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Notes: How the Detroit Lions offense counters current NFL trends

Alex Rollins presents the best film breakdown you will watch this week.

NFL: OCT 30 Dolphins at Lions Photo by Scott W. Grau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In last week’s mailbag, Erik, Jeremy, and Ryan spent a good chunk of time talking about why Ben Johnson is such a good offensive coordinator for this particular Detroit Lions roster. Specifically, our crew called out Johnson’s play design elements, emphasis on play action passing, and relationship with quarterback Jared Goff. A few days ago, an item from Notes by Dan Pompei at the Athletic highlighted that working relationship of OC and QB. If you want to see that stuff in action on tape, it turns out Alex Rollins has you covered in a fantastic find by Erik.

According to Rollins, his Saturday video from last week took 70 hours to put together, but boy was it worth it. In a ten-plus minute video on his YouTube channel, Rollins shows really nice play sequences to explain how the contrarian Lions offense “countered NFL evolution”:

Two personnel and formation things that Rollins points out is that the league has evolved into lighter and faster players battling deep in the passing game. On offense, that’s the rise of league-wide use of 11 personnel: one running back, one tight end, and lots of speedy receivers attacking all over the place. The defensive counter? Similar to spread counters at the college level, the pro game is defensive back heavy with lots of nickel packages to match up with the speed from offenses. The other thing Rollins notes is the move of offenses to more shotgun usage, facilitating field vision for quarterbacks in the passing game.

What did the Lions do that was so contrarian? They loaded up on heavy personnel sets, dictated single-high looks by forcing the defense to stack the box, and punished those heavy boxes with play-action passes. Bring it back to Ben Johnson and what he’s done with Goff at the helm of the offense.

Guess what Goff was good at with the Rams before he came to the Lions? Mike Payton did a breakdown of one of Goff’s best games with Los Angeles in 2018 in a Thursday night dismantling of the Vikings defense. Want to guess where he was getting the best production - under center or from the gun? Want to guess how much play action mattered? Want to guess if he was throwing down the middle much? Goff killing defenses from under center with play action is nothing new; Johnson merely went back to what he already knew Goff could do well from the quarterback’s past record.

Another cool factoid for long-suffering Lions fans to reflect on comes about five minutes into the video: in the voiceover we are reminded that offensive coordinator Ben Johnson has turned the Lions into one of the heaviest motion usage teams in the league and finished top ten for the 2022 season in motion at the snap. Remember what the Lions offense used to be like under the previous regime when it came to motion? This is good stuff from Ben Johnson and a huge sea change in the way the Lions attack defenses.

Our guys have been saying it on the PODcast, other analysts like Pompei have been saying this stuff, and now we’ve got a really nice film breakdown of tape from Rollins showing the payoff from last season. Erik’s right: that video is well worth your time. Now, on to the rest of your weekend Notes:

  • In case anybody has been “rate limited” at a certain social media site recently, here is a public service announcement from your friends at Pride of Detroit:

Detroit Lions Wide Receiver Jameson Williams will be hosting his inaugural Skills Positions Camp. This camp is for WR/DB/RB/LB/QB in grades 3rd-12th. This is a FREE camp sponsored by DRNX and hosted by the Jameson Williams Foundation.

  • Playbook quickie for those who enjoy and want to understand what the film junkies are talking about; this is about as concise an explanation of how the Mike Leach/Hal Mumme Air Raid-style Four Verts concept is supposed to work as I’ve seen. What I particularly like is the emphasis given to the horizontal stretch spacing since the pressure against deep zones (the vertical stretch) is what usually draws the eye.

What did it look like for the 2022 Lions? Amon-Ra St. Brown was the top targeted receiver with a (146/562) = 25.97% target rate (let’s be real - we’re not counting the time Goff was “targeted”). That would put the Lions back in the early 2000’s in terms of target dominance by their top targeted pass catcher, so Amon-Ra St. Brown really is the focal point of the team’s passing game.

  • Two fun nuggets from Football Outsiders’ Aaron Schatz:

First, the 2022 Lions had the sixth-highest DVOA for any Lions team going back to 1981: 1981 (Billy Sims’ second year right before the strike), 1997 (Wild Card loss at Tampa Bay), 1995 (Wild Card loss at Philadelphia), 2011 (Wild Card loss at New Orleans), 2017 (the last Caldwell season), and then 2022.

Second, the Lions as a franchise was tied for eighth in worst quarterbacking by defense-adjusted yards above replacement (DYAR - this is slightly different from DVOA, which is a per-play rate stat). Counting the number of seasons since 1981 where franchises had a quarterback in the top dozen DYAR for that year, only the Browns, Panthers, Ravens, Bears, Texans, and Jets had fewer than the Lions’ 11 seasons (tied with the Eagles and Cardinals). By contrast, teams with Hall of Fame quarterbacks and multiple championships like the Packers (28), Niners (26), Cowboys (24), and Patriots (24) had more than twice as many such seasons. Also of note: Lions quarterback coach Mark Brunell has five of the top ten DYAR seasons for the Jaguars since 1981.

  • Shout out to John Whiticar and many other fans from up north by the Detroit Lions:

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