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Film breakdown: Josh Reynolds is killing it for the Lions in 2023

The Serpent of Death speaks kindly and holds a knife.

Seattle Seahawks v Detroit Lions Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The most important wide receiver playing for the Detroit Lions right now is obviously Amon-Ra St. Brown. Anyone disputing that is insane. The experts know it. You know it. I know it. However, who is the second most important receiver on the roster right now? Some will drool over Jameson Williams’ speed, others may talk up Kalif Raymond’s value on special teams, but if you ask me it is no doubt the silent assassin Josh Reynolds.

When Reynolds arrived in Detroit in late 2021, the Lions were still in the doldrums of the tough first season of the new regime. The Lions got a tall, speedy wide receiver with four years of built-in teammate chemistry with their starting quarterback:

“He shot me a text before it actually happened and said, ‘Did we get you yet?’” Reynolds said. “I was like, ‘Not yet, man. It’s in the works, though.’ I was excited. He was excited. Talking to him this morning, man, it’s just awesome to be able to see a familiar face that you were there for four years with. It’s going to be good.”

It was that bond that made me most excited about the Lions acquiring Reynolds after the Titans for some reason decided to waive him mid-season. At first we were skeptical that Reynolds could induce quarterback Jared Goff to throw down the field, but he really got it done down the stretch in 2021. An injury-plagued 2022 was a disappointment for Reynolds, though, who looked to be a valuable veteran presence in an otherwise extremely young receiving corps.

We only got to see flashes of it last year, but this is a new year. The Serpent of Death is healthy and showing why it’s so important that the connection between him and Goff is so automatic that pitch and catch can feel “like old times” to them. Week 2 against the Seattle Seahawks was a perfect showcase of how much their chemistry is worth.

Every Target Matters

Looking at Reynolds’ Next Gen Stats route chart from the Lions’ loss to the Seahawks, we have six plotted routes where he was targeted. In this film breakdown, we will consider all six of those targets:

NFL Next Gen Stats

In order left to right based on his starting spot on the line of scrimmage, they are:

  1. 4th Quarter (3:12), touchdown to bring the Lions to within 3.
  2. 3rd Quarter (0:33), missed fourth down conversion.
  3. 4th Quarter (9:41), shallow cross for 8 yards on third-and-3.
  4. 1st Quarter (3:55), 22-yard touchdown down the seam to tie the game.
  5. 4th Quarter (1:44), 12-yard dig route to start field goal drive to tie.
  6. 1st Quarter (4:27) 20-yard comeback down the right sideline.

What is evident from those throws is that the Lions and Goff go to Josh Reynolds in critical moments. What’s more, Reynolds comes through with a solid effort pretty much every time they call on him.

Same Page Anticipation

One of the massive benefits of Josh Reynolds and Jared Goff playing together for so long at such a high level is they intuitively understand how the other person adjusts on the fly to in-game situations. Reynolds knows how Goff places and fires off his throws, while Goff can sense how Reynolds will break his routes and adjust to coverage. In the Seattle game, throws 6, 3, and 1 are great examples of the pair working situations on the fly together to get good results.

Week 2 SEA at DET, 1Q (4:27). Second-and-9 at the Seattle 42.

On second down, the Lions come out with 8 WR Josh Reynolds wide right as a lone flanker, 87 TE Sam LaPorta in-line off the right side of the offensive line, and 0 WR Marvin Jones with 14 WR Amon-Ra St. Brown set behind him to the far left. The Lions send what is effectively four verticals to attack Seattle’s base Cover 3. Right at the snap, 55 DE Dre’Mont Jones (lined up inside as a 3-technique defensive tackle over 72 RG Halapoulivaati Vaitai) jumps offside, giving the Lions a free play.

The receivers at the top execute a switch release with Marvin Jones arcing to the outside in front of St. Brown. LaPorta and Reynolds take normal outside releases and head down the field. Here’s where it gets interesting. In the image above, the penalty flag from the side judge is boxed in yellow. The receivers are about 10 yards downfield and only LaPorta has looked back, but 16 QB Jared Goff (boxed in pink) is already in his throwing motion to someone other than LaPorta. We can see Reynolds battling in tight man coverage with no safety help over the top on the outside in the brown box.

Goff hit the last step of his backpedal when Reynolds was at the 37-yard line and started his throwing motion as Reynolds passed the 35. The receiver doesn’t turn his head until he’s at the 29-yard line with the ball already in the air. Goff places the ball perfectly to Reynolds at the 25-yard line where he stops decelerating. The ball arrives exactly on time to give 21 CB Devon Witherspoon absolutely no chance to close the gap.

