The Detroit Lions Passing Offense Has Shown It Can Be Lethal In A Variety Of Ways.
The Detroit Lions have excelled on both sides of the ball through the first two weeks of the NFL season. The defense has obviously been the more surprising of the two but the offense has been pleasantly effective as well. While the first game of the season against the Arizona Cardinals was technically a “fourth quarter comeback,” it didn’t have the feel of the nail-biters from 2016. This team looked to be in control much earlier in the game than they usually did in 2016.
The defense deserves credit for a lot of this but the offense, after a few bumps in the road early in week one, appears to be rolling on all cylinders.
2016 Detroit Lions Passing Offense
The wide receiver screens in 2016 were hard to watch. I understood their purpose but that didn’t make them any easier to stomach. They were meant to replace a struggling running game. They did, to varying degrees of success. Many hoped that with the return of Ameer Abdullah, the running game would be enough to spare fans the constant screens. So far, that has been the case.
There was a lot made of the loss of Anquan Boldin, a vital piece to the 2016 Detroit Lions’ passing offense. He was the primary red zone target and also had the highest catch rate in the red zone of any receiver with more than one target in this area. He was an important factor on third down. Boldin was the safety target for Matthew Stafford throughout the 2016 season. That production, as well as the veteran leadership that he brought to the team, are tough to replace. Many, myself included, wondered how the Lions would fill that void.
2017 Detroit Lions Passing Offense
As it appears, very early in the season, the Lions were content to not fill Anquan Boldin’s role at all. Instead, they replaced it with a more varied passing offense. While target distribution last year was fairly consistent with this year, the targets are much less role defined. Boldin was primarily a red zone and third down target. Golden Tate saw a lot of targets but a lot of those were gadget plays and screen passes. Marvin Jones saw mostly deep balls.
This year, the only role that seems to be the same is for Marvin Jones. He still remains primarily a deep threat. He still holds the lowest catch rate among the primary Detroit Lions pass catchers. This comes with the role that he has in the offense. The new thing is that the Lions passing offense seems ready to go anywhere in any given week, on any given play.
In week one, the Arizona Cardinals inexplicably asked Patrick Peterson to shadow Marvin Jones for the majority of the game. I say “inexplicably”, because I don’t agree with having one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks shadow a deep threat wide receiver with an already low catch rate.
That effectively took Marvin Jones away for the game. Jones ended the game with only two targets, both completions, one for a touchdown. Stafford started looking elsewhere and targeted Marvin Jones only when he was confident in his ability to complete the pass.
By using Patrick Peterson to neutralize Marvin Jones, the Arizona Cardinals left Golden Tate in a favorable match up. Matthew Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter capitalized and that resulted in Golden Tate seeing a whopping eleven targets. Stafford was efficient, completing ten of the eleven targets.
After Tate, Riddick and Golladay both saw significant targets, racking up seven each. It was looking like Golden Tate was going to be a target hog for 2017 and the offense would run through him. The running game struggled and Tate excels in the underneath, high percentage, catch-and-run type of routes.
Against the New York Giants in week two, the Lions didn’t need to throw the ball as much as usual. The defense was stout throughout the game. The special teams unit stepped up. There wasn’t much left for the offense to do other than finish the game.
The Lions ran the ball to run the clock, and took to the air sparingly. With the New York Giants top cornerback Janoris Jenkins not playing, Matthew Stafford was free to target whichever receiver he decided. The Detroit Lions passing offense took new form.
Against the New York Giants, Golden Tate shared the title of “most targeted” with Eric Ebron and Marvin Jones with five. Kenny Golladay came in with four, and Theo Riddick gathered three targets. Rather than spamming Golden Tate with targets, as Matthew Stafford did in week one with Patrick Peterson lined up across from Marvin Jones, Stafford targeted all of his options around the entire field.
This just goes to show that while play calling was ultimately uninspired last year, the Lions have the weapons to exploit mismatches and use a variety of different receivers across all situations. This is something that we didn’t see last year to the extent that we have seen it through the first two weeks of 2017.
Detroit Lions Passing Offense In The Red Zone
Things are obviously going to change over the course of the season. Stafford will develop tendencies. He will find his favorite and most reliable targets. For now, the Lions passing offense in the red zone has been about as varied and effective as it can possibly be.
So far, Matthew Stafford has attempted five passes in the red zone. Each of those passes has gone to a different target. Ebron, Jones, Riddick, Tate, and Golladay have each been targeted a single time in the red zone. Each of those passes have been completed. Four out of five of those passes were for touchdowns.
Mathhew Stafford’s stat line: 5/5 to five different receivers with 4 touchdowns. The Lions’ passing offense didn’t need to replace Anquan Boldin, it just needed to diversify. It appears as though it has.
Detroit Lions Passing Offense Going Forward
Look for Matthew Stafford to target different receivers heavily in some games and spread the ball around evenly in others. Golden Tate is still Stafford’s primary target but the Lions pass catchers are not as role defined as they were last year. Look for Stafford to target weak defenders rather than targeting his favorite receivers. When match ups do not heavily favorite a specific receiver, we will probably see a lot more of what we saw against the New York Giants in week two.