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The Detroit Lions Season of Hope
The Detroit Lions finished 2022 on a higher note than they've seen in a long time. Can they keep it up this season?
January 4th, 2014.
The Detroit Lions are driving early in the 4th quarter in their Wild Card game against the Dallas Cowboys. Up 20-17 and looking to extend their lead, it’s 3rd and one on the Dallas 46-yard line. Matthew Stafford takes the snap, completes the play action fake, and locates Brandon Pettigrew running a wheel route against Anthony Hitchens. Stafford fires downfield, and the ball hits Hitchens square in the back with Pettigrew trying to get back and falls incomplete.
This was the last time there was real hope for the Detroit Lions to win a playoff game….until now.
The Lions finished the 2022 season spoiling the playoff bid for Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers in his last game as a Packer at Lambeau Field. While the Lions missed the playoffs yet again, hope flickered anew.
After last year, The Lions saw themselves as the fifth-best offense in the NFL, according to Pro Football Reference. They were fifth in points scored (453), third in total yards (6460), fifth in yards per play (5.9), and fourth in first downs (376). This new era of offensive success was quarterbacked by Jared Goff, the QB the Lions got back in the Matthew Stafford trade. The same one that “put the governor” on Sean McVay’s offense. The secret sauce behind the offensive success? A relative unknown, Ben Johnson.
There’s quite the Johnson backstory, and in Detroit, it starts with Matt Patricia. For a look into the story of Ben Johnson and his impact on Jared Goff, there’s a fantastic feature written by Dan Pompei of the Athletic you can read here. Johnson never makes it about himself.
This offense that Johnson constructed in Detroit is built through a strong offensive line, a run-first team that runs more counter than most, and hitting play-action passes. The run scheme is about as diverse as it gets.
If you had to describe Ben Johnson’s run scheme in one word, it would be “Multiple.” They run anything and everything. It makes it increasingly hard to defend against when they can run any variation of any run out of any personnel package. Precisely what Johnson wants, this counter (second clip) from 13 personnel is a hallmark of the run game. They might run counter better than any team in the NFL; with an overload to the left side of the offensive line, the defense expects a run in that direction. Then comes the ‘Jet’ motion from left to right, bringing a defender with the man in motion and a linebacker off the line of scrimmage. This condenses the defense and turns the attention to the right side of the offensive line. The Lions pull #74, and Jamaal Williams takes this nearly 27 yards. It’s beautiful and allowed their play-action game to flourish.
The Lions weren’t only taking deep shots through play-action, they were attacking everywhere, and it showed. From Robert Mays on The Athletic Football Show, “The Lions’ play-action efficiency was .33 EPA per dropback last season. It was the exact same play-action efficiency they had on targets within five yards of the line of scrimmage.”
Watching the Lions run play-action on the goal line is beautiful. The Lions bring out 11 personnel with an under-center look and run a jet-sweep motion from left to right that puts the defense in a bind. The corner lined up on Amon-Ra St. Brown is shaded to his outside shoulder, and when the stacked receiver goes in motion, he becomes that corner’s responsibility. The defender following the motion player has to stop on the snap and react to St. Brown—advantage Lions. St. Brown stems inside, forcing the pause from the corner, then breaks outside for an easy TD.
Having a run game opposing defenses focus on allows the Lions to take advantage, especially when paired with aggressive linebackers. The “Dagger” concept is designed to attack the middle of the field. The Lions accomplish this with an added play-action fake out of 21 personnel. This brings in the linebackers and allows the “weak side” receiver to clear out the middle of any safeties. The primary receiver, St. Brown, runs a 15-yard “Dig” route into the vacated space, and Goff hits him for a significant gain.
The Lions’ number one receiver, St. Brown, isn’t the typical number one guy. He wasn’t an elite prospect, didn’t blow any anyway at the combine, and doesn’t “look the part.” But St. Brown was number one in the NFL on first downs per route run on third down. He’s an artist in these situations and regularly finds a way.
He was their guy when the Lions needed him and consistently got the job done. He’s part of the equation for Ben Johnson, a jack-of-all-trades receiver that has been molded into a catching machine for the Lions. With a passing game built upon play-action and option plays, the choices are almost limitless for the Lions.
All the movement, play-action, and options in the passing game are only as good as the QB operating it. Goff was labeled a QB whose hand needed to be held to the snap. Stories of McVay helping Goff read the coverages of each play echo through time before the 2022 season. Instead of accepting that that was who Goff was, they got together to sort out their future offense, find some plays Goff was comfortable with and liked, and build on those concepts. Reading defenses, an area that Goff struggled with, changed with the arrival of Johnson, and getting to see it thrive has been a welcome sight.
Building a passing attack off of option routes gives your players options; more importantly, they need to be able to feel and see their choices change in real-time. The Bills bring #52 and “mug” him up at the line of scrimmage but will drop him into coverage and blitz #58 instead. Goff signals an ‘alert’ before the snap, and #11 in the slot sees the defensive change after the snap. He cuts off his route and brings it to the sideline. Goff ID’s it, and they nearly convert for the first down. Now imagine Jahmyr Gibbs, the second of the Lions’ first-round picks, lining up in the slot on these plays. Sounds like a great time.
The bond between Goff and Johnson is unique, and what they’ve done on the football field is magical. They go into every game like a math test (the defense) and have the answers (Johnson’s scheme) written on their hand. Those answers have made it easier for Goff to get the ball out quickly and on time, but some skeletons are still in Goff’s closet…
They have a great offensive line, they’ve upgraded their backfield, and Johnson has had all offseason to scheme, plan, and build in counters against defenses they might see this season. The city of Detroit has been waiting for this team, and now it’s here—the season of hope.
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