Despite Stafford’s Return, the Key to the Offense is Best

“There goes the season.”  Those were my exact words when Matthew Stafford emerged from the Soldier Field locker room with his arm in a sling on Opening Weekend.  The Lions weren’t talented enough to compete with most teams and the only edge they had was their young explosive offense led by their franchise quarterback.  The defense wasn’t good enough to carry the team and the offense would be a mess without Stafford.  Wrong.

The defensive line has elevated the whole defense, though I’m still skeptical, the secondary is better than expected.  The linebackers have been awful, but they are starting to get healthier.  After six games the Lions have just one win, but more importantly had a legitimate shot to win four of their other games with two minutes left in the game.  The team is competitive again, that is actually the easiest part of rebuilding.  If moral victories counted in the standings, the Lions would be in first place.  When you talk about actually winning games, the devil is in the details.

Every Sunday, the experts and the analysts tell fans that the NFL is a passing league and you can’t win if you can’t throw.  Fair enough, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Consider this:

  • Peyton Manning has presided over one of the top passing games in the league for a decade.  He has one Super Bowl win. 
    • The Colts rushing offense ranked 18th in 2006, the championship season, they ranked 32nd last year when they lost the Super Bowl.
  • Drew Brees and the Saints have cumulatively had the best passing game in the league for the last four years, they had two seasons with winning records in that span with one Super Bowl win. 
    • The Saints’ record and rushing rank in those years:
      • 2006: 10-6, 19th in rushing ,went to NFC Championship Game
      • 2007: 7-9, 28th in rushing, missed playoffs
      • 2008: 8-8, 28th in rushing, missed playoffs
      • 2009: 13-3, 6th in rushing, won Super Bowl
  • The New England Patriots had the most potent passing game in NFL history, going 16-0, setting the single season passing and receiving touchdown records.  They lost the Super Bowl.
    • The Patriots’ rushing rank in their three Super Bowl winning seasons:
      • 2001: 13th in rushing
      • 2003: 27th in rushing  *Rushing yards in Super Bowl 38: 127 yards
      • 2004: 7th in rushing
    • The Patriots’ rushing rank in their 16-0 season:
      • 2007: 13th in rushing *Rushing yards in Super Bowl 42: 45 yards

The passing game can only carry a team so far, a one dimensional offense can be contained, even if it’s the best one dimensional offense in history (2007 Patriots.)  The Lions have to establish offensive balance or Stafford’s return may not have much of an effect.  Here are the top seven passing teams in the NFL as of today and their records:

  1. San Diego Chargers  2-5
  2. Indianapolis Colts  4-2
  3. Denver Broncos  2-5
  4. Dallas Cowboys  1-5
  5. New Orleans Saints  4-3
  6. Cincinnati Bengals  2-4
  7. Detroit Lions  1-5

Total Record: 16-29

Here are the top seven rushing teams.

  1. Kansas City Chiefs  4-2
  2. New York Jets  5-1
  3. Oakland Raiders  3-4
  4. New York Giants  5-2
  5. Houston Texans  4-2
  6. Atlanta Falcons  5-2
  7. Minnesota Vikings  2-4

Total Record: 28-17

The Lions’ issue running the football hasn’t been a lack of talent, but trying to get too creative with the play calls.  Jahvid Best and Chris Johnson draw a lot of comparisons in the league, and if you look at how their teams use them there are very few similarities.

The Titans run a lot of traditional power running plays with Johnson hitting the hole quickly and using his speed to get into the second and third level before the defense can react.  The Lions are running Best on misdirection or delayed handoffs trying to get the defense to move away from the direction the play is headed.  The issue with the Lions’ play calls are threefold. 

First, they rarely run any traditional running plays where Best just takes the handoff and hits the hole.  So the defense isn’t fooled by the misdirection plays because there’s no reason to go after the fake.  It’s similar to teams that can’t run the ball using play action, if the defense isn’t worried about the run, they won’t react to the fake.  The Lions have to establish a more traditional running attack before the misdirection plays work.

The second issue with the play calling is it negates Best’s biggest advantage, his speed.  When Best is getting the ball on plays that require him to cut behind the line of scrimmage or on delays where the handoff occurs a second or two after the snap, the defense has time to flow to the ball.  Best’ speed gives him a huge edge over the defense, but these play calls basically give the defense a head start if they don’t fall for the fake.

The last issue relates to the offensive line.  The misdirection plays and delayed handoffs are far more difficult to block than more traditional running plays.  They require more precise timing and if one player makes a mistake it throws off the whole play.  The Lions offensive line hasn’t played together enough to hae the type of cohesion these play calls require.  Gosder Cherilus was in and out of the lineup last year, Stephen Peterman missed a lot of time with injury and Rob Sims wasn’t even on the team.  Three out of five lineman haven’t spent significant time playing together, that’s a pretty big gap in chemistry.

An effective running game opens up so many more possibilities for the offense and defense.  The Lions have had double digit leads a few times this season that slipped away because the offense went three and out too often.  The deep passing game has been limited because teams are still focusing on defending the deep ball and keeping both safeties deep rather than dropping one in the box.  The running game also slows down the pass rush because the defense has to read run or pass, they don’t bother reading run if they aren’t afraid of it.

Stafford’s return is a huge boost to the Lions, obviously, but for him to really make an impact in the win column he’s going to need a strong running game to support him.


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