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2020 Opponent Scouting Report: Lions Offense, these guys are... meh...

NFL: Detroit Lions at Atlanta Falcons Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Overview

On November 1st, 2020 the Indianapolis Colts will travel to the Motor City to take on the Detroit Lions. In this Week 8 match-up, I sought to understand our opponent and get a better idea of how they may attack our Colts.

The Colts are coming off of their bye and currently sit at four and two, seemingly without an offensive identity and an elite defense. The Lions have won two straight after starting one and three and facing rumors that their head coach might be on the hot seat. Matt Patricia seems to have worked his way into a cooler seating arrangement but wins over the Jaguars and Falcons are hardly indicators that the Lions are ready to contend.

Let’s see what we can expect in week eight.


Offensive System:

Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell spent seven seasons as the offensive coordinator of the Seattle Seahawks. Bevell was calling the plays during their highly successful run during the 2010’s. In that time the Seahawks ran a very balanced offense, both in the run and pass and even in the nature of the passing game itself.

Bevell, seems to go back and forth from working with traditional West Coast principles to more vertical concepts. Bevell seems to want to manipulate defenses into getting specific one on one matchups and exploiting them. Obviously, every offense hopes to do that but Bevell seems to do it more obviously than most.

As far as identity is concerned they seem to want to be successful running the ball, and the offensive system has its roots in the West Coast offense but it isn’t a traditional WCO. Lets take a look at what we can expect on Sunday.

Third and long

The Lions strategy on third and long seems to often involve getting Kenny Golladay a favorable matchup and just throwing the ball in his general direction. It’s usually a good strategy. On this play they took advantage of the Saints busted coverage. The Lions remain aggressive when throwing the ball on third and long. They rarely run multiple routes that don’t go beyond the first down marker. Bevell isn’t relying on yards after the catch in these situations despite his history with the West Coast offense.

3rd and long again

The Lions needed to get this ball to the 8 yard line to convert the first down. Instead, Stafford sees Golladay with one on one coverage and just throws it up for him to go get. Throwing balls up to Golladay in one on one situations works way more often than it has any right too, I’ll talk more about Golladay soon but just know he’s really, really good.

The other thing that I want to point out after showing you this play is that this offense doesn’t feel like a West Coast offense. When you’re watching the Titans, Vikings or Browns it’s so obvious you’re watching a Shanahan style offense. When you watch pre-Tom Brady era Bruce Arians teams, it’s obvious you’re watching the Air Coryell. This Lions team doesn’t have a passing identity, that’s not to say it can’t be a formidable attack, it’s just that they can attack you in multiple ways.

And now a West Coast staple

So I just got done talking about how the Lions don’t have an identity when throwing the ball, and that’s true, but they do have some very obvious West Coast influences like with this angle route for the tailback.

This is a well designed play, the tight end runs a corner route while the RB runs an angle route toward the middle of the field. The tight end pulls two defenders with him leaving a defender one on one with the back. Stafford sees the defender with outside leverage, realizes the middle of the field has exactly zero defenders in it and throws one of the easiest touchdown passes of his career. I’m not sure if the running back was the first or second read on this play, but the fact that he was at lowest, the second read, is very much in line with a WCO.

Let’s do it again

Once again the defense had man coverage with outside leverage against the back. The linebacker in the middle of the field was too far away to have an impact so Stafford got this ball to his back for another easy pitch and catch.

If the Colts linebackers can key on this route from the back, I could easily see an interception for Darius Leonard or Bobby Okreke on Sunday. If they aren’t able to recognize this route develop, it could be a frustrating day over the middle of the field for the Lions.

Outside runs

I noticed several times on film that the Lions were working to get the ball outside the tackles in the run game. Against the Saints they were successful multiple times.

This one is just fun

This is the best trick play in the modern NFL.

Step 1: Pretend to fall down while blocking.

Step 2: Wait for everyone to play the run.

Step 3: Get up quick and run your route.

Step 4: Profit.

Their best play

There’s nothing special about this play design. Nothing. But it’s still their best play because they had Kenny Golladay in man coverage and Matthew Stafford threw him the ball. It’s almost impossible to cover.

Yet another 3rd and long

See, it’s just a different version of their best play.

All gas, no brakes

If this Lions team gets the chance they will not stop scoring until the final whistle blows. This is a very Belichick like thing. The above play was on a 4th and goal, already up two touchdowns. Long story short, the Lions want to be aggressive on offense and they don’t care if they score cheap points, they’re going to score as much as they possibly can.

Cool little play

This is another WCO influenced play. The back comes out of the backfield, and runs a shallow curl route. This pulls the linebacker up to try to break up a pass to the back. Meanwhile the tight end is running a great route to get open over the middle. Because the linebacker had come up to cover the back, the tight end had a ton of space to operate. This is a simple but effective concept to get an easy read and pass over the middle.

