FOXBORO — Days after allowing 31 points and 480 total yards of offense to the Jaguars in Week 2, the Patriots find themselves staring at another difficult test with the Detroit Lions and quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Statistically, the Lions offense has struggled mightily in Matt Patricia’s first two games as head coach.
Detroit ranks 26th in total DVOA on offense, tied for 18th in points per game (22.0) and has turned the ball over six times (five in Week 1) through the first two games of 2018.
But the Lions’ slow start offensively on the stat sheet doesn’t tell the whole story.
When you turn on the tape, you see an explosive offense that has the pieces to take apart the Patriots defense in a similar fashion to what we saw in Jacksonville on Sunday.
Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has rejuvenated Matthew Stafford’s career since taking over as the OC in 2015, and for continuity, Patricia held onto Cooter to keep Stafford, and the offense, pointed in the right direction.
At the core, Cooter’s offense is a west coast system designed to attack defenses in the short and intermediate area of the field which allows the Lions’ playmakers to create yards after the catch.
Last season, the Lions ranked third in the NFL with 2,241 yards after the catch, according to Pro Football Focus.
Although Stafford is traditionally among the league leaders in deep pass attempts, he ranked fifth with 70 last season, the vertical aspects of the Lions offense built into almost every play serve as “home run” options for Stafford based on the coverage, not primary options in his progressions.
The other aspect of the Lions’ offense that makes them a tough match for the Patriots is their tendency to operate out of 11-personnel, or three wide receiver sets.
Led by a dynamic trio in wideouts Marvin Jones, Golden Tate, and Kenny Golladay, the Lions ran 74 percent of their passing plays out of 11-personnel last season, which ranked third in the NFL.
In short, Detroit runs a spacing based offense predicated on creating one-on-one matchups for their explosive playmakers to either take the top off the defense or create after the catch by moving horizontally.
And despite their poor execution this season, on paper, that’s a scary formula for the Patriots defense given their performance against the Jaguars.
Below, I will take you through some of the Lions’ core passing concepts to illustrate how Detroit will put their playmakers in situations to succeed against the Pats on Sunday night:
UNDERNEATH CLEAR-OUT ROUTES
Let’s start with the most important player in this matchup when the Lions have the ball: wide receiver Golden Tate.
Last season, Tate led the league with 631 yards after the catch, a frightening matchup for the Pats who just allowed 214 yards after the catch on Sunday in Jacksonville.
Detroit does run Tate on some bubble screens and other throws behind the line of scrimmage to get him into space, but their clear-out concepts are by far the most effective usage of Tate.
Here’s one of their favorite calls from last week’s loss against the 49ers. The Lions correctly assume that the Niners will drop into their cover-3 zone scheme that’s one of their staples on defense. Cooter lines up Golladay in the inside slot and Tate next to him in a more traditional slot alignment. The Lions then run a levels concept in the middle of the field. Golladay goes across on a medium crosser, and Tate fills in underneath him on a shallow crosser. Golladay occupies two Niner defenders with his route, pushing the underneath zone players upfield, and it leaves Tate with plenty of room to run underneath. The Niners defense closes on Tate before he can break this for a more significant gain, but he still picks up the first down on an easy five-yard pass for Stafford.
The levels concept above is a beautiful design by Cooter to scheme open space for Tate against zone coverage, but the Lions offensive coordinator also creates space for Tate in man coverage.
On this play from Week 1 vs. the Jets, Cooter spaces the field with a post/corner combination at the top of the screen to the strong side of the formation, pushing two receivers vertically up the field. Running back Theo Riddick then releases into the flat, and Marvin Jones runs a deep in-cut on the backside of the formation. As you can see, that opens up the middle of the field considerably and leaves Tate working out of the slot to run an in-breaking route over the middle. Tate shakes the defender at the top of the route to create separation against man coverage, and he’s got himself another catch-and-run situation.
