Detroit Lions: Creating the Blueprint for Optimal Offense in 2014

Brandon AlisogluCorrespondent IJune 5, 2014

Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson, second from right, catches a 50-yard touchdown reception over Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker Vontaze Burfict, left, free safety Reggie Nelson, second from left, and strong safety George Iloka in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game Sunday, Oct. 20, 2013, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Rick Osentoski)
Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

A great offense is like a chemistry equation. Each element has to be mulled and measured in order to find the right mix of explosion and consistency that balances everything out. 

Luckily, Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew has amassed every ingredient necessary to concoct a lethal batch of offense. Now, it's all up to head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi to mix it properly and unleash it on the league. 

There are plenty of labs across the NFL where such creations have been concocted before. Their formulas are the perfect blueprint to build upon in order to develop the league's most dangerous offense.

To that end, we'll follow the mad scientists that reside in New Orleans and Denver because those teams have the same elemental structure, and Detroit's current staff has ties to both franchises.

So don't complicate this. It's just simple chemistry. 


The Right Mix of Talent

Any chemist worth his sodium chloride will tell you chemistry comes down to the elements. Which ones are being combined? And furthermore, how much of each?

We'll start in the backfield, but we aren't worrying about the quarterback. Matthew Stafford is what is called a "constant."

However, there will be plenty of running backs who will get carries this year. Very few successful offenses lean heavily on a bell-cow back. And the ones that Detroit will be modeled after (namely New Orleans and Denver), used at least three in recent years with the Saints giving four running backs at least 50 carries in 2013.

The top dog will continue to be Reggie Bush, who along with Joique Bell, has some experience with the Saints system. But the rest of the mix is still to be determined.

Until now.

Detroit Lions Running Back Usage
Reggie Bush37
Joique Bell30
Theo Riddick30
Mikel Leshoure13
Author's Conjecture

The division of labor should help the top two running backs stay healthy, as Bush missed two games in 2013 and Bell has yet to take part in OTAs. Fans might not like taking the ball out of their hands, but their experience and talent will be wasted if they're in the training room.

Plus, plenty has been made about Theo Riddick's performance this offseason. Both Bush and Lombardi have been spotted gushing about Riddick's performances thus far. If he's capable of adding another explosive element to the offense, the message boards will be filled with requests to give him an even larger share than the one currently envisioned.

My favorite sleeper for the upcoming season: DET RB Theo Riddick

— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) June 2, 2014

The wild card is Mikel Leshoure. The 2011 second-rounder is due for an upswing after posting nine touchdowns in 2012 and essentially missing the 2011 and 2013 seasons due to injury or ineffectiveness. The Saints style lends itself to Leshoure getting another chance, and he can bring a dynamic with his size that none of the other backs possess.

The wide receivers and tight ends will go through a much more seismic shakeup than the backfield.

Questions abound about who will take that third wide receiver spot behind Golden Tate and Calvin Johnson. Here, we'll be using Eric Ebron in that spot with Ryan Broyles and T.J. Jones as alternative options. There have been murmurs that Kris Durham isn't giving up his roster spot without a fight, but this is about building an optimal offense, not fulfilling a pipe dream.

Lastly, we'll round out depth chart with the starting offensive line staying intact. They were the surprise of the season in 2013, and no right tackle position battle is going to alter the formula.


The Right Structure of Talent

Caldwell will bring his love of two-tight end sets to Detroit with him, meaning the most common formation will have two wideouts, two tight ends and a single back. From there, however, the options are virtually limitless.

Ebron's size and speed means he won't be limited to lining up tight to the line. I would expect Detroit to move him around before the snap, giving Stafford a snapshot of the defense when the rookie motions out or across the formation. You will also see him heading out past Johnson or Tate in our rendition.

Paul Sancya/Associated Press

There will also be heavy usage of four stand-up receivers, meaning there won't be a anybody tucked into the line as a traditional tight end. Ebron will be a fixture at that "tight slot" position, but you'll also see Broyles, Jones and even Pettigrew taking up the spot a couple yards away from the line and one step behind the tackle.

The fundamental approach of this offense is to attack the defense. With the number of weapons available, there simply aren't enough fingers for all the holes in the dam. Defensive secondaries that were stressed over covering Calvin Johnson will now be broken apart by Golden Tate, Ebron, et al., busting through the seams.

It's essentially the old adage of "take what the defense gives you," except that the taking is much more forceful. The use of multiple "wide outs" (I use quotes because we're counting Ebron and Bush in this role as well) will stretch a defense to a point where it will have to make decisions. As you'll see below, that leaves multiple passing alleys waiting to be exploited.


Test Runs

Now that we have a theoretical formula, let's see how others have turned their similar elemental structure into successful trials. 

For the sake of keeping this article somewhere inside of 13,000 words, I'm omitting running plays and ignoring blocking schemes. While that can certainly be something fun to dive into later, this is more of an overview piece, so I will focus on the passing game.

However, don't assume I'm ignoring the rushing game. I'm actually embracing the value of the multiheaded threat mentioned above by showing the virtue of play-action on our first play.