Like I said, this offense lacks a true identity. With that said the past three weeks it has been at least a competent unit, moving the ball in a variety of ways and that movement all starts with the guy distributing the ball.


Quarterback:

Matthew Stafford has been stuck in Detroit for 12 years. Statically he’s been very good and in the three games I studied leading up to this weekend Stafford is playing really well right now. He has a strong arm, he (generally) makes good decisions and his ball placement is excellent most of the time.

Stafford will make teams who don’t respect his ability, pay for their football sins. That said he isn’t an elite quarterback who lifts the entire team around him to wins. He’s not great, he’s simply very good.

Unless it’s late in the fourth quarter and the Lions are down by a touchdown or less... in that situation, he might actually be great.

Just a rough way to end the drive

Like the caption says, this was the third ball on the drive that could have easily been a turnover, it just so happened his luck ran out with this throw.

A great defensive play

I don’t know that there’s a single quarterback who could have completely avoided this. The Jags defenders just stopped rushing and waited to jump at the same time. It worked out but I don’t believe it’s repeatable which means that Matt Stafford just had some really terrible luck on this down.

Tight window

Here Stafford fits the ball in a tight windows between defenders in the zone. Throwing to holes in the zone is something Stafford is really good at. This play is no different. Stafford also placed this ball back toward his left side. He did this so he didn’t run his receiver into the linebacker who would have taken his head off if Stafford had led him toward the middle of the field with this throw. Just an all around good play from the 12th year veteran.

Stepping up

This is just another great ball from Stafford. Here we see him work his progressions, climb the pocket and find a receiver he feels good throwing to down the field. He then delivers a perfect pass for a big gain.

I’ve seen some people wonder if Matthew Stafford “still has it” and he absolutely does. There are a lot of teams that would be instant contenders with someone like Stafford quarterbacking in their city.


Running Back:

If I were writing this report last season I probably would have spent a couple paragraphs talking about Kerryon Johnson. While he’s still on the roster his role isn’t even close to what it used to be. Instead the Lions invested a second round pick in Georgia star D’Andre Swift and signed 35 year old Adrian Peterson.

Peterson has undoubtedly been the teams lead back, racking up 314 yards on 80 carries but rookie D’Andre Swift looks as if he’s close to taking over lead back duties. Swift’s 5.3 yards per carry is almost 1.5 yards more than Peterson and the Rookie has managed to get in the endzone four times on 35 carries this year.

That said, in week six Swift rushed 14 times for 116 yards and two touchdowns and the Lions insisted on giving Adrian Peterson 11 carries in week seven compared to Swift’s 9. So while it seems like Swift should be receiving a larger load going forward, the Lions seem content on using multiple backs even if Swift is currently the more talented player.

Peterson can still get it done

Colts fans have some recent experience with aging running backs. What Frank Gore was able to do in Indianapolis was nothing short of incredible. What Adrian Peterson is doing at 35 is even more impressive. Peterson isn’t the same guy he was when he was with the Vikings but he’s still a good running back. He’s still capable of carrying the ball 10-15 times a game and is a very effective short yardage runner, which is at least part of the reason he’s averaging just 3.9 yards per carry. At 35 years old, Peterson isn’t the future of the position for the Lions, or anyone else for that matter, but he isn’t just holding on to try and break records. Adrian Peterson would contribute on most NFL teams if given the chance.

You need to listen to this clip

D’Andre Swift isn’t really a power back but he’s obviously not afraid of contact. Here he cuts back on the outside zone to the right, breaks an arm tackle and tries to end a safeties life by lowering his shoulder and delivering a massive hit.

I have no idea what I did with this Tweet

Despite me Tweeting this out as being a Jets running back, this is very much D’Andre Swift showing patience, allowing his blocks to develop and exploding through the hole that opens for a massive run. I noticed several times, Swift giving those little hesitation hop-steps before finding a hole. His style is all his own but he does a good job finding room.

There’s no question that the Lions stable of backs is a solid one. Peterson is still productive, Swift looks very talented and Johnson is still around as well. The question is can they be productive against what has been a very good Colts front seven? And while crazier things have happened, I don’t think the Lions rushing attack will be a deciding factor on Sunday.


Pass Catchers:

Names to know; T.J. Hockenson, Marvin Jones, Kenny Golladay and Danny Amendola.

The Lions do a really good job spreading the ball around. Hockenson leads the team with 31 targets, surprisingly Jones 31 targets are second and Kenny Golladay has 28 targets for the year. Amendola’s 27 targets are fourth and running back D’Andre Swift has 25 of his own. Of course catch percentage tells a different story, Golladay leads the tight ends and receivers with a 71.4% catch rate, but if a defense were to take away any receiving option, Stafford obviously has no issue going elsewhere with the ball.

Jones and Amendola will get their opportunities and are both capable of making plays but from my watching of these Lions the most difficult to cover targets are Golladay and Hockenson, hands down. I’ve already shown you some of the ridiculous things Golladay can do above, and frankly there were too many great catches from Golladay to go over in this breakdown. Hockenson is another guy capable of winning jump ball situations and is a problem inside the redzone.

