A shortened version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
The Lions’ offensive struggles continued on Sunday against the NFL-leading Arizona Cardinals. The Lions were unable to consistently move the football and on the few occasions when they did, sacks and penalties stalled drives.
A major factor in the Lions’ inability to march down the field was their ineptitude in short yardage situations. Detroit was a pitiful 1-for-4 on third or fourth down needing two yards or less. On the season, the Lions have converted just 14 first downs on 25 attempts (56 percent) of third or fourth down with two yards or fewer to gain, a conversion rate good for 30th in the league. The league has a success rate of 64 percent on third/fourth-and-2 or less. On those 25 plays, the Lions have called 15 runs and 10 passes. The league average run-to-pass ratio in these scenarios is 58 percent-to-42 percent so the Lions’ play calling is nearly identical to the league average. The results however, have been below average.
Since Sunday’s loss, there has been plenty of chatter across the airwaves criticizing offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. Head coach Jim Caldwell has had to answer questions this week about his first-year coordinator after another dreadful offensive output. Sure, it’s easy to blame one person and the fans and talk show hosts love to blame a coach, quarterback or the referees. Yet on these short yardage plays, the problem is lack of execution from the entire unit.
Here is the first short yardage attempt from Sunday. It’s third-and-1 for the Lions on their opening possession. They come out in their heavy package with two backs and two tight ends against an eight-man box from the Cardinals. Lombardi calls for a fullback dive to Jed Collins, who had converted each of his four carries in these third or fourth and short situations before this attempt. The problem on this play is that Cardinals’ nose tackle Dan Williams blows up center Dominic Raiola and tight end Kellen Davis whiffs against defensive end Frostee Rucker.
Detroit’s left guard Rob Sims and left tackle Riley Reiff actually do an excellent job on this play, bulldozing Calais Campbell off the ball to seemingly open a crease for Collins.
However, Williams reads the play and tosses Raiola aside, while Rucker motors through Davis’ weak block attempt. Williams and Rucker gobble Collins up for no gain and the Lions go three-and-out.
The one conversion in short yardage came early in the second quarter. Calvin Johnson motions a few steps to his left before the snap to create more room to the outside against Cardinals’ corner Patrick Peterson. This play is designed to be a quick throw to Johnson in the flat.
The motion inside gives Johnson plenty of space to the outside and with Peterson playing off coverage, it’s an easy pitch and catch for four yards and a first down.
In the third quarter, the Lions faced third-and-inches. This time Lombardi spreads the field, hoping to create less traffic for shifty back Theo Riddick. The Cardinals show a Double A-Gap blitz with Detroit native Larry Foote and rookie safety Deone Bucannon lined up over center.
At the snap, Campbell fires past Reiff and knifes into the backfield as Riddick takes the handoff.
It looks like Riddick has a crease to run through between the guard and tackle, but look at the immediate penetration from Campbell.
Campbell gets enough of Riddick to trip him up in the backfield. He may have had a chance to fall forward for the first down but Williams sheds guard Travis Swanson and cleans up Riddick for no gain.
It’s actually a nice design by Lombardi. Riddick motions to Stafford’s left just before the snap, which changes the likely direction of the run. This doesn’t allow the Cardinals to cheat to one side. But it doesn’t matter because the Lions’ offensive line is unable to execute the blocking scheme. I’ve heard some people wonder why power back Joique Bell was on the sideline for this run. Bell had fumbled on the previous play and had his leg bent backwards. He was seen limping off the field, forcing Riddick into the game.
Then there’s the most crucial play of the game, a fourth-and-2 from the Cardinals’ 47 yard line. The Lions motion Johnson across the formation to the right side next to Golden Tate. Detroit runs mirrored routes, with curls from the slots and quick outs from the outside receivers. Notice this is the same route Johnson ran for the second quarter conversion.
On this play, the Cardinals bring the illusion of pressure with Foote and Bucannon again lined up in the A-Gap. The Cardinals had been blitzing over 50 percent of the time so Lombardi called a play designed to get the ball out of Matthew Stafford’s hands quickly. The Lions were prepared to beat the blitz with these route combinations. However, the Cardinals elected to play coverage. Foote and Bucannon dropped into zones and the Cardinals only sent four rushers. The key player to focus on is Cardinals’ nickel corner Jarraud Powers, highlighted in green.
Powers had followed Johnson when he went in motion. The defense adjusted to the formation by making sure they had at least three defenders to Johnson’s side. The Cardinals look to be in Cover 3 with the outside cornerbacks guarding against any vertical routes and safety Rashad Johnson playing the deep middle. In this coverage, Powers is responsible for the flat. He knows Foote is dropping to cover any short route near the hash mark, which is exactly where Golden Tate runs his quick curl.
This allows Powers to sprint to the flat and undercut Johnson’s route, which forces Stafford to throw the ball wide of Johnson to avoid an interception.
As you can see in the GIF, the Cardinals adjusted the defense on the fly. Tyrann Matthieu (who dropped down to cover the slot at the top of the screen), Bucannon, Powers, Johnson and Antonio Cromartie (outside corner, bottom) all visibly communicate once Calvin Johnson goes in motion. This is excellent preparation, recognition, communication and execution and it’s no coincidence that the Cardinals are 9-1.
Sometimes you have to tip your cap to the opponent. The Cardinals’ defense made a great call and executed perfectly, halting the Lions’ drive prematurely.
Short yardage struggles are just part of an offense that has been maddeningly inconsistent. The offensive line has played poorly and the quarterback has been all over the place. This offense is loaded with talent at the skill positions led by a one-two punch at receiver that rivals any in the league. But if the line doesn’t improve and Stafford continues his erratic play, this offense will struggle to score points.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.