When you look at this Detroit Lions offense, there are a lot of factors that come into play. First, they're led by a quarterback in Matthew Stafford who is unquestionably a top-three "arm talent" in the NFL. He can make throws almost any quarterback can't make and, more importantly, he's willing to make throws that most quarterbacks wouldn't dare pull the trigger on.
In my five seasons producing Eagles Game Plan, the Eagles have played the Lions three times. I can honestly say that he's throwing the football and playing the quarterback position the best in the small sample sizes that I've studied Detroit's offense. Yes, this passing attack is missing Calvin Johnson, and his presence is surely missed, but they still have a variety of weapons at Stafford's disposal. The Lions know how to get them the football in isolated situations.
The toughest matchup in this Lions offense based off my film study is running back Theo Riddick. While he certainly has his share of success as a ball carrier (despite the fact that the Lions rank 22nd in rushing), where he really makes his money is as a receiver out of the backfield. Riddick, a former receiver at Notre Dame, is lightning quick in and out of breaks. His ability to decelerate and accelerate allows him to separate with ease out in space. Detroit loves to get him open in the middle of the field with a route commonly referred to as the angle, Texas or arrow route (a play I covered on the podcast a couple of weeks ago). Like any good offense, the Lions get to that Texas route with Riddick in a lot of different ways.
Shot 1 - #Lions use RB Theo Riddick in a lot of ways but Texas routes out of the backfield is a staple. Elite quickness. Stafford fits it in pic.twitter.com/uxf5RXWNfk — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 6, 2016
It's second-and-10 against the Chicago Bears last week. Riddick is next to Stafford in the shotgun. The Bears are playing Man Free coverage here, putting a linebacker one on one against Riddick in coverage with help inside from a "hole player" underneath. The linebacker in man coverage actually plays this correctly here, defending Riddick with outside leverage, forcing him back inside toward his help in the middle of the field. This is where Stafford's willingness to fit throws into tight spaces comes in handy, as he fits this pass in for a 9-yard gain. On this play, Riddick ran a great route and Stafford made a spectacular throw.
On that play, Riddick lined up in the backfield where he has been downright deadly. But that's not the only place you'll see him, because the Lions are not afraid to put him around the formation.
Here's a play from Week 3 against the Green Bay Packers. Notice Riddick is in the slot, and he's matched up against Packers' slot cornerback Quinten Rollins. This isn't a linebacker or a safety. This is a former second-day draft pick who the Packers rely heavily on in the secondary against receivers, and they choose to match him up on Riddick. The challenge of playing Riddick, and any quick receiver, out of the slot is the danger of a "two-way go."
As the corner, you have to be ready for a break inside on a slant or a drive route, and you have to be ready for an out-breaking route toward the sideline as well. That's why playing in the slot is tough, and players like Riddick only make it harder. Watch Riddick attack Rollins' technique on this play, getting on top of him quickly, stepping on his toes and faking an outside break before sticking inside for a slant. Stafford knows the middle of the field is wide open here, but he looks to the opposite side just to make sure it stays that way before throwing this pass to Riddick.
Fast forward to last week's bout with the Bears, and you see the Lions are in a similar situation. This time, it's second-and-12 for the Lions and Riddick is once again in the slot, this time to the left in an empty set. However, Riddick is matched up on a linebacker in space against a zone coverage concept. Watch Riddick step on the linebacker's toes and break outside for a 10-yard gain to bring up third-and-short. Riddick is one of Stafford's most trusted receivers, not only on third down, but down in the red zone where he leads the team in targets (5), with four catches, 32 yards and a touchdown.
Detroit ranks fifth in the NFL on third down (converting 47 percent), and having a player like Riddick out of the backfield certainly helps them in those situations. But he's not the only versatile pass catcher the Eagles have to be concerned with, because tight end Eric Ebron is a tough cover for anyone in the NFL. The former first-round pick out of UNC hasn't had the exact start to his career that many hoped for, but he's still very capable of breaking off big gains and making jaw-dropping catches at any given time.
