All offseason the conventional wisdom has been that the Lions would use a lot more 12 personnel this year. The Lions invested heavily in the tight end position this offseason. They brought in free agent Darren Fells from the Cardinals. They also drafted rookie Michael Roberts out of Toledo in the fifth round of the draft.
The common assumption is that the team will utilize one of those two players as the in line tight end while using Eric Ebron as the move tight end. In this formation, Ebron is essentially a giant slot receiver. It is a slightly more run friendly formation than using Ebron as the only tight end, with a traditional slot receiver.
There is a configuration that could yield even better results, however. When running the ball last season the Lions would often bring in an offensive tackle to fill the role of the move tight end. This player would be off the line, on the weak side of the formation, and would act as the lead blocker on running plays.
The Lions’ investment in the position was for two reasons. The first is to no longer need an offensive tackle to fill this role. The second is that this formation the Jim Bob Cooter offense’s primary running formation.
Just adding Fells would have made Eric Ebron the primary move tight end. Ebron is many things, one of them is a terrible blocker. When they were serious about running the ball the team would have still needed to trot an offensive tackle out to get the job done.
Michael Roberts Makes This Formation Better
The addition of Michael Roberts gives the Lions not just one solid blocking tight end but two. Roberts has shown that he is not just a blocker in the preseason. He has served as Jake Rudock‘s safety blanket in the passing game on the Lions second team offense. He has been getting open not just as an outlet, but downfield as well.
Nobody expects Roberts to block as well as an offensive tackle. It is his ability as a receiver that is more valuable to the running game. Having a genuine receiving threat in the move tight end position in running situations will keep teams honest. There was no need to cover Cornelius Lucas or Corey Robinson.
Teams do need to cover Michael Roberts. The moment of hesitation by a linebacker, while they read run/pass, will be the difference between meeting a runner in the hole for little or no gain and allowing a crease for Ameer Abdullah to squeeze through for a big play.
Michael Roberts has the potential to be a game changing player without touching the ball simply by allowing Jim Bob Cooter to use his playbook more effectively. He gives the Lions an option that does not completely sacrifice blocking or eliminate a receiving option from the play. That could be one of the keys to the Lions achieving a respectable running game in 2017.
This grouping also allows the Lions to easily keep both of their starting receivers off the line of scrimmage. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate both struggle with press coverage. By lining both tight ends up on the line, they can buy their wide outs an extra yard of wiggle room against teams that press, while also keeping the defense guessing with a balanced formation. The Lions did this with other players on a few occasions against the Patriots. Look for this grouping to appear when the Lions get serious about running the ball.