Break It Down: Are the Lions on the brink of a big offensive breakthrough?
There are times during these film sessions that a fundamental flaw in a team’s scheme becomes evident. That’s not the case this time around.
The Lions’ players and coaches have talked throughout their first five games about needing to a do better job of taking advantage of chances on offense. Opposing defenses have gone out of their way to stop Calvin Johnson, which leaves the Lions with two choices:
1. Get the ball to other people, in the hope of eventually forcing the defense to adjust and give Johnson more space.
2. Change the way in which they use Johnson, so he can beat the extra coverage.
Those plans only work if the Lions execute. They didn’t early on Sunday, missing several chances to unravel the Philadelphia defense. But things changed late, a running theme for Detroit in Weeks 1-6.
So, what was different in the fourth quarter and overtime?
Let’s start back at the beginning. This is how the Eagles chose to cover Johnson — and how most teams have attacked him, at least out of the gate.
Johnson had Nnamdi Asomugha playing him in tight man coverage, with a Cover-2 safety cheating Johnson’s direction as well, essentially providing bracket coverage in case Johnson tried to get deep.
Through most of the first three quarters, that defense left the Lions flailing when they tried to get the ball to their best playmaker. On the play pictured, a 3rd-and-5, Johnson attempted to run a slant route for the first down. But with deep help, Asomugha was able to jump the pattern and break up the pass.
Detroit found the same problems when it tried to get Johnson deep down the middle of the field. The Lions led 6-0 at the start of the second quarter when Stafford went for a home run to Johnson in the end zone.
The Eagles were all over it, and Asomugha picked off the pass.
Stafford doesn’t have a problem throwing the ball up for Johnson, even in double coverage — the Lions have hit on similar plays before, for big gains. This play was a good indication, however, of how Detroit’s offensive timing was just a tad off early Sunday. Stafford’s pass sailed toward the back of the end zone, where only Asomugha could make a play. Had he shortened up that throw a few yards, Johnson essentially would have had a jump-ball situation against two smaller defenders.
A tough play, sure, but one Detroit is confident Johnson can make.
Of course, Johnson may have found more room to maneuver if the Lions had been able to hit on … well … anything else. Stafford completed just seven passes over the first three quarters, and he and the Lions left multiple big plays on the field.
To wit: A 3rd-and-8 on the Philadelphia 15 in the first quarter. Stafford overthrew Tony Scheffler (circled) down the seam, as the Eagles again put two defenders on Johnson. As you can see from the photo below, the double-team left Stafford with several open options; he just missed.
Stafford and Scheffler failed to connect on a similar pattern earlier in the first quarter, too. This time, Johnson had single-coverage wide (so Stafford could have taken a shot there), but he made a nice read on the play — Scheffler beat his coverage short and had a gap.
Again, the pass didn’t connect.
One more example of the Lions running their offense well but failing to finish plays: On a 1st-and-10, Johnson drew the attention of three defenders. That left Titus Young free to head deep, which he did.
Despite double-coverage on Young as well, he made his way behind the Philadelphia defenders and had a shot at a big play. Stafford put a pass on the money about 45 yards downfield — and Young dropped it.
As the Lions failed to execute on those plays up the middle, the Eagles were not forced to make any adjustments — the plan was to make Detroit beat them with guys other than Johnson and, until the waning moments of the fourth quarter, the Lions could not.
Each misfire also raised questions about Stafford — his health, as well as his mechanics. Frankly, there was no real reason he should have been missing on passes like the two to Scheffler. So, was his leg still bothering him? Does he have a hand injury that’s undisclosed?
Here’s one thing we do know: Stafford’s mechanics can be an issue, but …
This is what his release looked like on a brilliant fourth-quarter TD pass to Nate Burleson, which Stafford dropped in between two defenders, over Burleson’s shoulder.
Do the Lions coaches want Stafford firing sidearm and off his back foot? Of course not. He can make that a success, however, so pinning all of Detroit’s issues on Stafford’s footwork seems trivial.
The Burleson TD finally made the Eagles pay for committing so heavily to Johnson — and it was the second time on the drive that had happened. To get in position for the score, Stafford had hit Tony Scheffler on the run, after Scheffler slipped behind Philadelphia’s defense.
It may not be as simple for Detroit as saying, “Make these plays.” But, to some extent, that’s the reality of the situation. Detroit’s tight ends and receivers are getting to space — either Stafford’s missing them or they’re not making the necessary catches once there.
The other factor at work here is how Detroit uses Johnson, and in that regard, you can point a finger at offensive coordinator Scott Linehan.
The Lions have shown a knack for using Johnson almost as a decoy — that’s sort of what you saw going on in those plays above to Scheffler and Young. If opposing defenses want to rush four and put two men on Johnson, the Lions are happy to work the rest of the field.
But there are ways around the coverage Johnson has received, and Detroit started using them late Sunday.
What we saw most frequently was Detroit shifting Johnson from outside into the slot, then using him on patterns across the middle. Here’s one, which Johnson caught short and turned upfield for 17 yards:
And another, where Johnson motioned down next to the tight end and Stafford threw a quick pass to him while Philadelphia blitzed from the opposite side:
That play turned into a big gain as well — once Johnson gets the ball in his hands, he’s nearly impossible to bring down with one defender. His size and strength make him a difficult cover, but they also make him equally hard to tackle.
Another adjustment by Linehan: Rather than running Johnson deep toward the middle of the field (and toward safety help), he called plays for Johnson to stay wide, basically neutralizing that deep assistance.
Add in a play-action fake, which served to freeze the Philadelphia safeties for a split-second, and the Lions were left with Johnson one-on-one wide.
Give him this much space, and the chances of a completion are through the roof:
The Lions have been dealing with their offensive inconsistencies for five games now, so tabbing their issues as a quick fix seems unfair. It’s hard to roll back the tape on a game like Sunday’s, though, and think otherwise.
The blocking? Very solid, even though Stafford found himself on the run a couple of times. And the run game has pitched in well, for the most part, with Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell providing decent options on the ground and through the air.
Guys are getting open, too, which is both an encouraging sign for Detroit and a frustrating indictment of Stafford’s inability to deliver passes. The Lions’ QB could clean up his mechanics, there’s little question about that, but this also feels a bit like the situation we just saw in Green Bay. The Packers started 2-3 and everyone questioned what was wrong with Aaron Rodgers. And then Rodgers torched Houston, potentially flipping the switch on a huge rest of the season.
The Lions now feel as close as the Packers did last week. They’ve found ways to get Johnson open, and they’re hitting the gaps created by the extra attention paid to their No. 1 receiver. Eventually, that will add up to the type of Detroit offense we saw all of last year.