Shot 4 - #Lions TE Ebron capable of making ridiculous plays in passing game. If he can't play that's a big loss. Love him on deep crossers. pic.twitter.com/ZYPkfH0Aws — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 6, 2016
It's third-and-19 against the Tennessee Titans in Week 2, and the Lions have Ebron in the slot to the right. The Titans are in man coverage here, with a safety matched up on Ebron one on one. The former Tar Heel runs an over route across the field, and look at the ridiculous one-handed catch he makes behind his back on his way to a 29-yard gain and a first down. Ebron is absolutely a threat to do this on any given play. However, he missed practice Wednesday and his status is in doubt for Sunday.
Schematically, this offense has a lot of West Coast principles in the quick passing game. You'll see a lot of those concepts, whether it's double slants, slant-flat, snag, or a play that is commonly referred to as "stick." Stick is a simple enough concept, with the outside receiver running a straight go route down the sideline. This ball is almost never thrown. It's a clear out to remove defenders underneath. The No. 2 receiver runs a quick out route toward the sideline. The No. 3 receiver, often a tight end, runs a stick or option route. I covered this stick route with Trey Burton a few weeks ago on the podcast, and he broke it down perfectly. The Lions have run a lot of stick through four games, specifically with Ebron. A good complement to that route is a play called stick nod.
Shot 5 - #Lions love running double moves off their basic quick game concepts. Stick Nod route here from Ebron for huge 3rd down conversion pic.twitter.com/rwzjIkXB3z — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 6, 2016
It's third-and-11 against the Packers, and Ebron is lined up as the No. 3 receiver to the right side. When he releases into the route, he starts to throttle down just short of the first-down marker as if he's running a stick route. Safety Micah Hyde breaks down with Ebron, expecting him to go outside, but that's not what happens. Instead, Ebron jets upfield toward the post, and Stafford lays a ball out for a 20-yard catch and a first down. Eagles defenders have to be very wary down the field against double moves from both Riddick and Ebron, and the stick nod is just one example of just that.
I mentioned the Lions' loss of Calvin Johnson this offseason to retirement, which spearheaded their decision to sign veteran Marvin Jones in free agency. Jones is a much different type of receiver compared to Megatron, but he can be very effective. At 6-2, 198 pounds, Jones is a crafty route runner, has very reliable hands and is able to get off the line of scrimmage as well as any player in the Lions' receiving corps.
It's second-and-11 against the Titans and Jones lines up to the far right at the bottom of the screen. Watch him get a crisp release and gain separation at the top of his stem on a simple curl route here, as Stafford hits him for a 9-yard gain and a first down.
Shot 7 - Love the 'Pogo' route, another example of a double move from #Lions offense. Huge play and good adjustment by Jones downfield. pic.twitter.com/b2YEKkpnsD — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 6, 2016
While he may be a different body type than Megatron, it doesn't prevent the Lions from using Jones in similar ways. I've seen Calvin run this pogo route (post-go) so many times throughout his career, and Stafford hits Jones for a 35-yard touchdown on this play back in Week 3. Again, double moves are a big part of the Detroit passing game, meaning the Eagles' defense will have to be very disciplined at the second and third level of the field.
Shot 8 - Stafford synced up with Jones. Ridiculous back shoulder throw - really just unable to defend this as a DB with little help #Lions pic.twitter.com/RTlETaBvdC — Fran Duffy (@fduffy3) October 6, 2016
The other area where you just can't help but think of Megatron is the back-shoulder throw, and Stafford and Jones have shown a real connection already in those scenarios. Here's a throw against the Titans that is just impossible to defend. As a cornerback, you can't possibly defend the fade over top and the back-shoulder throw at the same time. Certainly not in straight man coverage with little help like you see here. This ball is thrown perfectly by Stafford, as he zips this pass in behind the cornerback's earhole for a 30-yard gain and a first down.
Jones is the Lions' leading receiver right now, racking up 23 catches for 482 yards and a pair of scores. He's not the level of receiver that Antonio Brown is, but he's certainly a player who the Eagles must account for in the secondary.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.