The Lions are a team that is, by design, built to score in the passing game and get opposing teams on their heels’ so our front four can attack. That is why Mayhew and company have bypassed glaring needs with most of their draft choices, instead acquiring more offensive weapons like Pettigrew, Best, LeShoure, Young, and Broyles. Despite their turn around in 2011, the strategy is not working.
The Lions’ disappointing start to the 2012 season has been well documented, but few commentators or analysts are actually talking about the real issues at hand. Detroit has been created to be a pass first team. When you have the best receiver in the NFL and one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the game, this seems like a good strategy. This formula in and of itself is not the problem, but defenses have quickly adjusted, as NFL defenses do.
Confronting Cover 2
Every team they play continues to drape bracket coverage over Calvin Johnson, while sitting in a passive Cover 2 shell all day long. Cover 2 is not some mystical and impenetrable fortress. In fact it can actually be advantageous for the offense to know where the holes are in the zones pre-snap. What the coverage does, though, is dictate where Stafford can go with the ball most of the time. This bend-but-don’t-break style of defense works more often than not, because it demands that teams dink and dunk their way down the field. By giving up less big plays, the opposition is forced to continually move the ball in bite sized chunks. Doing this is hard in the NFL, because playing a perfect game offensively just doesn’t happen very often. Making it worse is the fact that the Lions are currently leading the NFL with 15 dropped passes, averaging almost four per game. Playing into the opponents’ hand further, they are only averaging 7.3 yards per pass attempt, ranking them 16th in the NFL.
The Lions go into each game knowing they are going to see a double high safety look with this Cover 2 shell. Most coaches will tell you, you have to take what the defense is giving you. That is what Schwartz and Linehan have attempted to do. The Lions are 2nd in both the total number of offensive plays run and the amount of pass attempts through the first four weeks of the season. Yet with almost 300 offensive plays run and 102 first downs (2nd most in the NFL), the team is still working out the kinks.
As you would expect, the coaching staff is determined to take advantage of the seven-man boxes they are facing week-in week-out. So as expected the Lions have tried to run on these favorable fronts 100 times, but have only averaged a measly 3.6 yards per carry which ranks them 25th in the league.
Let’s be honest, their offensive line has never been good. They are perhaps adequate at best. So they finally satisfied the fan base as they used a high draft pick on their offensive line. Riley Reiff was arguably the best player available when the Lions snatched him up in the first round, so the move was largely applauded. Coaches and teammates were quickly impressed with the rookie lineman. Then reports surfaced that not only was Reiff the Lions best run blocker already, but that it really wasn’t even close.
Yet the Lions continue to force the run game without him even on the field. The staff needs to do something different because this front five cannot get consistent push in the running game. Rob Sims is probably the team’s best starting lineman, but he can’t do it alone. Routinely we see running lanes disappear as quicker than they open, and defenders are making the backs move laterally before they even hit the line of scrimmage. Teams know this is Detroit’s weakness. They are simply daring the Lions to beat them on the ground, and they can’t do it.
The players are the ones who have to get it done on the field, but the coaching staff has to try to put them in better situations to do it. The Lions run the majority of the offensive snaps from this pseudo-spread offense with just a single tight end on the field. Not only is the shotgun notoriously difficult to run from, but rarely are we using utilizing our best blockers.
I admit that I am not a huge fan of the Lions coaching staff for a various reasons. I don’t really care for the spread offense or the Wide Nines schemes to name a few. They are not balanced schemes and are more about situational football. With that being said, there is no reason the Lions can’t still have success within their current schemes and stuff with just a little creativity.
The Lions boast three excellent blockers in Reiff, Pettigrew and Will Heller. Why can’t they find creative ways to get them all on the field at the same time to abuse teams that insist on playing two high safeties? If this team continues to be unable to beat teams that simply sit in Cover-2 all day, then there are bigger problems in Motown.
No, this will not solve the horrendous play by the special teams. Nor will it teach Bill Bentley to actually look for the ball when he is in coverage. It won’t help the defense learn how to tackle more consistently. But when you are built to be an offensive powerhouse and your third down percentage is ranked 21st at 36.5%, it’s a good place to start.
This article originally appeared in and is reprinted with kind permission of the author.