A version of this story was published by the Detroit Free Press.
Much has been made of the Lions’ erratic offense this season. A group with elite talent at wide receiver and quarterback should be able to string together quality performances like they have in the past.
After consecutive road losses to the NFC-leading Arizona Cardinals and AFC-leading New England Patriots in which the Lions scored a total of five goals, the Lions had feasted on bottom feeders in recent weeks. The offense was humming in back-to-back 34-17 home wins over the porous Chicago Bears and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, seemingly righting the ship.
But last Sunday against a middle-of-the-road Minnesota Vikings team, they reverted back to the hideous offensive performances of mid-November. They failed to gain a first down on each of their first four offensive possessions and were held to 16 points, 10 of which came after being granted excellent field position by the defense.
There are plenty of issues as to why the offense has struggled this season but the problems start up front with the offensive line and a running game that until recently was non existent.
The Lions are ranked 30th in rush offense by Football Outsiders, ahead of only Arizona and Oakland. They are 30th in yards per carry averaging 3.4 yards, and are gaining 83.8 yards per game on the ground, also 30th.
Leading rusher Joique Bell has done about as much as you can ask for with the limited amount of space that has been carved out for him. But out of 45 running backs with at least 88 carries, Bell is 34th in the league averaging a meager 3.7 yards per carry.
A large portion of the blame falls on an offensive line that, according to FO, is ranked 24th in run blocking.
Yes, they have seen a wave of injuries, but when healthy youngsters Riley Reiff and Larry Warford have regressed after nice seasons a year ago.
With the powerful Warford in the lineup for the second consecutive week after returning from a knee sprain, the Lions committed to the run game versus the Vikings (21 carries for 78 yards, 3.7 YPC average). Let’s examine their performance and analyze how offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi tried to spark the run game.
On the first play of the opening drive, the Lions came out in the pistol with Golden Tate lined up in the backfield behind quarterback Matthew Stafford. Theo Riddick was the halfback lined up beside Stafford. Tate motioned to the left pre-snap, which took a Vikings linebacker with him and left just five defenders in the box. The Lions had schemed for this, and it gave them an opportunity to pick up a nice chunk of yards because each defender was accounted for. Riddick should have been able to gash the defense with no unblocked defenders within 15 yards of the line of scrimmage.
He picked the correct hole, but center Dominic Raiola could not sustain his block against defensive tackle Linval Joseph and Riddick was stopped after a modest four-yard gain.
Later in the game, they ran this same formation but Stafford faked the handoff and tossed the ball out to Tate on the perimeter for six yards.
On the next play, the Lions ran one of their go-to run plays. The tight end pulled across the formation to block the backside end or linebacker, eliminating a chase-down from behind and opening up a possible cutback lane for the running back. The Vikings defense formed a wall against Bell, but the bruising back spun off a would-be tackler and lounged forward for four yards, setting up a manageable third-and-two.
On the play following Glover Quin’s game-altering interception, the Lions came out in the I-formation and ran power behind fullback Jed Collins. The linebacker nearly blew up the play in the backfield, shooting the b-gap between Warford and tackle LaAdrian Waddle. Collins got enough of him to avoid a disastrous loss, but the penetration forced Bell to jump cut to his left.
Again the Vikings created a wall, but the patience of Bell allowed him to find a crease and wiggle forward for four yards.
In the third quarter, the Lions spread the field with three receivers and ran a counter play with Warford and tight end Brandon Pettigrew pulling across the formation to lead the way for Reggie Bush. The Vikings only had six in the box and the Lions had six blockers, again a well-designed run scheme from Lombardi.
Bush initially had a hole on the left side with a chance to face the safety in space. Sure, Bush isn’t the same player he was a few years back but pitting him in space against a safety is a good matchup. However, the offensive line was out-executed and Bush was swallowed up at the line of scrimmage. Left guard Rob Sims was unable to sustain his block against Joseph, who maintained good leverage and shook free. He and Everson Griffen stuffed Bush for no and eliminated what could have been a big play.
Eventually, the Lions were able to wear down the Vikings. On this third quarter run, Bell showed good patience as usual and slithered through a hole created by Raiola and Sims for seven yards.
Bell also showed his pass-catching ability with a one-handed catch on a screen pass, where he broke two tackles near the end of the play and picked up 17 yards.
On the clock consuming game-winning fourth quarter drive, Bell had runs of 15, 5, 6 and 5 yards to set up Matt Prater’s go-ahead field goal. The drive began with a play-action pass to Eric Ebron for 11 yards off the very same run action. Each of those four runs featured the tight ends pulling across the formation to seal the backside. Pettigrew and Ebron threw nice blocks on the drive and the line did a better job of moving the line of scrimmage.
On the first run, Pettigrew had a nice block on the outside to allow a cut-back for Bell.
Bell again cut-back and found a lane between backup Cornelius Lucas and Warford for five yards.
Ebron had a nice block on the backside defensive end as Bell again cutback and ran behind him for six yards. Ebron was animated after the play, punching the air to apparently celebrate his block.
Bell bounced around for five more yards behind Sims.
In recent weeks, the Lions have started to run the ball more effectively. In this game, Bell gained 62 yards on 15 carries (4.1 yards per attempt) and forced five missed tackles. Bell has topped 80 yards in three of the past five games and has averaged four yards a pop or better in five of the last six games.
Yet even with Bush returning to the field, Bell should remain the Lions’ top back because of his ability to break tackles and fall forward for extra yardage. Lombardi came up with creative ways to run the ball but the success of the ground game ultimately falls on the execution of a banged up offensive line.
With the loss of Waddle to an ACL injury, the Lions will again plug in undrafted rookie Cornelius Lucas at right tackle and hope for the best. If the line falters in either run blocking or pass protection, this talented yet maddening offense may be even more frustrating to watch over the final two regular season games and potentially a January playoff game.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.