Here, Denver runs out a pistol formation with two wideouts, a slot receiver, a tight end and a running back. Peyton Manning sends Wes Welker, who is split out left, in motion inside the slot receiver.

NFL Rewind

The linebackers are held in for just a second by the play-action fake. You'll notice the safety and corner have to go with the speedy Demaryius Thomas, leaving Welker to deal with a linebacker attempting to recover.

That's not a fair fight, and it won't be for a linebacker having to contend with Ebron's 4.6 speed or any of the other third-receiver options the Lions have. Yet, it should be pointed out that this play would bank on a defense giving Calvin Johnson the same type of deference given to Thomas. I hope you can suspend your disbelief a little bit and embrace that far-fetched logic.

As nice as that play was, I know you want to see what the Lions can do with Ebron as a home run hitter. Fortunately for you, I'm not above pandering to my audience.

There has already been a lot of chatter comparing Ebron to Jimmy Graham. While those expectations should be tempered because Ebron isn't as athletically gifted as the Saints tight end, he's still capable of taking advantage of the attention that will be paid to Johnson.

NFL Rewind

With Marques Colston taking out the floating safety and a corner and the other safety being locked in on Darren Sproles, Graham only has to beat a linebacker. Just like the first play, Ebron is more than capable of blowing by a 'backer, and even Stafford would have trouble overthrowing him here.

Furthermore, the beautiful part about the depth Detroit added to the receiver corps is the array of combustible concoctions Lombardi can create. Even the most seemingly inert element of the offense can now pack a huge punch. So if Broyles or Jones find themselves against a secondary that is concerned about the top three options of Johnson, Tate and Ebron, these overlooked receivers can also exploit holes and weak points in the defense.

NFL Rewind

The last statement means that teams will eventually have no choice but to pay attention to the other options. Look at how that turned out for the Broncos and Thomas.

I understand that I might be asking you to indulge some flights of fancy, but could you imagine Johnson pulling off such a play?

Here's the rub: the Thomas play is an example of a number of plays basic to the Lions' new offense that can take advantage of the weapons available. We haven't even touched on flares to Reggie Bush, draws to Joique Bell or even red-zone jump balls down the seam to Joseph Fauria.

We also haven't delved into another small advantage that can be gleaned from observing these examples of the Broncos' potent offensive attack: pace. Denver went no huddle, established a rhythm and didn't give the defense a moment to collect itself.

Momentum might have a debatable impact on the whole of a game, but the short-term advantage of going on automatic, like Jameis Winston did during his unreal debut against the Pitt Panthers last fall is real. You're not thinking; you're doing.

It's akin to that perfect moment when you're taking an exam and realize you know all the answers so you finish an hour before the period is over. There's no second guessing.

Lombardi believes in this theory as well. He spoke openly about it just a week ago so expect to see the Lions trotting out the NFL's most recent—and dangerous—trend in 2014.


The Variables That Must Be Avoided

In every equation, there are always variables that can doom the desired result. The following are the elements that must be properly handled to prevent Detroit's season from blowing up like a scene from a bad '80s movie.

Duane Burleson/Associated Press

The Offense Line Must Stay Stable

The starting lineup is likely to stay the same along the offensive line, although Corey Hilliard won't be letting LaAdrian Waddle assume his right tackle position without a fight. However, that type of competition might be the right catalyst this unit needs to stay consistent.

None of the above plays will work if the line doesn't open holes to keep the running game chugging along. And obviously, keeping Stafford upright and giving the receiver enough time to execute his routes will be vital if this offense is to succeed.


Small-Level Focus

I harped on this throughout the second half of the 2013 season, and the message remains the same. Unfortunately, the new coaching staff hasn't quite gotten through to the offense yet.

Drops have continued to be a problem at OTAs. As Mike Rothstein of pointed out, even Golden Tate and his golden hands haven't been above this problem with two drops in a recent session. Fellow B/R writer Jeff Risdon listed a number of factors that could be the issue here, but focusing on the small things is the real key.

#Lions receivers dropped a league-high 46 passes last season. The drops accounted for 7.5% of their total targets, also highest in the #NFL

— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) May 11, 2014

Yes, the route has to be correct and the quarterback must hit his mark, but a dropped pass is one that was catchable. That means the receiver isn't securing the ball, which signifies a lack of concentration.


Stafford Must Be the Carbon

Every naturally living thing on Earth contains carbon. For this offense to take on a life of its own, Matthew Stafford needs to be the constant in the equation.

Throughout the first half of 2013, Stafford was a borderline MVP candidate with 17 touchdowns and only six interceptions. But he followed up that stretch with 13 interceptions and only 12 scores over the final eight weeks.

This new coaching staff was assembled with the offense in mind, specifically Stafford. The tools are all there for him to reclaim the form he found early last season when the Lions looked to be a lock for the NFC North crown. He's the foundation for the entire blueprint that has been laid out here.

This approach could be taken as a Nobel Prize-worthy offensive formula. It could also be viewed as a Frankenstein conglomerate of different pieces that come together to form something ugly but viable.

Regardless of how you decide to view it, the Lions equation has enough explosive potential to level the entire league.