While working on this week’s mailbag, I came across this question from Jim, who frequents Mlive under the handle “draftpuke”:
Tell me something please......Am I nuts or did I witness some unusual stuff on offense yesterday for the Lions, at least as far as the the NFL goes, with all of the odd misdirections, motions, counters, etc,etc...It almost looked high school. Was what the Lions were running yesterday unusual? Or am I just not used to seeing creativity?
I became immediately and profoundly sidetracked. This is something I'd been noticing on film quite a bit: Linehan has indeed introduced a lot of very cool little wrinkles that nobody is really talking about. So, mailbag aside for the moment, the Curious Case of Scott Linehan:
This is the foundation of the offense: the I formation. Two wide receivers, split fairly wide; a tight end, a fullback, and a tailback. This couldn't be more vanilla, more old-school NFL. The first thing that you should notice is the very slight motion of the fullback, just a shuffle step to the strong side. This is one less step he'll have to take when leading the back to run that way--but it also signifies the defense which direction the backs plan to run. Note how the Falcons' linebackers immediately cheat to the strongside when they see the motion!
This particular play's execution isn't perfect--the DE bullrushes the TE (Heller) back into the running lane, forcing an adjustment and killing the play. You see the LG (Loper) pull right, and the C (Raiola) and RG (Peterman) try to drive their assignments left. You can see the open seam as the FB (Felton) leads through the hole . . .but the tailback is brought down by the DE before he can get there. This play, in terms of presnap look and blocking scheme, will set up the defense for the rest of the game.
Okay, same formation, the I. Felton is already lined up offset to the strong side. There is presnap motion, though; the flanker (Colbert) moves into the slot, next to the TE (Heller). At the snap, Heller runs a 15-yard curl, but Colbert crosses behind him to run a shallow drag across the field. Felton comes charging up behind them on a wheel route, and behind that, the tailback flares out to the sidline.
Note that shortly after the snap, we have a deep option (Heller), a clearing route (Colbert), a shorter option (Felton), and an outlet (Smith). I believe the intent here is to attack the SLB--he either needs to stay on the TE, or follow the WR; either way there's nobody there to tackle the fullback charging up from the backfield.
In this case, the SLB is actually manned up on the tailback and follows him out. The SS blitzes from the space this play attacks, leaving Heller wide open deep. The corner that was lined up tight to Colbert drops way back, since he no longer has safety help deep. The play works as designed, and Culpepper hits his primary option.
The Falcons MLB quickly diagnoses what's happening, but can't get there fast enough to make the play. Ideally, Culpepper would have recognized the coverage shift & blitzing safety, and hit Heller for the big gain--but you can't fault him for executing the play as designed.
Remember, this was out of an I-Formation. We started with plain vanilla, and we ended up with a three-route combination attacking one spot on the field.
This is the first snap Matt Stafford took in a professional football game. Note the formation: a single back, 2-TE set with both WRs split wide. Again, the presnap motion of Colbert tight to the line. Like the last play, the corner, who was pressing, backs off, and the safety shows blitz--but this time he backs off to squat in the zone the Lions attacked earlier.
One might expect that Matt Stafford's first snap, taken in a 2-TE set, would be a run--which is why Linehan calls for a play fake. The other WR (can't see who) runs a clear-out go route, taking the corner with him. The tailback hustles out to the flat, drawing the OLB to cover him. Colbert, having motioned into the right slot, runs a post route that attacks the space in between the drawn-up OLB and the cleared-out CB. He's wide filthy open. Stafford guns it right to him, and he drops it.
Okay, again: Stone Age 2-TE formation. One presnap motion and one play fake sets up a three-level route combination, giving the rookie QB one, wide filthy open, read to make--oh, and 2 TEs stay in to block and keep him clean.
This is getting really, really good.
Okay, for the first time in the breakdown, we see a 3-WR set. Linehan uses very few multi-WR sets, especially given the current trends in football, typically only in passing situations like this 1st-and-10.
At the snap, the runningback, quarterback, and entire offensive line flow to the weak (short) side of the field. Stafford hands off, and the tailback--OH NO WAIT IT'S A NAKED BOOTLEG! This is an eleven-man effort. Watch the run blocking by the OL, the tailback (Irvin?) "running the ball" after the fake, and, especially, the snow job by the Heller on the side away from the ball.
Heller run blocks left, then spins on his heels and runs to the flat. The Y (slot) reciever runs in towards the middle, like he's going to block (?) but then turns upfield. We can't see where he goes after that, or what the Z reciever does . . . but I'd be willing to bet they set up a three-level route combination. Stafford sells the fake well, sees Heller open, and gets it to him. Good recognition by the linebackers holds the gain to just a few yards--but you see Linehan working here. Moreover, you see how the run/pass deception is something he's coaching the whole unit to sell.
Okay, now we see this offense about as wide open as it gets. In 2nd- and 3rd-and-long situations, Linehan typically puts Stafford in the shotgun, usually with a single back, 3-WR set. If the situation is extreme (3rd-and-13, or two-minute offense), Linehan prefers to swap the TE for a second RB, not a fourth WR.
Watch Stafford as they line up. He's calling out the coverage, directing traffic--he looks comfortable, doesn't he? Well, there's a reason for that: this is just like the offense he ran at Georgia. I-Form and Pro Set in running situations, shotgun/multi-WR in passing situations, almost as a rule. On this 2nd-and-8, he feels right at home.
