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Detroit Lions used Jesse James’ scarcity to their advantage vs. Cardinals

Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

NFL: Detroit Lions at Arizona Cardinals Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Jesse James has mostly been a ghost when it comes to his receiving as a Detroit Lions tight end. His disappointing 2019 season featured just 16 catches for 142 yards. After some offseason talks with offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, it seemed like the Lions were going to get him more involved in 2020, but through two games James hadn’t even received a single target.

Instead, the Lions primarily used James in heavy personnel to help establish a running game in Detroit. Through three weeks, over half of his snaps (52 of 102) have come on running plays, per PFF. Even in Sunday’s game, when he finally established himself as an offensive weapon, Detroit used him as a run blocker on 21 of his 33 snaps.

But that’s exactly what made James dangerous as a receiver against the Arizona Cardinals.

Facing a third-and-1 early in the second quarter, the Lions went into a heavy personnel. T.J. Hockenson was in-line on the left side. Adrian Peterson and fullback Jason Cabinda were in the backfield and just one wide receiver (Marvin Jones Jr.) was in the game. Everything Detroit was showing Arizona suggested a running play.

That’s especially true for James’ role on the play. Though he started lined out wide of Jones, he went in motion and saddled up off-line just next to right tackle Tyrell Crosby. The Cardinals matched with 10 players in the box. TEN.

That’s when the Lions finally unleashed the beast.

James, as he had done dozens of times this year, fired out of his stance and immediately blocked the guy in front of him. But this wasn’t so much as an actual block, as it was a decoy. Quickly after this pseudo-block, James released, cutting left. The bait-and-switch was on.

“The guy saw me do an arm block,” James said of the play Monday afternoon. “He kinda shot his gun, and I was able to come out on the other side scot-free.”

Put it all together, and this turned out to be one of the easiest plays for the Lions on Sunday:

Third and short had been a huge issue for the Lions in 2019. They ranked 19th in power running situations last season. They’re off to a better start this year (ninth), but it’s nice to know that they have a potential ace up their sleeve for key plays like this in the game.

Of course, this wasn’t even the most notable play James had on Sunday. Later in the quarter, the Lions called James’ name on an even more critical down: fourth-and-1 from the Cardinals’ 5-yard line.

The Lions designed a play specifically for James. Again, the Lions come out in a heavy look, this time in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end). This likely gets a favorable matchup against the Cardinals’ heavy personnel. Again, they load the box. But quickly Cabinda, Kerryon Johnson and James all go in motion out wide, leaving an empty backfield. What looked like run-first personnel was now a clear pass play, and Arizona couldn’t make any substitutions without burning a timeout.

That’s when running back Kerryon Johnson would provide a natural pick to get James open in the flat. The Lions hoped James’ natural athleticism would allow him to beat the safety to the end zone. It did.

When asked if his use as mostly a run blocker this year helped him breakout as a receiver in this game, James didn’t hesitate.

“Yeah, no doubt.”