Detroit Lions’ Targets, How And When The Lions Use Their Players

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A Deep Dive Into The Detroit Lions’ Targets And How They Are Distributed To Different Players.

I took a look last week at the Detroit Lions’ play calling tendencies and some of the situations where the Lions were predictable, and how that predictability hurt them. While doing some digging into the numbers, I came across some interesting stats about the Lions’ targets in specific situations for certain players. The more I looked into it, the more I found that the Lions had very defined roles for their pass catchers and when they are targeted.

These numbers aren’t nearly as rigid as the play calling, because a lot more goes into targeting a receiver. First comes the play call. The receiver has to run his route and create separation. Then Matthew Stafford has to see the receiver and throw to him. With so many different factors, targets tend to balance out a lot more than situational play calling. That said, play callers have tendencies. Quarterbacks have tendencies. That leads to trends for who Stafford throws to and when.

Last year, we saw Anquan Boldin become the third down hero. This year, with a changing landscape of offensive pass catchers, the Detroit Lions’ targets have been redistributed. There are some very interesting trends that give a pretty good idea of how Matthew Stafford and Jim Bob Cooter like to run the offense.

Please note that these targets are self-charted to account for targets that were taken away due to penalties. While these targets were ultimately nullified, the target was still intentional and provides an additional data point. These targets are not accounted for by any statistical databases I have found. I pulled the yards and conversion rates from Pro Football Reference.

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Player Trends

Golden Tate

Golden Tate receives the most steady target share in the Lions’ offense. While many players fade in and out of the game plan based on situations, Golden Tate always remains a focal point of the offense. He doesn’t lead the team in every scenario, but his target share is always among the leaders across situational splits.

Tate is the primary target on third down. He cedes some of his work in third and short situations to Theo Riddick, but overall remains Stafford’s favorite target in third down conversion situations. 44% of Golden Tate’s total targets come on third down.

On second down, Golden Tate has nine receptions on eleven targets. He has only converted two of these receptions for first downs. On second down, the Lions use Tate as a short yardage option with the ability to catch and run. So far, this has not translated into a high conversion rate. The Lions are using Tate to take second down plays and make third down situations more manageable.

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The Lions pass the ball slightly more in the first half than the second. This can be attributed primarily to the game against the Giants where the Lions  focused on running out the clock for the majority of the second half.

In terms of quarters, 60% of the Detroit Lions’ passes came in the second and fourth quarter. This is expected, given that the Lions often move to a hurry-up offense and let Matthew Stafford loose a little bit.

Compared to 60% of the Detroit Lions targets coming in the second and fourth quarter, 73% of Tate’s targets come during this time. Stafford tends to try and find Golden Tate in clutch situations, third downs and end-of-half/end-of-game situations. This further supports the idea that Stafford is most comfortable throwing the ball to Tate when he needs to make plays.

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Marvin Jones

Marvin Jones, used primarily as the Detroit Lions’ deep threat, has some pretty wild splits. Since Jones is the primary recipient of the Detroit Lions’ targets in the deep passing game, his usage gives us a good idea of what situations the Lions are trying to push the ball downfield.

Stafford throws the ball to Marvin Jones less and less as the Lions get closer to the sticks. With 11+ yards to go across all downs, Marvin Jones accounts for 24% of the Lions’ targets. In the seven to ten yard range, Jones accounts for 19% of the Lions’ targets. At four to six yards, he has an 8% target share. Finally, in short yardage situations, he has only a 5% share of the Detroit Lions’ targets.

90% of Marvin Jones targets come when the Lions need seven or more yards for a first down.

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The most interesting thing I found when diving into Marvin Jones’ targets is which downs the Lions decide to target him. Marvin Jones has a 31% target rate on first down. He has an 18% target rate on third down. On second down, Marvin Jones accounts for under 10% of the Detroit Lions’ targets. This is an absurdly low number for a player that many consider to be the second primary receiver in the offense.

It seems that the Lions are throwing the ball down the field more on first and second down than they are on third down. This is interesting, because generally second down is a safe time to take a shot down field. If the offense gains yards on first down, they can take a shot on second. If the play winds up incomplete, they can come back to a third and manageable. The Lions’ problem thus far has been that they aren’t producing yards on first down. This leads to Marvin Jone largely disappearing on second down.

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Kenny Golladay

On second down, as a whole, no receiver has more than 17% target share. This number changes significantly if you look at the games when Kenny Golladay played vs. when he didn’t play. On games when Kenny Golladay playing, he received 29% of the Detroit Lions’ targets. Those are primary wide receiver numbers. Golladay is clearly not the Lions’ primary receiver. This number stood out to me.

