The Lions lost to the Falcons on Sunday, due to an astonishingly poor performance by the offense, and particularly Matthew Stafford. Many noticed the Lions seemed to be “in a lot of third-and-longs,” and blamed the lack of a power running game that could keep the Lions offense on schedule.
It’s been my contention the Lions use their backs in nontraditional—but effective—ways. If they can run for three or so yards on first down, that gives Stafford and the 7+ yard-per-attempt passing attack two attempts to get seven yards. If they can mix in the screens and draws on which Best and Morris are varyingly effective, they can move the ball very well and score points in bunches.
This has been empirically obvious: through five weeks the Lions had the #2 offense in the NFL, racking up an impressive 31.8 points per game. Subsequently, I have been directing all parties inquiring RE: fat guards and white running backs to talk to that statistical hand.
However, something is not adding up. Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams combined for over five YpC against the Falcons, yet indeed the Lions were constantly facing second- and third-and-long.
The Hidden Game of Football is a seminal book which tops every serious football analyst’s reading list (but which I still haven’t read). In it, so I am told, the authors outline a new way of defining a successful football play. On first down, a successful play gains four yards. On second down, a successful play gains half the remaining distance to converting the first down. On third down, a successful play converts first down. This theory informs the analysis at awesome websites like Football Outsiders and Advanced NFL Stats.
The chart above is a breakdown of the Lions first- and second-down plays against the Falcons. The first number in each box is the number of plays in that category. The number after the first slash is the number of “successful” plays, and the number after the second slash is the average yards-per-play rate of categorical plays. So.
The Lions faced 22 first-and-10 situations Sunday (including plays wiped out by penalties). They gained at least four yards 8/22 times, and averaged 6.59 yards per play. That sounds kinda okay-ish until you look at the run/pass breakdown: the Lions ran on first down 12 of 22 times, were successful twice, and averaged 3.83 YpC. This meshes with my “3-to-4 yards on first down is okay” theory until we go a little deeper.
Maurice Morris ran seven times on first down, never successfully, and averaged 2.0 yards per carry.
Keiland Williams fared a little better. He gained 4+ yards twice on five carries, including a long one that swelled the average up 6.4 YpC. However, neither could compare to the first-down passing game, which was successful six of ten attempts and averaged 9.9 YpA.
Megatron was targeted five times on first down, successfully three times, for a 16.2 average (yes, the 54-yard touchdown was on first down). Non-Megatron receivers were successful on 3 of 4 targets, for 5.75 YpA.
On second down, things were not much better. The running game chewed up half of the yards needed for conversion just twice on seven carries, though the YpC was an impressive 6.57. Part of that is due to a long run by MoMo, but part of it is the “on schedule” effect: the Lions average distance-to-conversion on second down was eight yards. This includes sacks, penalties, etc., but those count in the game, too. The Lions simply aren’t getting enough yards on first down, and it’s making second down much harder to convert.
The Lions running game was successful on first- and second-down just 4 of 19 carries, despite an apparently-excellent 4.84 YpC. The passing game was a better-but-still-not-great 11 of 23 plays for 6.91 YpA. Here’s the interesting bit, though: non-Megatron receivers were successful on 7 of 11 first- and second-down targets, for 6.09 YpA.
This points towards something else I’ve been saying: Stafford is pressing. He’s trying to force it to Calvin (see CJ’s second-down success rate above). Despite the totally ineffective running game, when Stafford spreads the ball around the offense works. I’m wrong about Maurice Morris being a solid first- and second-down tailback, but I’m right that if Stafford does his job that doesn’t matter.