The Causes And Explanations For The Detroit Lions’ Offensive Struggles With A Deep Dive Into Play Calling, Tendencies, And Effectiveness.
So far this season, the Detroit Lions have looked like a legitimate contender. Surprisingly to most fans, including myself, it has been the defense that has been the savior of this team. The offense has flashed the explosiveness that we had hoped for going into the year, but it has not been a consistent and reliable force throughout games.
Though the team has shown dedication to the run, it has been largely ineffective for stretches of the last four weeks.
Though we know the heights that Stafford is capable of, his passing production, and sometimes efficiency, have not been what many fans had hoped for at the beginning of the season.
A poor third down conversion rate has killed drives consistently. The outside zone runs have been generally abysmal. The offense has shown the potential that it has, but has ultimately failed to live up to expectations thus far, despite continuing to do enough to win games.
There has been a lot of talk about tipping off run plays, predictable play calling, bad play calling etc. After looking deep into the teams’ situational tendencies, there are pretty clear explanations for why this team is struggling in certain situations and how that leads to the Lions’ offensive struggles in general. I decided to break drives into down and distance and find the situations in which the Lions were either ineffective or predictable and determine why drives have seemed so difficult to sustain over the first quarter of the year.
Lions’ Offensive Struggles On First Down
The Lions have either had an unfortunate draw with penalties on first down (possible), or they have been one of the most undisciplined teams in those situations (equally possible). Either way, the Detroit Lions have largely put themselves at a disadvantage on first down. Whether it is starting a drive, or trying to sustain one, being in unfavorable first down situations can dictate play calling and significantly decreases a teams chances of moving the sticks.
On first down, obviously teams tend to average very close to ten yards-to-go for obvious reasons. 4.7% of the time, they have less than ten yards to go, due to penalties or and-goal-situations. 4.2% of the time they have more than ten yards to go. Basically, teams are just about as likely to get a penalty that moves them closer as they are to get a penalty that moves them farther away. This ends up mostly cancelling out, and for most teams, isn’t an important statistic.
For the Detroit Lions, this is definitely an important statistic. The Lions face first and less than ten yards to go only 2.6% of the time, 81% below league average.
The Lions face first and more than ten yards to go 8.5% of the time. That is over double the league average. The Lions’ offensive struggles begin here, on first down.
The Lions are hurting themselves with penalties and beginning drives in the hole. These numbers don’t seem big until you think about the fact that the Detroit Lions are twice as likely to have a penalty that starts them in first and long. They are also almost half as likely to start first and short. This isn’t just starting a drive, this is any first down, at any point in a drive. Penalties on first down can significantly hinder a teams’ ability to get into third and manageable situations. These situations are paramount to sustaining long drives.
While a teams’ discipline has to be held accountable for penalties in most situations, play calling is a likely contributor to this. The Lions’ tendencies to run play action against heavy rushes on first down, and their tendency to run longer developing run plays, like the outside zone plays, do not do offensive linemen any favors. The play calling is putting the team in situations that cause them to be more likely to commit penalties.
First Down Play Calling
First down play calling has been absurdly predictable. The numbers are nothing short of jaw-dropping when formation is taken into account. The Lions’ offensive struggles have largely been a product of these ridiculous splits.
When the Lions line up on first down in either the pistol or under center, they have run the ball 59 times. In those same situations, they have thrown the ball just 13 times. If the Lions are in either the pistol formation, or if Stafford is lined up under center, they run the ball 82% of the time.
On those 13 passing plays, 12 of them have been play action passes. This means that, in those situations, the Lions have only attempted one non-play action pass.
When the Lions are lined up in shotgun, they have thrown the ball 23 times, including two play action passes. They have run the ball only nine times. Out of the shotgun on first down, the Lions throw the ball 72% of the time.
The Lions line up under center or in the pistol 69% of the time on first down. That split is even more concerning when you remove obvious passing situations like the Lions had in the Atlanta and Arizona game. In these situations the Lions were playing catch-up and utilized the shotgun far more often.
