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Breaking down the call: What went wrong on the Lions’ negated 51-yard touchdown?

A breakdown of why the Lions’ touchdown was negated and who messed up?

NFL: Detroit Lions at Carolina Panthers Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

If the Detroit Lions were going to stand a chance against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, they clearly needed to hit on a few big plays on offense. It appeared Detroit had finally done that in the third quarter, when the the Lions dialed up a trick play. A toss to Kerryon Johnson with a lateral back to Matthew Stafford resulted in a huge bomb connected to Marvin Jones Jr.

It was a 51-yard touchdown pass that brought the game back to a one-score contest and could’ve helped springboard a second-half comeback for the Lions. Unfortunately, though, it was flagged for a penalty, and the Lions would punt four plays later. They never reached the end zone again.

So what went wrong on the play? Why was it an illegal formation and who is to blame for the mistake? Let’s take a closer look at the rulebook and what Detroit did.

What is an illegal formation?

I’ll be honest, this is the one part of the rulebook that had eluded me, but it turns out illegal formation is incredibly simple. There are basically just three stipulations the offense adhere to in order to be considered a legal formation:

  • You must have at least seven players lined up on the line of scrimmage
  • You must have an eligible receiver on both ends of the line of scrimmage
  • In between the two eligible receivers on each side of the line of scrimmage, there may not be an eligible receiver on the line of scrimmage.

Note: the definition of an eligible receiver is simply a wide receiver, running back or tight end. Offensive linemen can also be declared as an eligible receiver, but they have to report it to the official before the play starts.

That may sound confusing, but let’s illustrate with some examples from Sunday.

As you can see, the Lions have seven players on the line of scrimmage (five linemen and two wide receivers. Two eligible receivers are on both sides of the line of scrimmage, and any receivers between the two are properly off the line of scrimmage. Note, too, that the top receiver is off the line of scrimmage. If he were on the line of scrimmage, suddenly the slot receiver at the top of the screen would be in an illegal formation and would have to take a step off the line.

Again, here’s another example:

Alright, now let’s move onto the play in question.

It’s very clear here that the Lions are in an illegal formation. There is an eligible receiver on the line of scrimmage in between outside eligible receivers. That is not allowed.

And while I have T.J. Hockenson circled here, it’s not necessarily his fault. This play becomes completely legal if either Hockenson or Marvin Jones Jr. takes a step back from the line. Take a look:

So who messed up?

Well, that’s truly impossible to know without having the playbook right in front of me. However, if I had to guess, it was probably Marvin Jones Jr.

You see, this trick play was set up by a play earlier in the game that looked remarkably similar. Back in the second quarter, the Lions ran a toss play to Kerryon Johnson in the same direction with a very similar formation on the right side of the line:

But on this play, Jones was off the line of scrimmage and notified the down judge of his positioning. Hockenson was on the line of scrimmage.

Given that Jones was the target of the trick play in this instance, it’s reasonable to believe he was focused on something else at the time. However, it ended up costing the Lions big.

UPDATE: Looking a little closer at the illegal formation play, I noticed that Jones actually made the exact same “I’m off the line of scrimmage” gesture to the down judge on that play. However, his body placement is very clearly still on the line of scrimmage.

Further evidence that it was probably Jones’ mistake on this play.