Break It Down: Lions keep it simple, carve up San Diego
In Break It Down, I will go back and analyze the Xs and Os of a play or performance from the NFL week that stood out above the rest.
Not only did the Lions clinch their first playoff berth in more than a decade with Saturday’s 38-10 win over San Diego, but quarterback Matthew Stafford also broke the franchise’s single-season passing record. Thanks to a clinical 373-yard performance against the Chargers, Stafford surpassed Scott Mitchell atop the Lions’ yardage chart.
The third-year QB has 4,518 yards passing this season, with 1,437 of those coming on completions to Calvin Johnson. After a five-week stretch where he scored just once and failed to top 100 yards receiving in any single game, Johnson has reemerged with back-to-back showstopping efforts — a 214-yard, two-touchdown day at Oakland in Week 15 and a 102-yard afternoon Saturday.
On the first play of the game against San Diego, Stafford ran a play-action and bombed one long to Johnson, who came down with it in traffic for 46 yards. That play set the table for what Detroit’s offense did for the remainder of the day.
Well, it’s not big secret that Johnson is Stafford’s best weapon. Just about any struggles Detroit has had on offense this year have occurred when Stafford failed to get Johnson the ball, either because of poor offensive execution or terrific defense.
But these past two weeks, Stafford has allowed Johnson to make plays, no matter the coverage. That, in turn, has opened up the rest of the Lions’ attack.
Here’s how San Diego defended Megatron on that opening play — with Quentin Jammer and Steve Gregory bracketing him:
Stafford threw the ball anyway, lofting one high — and a bit underthrown — to give Johnson a shot at coming back and making a play. He did just that, leaving Jammer out of the picture on the outside and turning Gregory inside out:
For the remainder of the game, be it because San Diego preferred to give Detroit underneath routes or because the early Stafford-to-Johnson deep ball scared the Chargers, the Lions were able to utilize Johnson as a decoy.
Johnson still finished with four grabs and topped the century mark — plus found the end zone once — but on the majority of Detroit’s passing plays, he simply stretched the field and opened up San Diego’s zone underneath.
The play below came later in Detroit’s opening drive. Johnson lined up on the line in a trips formation to Stafford’s left. Johnson (straight line) bolted for the end zone at the snap, while Nate Burleson ran a simple out pattern.
Stafford looked deep initially, then came down to Burleson, who was wide open in the flat without a Chargers defender in sight:
That play picked up nine yards and helped keep the Lions’ drive moving.
Shortly thereafter, Brandon Pettigrew capped the impressive opening march with a 7-yard touchdown catch. Even pressed up against their own goal line, the Chargers opted to backpedal with Johnson, which again cleared everyone out short.
As Johnson carried two defenders with him to the end line, Pettigrew got into the end zone, created a little separation from Na’il Diggs and caught Stafford’s pass.
Making Stafford’s Saturday even more impressive was that Detroit’s run game didn’t do a whole lot — that’s been a bit of a theme all year, and the Lions managed a so-so 87 yards rushing in their latest win.
But that didn’t stop offensive coordinator Scott Linehan from utilizing play-action calls. With San Diego rushing four and dropping deep for most of the game, the play-action helped suck in the defense ever so slightly, creating some seams downfield.
You can see the result of that on a 21-yard Johnson reception in the first quarter.
Already at this point in the game, San Diego was totally off balance.
Stafford actually pulled the Chargers’ defensive attention in two different directions before firing to Johnson on the play. The first misdirection came on his fake handoff right; the second as he eyeballed tight end Will Heller (No. 89 below).
Notice again here where Johnson (No. 81) was — he’s streaking downfield as Heller ducks into the flat underneath him. As the Chargers tried to eliminate that short pass, which they were burned on time and again Saturday, Stafford found room to hit Johnson.
It’s also important to notice Detroit’s blocking on that play above. Despite Stafford faking a handoff and looking off the secondary, he had an incredible amount of time. The Lions actually had just three options on this play with seven guys staying in to block.
Stafford wound up being sacked three times Saturday but, for the most part, he had ample opportunities to survey the field.
A couple more looks at Detroit’s multi-level approach against San Diego.
Here again, on a second-quarter completion to Pettigrew, who finished with nine catches for 80 yards, Johnson takes off deep with two San Diego defenders at his side. Pettigrew takes a few steps from the line, then breaks into the area just vacated by Johnson.
Again, he was all by himself when Stafford’s pass arrived.
It wasn’t just the Johnson effect, either, that undid San Diego’s defense. The Lions utilized the same principles with other players — and had the same success.
On another of Pettigrew’s nine receptions, he cuts underneath fellow tight end Tony Scheffler, who was headed deep on a flag route. It’s not hard to see why Detroit kept coming back to these patterns: The Chargers were completely lost defending them.
And one more example, this time with Johnson again being used as an attention-grabber.
Here, Johnson ran an inside pattern about 15 yards deep, while Burleson just sat down near the sideline. Per the day’s theme, Burleson had several yards of cushion when he caught the ball.
This has oversimplified what Detroit did Saturday, as Linehan worked his playbook masterfully, leaving San Diego befuddled from the start.
But the Lions’ — and Stafford’s — big day began with the first play from scrimmage. Stafford used a play-action fake and received terrific blocking, then took a shot for his No. 1 receiver.
By coming up with the catch, Johnson staggered the Chargers and left them afraid to get beat deep. Detroit took advantage of that intimidation factor, going to the well time and time again to scorch San Diego with open short routes.
The Chargers’ lack of a consistent pass rush and overly deep coverage schemes gave Stafford all sorts of short, easy options. And when the Chargers did try to jump those quick routes, Stafford struck back with another pass to Johnson to stretch the field.
Detroit’s offense may not always run with the efficiency it did Saturday. When it does, though, there’s very little opposing defenses can do.