Our three part series on what’s wrong with the Detroit Lions offense finishes up with the passing game. Like with each of the other groups we looked at, the passing game is dependent on good pass protection and a solid run game. As we saw earlier, the pass protection has been poor, thus Matthew Stafford has had to rush his throws. The added pressure has also increased his interceptions. Having very little run game has allowed defenses to play the pass and not worry too much about Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. So what does this all mean?
Quite simply, the focus of this offseason was to “fix” Stafford. There were concerns about his footwork. He forced too many throws which resulted in interceptions. He was lost when Calvin Johnson was not on the field. The Lions signed Golden Tate to play opposite Johnson. They hired Jim Caldwell, who worked with Peyton Manning and Joe Flacco. They hired Joe Lombardi who worked with Drew Brees. They even went out and stole Jim Bob Cooter from Denver, where he was actively working with Peyton Manning. They even went out and drafted Eric Ebron in the first round. What was the result of all of these moves? Stafford’s completion percentage is down 1.2%. His total passing yardage is down by 327 yards. His interception total is up by one and his touchdowns are down by 5. For all of the moves that were made to invest in progressing Stafford, he seems to be regressing. But what is the true story here?
Stafford has played 3 games without Calvin Johnson. He played two other games with Johnson so limited that he had less than 4 catches. Without Johnson, defenses are playing more of a balanced pass coverage leaving less of a chance for an open receiver. Add to that who his receivers are. While Tate is a legitimate receiver option (a number one for most teams), his other two receivers are Corey Fuller, who spent last season on the practice squad and Jeremy Ross, who was only a return man last season. While they have played well so far, they are not of a caliber needed to be a number two receiver. Stafford has also seen injuries to Reggie Bush, Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron, and Joseph Fauria, leaving him with limited receiving options.
The different style of offense the Lions are playing this year is the main culprit to Stafford’s regression. Last season, Stafford had the second quickest release of all quarterbacks, which limited his pressure. He also was not making many reads and was throwing the ball to the receiver that was scripted to be the target. He played the majority of the season out of the shotgun, meaning he had extra time to think before the rush got to him. This season, he is expected to read the defense and make adjustments at the line of scrimmage. This introduces the possibility for miscommunication as well as a slower reaction time. He is also expected to take many more snaps from under center which leaves him less time to react.
In the screen capture to the left, you see that in a game this season against the Green Bay Packers, the Detroit offense was lined up real tight with only two receivers lined up wide. With the 3rd receiver so tight to the linemen, they are allowing for an opportunity for added pressure due to a corner blitz. In this picture, the Packers only have 7 in the box, which allows the offense an opportunity for better pass protection. Add to that Stafford being in the shotgun formation, and this should be a recipe for success. Had they split their 3rd receiver out wider, they would have 6 in the box and could run out of this formation for a sizeable gain, exploiting the Packers dedication to stopping the pass.
Plays like the one above show missed opportunities due to the offensive structure that the team is running. Now, in this play, the Packers had to play the pass because of the down and distance. Nevertheless, this is an example of what we would see in Scott Linehan’s offense on a second and 6.
In the picture shown to the left here, we see that poor execution is also part of the Lions passing woes. In this example, the Lions are in a shotgun with the field spread wide and very few defenders in the box. The problem lies in the offensive line misplaying a stunt by the defensive line. A hole opens on the left side of the offensive line and Stafford goes down. There have been several instances this season of bone headed plays by an offensive lineman allowing unnecessary pressure on Stafford.
The final issue here appears to be Stafford simply misfiring. There were a few instances, one against Carolina in particular, where Stafford has a receiver open if he leads him deep, but he under throws the pass into double coverage for an interception. He made several passes last season during the Lions late collapse where he simply misfired or forced the ball into a poor spot which resulted in an interception. The coaching staff focused so much on implementing their offensive style that they did not focus on Stafford’s decision making. Showing him that a high risk pass does not carry the reward necessary to attempt it will help him to look for a check down if there is too much risk on a play. For example, going back to that play against Carolina, if Stafford realized that the risk factor for under throwing that deep ball was high due to double coverage underneath, he would have been able to check down to a short route and get another shot with a lower risk factor. Part of that play’s issues stems from Stafford’s reliance on Calvin Johnson. Since Johnson’s injury, Stafford has relied more on Golden Tate and spread the ball around to Fuller and Ross more as well as his running backs. With Johnson set to return, I am interested in seeing if Stafford reverts back to forcing passes to Johnson or if he uses Johnson as a deep threat as he should. That will really be the key to the Detroit Lions offense resuming its effectiveness that it had under Scott Linehan.