What Happens at Fullback in the New Detroit Lions Offense?

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What Happens at Fullback in the New Detroit Lions Offense?
Bill Feig/Associated Press

Detroit Lions fans are going to see something in 2014 they haven't regularly witnessed since 2006. The fullback is back in the offense.

Since Cory Schlesinger's heyday, the Lions have largely eschewed the fullback position. Moran Norris in 2008 and Jerome Felton in '10 both played around 20 percent of snaps, and that was the extent of fullback usage under old head coach Jim Schwartz and offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. 

That is about to change, as new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will be installing the system he learned in New Orleans over the last few seasons. 

As if there was any doubt, new head coach Jim Caldwell also heavily used a fullback in his stint as the offensive coordinator of the Baltimore Ravens the last two seasons. 

Lions fans can be forgiven for not remembering what it's like to see a fullback in action, let alone one that will be used with as much diversity as what Lombardi figures to deploy. This will not be your father's fullback, or your cheese-headed Packers fan neighbor's fullback either. 

The snap counts over the last three seasons in New Orleans give some indication of the importance of the role. 

New Orleans Saints Fullback Usage
Year FB snaps Total snaps Percentage
2013 449 1154 38.9
2012 328 1134 28.9
2011 547 1177 46.4

Pro Football Focus

In all three of those years, the primary fullback was Jed Collins (Korey Hall took 49 snaps in 2011). He came along to Detroit with Lombardi from the Saints as a free agent. If anything, that makes Collins' role even more valuable since he already knows the offense. 

Pro Football Focus further breaks down the functions of those snaps. 

How the Snaps Break Down
Year Run Blocking Pass Protection Carries Pass Routes
2013 251 64 15 119
2012 203 38 0 87
2011 276 66 4 152

Pro Football Focus

There is a lot more than just being a lead blocker in the run game going on here, though that is obviously still a significant part of the job. 

Here is a play from New Orleans' game against Buffalo last season that is going to look like a foreign language for Lions fans at first. 

It's 3rd-and-1, and the Saints are in a jumbo formation with 22 personnel (two backs, two tight ends). Yes, skeptical Lions fans, teams do actually use this formation and alignment.

NFL Game Rewind

Collins is No. 45, circled in yellow. After the snap, he initially fans to the edge of the formation as if he's going to engage the rush end in pass protection. That's what the defense expects him to do.

NFL Game Rewind

Here's where having a versatile fullback pays off. Collins instead flares out into the right flat (1), turning the pass protection responsibility to the running back (2). The flat is wide-open because the receiver from that side (3) is running a crossing route to pull away the coverage. 

NFL Game Rewind

Drew Brees easily completes the pass to Collins, who ambles up the field to pick up the first down and then some. 

Having the fullback as a versatile weapon also requires the other offensive weapons to offer that same sort of versatility. Running backs will have to block. Tight ends will have to run deep routes. Wide receivers will need to fearlessly traverse into heavy traffic and line up in all sorts of formations. 

Detroit can check all those boxes already. Both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell—but especially Bell—are reliable in pass protection as running backs. Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate are both able to effectively play anywhere across the formation.

This is where adding a weapon like Eric Ebron at tight end really pays off. His ability to stretch the field vertically opens all sorts of room for the fullback as a receiver. Lombardi comes from an offense that was not afraid to design plays to take advantage of it.

That happens to be a two-way street, as seen in this play against the 49ers

This time the Saints are in 21 personnel (two backs, one tight end) with Jimmy Graham lined up in-line next to the left tackle. Right off the snap, Collins breaks out to the left after a quick check to make sure nobody is blitzing. He quickly releases from that into a flare route.

NFL Game Rewind

Because the defense knows the Saints will indeed to throw to the fullback, he draws the underneath linebacker in the zone coverage. That essentially isolates Graham in single coverage outside, with the deep safety being held by the action on the other side. 

NFL Game Rewind

This play wound up being a deep incompletion to Graham, but getting single coverage on the downfield tight end is a highly advantageous scenario. You can bet the Lions will use the fullback like this to help free up Ebron down the field. 

There likely won't be a lot of touches. Collins had 15 rushes and 14 receptions, both career highs, in 2013. Detroit is stacked at running back with a barrage of different skills among Bush, Bell, Mikel Leshoure and Theo Riddick, so Collins is probably not a viable fantasy football option. 

What is not a fantasy is how much more having a threat at fullback will help open up the offense. 

One of the bigger questions with the fullback situation is who wins the job. While Collins has performed well in the system, he faces a real challenge from undrafted rookie Chad Abram. I recently broke down their battle, noting that Abram's superior athleticism might trump Collins' superior blocking.  

Either way, Lions fans will be seeing a lot more two-back sets and different looks from the Honolulu blue offense. 

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