Tate’s ability to create after the catch and get open with his route running garnered high-praise from head coach Bill Belichick on Wednesday.
“Golden’s excellent with the ball in his hands,” Belichick said.
Before adding, “he’s good without the ball in his hands, too. He gets open a lot, runs very good routes, he’s a hard guy to cover, but then once he touches the ball, he’s strong, he runs through contact, he’s fast, he’s quick, he changes directions well, and he has good vision.”
The Patriots will have to be physical with Tate at the line of scrimmage, and play with good leverage and a team approach to getting him on the ground.
USAGE OF STACKED RECEIVERS
After Belichick went on and on about Golden Tate, he eventually acknowledged that the other Lions pass catchers are also good with the ball in their hands, and for a good reason.
As you’ll see on the next play, wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who’s a large (6-4, 215 pounds) possession receiver can also move after the catch.
The Lions stack Tate and Golladay inside the numbers and at the snap Tate stems outside before cutting in, and Golladay goes up the field before going across. But notice what happens. By stemming outside, Tate is going to take the point man in the stack toward the sideline. That leaves the outside corner to run across the formation with Golladay, and he’s out-leveraged from the start. It creates easy separation for Golladay, and the deep post by Jones at the bottom of the screen clears space for Golladay to run after the catch. Jets cornerback Trumaine Johnson does an excellent job of running Golladay down from behind, but the alignment and the inside-out nature of the route stems gave the Lions an easy completion.
Stacked and bunch sets gave the Patriots problems against the Jaguars, and defensive back Jason McCourty acknowledged those struggles.
McCourty said, “it wasn’t really the same [the execution] from Week 1 to Week 2. They were able to catch us on some of them in the second game. They ran a lot more of them.”
It would behoove the Lions to take a page out of the Jaguars playbook and continue to make the Patriots pay for their continued struggles against these types of alignments.
DEEP TARGETS OFF OF LEVELS CONCEPT
Jim Bob Cooter’s favorite play call in the passing game is the levels concept, which gives Stafford two easy options over the middle and a “home run” option on the outside.
Belichick was extremely complimentary about Stafford’s ability to throw the deep ball calling him, “as good as there is in football,” on deep throws.
But it was Belichick’s next line that is the real difference maker with Stafford.
The coach said, “he does an excellent job of seeing down the field in all situations. No matter how much pressure he’s under, he seems to find guys down there.”
Stafford does do an excellent job of reading opposing defenses, and often sees things early in the down that tell him he can take shots to his receivers downfield, Marvin Jones in particular.
On this play from last season, Stafford is going to notice at the snap that the Giants two-high safety look is actually cover-1 as they rotate into a “rat” coverage after the snap. Stafford immediately realizes that this means Jones has single coverage on the outside with corner Eli Apple. The levels aspect comes at the top of the screen on the weak side of the formation with Golladay and Tate, that’s Stafford’s first read on this play, but he has the option to throw the ball to Jones on the go route if he likes the matchup. Jones does a terrific job of adjusting to the throw and high-pointing the ball for a touchdown.
These types of deep shots on the outside with corners on an island should look familiar to Patriots fans as the Jaguars threw at the Patriot corners in these situations many times on Sunday.
The Patriots performance against the Jaguars put the defensive renaissance that many were discussing in New England on hold for the time being.
The Lions, with a few game-plan specific wrinkles by offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, have the weapons on the outside and the schemes to take advantage of the weaknesses in the Patriots.
The question for Detroit is can they execute at a high-level?
The Jaguars, to their credit, played four quarters of terrific offensive football with great execution both with their schemed open situations and one-on-one matchups set up by play caller Nathaniel Hackett.
The Lions haven’t put that kind of consistent execution for 60 minutes on tape on either side of the ball in their first two games of the season.
But, in theory, they have the formula to move the ball up and down the field against the Patriots defense if the Pats don’t correct their mistakes from last week.