The Detroit Lions are coming off a season where two different running backs each posted more than 500 receiving yards. Expect even more aerial production from the backfield in the new offense in 2014.
Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi comes from New Orleans, where the Saints also made liberal use of the backs as receiving targets. In fact, the Saints led the league in percentage of throws to backs:
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The Lions finished fifth last year in percentage of targets while ranking third in yards per target. That helps explain how both Reggie Bush and Joique Bell accumulated over 500 receiving yards, one of only two tandems in the league to do so. The other was Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas in New Orleans.
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Even though they still figure to get at least as many targets, the yardage might actually decline. Why?
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The Saints finished just 17th in yards per target to their backs, netting almost a full yard fewer than what Detroit averaged in 2013. One of the reasons is the Saints utilize the quick passing game in the same function as a running play.
Here's a play from last season where New Orleans uses the pass to the back as a de facto run.
Sproles is lined up in the left slot, with Thomas in the backfield behind quarterback Drew Brees. The speedy, shifty Sproles is isolated in coverage with a safety, Mike Mitchell, and Mitchell is aligned 10 yards off the line of scrimmage.
The linebacker to that side (circled in blue) cannot cheat outside and help in coverage because Thomas is his potential assignment if there is a handoff or play action.
Brees doesn't even take a full step back from center here. He gets the snap and immediately turns to Sproles, firing the ball behind the line to the back in the slot.
The Panthers wind up defending it well, as Mitchell quickly reacts and closes in on Sproles. A missed block (indicated in yellow) helps Carolina shut this down effectively.
Still, the play gains positive yardage. Sproles actually gets credit for more yards after the catch than what the play gained.
In fact, Thomas wound up averaging 8.6 yards after the catch (subscription required) for the season. Yet his total average was just 6.7. That's the result of a steady diet of quick swings and screens that functioned as extended handoffs.
Detroit already has a good handle on plays like this. Like Thomas, Bell also accrued more YAC than actual yards last season, 564 to 547.
That doesn't mean the Detroit backs won't run deeper routes. One facet fans will notice is that the new-look offense sends backs out into patterns instead of staying in to aid in pass protection much more frequently.
Here's an example from the preseason game against Jacksonville. It's 3rd-and-long, which is normally a situation where the offense will keep a back in to guard against the pass rush to give the quarterback more time to survey downfield options.
On this play, however, Theo Riddick immediately slides out of the backfield and bleeds up the field on a checkdown route.
This doesn't pick up the first down, but as with the Sproles play above it gives a nifty runner some room in space to try and make a play. One missed tackle and this is a big gain.
That exemplifies the underlying philosophy at play: getting playmakers the ball in advantageous situations to make a play. Bush, Bell and even Riddick are all dangerous threats in space, and getting them the pigskin out in space as receivers will help them make more big plays.
All advanced statistics, including targets and YAC, are from Pro Football Focus, which requires a subscription for premium content.