Danny Amendola to rub his defender off onto. As Amendola breaks to the outside, this ends up working like a rubbed wheel route and Stafford can check to see if what the outside defender between those two orange lines is going to do.

It turns out the Packers are in man coverage, and the rub is ideal: 39 CB Chandon Sullivan over Amendola in the alignment is going to follow him, and 23 CB Jaire Alexander over Cephus is going to stick with him as Cephus bends the top of his route to the open middle of the field. This is about as good as it gets in terms of matching the concept to the defense, and the Lions have a tremendous opportunity here.

The two middle routes (a post from the top three-man combination and Cephus bending in from the bottom) hold the deep safety in the middle of the field, so Amendola’s outside release is a check just waiting to be cashed. The Lions could have gotten an easy 25 to 35 yards on this play if Stafford can just loft an easy ball for the veteran slot receiver to run under.

Unfortunately at the crossing point, Cephus gets no actual rub on Sullivan, so Stafford has to keep leading Amendola deeper. The throw is too long for the receiver and it is incomplete down the right side for what could have been big yards. It’s frustrating, and Stafford felt it too.

Week 4 NOR, 1Q (1:40). Third-and-3 at the Detroit 43.

Just watch the bottom of the screen, which is where the play is designed for Stafford to go with the ball to simply pick up the first down. Amendola is in the slot and Hockenson is the outside man. I don’t even know what exactly the switch was supposed to look like, but it wasn’t that. I got nothing. 94 DE Cameron Jordan gets a 4-yard sack to force the punt.

While some of these issues look like strange design that clump up a lot of the routes and leave parts of the field unthreatened, the veterans can do things (we’ve seen them do it before) to make Stafford’s throws a lot easier. We haven’t even talked about plays where tight ends or wide receivers fell down, killing the play. Some of these things like missed picks and route confusion can be cleaned up, and hopefully we see better execution going forward.