Through 13 weeks of the 2023 season, the Detroit Lions are 9-4, sitting alone at the top of the NFC North standings. And more often than not, the underlying reasons for those aforementioned nine wins has consistently been the Lions offense.
We all know the details by now. They got on a heater during the second half of the 2022 season and were a driving force behind the team’s 8-2 finish down the stretch. As the 2023 season began, it was more of the same from the unit.
Quarterback Jared Goff continued his strong play, running backs Jahmyr Gibbs and David Montgomery have been among the best duos in all of football, and pass-catchers like receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown and rookie tight end Sam LaPorta have been two of the most productive players at their respective positions.
On the other hand, in games like their Week 14 loss to the Chicago Bears, where this offense has struggled, so has the entire team. The running game still found success to the tune of 24 carries for 140 yards and a touchdown, but the passing game has looked off-kilter for over a month now.
Lately, Goff has looked rattled in the pocket, and his production has taken a serious hit. Sadly, this has been the book on Goff for some time, dating back to his days with the Los Angeles Rams. Apply some pressure, muddy up the pocket, and you can get him off of his game.
It seems that Lions’ offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is well-aware of what is happening to his starting quarterback as of late, because play calling has gotten more and more conservative over the last four weeks. On third-and-long situations, even more so.
Let’s get into the All-22 and see how Goff and the rest of the Lions offense failed to ever get in any semblance of a rhythm against the Bears.
Third-and-10 on the Detroit 45. 7:22 left in the first quarter
On the Lions’ first offensive possession of the afternoon, they were actually moving the ball pretty well. Then, as things tend to do in the NFL, things didn’t go to plan, and the offense sputtered to a stop.
It all started on second-and-6, when Lions’ center Graham Glasgow was called for a tripping penalty. This is the exact kind of mistake the Lions offense wants to avoid. Staying on schedule, keeping the down and distance manageable—these are things that this Lions’ coaching staff places a big emphasis on, and it shows in some of the play calling in certain scenarios.
After the penalty and a short pass to St. Brown picks up 11, the Lions are faced with a third-and-10 from the Detroit 45. Operating out of the shotgun, the Lions are in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end), with wide receiver Kalif Raymond in motion towards the bottom of your screen.
By motioning Raymond in towards the formation, it creates a bunch look with Raymond, Josh Reynolds, and St. Brown. And despite the Bears being in man coverage, they pass off receivers perfectly out of the bunch, not allowing for any of the three receivers to create any room for themselves.
Judging by where Goff’s eyes were prior to being sacked on this play, it is probably safe to assume his first few progressions were meant to be out of the bunch.
On the other side of the formation, LaPorta gets a bit of a chip on the edge defender for Chicago, before releasing upfield. And this is where my confusion and issues with the play call begin.
In the image above, you will see two arrows showing the extra pass-rushers Chicago sends on this down. Is LaPorta the hot receiver in this situation? And is this a choice route for the young tight end? If so, you would love to see him settle down at the top of his route where there is plenty of green grass after the blitz.
Something needed to be different for Goff, who ends up taking the sack here, despite Montgomery doing a solid job of picking up Bears’ linebacker Tremaine Edmunds. Both left tackle Taylor Decker and right guard Kayode Awosika have tough reps, and this drive, like many against Chicago—resulted in a punt.
Fourth-and-10 at the Chicago 35. 14:00 left in the second quarter
After a drop by Gibbs on a really well-executed screen that could have picked up a big chunk of yards, the Lions were faced with a fourth down scenario that ended with Goff throwing an interception to Bears’ cornerback Jaylon Johnson.
While watching this film, one thing really stuck out to me. The Bears seemed really prepared for the Lions this time around, and if you look at the timeline, it makes sense. Having just lost to the Lions in Week 11—and add in the fact that Chicago was coming off of their bye week—the defense was ready to slow down the Lions offense after faltering down the stretch only a few weeks before.
In the image below, you will see a still shot of a concept the Lions like to run a lot. The Bears rush seven defenders, and the protection is solid, allowing for Goff to step up in the pocket if he needed to. But check out Jaylon Johnson. He seems like he is well aware of the bind that this concept is trying to put him in, and in turn—puts Goff in a tough position.
Johnson bides his time, waits for Goff to throw it, and steps in front of LaPorta for an easy interception, ending yet another Lions’ possession.
Third-and-6 on the Detroit 29. 13:58 left in the second quarter
Jumping forward to the second half and the Lions are ahead 13-10 after a strong second quarter, with a chance to push their lead to double digits coming out of the half.
St. Brown begins the play by going in motion towards the bottom of the screen, with Chicago safety Jaquan Brisker traveling with the receiver, indicating to Goff that the Bears are in man coverage.
At the top of your screen, you will see Lions wide receiver Jameson Williams split out wide, in a one-on-one matchup with cornerback Tyrique Stevenson. Williams immediately beats Stevenson off the line of scrimmage, and begins to gain separation from the defensive back.
However, a good rush from Edmunds prevents Goff from being able to step into this throw, and the result is a ball once again skipping at the heels of an open Williams.
The design is there, and so is the matchup the Lions want. But for a quarterback like Goff, who needs to have a clean pocket to be able to step into a downfield throw, this isn’t going to get it done from a protection standpoint. Off-platform throws are just not a part of Goff’s game, but at some point—you would love to see for him to hit on one of these deep targets to Williams.
Otherwise defenses are going to continue to flood the intermediate areas of the field, and take away a lot of what Goff is comfortable with.
Third-and-11 on the Detroit 16. 4:06 left in the third quarter
Jumping forward to later in the third quarter, and yet again, the Lions offense is faced with another third-and-long situation. After two runs to Gibbs resulted in a net-loss of one yard, Goff is working out of the shotgun deep in Lions’ territory.
Similarly to the play highlighted earlier in the article, Raymond is in motion towards St. Brown and Williams. And much like they did a lot of the afternoon, the Bears opted for zone coverage on this down, and it worked like a charm for them.
In the image below, you will see the Lions running a similar concept to the play earlier that resulted in an interception to Johnson. Raymond runs the short out towards the sideline, St. Brown runs a corner, with Williams running the deep route.
I’m not sure if it’s a matter of spacing in this instance, but again, Jaylon Johnson seems to understand exactly what is going on, rendering the entire right side of the field covered for Goff.
Goff seemingly locks in on LaPorta, and still cuts this ball loose down the middle, despite Edmunds being in perfect position to make a play on the ball.
Another third down, another punt for the Lions’ offense. Coming out of the half, this is how their first five offensive series went. Three plays, punt. Three plays, punt. Three plays, punt. Two plays, fumble. Four plays, turnover on downs.
I don’t care how bad or good your defense is, if your offense has five possessions like that in a row, it’s going to be tough to win in the NFL.
After watching this film a few times over, you can tell that Ben Johnson’s confidence in Goff is at least slightly damaged. There were a ton of screens called by the Lions against the Bears in Week 14, and you have to think part of that concept is to try and limit plays where they can turn the ball over.
However, if the Lions want to get back to the way they were operating earlier in the season, the offense is going to have to take some shots downfield on early downs. Ben Johnson is going to have to adjust to how defenses are taking away St. Brown as of late, and find new ways to attack defenses near the boundaries.
Get Jameson Williams more involved. Get back to executing at a high clip, and cut out the mental errors that plagued you against the Bears. Move the pocket here and there for Goff, allowing for some easier, less complex reads. Lean on the running game that has served you so well through 13 games, but please, stop with the constant early-down runs that end up putting Goff in third-and-long situations.
Do that, and I still have confidence that this team can get back to its winning ways from earlier in 2023.