by Derrik Klassen
The hottest trend throughout NFL offenses is not the read-option or shovel passes; it is not the pistol formation, or play-action skinny posts. In fact, it is not any one play at all. Sweeping over the NFL is the fear of turnovers and a lack of trust in putting the game in a quarterback's hands. Ben McAdoo's claim to fame in New York was pulling back the reigns on Eli Manning. Andy Reid has muzzled Alex Smith for a half-decade. In Minnesota last year, offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur tasked Sam Bradford with arguably the most conservative passing game in football.
Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter is one of the frontmen for this movement of timid play design and play calling. Cooter took over offensive coordinator responsibilities in Week 8 of the 2015 season. In the seven games leading up to Cooter's promotion, Matthew Stafford had thrown nine interceptions. Stafford also had 12 touchdown passes, but the flurry of interceptions was holding the offense back. With a middling offensive line and an average set of backs and receivers, Stafford was not good enough to handle being the focal point of the offense.
Since taking over, Cooter's M.O. has been stripping Stafford of responsibility and getting the ball into the hands of skill players as soon as possible. The idea is that the less Stafford has to think, the fewer interceptions he will throw, allowing the offense to remain on schedule and on the field.
The illusion is that Stafford and the Lions offense has been better since Cooter's ascension. In reality, the competence and execution across the unit has been roughly the same, Cooter just refuses to give Stafford opportunities to mess up. The constant jabs via quick passing work well enough versus inferior competition, but when faced with quality opponents, Detroit's offense often falters. Against the Minnesota Vikings last week, Detroit's offense was exposed as predictable and lacking in explosiveness.
Detroit is one of the most predictable first down teams in the league. Cooter uses first down to run downhill with seven or eight immediate blockers, or throw an intermediate/deep pass. Defenses know they can run blitz and have their defensive ends pin their ears back. Through four games, Detroit's offense ranks 26th in passing DVOA and 29th in rushing DVOA on first down. Overall, they are 29th in DVOA on first down, placing only above Cleveland, Chicago, and Indianapolis (link requires premium subscription).
The Lions were regularly stuffed on the ground on first down versus the Vikings. Aside from one or two plays where running back Ameer Abdullah miraculously created a cutback lane, they could not get much going. Minnesota's safeties were instrumental in slowing down Detroit's rushing attack. They did not have to respect Detroit's ability to pass, and Detroit often tipped their hand in the run game through shifts and repetitive play calling.
Safeties Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo flip responsibilities on this play. Smith (highlighted in purple) initially aligns down near the left side of the line of scrimmage as a quasi-edge player, with Sendejo (in yellow) playing over the top. Detroit motions wide receiver Jared Abbrederis from a wide left alignment to a tight right alignment, about where a tight end would be. The Vikings safeties notice what the shift does to the box and change spots. Smith trails up to a centerfield position and Sendejo rolls down as a box player.
Sendejo recognizes this sort of shift from earlier in the game. The Lions used it to get another blocker in the box right before the snap, ideally creating an advantage up front. Sendejo knew it was a run call, so he sprinted through the line of scrimmage without hesitation and caught Abdullah in the backfield. Throughout the game, either Smith or Sendejo caught Detroit's running backs at or behind the line of scrimmage on similar first-down run calls.
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Passing on first down was hardly an option, either. Stafford dropped back 11 times on first down, but completed just five passes on eight attempts. Danielle Hunter sacked Stafford twice on first down in the first quarter, and Everson Griffen brought him down once early in the fourth quarter. When Stafford did get the ball out, most the completions were short passes, the lone exception being a rollout pass to Michael Roberts in the red zone. Stafford was not quick-witted or willing enough to attack the deeper routes often given to him on first down.
In fairness to Stafford, the Griffen sack was hardly avoidable. Griffen was supposed to be chipped, but he was not, and he quickly made his way around the edge to sack Stafford. The first two Hunter sacks can be at least partially pinned on Stafford for holding the ball, though. Stafford has been particularly bad about that this season.
Similar to their struggles throwing the ball on first down, the Lions could not throw down the field. The offense is not designed to attack vertically very often to begin with, in part because of the offensive line and Stafford's overzealousness, but the Lions could not throw deep even when they tried this week. On 36 dropbacks, Stafford completed just five passes that traveled more than 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. Three of those five completions required noticeable adjustments from the wide receivers, one of them was the Roberts catch, and the other was an 11-yard curl route. The only passing play that generated at least 20 yards was a poor pass that Marvin Jones made a spectacular play on.
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Stafford's inconsistency and inaccuracy were the undoing of the Lions offense against the Vikings, and has been throughout this season. When the offense was more aggressive prior to Cooter's promotion, the sheer volume of deep throws allowed Stafford to create chunk plays. Having Calvin Johnson at his disposal also helped. The offense now hardly allows Stafford to be aggressive. In turn, it is more damaging when Stafford can not connect on intermediate and deep passes because there are fewer of those opportunities.
The few times per game in which Cooter opens the offense up, Stafford reminds everyone that he is still a gunslinger. Stafford's recklessness is still very much there, Cooter has just not given him chances to show it, and that has been for the best. Stafford has struggled to throw into tight windows and down the field this year. He has struggled to stress defenses beyond 10 yards other than in one-half of play versus the Arizona Cardinals. The Vikings constantly coaxed Stafford into tight-window throws and uncomfortable situations with pressure bearing down on him, and he obliged with a handful of throws that could have been intercepted.
Stafford's inability to consistently succeed beyond 10 yards forces Cooter's hand. Cooter appears to want to be more aggressive than he is. The struggle is that he can not risk being aggressive with a quarterback who is inclined to be reckless with the football. The Lions barely threw beyond 10 yards or in the red zone, and Stafford gave Cooter a heart attack every time he was given a chance.
The Lions find themselves in a peculiar spot with Stafford. Physically, he is a Ferrari of a quarterback. He is big, mobile, and strong-armed. He is fearless in a way that few quarterbacks are, and his peak plays are as pretty as any. The problem is that Stafford can be a detriment when left to his own devices. He does not have the consistency to make his high-end traits as valuable as they appear to be.
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At the same time, Cooter's only answer as an offensive coordinator is to take responsibility from Stafford. He has not created a diverse, unpredictable, and balanced offense like other legitimately great coordinators have. Cooter's offense lacks spontaneity and the threat of explosive plays, and often plays behind the sticks because of a lack of success on first down. The only identity the offense has is hoping their skill players can make defenders miss as they catch passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. That is not a real identity, it is fear of what the man behind center might do if tasked with anything more.
Stafford was given the most lucrative contract in NFL history this summer, only to be reduced to Alex Smith. Cooter has been a quiet head coach candidate for over a year now for doing little else but refrain Stafford from throwing interceptions. The Lions have a fine offense, but both Stafford and Cooter are being praised too much for feeding into the NFL's fear of turning the ball over. This offense, as is, will not be enough to win games that matter. It will have to change. Stafford will have to be better and Cooter will need to enable him to be.