Not Hockenson

So this wasn’t Hockenson, it’s Jesse James. Either way this is a crazy catch. James goes up over a defender who probably thought he had an interception and James ripped the ball away for a big gain. This is one of James five catches on the season and besides the fact that he’s not a big part of the passing game, the crazy thing is, the Lions pass catchers seem to consistently make plays like this. I don’t know what their practice looks like but they must really drill jump ball situations.

See, I told you so

This is Hockenson and once again a Lions tight end just goes up and makes a contested catch, this grab resulted in a two point conversion.

Seriously

Even when Stafford doesn’t throw a perfect ball, Golladay can do things like this. He makes this catch look easy and he does this kind of thing pretty consistently.

Golladay, again

If Kenny Golladay makes a Colts defensive back look bad, we really shouldn’t panic, he kind of does it to everyone.

This receiving group isn’t the best in the best in the league but it is deep and talented. Matthew Stafford, at times, can rely on his receivers to make a play too often. With that said more often than not they come through for their quarterback and they do so in some of the most entertaining ways I’ve seen this season.


Offensive Line:

From left to right: Taylor Decker, Jonah Jackson, Frank Ragnow, Halapoullivaati Vaital, Tyrell Crosby

The Lions took Decker with the 16th overall pick in 2016 and he has developed into one of the best left tackles in the league. I’m not saying that the Colts can’t beat him for a sack this week but I am saying if I wouldn’t bet on any Colts pass rusher to have success against Decker on Sunday.

The guy next to Decker, Jonah Jackson is a third round rookie out of Ohio State. Injuries have moved Jackson back and forth between the right and left guard spots but his best position seems to be on the left side. Jackson has shown some promise as a rookie but has given up a lot of pressures, QB hits and at least two sacks so far this year.

Next to him is center Frank Ragnow. Ragnow is playing in his third season and his playing pretty well. With that said a lot of teams have found success on stunts and loops back to the inside of the line and it’s possible Ragnow isn’t the most aware interior blocker in the league. On the ground Ragnow can and will get a good push and move defenders where he wants them to go.

Right guard, Halapoullivaati Vaital, has a name I will never try to say and if I’m being honest Lions fans probably don’t need to learn it either. Halapoullivaati Vaital isn’t great. I consistently saw him pushed back in pass pro though he was a decent wall off run blocker. He’s not going to get a ton of push, but he can usually limit his man if he’s able to get his hands inside.

Crosby is also in his third year and is playing well all things considered. The former fifth round pick has developed into a solid starting right tackle. In one game I noted that he went down with an injury and there were immediate problems on the right side of the line. Crosby might not ever make a Pro Bowl and he is beatable but he’s not a bad starter on the right side.

Stunts inside give them fits

This is just one example but Halapoullivaati Vaital, Frank Ragnow and Jonah Jackson don’t seem to be communicating well inside. I don’t know what their protection scheme was here but I have to believe Vaital should have passed off his man to Ragnow and vice-versa. Instead Ragnow gets picked and the blitzing linebacker creates an issue on the roll.

Again with the stunt inside

Once again Halapoullivaati Vaital causes this let down. He was unable to work his hips around to take over Ragnow’s block as he left to take on the looping defensive end. As a result the nose tackle fights through Vaital’s “block” and gets a sack.

The left side is better

Frank Ragnow and Jonah Jackson get great initial movement but completely abandon their block as they both leave for second level targets. I’m going to pin this one on Jackson as he’s a rookie and Decker was busy working to get a block on the same defender Jackson engaged with. Ultimately it didn’t matter as the back was able to make the defensive tackle miss and used the good initial push from the left side of the line to get in for six points.

This Lions line isn’t bad. They’re not great, but they’re not bad. Both guard spots are exploitable for different reasons. Jackson is inexperienced where as Halapoullivaati Vaital is just not that good at professional football. Crosby is good but not infallible while Taylor Decker is probably a top ten left tackle.

This line is solid but I do expect the Colts to have the advantage on Sunday. If the Lions have success on the ground I expect it will be mostly on the left side, but anything is possible.


Final Thoughts:

The Lions are on a two game win streak and find themselves with a .500 record. In their past three games they’ve been excellent on third and long plays. They’ve been aggressive and just thrown the ball deep downfield, letting their receivers make a play. Even when they haven’t completed these throws opposing defenses have let these Lions off the hook.

3rd down conversion on penalty

The Lions have moved the chains so often due to flags on third down. Had I known how often it was going to happen I would have kept track while I was watching but I was about half way through the games before I realized it was happening an abnormal amount.

The Colts defense has played well so far this season but they will have to play mistake free football on Sunday if they hope to get these Lions off the field on third down. The Lions, otherwise middle of the road offense, has made a killing on third down mistakes from defenders this season.