More interesting to me, 75% of Kenny Golladay’s total targets came on second down. This is a very strange split. This type of number almost never exists with the sample size that he has. It is a small sample size, but not so small that you would expect this wide of a split. Beyond this, this type of number is something you may expect to see in third down situations.  Third downs require a specific skill set that lends a little more to the situation. Second down is a down where a team can do anything, you don’t expect to see a wild split like this.

It seems that this is more of a Jim Bob Cooter decision than a Matthew Stafford decision. This is entirely my opinion, but it would seem strange for Matthew Stafford to specifically lock in on a target on a non conversion down. This seems more like second down is a situation where Jim Bob Cooter feels comfortable testing out a rookie. It doesn’t put the set of downs in the hole, and it doesn’t push the Lions into fourth down. I don’t really have a perfect explanation for why Golladay’s usage has been so strict. It is a strange number.

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Theo Riddick

Theo Riddick is an interesting case to me, because his usage seems to defy the narrative. Riddick, because his skill set lends significantly more to catching the ball and working in open field than it does running the football from behind Matthew Stafford, is often considered to be a third down back, or a passing down back at the very least. I don’t disagree with the premise, but the results don’t seem to agree with that thinking.

On first down, Riddick has a 20% target share. On second down, that number drops to 14%. In third down situations, Theo Riddick accounts for just under 13% of the Detroit Lions’ targets. Riddick’s relative usage decreases with every down. There are a few explanations for this.

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The first and most obvious explanation is that Riddick has been relinquishing work on third downs in order to help protect Matthew Stafford. Zenner has been getting increased playing time on third downs in order to help keep Stafford upright. This is cutting into Theo Riddick’s work on third downs, a down where Riddick had seen a lot of work in the past.

The second explanation is the lack of situations where the Lions have had third and short opportunities. Riddick generally is very involved in these situations, and they have been few and far between this year. The Lions are often in a hole on third down, which is limiting the amount of usage Riddick can get as more of a check down option. The poor pass blocking compounds this issue, leading to a greater need for pass protection out of the running backs.

The number that surprised me most is the 20% target share on first down. Abdullah gets the bulk of the work running the football on first down. With Riddick accounting for a fifth of the Lions’ targets in this situation, this number becomes more eye opening. Riddick is getting a heavy dose of the passing work when he is in the game on first down. This speaks to the conservative nature of the passing game in first down situations.

In those first down situations, of seven targets, Theo Riddick has five receptions for three first downs on seven targets. He has been very effective in these situations.

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TJ Jones

TJ Jones has emerged as one of the primary targets for Matthew Stafford in short to manageable situations. With six or less yards to go to get a first down, TJ Jones is second on the team with 19% of the Detroit Lions’ targets. For a player that isn’t on the field nearly as often as the primary two receivers and backs, this is an interesting number. It seems that Jones has carved out a niche for himself in the short passing game. It will be interesting to see if this continues once Kenny Golladay is back and healthy.

The other interesting number with TJ Jones is that 71% of his targets come in the second half. The Lions overall targets are slightly more prevelant in the first half, so this is a significant number. Jones primarily gets his work late in the game, presumably when the Lions start adding extra receivers to the field to air the ball out.

Golladay doesn’t have this kind of difference. It seems that the coaching staff is more inclined to get their rookie receiver on the field than they are TJ Jones. If Jones continues to produce at the rate that he has been, and continues to excel in his short to manageable yardage role, he may continue to see the field, even after Golladay’s return.

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Situational Trends

Detroit Lions’ Targets On First Down

To give you a baseline for understanding the Detroit Lions’ target’s, a teams’ leading receiver generally top out at around 25% target rates. The most targeted players in the league, players like Odell Beckham, sometimes push close to 29%. Last year, Golden Tate lead the team with 22% of the Detroit Lions’ targets.

On first down, Marvin Jones has 31% of the Detroit Lions’ targets. He accounts for almost a third of the total target share on first down. This is an exceptionally high rate. This is especially interesting, because most people don’t generally consider Marvin Jones the primary target for the Lions. Golden Tate usually takes that title.

It makes sense to try and get the ball to your primary receiver on first down when passing the ball. Rather than target Golden Tate, Stafford and the Lions lean heavily in favor of Marvin Jones.

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Together, Marvin Jones and Golden Tate account for just a hair shy of 50% of the Lions target share on first and ten.

Stafford targets Theo Riddick 20% of the time and Ameer Abullah 11 % of the time. Between the Lions’ top two receivers and whichever back is in the backfield, 81% if the Detroit Lions’ first down targets are accounted for.

