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Film breakdown: Lions using angles in critical situations

When the going gets tough, the Lions go to Texas.

NFL: New Orleans Saints at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

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

When the team takes a tight end in the first round and a running back in the second round, those players had better figure prominently into the design of the offense. After spending precious draft capital on such offensive weapons as Eric Ebron, Ameer Abdullah, and Kerryon Johnson in the past, the current staff had to do something to get better returns from T.J. Hockenson and D’Andre Swift.

C’mon and ride the train

Just like how we’ve seen with shallow cross plays making the most of ridiculous straight-line speed (read: Jamal Agnew), the Lions have a reliable and simple two-man route combination to make the most of short area quickness: Texas.

While “Texas” is often used as the name for a fast angle route from a running back, in many schemes it is an entire concept unto itself. The version being run by the Lions that we want to consider has a vertical (with an option to read the coverage and break it off) followed by an angle route right behind it. For example, here is what it looks like in Andy Reid’s 2009 Eagles offense:

The core of what makes this work is, of course, a pass catcher with agility and explosion to abruptly change direction against slower linebackers and safeties. In Hockenson and Swift, the Lions have the kind of short area quickness that has not been available since the departure of the Theo Riddick hype train and a certain ankle breaking wide receiver.

Now, the thing that distinguishes what Detroit is doing from other plays using the angle route from the running back is the specific stacking of the Texas route behind a vertical to clear space.

Week 1 CHI, 1Q (6:43). Second-and-8 at the Chicago 9.

From the very beginning of the season, there was good reason to believe Swift running this Texas combination would be extremely effective. Just eight minutes into the new season, the Lions lined up with trips left and 32 HB D’Andre Swift set up behind 83 TE Jesse James on the right side. The result of the play was an incompletion to 87 WR Quintez Cephus coming across the middle underneath, but that is not what we are interested in.

Stafford reads the left side combination the whole way, but it takes Cephus too long to come all the way across from the far slot. Meanwhile, look at the top of the screen where everybody and their dog jumps James on the post. Swift goes into his break towards the goal line without any defender within five yards of him. That was a free touchdown if only the right side of the formation had been the read. Instead, the Lions miss on second and third downs, and end up settling for a field goal.

Week 4 NOR, 1Q ( 12:02). Second-and-3 at the New Orleans 7.

Three games later, the Lions did not make the same mistake; here’s what prompted Chris Burke to say the Texas route remains unstoppable. At the top of the screen, we have 80 WR Danny Amendola setting a designed pick for 11 WR Marvin Jones on the quick slant. 19 WR Kenny Golladay is simply a corner decoy to carry the middle zone defenders away. At the bottom of the screen is the real action: James runs a corner route in front of Swift on the Texas.

When James releases off the line, he takes 27 S Malcolm Jenkins with him, but also draws the attention of 47 LB Alex Anzalone from the middle of the field. The coverage assignments look like they are outside-in, with Jenkins on the furthest outside threat (James) and 56 LB Demario Davis locked to Swift in the backfield.

The interesting thing to note is that Davis goes wide to get a head start on Swift’s release to the outside. That puts James to the inside of Davis, forming a natural rub off not just himself but also Jenkins trailing behind. Swift uses his “blockers” and gives Stafford a simple look to the end zone in the vacated middle of the field.

Is Swift a tell?

While it’s great that we have a “new Theo Riddick” to beat down on linebackers with, Lions fans probably also still remember when the team was running something like 99.44% pass plays when Theo was on the field. The offense obviously does not want to telegraph when the Texas route is coming via alignment or personnel. How can we mix it up but still maintain the quickness advantage?

Week 3 at ARI, 4Q (9:45). Third-and-4 at the Arizona 30.

Down three points in the fourth quarter, the Lions faced third down and what appeared to be press man coverage from the Cardinals. At the bottom of the screen is a dagger combo with 39 WR Jamal Agnew on the vertical and Golladay running the dig. At the top of the screen is our item of interest: 88 TE T.J. Hockenson taking advantage of his ridiculous size-quickness combination to work off a vertical pick from Jones.

21 CB Patrick Peterson runs with Jones up the seam, providing a nice wall for Hockenson to duck around. Once 35 CB Curtis Riley hops to the outside, that’s all it takes. Hock explodes to the inside and gets a quick toss from Stafford to move the chains.

Week 4 NOR, 3Q (7:09). Third-and-3 at the Detroit 48.

The reason Hockenson as the Texas runner is so dangerous is because he normally moves around the formation a ton and lines up in all kinds of places. It can get pretty ridiculous, and that makes it extremely hard for the defense to figure out what he is going to do. Consider this third quarter pass play to keep the drive going on third down. The Lions go empty backfield with bunch right and Hockenson tight in to the formation behind Swift.

What in the world? The Saints move safeties up to cover the tight end and running back in coverage, and have 27 S Malcolm Jenkins outside on Swift and 26 S D.J. Swearinger on Hockenson. At the snap, Swift pushes up the field and eventually runs a corner route. Right behind him on the Texas route following the running back is Hockenson. Swearinger, because he is in man coverage and has to honor the fact that Hockenson could easily release outside and push vertical as a real deep threat, reacts hard and jumps way outside to the numbers.

That lets Hock post up in the paint for an easy conversion. The two-man route combination of a vertical clearout to let someone quick work off a moving screen works great with the skill position players the Lions have now. It can be placed pretty much anywhere in the formation since all it takes is putting the Texas runner just slightly behind the vertical runner. It would not be surprising to see Jamal Agnew, Kerryon Johnson, or Marvin Hall doing these things in the future.