Later in the game, trying to come back from a devastating pick-six and a 10-point deficit, the Lions drive to the red zone. On a pass play intended to hit the goal line on the right side, the coverage smothers the design and forces Goff to go back side to his trusted friend.

Week 2 SEA at DET, 4Q (3:12). Second-and-Goal at the Seattle 4.

The play-side read to the right is Marvin Jones posting up at the goal line with 13 RB Craig Reynolds shooting out the flat. Marvin doesn’t get a rub on 20 S Julian Love, so Craig Reynolds is covered. Both 56 LB Jordyn Brooks and 21 CB Devon Witherspoon jump Marvin, so that’s not an option to Goff, either.

Goff checks off that combination quickly, and looks to the inside slant by 11 WR Kalif Raymond on the double slant combination to the back side. Again, it’s well covered by 54 LB Bobby Wagner and 6 S Quandre Diggs. Therefore, it’s on to the third read: Reynolds on the outside slant trailing Raymond.

When Goff targets Reynolds, the play design has cleared out the throwing lane for him: Raymond carries 8 CB Coby Bryant to the middle of the field, so it’s really 6-foot-3 Reynolds against 5-foot-10 cornerback for Seattle 22 CB Tre Brown.

Goff and Reynolds have a great matchup advantage, and Goff knows he can exploit it to the fullest with a high throw for Reynolds to climb the ladder for. How? Because he’s done that so many times with Reynolds in the past.

Goff places the ball high and away from the coverage, and Reynolds plucks it out of the air for the score.

The next example comes from the early part of the fourth quarter, a few plays before the pick-six that swung the game. At this point in the contest, the Lions are trying to respond to a Seattle touchdown that reduced Detroit’s lead to 24-21. On third-and-3, Reynolds once again proved to be a reliable safety valve to move the chains.

Week 2 SEA at DET, 4Q (9:41). Third-and-3 at the Detroit 32.

The play has the H-wheel route to the left side, which is the primary read for Goff: the Lions are trying to get 26 RB Jahmyr Gibbs open in space against a linebacker. On defense, the Seahawks are in a weird radar type setup with tons of crowding at the line and nearly everybody standing up. It’s hard to tell who’s coming and who’s dropping into coverage, but if the Seahawks send the right edge defender (here 58 LB Derick Hall) then the coverage assigned to Gibbs might get walled off to buy Gibbs separation.

It turns out Hall drops into coverage immediately and runs with Gibbs. There was still a possibility that Marvin Jones could have chipped/rubbed him on his way to the hash, but Hall gets off cleanly. Goff has no read to the left side with Hall running tight with Gibbs and Diggs over the top. Marvin carrying the cornerback away and to the inside sets up the next read, clearing out the short left side as vacant space for a crosser to run into.

That next read is another great mismatch in the Lions’ favor: Josh Reynolds running the shallow cross against a smaller and slower safety. Again, this is a staple throw Goff and Reynolds worked all the time in important situations when they were with the Rams.

Reynolds jab steps the safety in front of him to the outside and reverses to explode across the field. Streaking across with two steps on S Julian Love, it’s a simple toss for Goff to hit him in stride even throwing off his back foot. Just like old times, the duo easily pick up the first down.

Completing Tough Processes

Now let’s focus on throws 5 and 4, which demonstrate how reliably Reynolds takes the hit and holds on to the ball in traffic. This is another reason the coaches and Goff express such confidence in him: he’s willing to go over the middle Rod Tidwell-style to make miracles happen.

Week 2 SEA at DET, 4Q (1:44). First-and-10 at the 50-yard line.

The play call from the Lions is a layered Portland/Yankee concept. The team is at mid-field with only enough time for one possession to make it into field goal range to tie the game. Realistically, the Lions need about 25 yards minimum on this drive to get in range, so the Seahawks are playing for the pass (two high safeties) and guarding the deep chunk passes. The Yankee combination here is Marvin Jones on the deep post from the left side and Josh Reynolds on the dig coming from the right side under it. If 20 S Julian Love stays deep, that takes away the possibility of Marvin Jones cutting his post across 6 S Quandre Diggs’ face for a big shot behind Love.