For anyone who was looking for play call tipping, look no further. These are egregious splits. No need to look at where the Lions are putting their tight ends or what personnel is on the field. On first down, you can pretty much determine run or pass based on where Matthew Stafford is lined up. This is not a recipe for successful plays. Combined, with the increased number of times that the Detroit offense has started with more than ten yards to go, the Lions really put themselves in a bad spot on first down.
First Down Effectiveness
Now that we have determined what plays the Lions are calling, lets look at how effective they have been with those plays.
Typically, when a team runs the ball, they are looking to gain at least four yards. That is the benchmark for a successful run play. When the Lions run the ball out of the pistol or with Stafford under center, they successfully gain four yards or more on only 34% of their run plays. Only one out of every three run plays on first down gives the team the desired result.
On the flip side, 36% of those same runs end up in either a loss of yards or a zero yard gain. The Lions are actually more likely to get less than a yard than they are to have a successful running play in these situations. It hasn’t stopped the offense from continually conforming to these tendencies.In all, the Lions average only 2.1 yards per run play when they are running the ball in those formations on first down, which they do at an alarming rate.
Play action passing is the most concerning of all of my play calling findings. When the Lions are in the pistol or under center on first down, they have called 12 play action passes. The defense sacked Matthew Stafford five times. Another play resulted in holding. All in all, the Lions have actually lost a total of 24 yards on these 12 plays. They lose an average of two yards every time they call a play action pass in those situations.
The singular non play action pass play was incomplete. This actually brings up the Lions yards per pass play in this situation.
Out of the shotgun, the Lions were more successful running the ball, granted with a smaller sample size. Of the nine runs, two were plays that gained more than four yards and one was a play that gained less than a yard. The Lions average four yards per run play running the ball out of the shotgun, far more effective than the 2.1 they average otherwise.
Passing the ball is also more effective for the Lions out of the shotgun. Part of this can obviously be contributed to the fact that they use the shotgun more when the defense is playing prevent or off coverage based on game situations, but passing the ball out of the shotgun is still remarkably more effective for the Lions. Stafford has dropped back 23 times, good for 193 yards. Any positive yardage here is an improvement.
These numbers clearly show that when the Lions diverge from their strict first down tendencies, they are far more successful. When they stick with running the ball from under center or out of the pistol on first down, the defense knows what is coming. Play action passes have been universally unsuccessful, because defenses blitz and sell out to stop the run. Play action passes take longer to develop and Stafford is put in situations where he is under fire before he can even scan the defense.
Typically play action is effective when a team is expecting a run. You want to get linebackers out of position and get receivers behind defenders. Against the blitz, often this doesn’t work, because teams know that they are rushing their linebackers, and players are ready to cover for them. When you don’t have to respect a quick pass on first down, you can afford to sell out your linebackers. That is what teams have been doing to the Lions.
With the Lions’ offensive struggles on first down, the team is often in a bad situation on second down. The Lions’ average yards to the sticks on second down is 9.1. Outside of moving the sticks on first down, the Lions average less than a yard on first down. That is a really good way to bring drives to a halt.
To make matters worse, The Lions are facing second down with 11 or more yards to go 23.9% of the time. Almost one out of every four second down plays features an offense that has more yards to go than when they started.
Ideally, after first and second down, a team has put itself in a manageable position to convert on third down. The league averages having six or less yards to go on third down about 50.8% of the time. The Lions are at a meager 33.3% of the time. Two out of every three third down opportunities, they are facing third and long. their average yards to the first down marker is 8.9 yards on third down, just over a yard from where they started.
The Lions’ offensive struggles have largely been attributed to third down conversion rate. This is true, but there is more to it than that. The Lions are doing a poor job of putting themselves in favorable situations for third down. Compared to league average, the Lions have done fairly well on third down in the individual situations, they just aren’t putting themselves in the better positions to convert.
