Since the Detroit Lions drafted him in 2009, Matthew Stafford has been performing at a high level. He dealt with injuries early in his career but stabilized them to become what many consider a franchise quarterback to be. He has thrown for 5000 yards and is around 4500 every year. Much of his success is due to his supporting cast. His offensive line has been a problem at times, but last year, something clicked with them. The Lions drafted guard Larry Warford and signed undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle to play tackle next to him. The offensive line performed at a very high level in 2013, allowing only 23 sacks, second in the NFL only to the Denver Broncos. It was more than pass protection though. The Detroit Lions had 1792 yards of rushing offense last year, good for 17th in the league. The offensive line was so good last year that when former head coach Jim Schwartz and former offensive coordinator Scott Linehan were fired, the Detroit Lions front office recommended to the new staff that they keep the offensive line coach, Jeremiah Washburn. Jim Caldwell did just that. He also kept the same 5 starters on the line. From left to right, Riley Reiff stayed at left tackle, Rob Sims stayed at left guard, Dominic Raiola stayed at center, Larry Warford was locked in at right guard, and LaAdrian Waddle was sharing time with Corey Hilliard at right tackle, much like he did to start last season after the team lost Jason Fox to injury.
The outcome of keeping the line together and the line coach working with them was to create a unity and continuity across that unit. If they were one of the best offensive lines in the league last year, certainly they would be just as good if not better this year. That was not the case though. Corey Hilliard is done for the season at right tackle due to injury. LaAdrian Waddle has dealt with his own injury issues and when healthy is not at the level he was last year. Warford has looked more like a 3rd round pick and less like the near pro-bowler he was last season. Statistically speaking, the Lions have allowed 24 sacks so far, just halfway through this season versus the 23 for all of last season. The Lions rush offense is just 29th in the league with a mere 637 yards. So what happened? The main change relates to the new offense. Scott Linehan landed in Dallas and has one of the best offensive lines in the league this year. Last year, Dallas’ line was a mess. Many credit their success to the fact that they have added to that unit through the draft lately which is partially true. The reality is that Linehan’s schemes lead to better blocking for both the run and the pass.
In the photo to the left from the Lions game against Washington on 2013, you see that the line is already curved back to form a pocket for Stafford. The formation looks similar to one you would see with Joe Lombardi’s offense where they are in a single back look with Stafford under center. The difference here is that the Lions, based on this formation, are ready to create a pocket to seal off the rush allowing Stafford the time to find an open receiver for a large gain. The rush starts, the line seals them off to the outside and Stafford steps up into an empty middle of the field to see and deliver a perfect pass down field. The pocket sealed around the quarterback with the middle opening up clean is exactly what you want as an offensive coordinator which is why Linehan designed it this way. It worked well for him as the team routinely threw for 4400-5100 yards each season. The offense easily moved down field, but they made costly mistakes that lead to them not scoring points and ultimately blowing games. Some of that was blamed on Stafford’s mechanics and some of it on the immaturity of the team under Schwartz. While parts of all of that are true, the blocking schemes helped the offense to be successful.
In 2014, we see a much different blocking style. The line no longer lines up in a v-shape attempting to get into position to seal off blockers before they get to the quarterback. They do not create a pocket to comfortably stand in to deliver a clean pass.
The photo to the right shows that while the left side of the line is curved in to protect the quarterback, the right side is lined up straight across. The entire line will have to get out of their three point stance in a hurry, meet the defender head on, and allow a little bit of push back in order to create that pocket which is unnatural for a lineman to have to do. This creates the possibility of a player falling or getting driven back into the quarterback which is much of what we have seen thus far this season.
The same can be said about the run. In watching Reggie Bush’s run against the Chicago Bears in 2013, you see the offensive line zone block, flowing to the left in unison. the defensive line and linebackers flow to the left as well to cut off and seal up run lanes. In doing this, the right side of the line is able to seal up , creating a sizable hole for Bush to cut back into, using his speed to burst past the linebackers and out run the safety to the end zone for the Detroit touchdown. A simple design scheme that was done so many times throughout the season for Detroit. Linehan drew up plays to get players in space, spreading the lineman out, creating flow and running a counter right into the opening of the defense. So often in 2013 you could see Bush and Joique Bell burst through the line for large gains. The holes were so large that it seemed impossible for any NFL running back to miss them. And yet they were all created as a result of the schemes that were being run. The success of the offensive line was really in the hands of Scott Linehan’s offensive schemes and not so much the result of the offensive line coach.
With the tight end being featured as a receiver in Lombardi’s new offense, the Lions are forced to block with just 5 players as teams stack 7-8 defenders in the box. The result is of course the Lions getting sacked. With so much attention to the poor offensive line play this season, teams will scheme to shut down the Detroit offense by simply stacking 8 in the box and daring them to throw deep. Soon, things will need to change so that Stafford can get rid of the ball, stay healthy, and deliver the ball cleanly to his receivers. The 2014 Detroit Lions offense will need the offensive line play to improve if they are to produce at the level needed for them to make a deep run in the playoffs.
This is part one of a three part series dedicated to digging into what is wrong with the 2014 Detroit Lions offense. The second and third parts will relate to the passing game and rushing game, highlighting how they have changed from last season to this season. It is important to keep in mind while reading the next two parts that the offensive line is key to the production of the entire offensive unit. If the offensive line plays well, the offense as a whole plays well. If the offensive line plays poorly, well, ask Teddy Bridgewater what the result is. He will likely tell you the result is getting sacked 8 times.