New coach. New system. New weapons.
Those are just a few things that describe the Detroit Lions offense next season.
It’s hard to imagine an offense that ranked fifth in yards per game and 13th in scoring to get much better, but the Lions have done so this offseason, thanks to two big moves.
Those acquisitions were the addition of Golden Tate via free agency and tight end Eric Ebron in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft.
The two will be a great addition to a passing offense that didn’t have a reliable receiving threat outside of Calvin Johnson, who has accumulated a league-best 3,456 yards and 19 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
The running back duo of Joique Bell and Reggie Bush each crossed the 500-yard receiving mark, making them the second- and third-leading receivers on the team. Outside of those three players, the Lions didn’t have a reliable weapon on offense. The second most productive wide receiver after Johnson was Kris Durham, who had an underwhelming 490 yards.
Detroit thought that they were getting a building block for the future when they selected tight end Brandon Pettigrew with the 20th overall selection in the 2009 NFL draft. After starting off his career posting solid numbers, the big tight end has seen his numbers slowly decline in recent years.
Detroit re-signed him to a four-year deal this offseason in hopes that he can turn things around.
He still has the potential to make an impact, but the Lions will have to figure out why in 2013 he posted his lowest yardage total (416) and fewest number of touchdowns (two) since his rookie season.
Many can point to Matthew Stafford’s 19 interceptions and attempt to place the blame for the offensive struggles on him, but his turnovers and below-average completion rate aren’t entirely his fault. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), 58 of his passes were dropped last season, which was the highest number for any quarterback in the NFL.
That’s where the new scheme and offseason improvement in personnel are going to come into play for an offense that could be on the cusp of being one of the league’s best.
On March 12, the Lions inked former Seattle Seahawks receiver Tate to a five-year, $31 million contract with $13.25 million guaranteed, per Rotoworld. Tate, who hauled in 64 receptions for 898 yards and five touchdowns last season (led the Seahawks in all three categories), is expected to be the No. 2 receiver Detroit has wanted for years.
Last season, Tate was one of the most reliable receivers in the NFL. According to PFF, Tate dropped just three passes all year, giving him a drop rate of 4.48, which was fifth best in the league.
New offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, who was the quarterbacks coach for the New Orleans Saints over the last four seasons, is expected to bring concepts that Drew Brees had executed to great success in New Orleans.
In an interview with detroitlions.com, Tate said he views himself in a Lance Moore type role in Lombardi’s offense.
I think this offense is going to fit better for me as a player than Seattle’s did. I watched some tape on the Saints over the last few years and just looking at that – I haven’t talked to Lombardi that much – I see myself being a Lance Moore type of player, but just more explosive and able to do a few more things.
Although Tate and Moore both exhibited the ability to make plays running crossing routes, they were utilized differently in their offensive schemes in Seattle and New Orleans, respectively.
In the Saints' vertical passing attack, Moore was used more downfield, while Seattle designed a lot of screens to fit Tate’s abilities to make plays after the catch. (Also, it helps that Tate has 12 pounds on Moore, allowing him to run better after the catch in traffic.)
Moore lined up in the slot on a consistent basis. Tate saw most of his playing time playing on the outside of the formation, although he did see time in the slot.
According to Pro Football Focus, out of the 334 routes Moore ran, 173 were from the slot. He gained 247 yards and two touchdowns as a slot receiver. Tate, meanwhile, lined up in the slot just 19.5 percent of the time in the slot (87 snaps) and hauled in 15 receptions from that position.
Here are some of the presnap alignments Lombardi used Moore in during the Week 17 matchup against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Tate is not only going to benefit from playing beside the league’s best receiver, but he will also be able to make plays all over the field, something he couldn’t do much of in Seattle.
Regardless of where he lines up before the snap, Tate is going to see a lot of single-coverage looks with little safety help over the top because of the presence of Calvin Johnson.
If things go as planned, the Lions could have two receivers pass the 1,000-yard mark in the same season for the first time since 2006, when Roy Williams (1,310) and Mike Furrey (1,086) accomplished the feat.
Assuming for the time being that Tate is the new, better version of Lance Moore, we can expect Lombardi to utilize Ebron as he did Jimmy Graham in New Orleans.
The 6'4", 245-pound Ebron doesn’t have the same frame as the 6'6", 260-pound Graham, although they did post similar numbers at their respective NFL Scouting Combines:
|40 Yard-Dash||Bench Reps||Vertical Jump||Broad Jump|
|Graham||4.56||N/A||38.5 inches||120 inches|
|Ebron||4.6||24 reps||32 inches||120 inches|
Despite their differences, Ebron will still have a major impact in the Detroit offense.
Ebron provides the versatility to line up outside or in the slot, similar to what Graham has done during his time with the Saints.
Graham spent 49.8 percent of his snaps in the slot according to Pro Football Focus (which is something that has sparked issues between Graham and the New Orleans front office). Basically, Graham is a wide receiver.
Ebron lined up all over the field at North Carolina but he was primarily used in the traditional in-line tight end position. Ebron struggles as a blocker, so he could be used more off of the line and lined up in the slot.
His versatility is going to allow Detroit to put Tate into the slot, specifically beside Johnson, which would provide major matchup difficulties for secondaries. The need to throw an additional defensive back in the area of those two would likely leave the receiver(s) on the opposite side in single coverage with little help over the top.
Ebron has the perfect combination of size and speed to beat slot cornerbacks on the outside of the numbers, especially defensive backs who are undersized (the average height of the top three corners on each NFC North team is 5’11”).
The Saints also used a lot of five-receiver sets under Lombardi, although they split out multiple tight ends and running backs in some situations. The following is an example of that.
In the running game, expect to see the Lions use multiple tight end sets. Depending on which running back, Detroit could pound the ball up the middle with Bell or try to run outside of the tackles with Bush.
When the Saints wanted to run the ball under Lombardi, they brought in backup tight end Ben Watson as an additional in-line blocker because of Graham’s struggles in run blocking. According to Pro Football Focus, Watson recorded 507 snaps last season and graded out with a run-blocking efficiency grade of 1.9, which was the eighth-highest grade of any tight end in the league.
This approach syncs up well with the talent on Detroit’s roster.
Backup tight end Joseph Fauria is going to be the Lions' equivalent of Watson in the running game. As mentioned earlier, Ebron has a lot of work to do in regards to his blocking technique. This is going to allow Fauria to substitute in the red-zone/running situations.
Fauria had a run-blocking grade of 1.6 last year (11th in the league), and he was a crucial red-zone threat, hauling in seven touchdowns as an undrafted rookie.
All in all, expect the 2014 Detroit Lions offense to closely resemble the New Orleans Saints scheme the past few seasons (minus the Hall of Fame quarterback). If they can figure out things on defense, specifically in the secondary, the Lions have a chance to build on the 7-9 mark from last year and return to the playoffs.
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