Stafford has converted passes for 11 first downs on 17 attempts with six or fewer yards to go. With seven or more yards to go, he has converted only 6 first downs on 27 passing attempts.
The strange part of this, is that while the Lions run consistently on first down, they don’t bother to try and convert third down plays on the ground. Through 11 third downs with four or less yards to go, the Lions have only run twice. They have not run the ball on third down with four to six yards to go.
When teams know that you won’t try to run the ball on third and short, they can key in on the pass. This is another contributing factor to the Lions’ third down conversion rate. Even when they put themselves in favorable situations on third down, the defense knows what is coming. There are very few curve balls coming from Jim Bob Cooter on third down.
Third Down Targeting
Anquan Boldin was obviously a huge loss for the Lions in this past off season. He was a threat in the red zone, but more importantly it seems, a threat on third downs. With Boldin no longer on the team, Stafford had to find different ways to convert.
Two of Matthew Stafford’s favorite targets on third down are also two of the most ineffective third down converters. Stafford has targeted Golden Tate 15 times out of his 45 third down passing attempts. Tate has only converted six of these passes into first downs.
Similarly, Stafford has targeted Theo Riddick six times and has only converted one of those targets into first downs.
While fans hold both these players in high esteem, they were among the worst converters of first downs last year as well. Tate converted only 14 of his 42 targets. Riddick gained a first down on only three of his 16 targets. Those were among the worst on the team. The important thing to note here is that Tate and Riddick are Stafford’s best “catch and run” targets. Stafford is often throwing short of the sticks and asking his pass catchers to get yards after the catch. While his completion percentage is adequate, the team often fails to pick up first downs.
On the other side of things, two of the most criticized Detroit Lions have been among the best at picking up first downs. Eric Ebron has had three first downs on five targets. This is a small sample size, but Ebron also converted 17 of 26 last year. He was quietly among their most efficient receivers on third down.
Stafford has targeted Marvin Jones nine times on third down. He has converted four of those. Last year, he converted 17 of 28.
The Lions are focusing in on Golden Tate, Marvin Jones, and Theo Riddick on third down. This may not be surprising, because they are among the Lions’ top options. What is surprising is the ridiculous inefficiencies of two of those receivers. This may be on the play calling. This may be on Stafford. It’s tough to pin down blame here. What is clear is that the Lions are throwing the ball short of the sticks and it is resulting in fourth downs.
Lions’ Offensive Struggles In Review
Third down has been a problem for the Lions. These problems stem from their first down failures. Everything stems from first down. The teams’ problems on first down come directly from predictable play calling. These are the tendencies that teams are recognizing. If I’m seeing them, you better believe that the people who get paid to look at these things are recognizing them. This probably contributes to the lack of success that the Lions’ offensive struggles on first down.
One key area of improvement is that the Lions need to stop committing penalties on first down. That may mean more disciplined play. That may mean different play calling. It may mean both. Continually being forced to dig out of first and long is a recipe for failure. It is a recipe that the Lions have tried far too many times.
Second down should be a bridge play. It should be either picking up a first down, or building on the previous down. Second down has been a recovery down for the Lions. More often than not, they are not aiming for the first. They are not trying to build on first down. They are trying to get back the yards they lost on the previous down. This has to change.
While it starts with first down, the philosophy needs to change on second down. Getting to third and nine has not been an effective course of action thus far. It shouldn’t be expected to be effective. The Lions need to position themselves better so that they can open their playbook a bit on third down.
Third down conversions are a problem. Better situations mean more conversions. That said, better play calling means more conversions as well. The Lions have to run the ball on third and short from time to time. It may not be effective all the time, but passing the ball hasn’t either. Running the ball will make passing more effective.
Setting up the run is only effective if you actually throw the ball. If you run the ball every time on first down, what are you setting up? The Lions need to diversify their play calling and let the other team believe that any play could go either way. Running the ball only in certain situations doesn’t fool anyone. It doesn’t help the offense and it hasn’t been effective.
*While most stats were manually collected, Pro Football Reference was used during the data collection process*