The Hidden Detroit Lions Offense: 1st and 2nd Down

>> 10.26.2011

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.



22/8/6.59 12/2/3.8 7/0/2.0 5/2/6.4 0/0/0.0 10/6/9.9 5/3/16.2 1/0/0.0 1/1/9.0 1/1/6.0 1/1/8.0
20/7/5.3 7/2/6.6 3/1/12.3 2/0/-1.0 2/1/5.0 13/5/4.62 4/1/6.25 1/0/1.0 3/2/5.0 2/2/13.0 0/0/0.0
42/15/5.98 19/4/4.8 10/1/5.1 7/2/4.43 2/1/5.0 23/11/6.91 9/4/11.8 2/0/1.0 4/3/6.0 3/3/10.7 1/1/8.0

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.


Jeremy Reisman,  October 26, 2011 at 12:04 PM  

This is awesome, awesome work Ty. Not only does this take a lot of work and research, but you did something most writers never do in their entire career: admit they were wrong about something. Mad respect.

Dennis Schwartz,  October 26, 2011 at 12:58 PM  

The one thing that the Lions seem to be devoid of lately is the smoke route to Burleson or CJ. I recall a bubble screen to Burleson that Stafford threw behind him, but other than that it has been Digs to the receivers and pop passes to Pettigrew and Scheffler.

What I am seeing is the adjustment to the Lions offense has been made and the Lions are scuffling to find an alternative.

What I see is defenses will play nickel on that 3 wide set and dare the Lions to run. This presents a two fold problem:

**Lions cannot consistently get past the first line of defense and when they do the damage is limited.
**The windows to get a ball to a receiver are very small and require elite level accuracy to get them in.

Stafford has not been accurate plain and simple, but you must also be aware of how difficult it is to fit a ball when A) Your not getting time despite only a four man rush and B) Bracket coverage on your best receiver and very little separation from your other receivers causes you to hold the ball longer.

QB play is completely about rhythm and timing and Stafford has not adjusted yet to what the defenses have done.

One particular pass comes to mind that he threw to CJ and it epitomizes what I am talking about. He passed the ball to a particular window on a slant before CJ even got there. As Billick said "he threw him open". More often that not Stafford has to deal with those type a situations than, say Aaron Rodgers.

The difference between the teams is that GB can hand it off to Ryan Grant and James Starks even when it is expected and gain yardage and the Lions cannot even do it when the defense is allowing it.

NorthLeft12,  October 26, 2011 at 3:16 PM  

Is the offence playing up to expectations? No. Was the Atlanta game the worst offensive game of the season? Yes.
Am I surprised that the offence did not have an outstanding game and score +30 points. Not really.
This offence rests all on Matthew Stafford's shoulders. If he makes the right decisions and is accurate, this offence will perform at a high level. If not.....well, take a look at Sunday's game.
I think the key word here is "expectations". The play of Stafford against New England in the preseason and in parts of the first five games, has everyone giving him an instant field promotion to "ELITE QB" status. He is not there yet.
Unfortunately, until the defence begins to play at a higher level [personally they are pretty mediocre right now] the Lions will pretty much only win when the offence scores more than 24 or so points. Our defence has not shown the ability to hold opponents much below that level...yet.
Before everyone begins screaming at me, the defence has not had to regularly deal with teams starting in their own end. And when they have, they have not done very well. The D Line gets a lot of pub for their ability to dominate the opposing O Line. I would like to see them deliver that kind of performance on the field.

Kale Stevens,  October 26, 2011 at 6:26 PM  

I don't think you are wrong Ty...I still think Morris is a decent 1st and 2nd down running back. The only difference between your definition of being right or wrong is based on some made up definition of what is and is not successful. The Lions are not a running team...point blank. They are built to pass the ball. The running backs are not expected to gain 4 yards per carry on first down in this offense, but rather they are simply expected to carry the ball, with hope that they will gain positive yards. I am not advocating that a stronger running game would not help the Lion's offense tremendously, but if the Packers can do it then so can the Lions. I believe that Morris and Williams WERE effective against the Falcons, but regardless of what Morris and Williams did, Atlanta was committed to staying in a pass defense. Because they did not take the bait, knowing full well that the true danger of the Lion's offense is their passing game, they were able to limit the Lion's passing offense.

For those that want to blame an ineffective running game for this, I suggest that you take a look at the effectiveness of the offensive line. The lack of protection and poor run blocking were public enemy #1 and #2 to the Lion's overall effectiveness on offense. The third problem, more important than the running game as well, was the inaccuracy of Matthew Stafford's passes when he DID throw the ball, his refusal (or maybe commitment to the coaches) to run for yards when nobody was open, AND the lack of receivers actually getting open! Then you have dropped balls and stupid penalties to add to these problems. To say that the running game was "ineffective" and name that as the reason why the Lion's had so many three and outs, is nothing short of short sighted, if not downright ignorant (no offense intended).

Old Man Winter,  October 27, 2011 at 7:07 AM  

With respect to Saturday Night Live and 'Da Bears:

"the line still sucks,
the line still sucks,
they really really, really really, really, really suck;
the line still sucks!"

Flamekeeper_Ty,  November 18, 2011 at 12:05 PM  

Hey Kale . . . sorry I didn't reply to this before. The crush of the season is making keeping up with comments tough!

"The third problem, more important than the running game as well, was the inaccuracy of Matthew Stafford's passes when he DID throw the ball, his refusal (or maybe commitment to the coaches) to run for yards when nobody was open, AND the lack of receivers actually getting open! Then you have dropped balls and stupid penalties to add to these problems."

Yup, you hit it right on the head, here. Well said.


Flamekeeper_Ty,  November 18, 2011 at 12:06 PM  

Yeah, the underneath routes have been distressingly scarce--and when they're there, Stafford's not throwing them or he's throwing them inconsistently well, and when he's throwing them well they're getting dropped. Almost impossible to keep in rhythm and keep up confidence when that's the case.


Flamekeeper_Ty,  November 18, 2011 at 12:07 PM  

Many, many thanks Jeremy. I really appreciate that.

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