First off, note that he fakes the draw. You can tell from the haste with which it's executed that Stafford's more worried about getting set up and getting rid of the ball. But, the defense is going to see that fake; the Lions might--or might not--run a draw from this formation at this down and distance. Again, setting up the D is a huge part of this offense.
The limits of the TV feed prevent me from analyzing the routes, but Stafford completely aces this throw, squeezing it between two defenders on the sideline--to Colbert, who thankfully catches it. Nothing too fancy here, just great execution.
Okay, one more from the Falcons game. See the typical Offset I, 2-WR formation, right? Yeah, and then the tailback (Irvin) motions out wide, outside of the X reciever. Now Irvin is the X, the previous X is the Y, and the fullback's offset solo set makes for the oddest singleback backfield I've ever seen. The defense all kind of looks around, like "What?" Then, the CB shifts over to cover Irvin, the safety comes up to cover the slot WR, and LBs all drop into short zones.
I think the CB-RB adjustment is what the Lions were looking to force; pull the cover corner off the WR, and leave a hopelessly outmatched LB assigned to him instead. However, the Falcons adjust well: instead of single coverage against an OLB, the WR is covered over the top by the safety, and the OLB gets great depth underneath. Stafford fails to recognize that he does't have the matchup he's looking for, and pulls the trigger. Winborn, the OLB, is sitting right on it.
Okay, so this one didn't turn out so hot. But, you see how Linehan starts with plain Vanilla, with a presnap motion makes it French Vanilla, and by spooning on rich, luscious route combinations, we end up with a truly exceptional sundae. It's not a Mike Martz Spumoni Banana Split with sprinkles on top and a sparkler in it--but Linehan is doing really impressive, powerful stuff that both makes it easy on Stafford and hard on opposing defenses.
. . . that was the preseason, where Linehan was keeping all his good stuff under wraps.
Now, let's look at the first four plays of the second drive against the Saints:
Okay, this is a single-back, 2-TE set. Both TEs are lined up tight against the right side of the line. The Flanker, Megatron, is lined up tight to the outside of the TEs. This gives the look of a trips bunch, but the "trips" are 2/3rds tight ends. The furthest outside of the TEs, Fitzsimmons, motions out wide to that side. Now Fitzsimmons is the Z, Johnson is the X, and Megatron is the Y.
The defense now has a massive dilemma on their hands. They're going to blitz both outside linebackers, and leave the MLB to play shallow centerfield. The CB takes the bait, manning up on Casey Fitzsimmons. The middle linebacker is now the only one responsible for covering both Heller and Megatron. After the snap, you can almost hear him going "Uhm, uh, uhm, uh" as he tries to figure out what on Earth to do. He wisely gives chase to Megatron--and after Stafford hits Megatron in stride, he even gets close enough to tackling Megatron to be easily shrugged off by the great wideout.
I believe this was the exact same play that was called back by the "Phantom Chop Block" in the Vikings game. It worked just as well then, too.
It's tough to tell, thanks to the SUPER WOW FOX GRAFFIX, but initially the set is a single back, 3-WR set--only with a TE lined up as the Y (slot) reciever on the short (right) side of the field. He then motions left to the end of the line, and puts a hand down, lining up as the TE that he is. The new Z steps back off of the line of scrimmage, avoiding an illegal-formation penalty. Now, we have the same single-back, 2 WR, 2 TE formation we saw up above in the Falcons game--and that started with a play fake, and was also called on 1st-and-10!
This simple dive (not SO simple, the LT pulls wide of the TE) is successful; Smith eschews the lane opened up for him, cuts back for good yardage. But beyond that: see how the defense reacts to the motion pre-snap. They all creep up to the line, anticipating run, and run is exactly what they get. This is a great play to set up the D; if the Lions are running well in the third or fourth quarter, they could pull out that play action and expect success.
You may have noticed that the Saints are routinely blitzing the OLBs, and the corners are playing pretty soft. Yeah, Scott Linehan noticed that, too. He puts Megatron in the slot, and throws a quick WR screen to him. Sure enough, both the OLB and MLB blitz right past the play; if Bryant Johnson blocks the corner, Megatron is taking it to the house. Bryant Johnson does not block the corner, but it's still very nearly a first down. This is what happens when you very aggressively "take what the defense gives you".
Okay, again, the OMG DRAMA camerawork covers this up a bit, but the initial formation is a shallow single back (FB), 3-WR set with Megatron in the slot. Presnap, Megatron motions BACK INTO THE TAILBACK SPOT, meaning this is now a "traditional I-Formation" . . . right. With the entire defense keying up to stop whatever crazy BS Megatron's about to pull, the Lions quickly snap it. Stafford turns to his left, Megatron runs left, but Stafford reaches back behind himself and hands it to TERELLE SMITH, who drives into the right side of the line and easily gets the first.
No, seriously; dude. We have ourselves a truly excellent offensive coordinator. I am completely head over heels with his approach; I love a complex, effective passing game from traditional run formations. I LOVE creating ridiculous mismatches with one motion or one personnel switch. I REALLY love setting up the defense with run/pass deception, especially as a game-long developing strategy. I LOVE LOVE LOVE how he's making it easy for Stafford to execute complex plays.