This is a pretty telling statistic. Essentially, it appears that Stafford has a primary or favorite receiver on first down, and if that receiver isn’t open, he targets his running back. Marvin Jones makes an important appearance here. He is one of a few players that have very specific situations where they receive targets. First down is one of those situations.

Detroit Lions’ Targets On Second Down

On second and manageable, second with four to six yards to go, TJ Jones commands a surprising 38% of the target share. This is not a number that you expect to see out of a WR3/WR4. In those same situations, Golden Tate receives 23% of the Detroit Lions’ targets. No other receiver has more than an 8% share of the targets in second down and manageable.

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On the year, if you include games where Kenny Golladay didn’t play, no receiver has more than a 17% target share over the course of the season on second down. Stafford has spread the ball around.He tends to favor specific receivers in specific situations on second down, and he tends to feel more comfortable throwing to Kenny Golladay on second down, but this down, more than any other, is one where Stafford targets a variety of different receivers.

Detroit Lions’ Targets On Third Down

Third down has been a problem for the Detroit Lions this year. Jim Bob Cooter’s play calling has lacked creativity. The Lions’ offense has failed to execute properly on a number of occasions. Fans haven’t had a whole lot to be excited about on third down this year. The Detroit Lions’ targets give us a good look into what the Lions’ are trying to do on third down.

On third down with three or less yards to go, Matthew Stafford targets Theo Riddick 36% of the time. He targets Golden Tate an additional 29% of the time. They combine for 65% of the total target share on third and short. Almost two out of every three passes are going to one of these two players. Third and short is often a situation where the offensive coordinator tries to draw up the plays that he is most confident in. It’s a situation where the quarterback targets the players that he feels most comfortable with. Theo Riddick and Golden Tate appear to be those guys.

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On third and four to six, third and manageable, Golden Tate has an outrageous 44% of the teams targets. This is interesting to me, because of the large split on second and manageable. Both the “and-manageable” situations are heavily favored to a single player. TJ Jones receives a huge piece of the pie on second down in these situations and, Tate has an even larger share on third down. It’s tough to say whether Jim Bob Cooter dictates this through his play calling, or Stafford has guys that he likes in these situations. With how wide the splits are, it is probably a little bit of both.

On third down, with eleven or more yards to the sticks, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones combine for 69% of the Detroit Lions’ targets. Basically, on third and long, it is a safe bet that Stafford is targeting one of his top two receivers. This wouldn’t be unusual for most teams, but it is for the Lions. The Lions offense has so many different options in the passing game, that this large of a target share, the largest of any two receivers in a single situation, gives a good picture of what the Lions like to do in these situations.

Matthew Stafford targets Marvin Jones on deep routes past the sticks on third and long situations. Golden Tate functions as more of a check down option with the potential to run for the first down.

On third down as a whole, Golden Tate establishes himself as the primary option with a 33% share of the Detroit Lions’ targets on third down.

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What This Means

While the Detroit Lions’ targets as a whole are distributed fairly evenly, they definitely have tendencies that they like to come back to. Jim Bob Cooter and Matthew Stafford have specific players that they like in specific situations. These numbers give an idea as to what Stafford and Cooter are looking for in different down and distance situations. It also gives a good idea of what specific roles the players have carved out for themselves in the offense.

Theo Riddick is primarily a first down check down option, or a go-to target on third and short.

Kenny Golladay gets most of his work on second down and receives targets in both the deep passing game and the short to intermediate game.

Matthew Stafford targets Marvin Jones almost exclusively in situations where the Lions need seven or more yards to get a first down. He gets almost no work on second down, giving up much of his work to Golladay.

TJ Jones, worked his way into a nice role as a target for Matthew Stafford on downs with manageable distance to the first down. He does most of his damage late in games and accounts for a lot of the Lions’ production on second and four to six yards to go.

Golden Tate, the only true standard in the Lions passing game, receives significant work across all situations. That said, he receives most of his targets in third down situations, end of game situations, and end of half situations. He is Stafford’s go-to receiver in the big moments.

These numbers all contribute to the larger picture of what the Detroit Lions’ identity is in the passing game. Some of these numbers will change significantly over the course of the season. That is a good thing. That means that Cooter is adapting his offense to what is working and what is not. Through five games, this is what the Lions offense looks like. This is how the Lions like to use their players.

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Thanks for checking out the article everyone. Go Lions! You can follow me on Twitter @Lanny1925 and be sure to join the community on the Detroit Lions subreddit.


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About the Author

Sean Lanigan
I love fantasy football, fantasy baseball, music, books, video games, and all things nerd. I'm a big football fan and a bigger Detroit Lions fan. I was born in Michigan but have spent the vast majority of my life living in Viking and Packer country. If you are a Lions fan in Minnesota, hit me up, and let's watch some football.