Instead, since Love hangs back, it means there’s nobody behind the linebackers in the space where the underneath zones transition to deep coverage. Sam LaPorta’s quick out carries the linebacker away from the throwing lane, and Goff keeps 54 LB Bobby Wagner in the middle of the field by checking the post alert. That leaves a huge hole for Reynolds to run away from his man 21 CB Devon Witherspoon (playing with outside leverage as a zone defender).

With three players surrounding him on an inside breaking route, Reynolds knows he is going to get tagged as soon as he catches the ball. Jared Goff knows he will hold onto the ball from their years of built up experience running these crossers though, and the pass picks up roughly half of what the Lions needed to get into field goal range in one shot.

Week 2 SEA at DET, 1Q (3:55). First-and-10 at the Seattle 22.

Now let’s go back earlier in the game and look at Josh Reynolds’ first touchdown in the opening quarter. This is the play immediately after the free play comeback route we looked at in throw number 6 earlier. The play call here is wheelies, with mirrored post-wheel combinations on both sides of the formation. Like Sean McVay with the Rams, Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is great at taking staple concepts such as post-wheel and dressing them up with weird looks and motions. I mean look at what this is: a four vertical-ish attack out of heavy 12 personnel with one of the tight ends in motion.

The Lions bring 89 TE Brock Wright across the box going left to right, and he flows immediately into a wheel route behind Josh Reynolds on the right side. Up top in the picture on the left side of the formation, Sam LaPorta does the same thing from behind Amon-Ra St. Brown. The key defender here is going to be Quandre Diggs in the middle of the field boxed in pink. Goff can check whether Diggs as the single high safety drifts left or right to know which post is the better shot (wherever Diggs doesn’t go).

Goff looks Diggs over the left where the more threatening combination of LaPorta and St. Brown are operating, but abruptly resets his feet back to the right side. Diggs sees it and reacts, but he’s flat-footed and on the wrong side of the field.

Goff rifles it in (could have been a little wider from the hash, but it worked) and Reynolds holds on in spite of a tremendous hit from Diggs for the score.

The one that got away

The final throw to Reynolds was an incomplete pass, but it’s important to see the context in which that target occurred and why it fell incomplete. This is the non-pass interference call at the end of third quarter with the Lions trying to protect a lead into the final quarter of regulation.

Week 2 SEA at DET, 3Q (0:33). Fourth-and-2 at the Detroit 45.

On fourth-and-short, the Lions try to surprise the Seahawks with a play-action shot down the field. After a play fake to Jahmyr Gibbs, Goff would be looking to hit one of the crossers behind any linebackers crashing down to play the run. Unfortunately for the Lions, 56 LB Jordyn Brooks commits hard on a run blitz to shoot the gap in case Gibbs has the ball. Instead of pulling up, Brooks continues in as a free unblocked rusher that Gibbs has to pick up in protection. Running full steam, Brooks simply runs over Gibbs and wrecks Goff’s opportunity to set and throw.

With even a second to set and throw a decent ball, there’s a chance at a completion since Reynolds had at least half a step on his man. Barring that, a better throw nearer to Reynolds would have been more likely to get the pass interference call.

They’re not saying nice things just to be nice

Earlier in the week, MLive’s Ben Raven wrote an article about how Josh Reynolds continues to fill a void at wide receiver for the Lions. In the article, Raven included extended quotes from Jared Goff and Dan Campbell praising Reynolds:

“Yeah, I trust him a hell of a lot. I trust him,” Goff said after the game. “He’s got great hands. He’s been playing at a high level. He started to catch himself in a little bit of a rhythm now, which is good, and get himself open. I think at the end of the day, I trust him and know he’s going to be competitive at the catch point, and he’s proved to be that.”

Then there’s this from the head guy himself:

And Campbell was sure to point out that Reynolds’ quiet season last year was due to injury and not ability or lack of trust within the organization.

“Yeah, Reynolds is really playing big for us right now, and look, Reynolds he’s been a trusted target, reliable guy since he’s really been here,” the Lions head coach said. “He just had some injuries last year that slowed him down a little bit at times, but man, when he’s healthy and he’s going he’s somebody we have a lot of faith in.”

Look at the plays the Lions called with Reynolds’ route as a designed target: fourth down conversion attempt, first play at mid-field to get to scoring position for the tie. On a critical third down and in the red zone, Goff went to Reynolds in “gotta have it” situations. The wideout came down with big receptions displaying huge catch radius on the late touchdown and gritty toughness taking a big hit on the early touchdown. When the coaches and Jared Goff say they have extreme confidence in Reynolds and trust him to be a key part of the offense, they really mean it. The tape says the same thing.

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