Film review: Putting Detroit Lions’ short-yardage mistakes under the microscope

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions failed to convert two key short-yardage situations in the red zone during Sunday’s 24-14 loss to the Chicago Bears. Jared Goff lost a fumble on one play, and Goff threw incomplete wide of Amon-Ra St. Brown on the other.

On Monday, Lions coach Dan Campbell said he was going to “re-evaluate all of our third-and-short-type situations and figure out exactly what we need to do, what’s going to be best for us moving forward.”

Campbell did not offer any specific fixes, but he said short-yardage play would be a heavy focus of practice this week.

For this week’s film review, I put the Lions’ short-yardage offense under a microscope and looked back at all 26 plays on third- or fourth-and-3 or less and tried to identify both problems and potential solutions.

The Lions are tied for 27th in the league in third-down conversion percentage this season and rank 25th on fourth downs. Including penalties, they have converted 46.2% of third- and fourth-and-shorts.

Some of their problems will take an offseason to fix, like adding more playmakers who can defeat one-on-one coverage. But the Lions had better-than-expected balance in short-yardage situations (when adjusted for game script) and many of their mistakes seemed to be of their own doing.

Here’s what I saw:

Much of the Lions success is built around T.J. Hockenson, which comes as no surprise considering the third-year tight end is their best offensive skill player.

Hockenson caught 16 passes the first two weeks, including two short-yardage conversions, and would have had at least one more if not for a misplaced pass by Goff. In the past two weeks, Hockenson has six total catches and one pseudo short-yardage conversion. The Lions converted a third-and-2 against the Bears last week when Hockenson drew a pass interference penalty on linebacker Roquan Smith. He was targeted on one additional third-and-2 play, but did not win his route at the line of scrimmage.

Even when he was not catching balls the first four weeks, Hockenson was an important part of the Lions’ short-yardage plan.

Campbell said the Lions’ failed fourth-and-1 in the third quarter of their Week 2 loss to the Green Bay Packers was designed for Hockenson. Goff looked off Hockenson at the line of scrimmage, however, due to coverage, and threw incomplete to Quintez Cephus on the other side of the field.

“We were hoping we were going to be able to get a single with T.J. And if not, it’s really Q’s got to win or T.J., and you’re hoping it’s T.J.,” Campbell said. “Well, it didn’t and you’re going out to your X and it didn’t work.”

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The Lions used Hockenson as a decoy on a key third-and-goal play last week — a play that worked only to be blown up by poor blocking up front. Hockenson ran a short curl in the middle of the field, and when a Bears safety sat on his route in double coverage, it left Cephus open on a crossing route in the back of the end zone. Goff never had time to get Cephus the ball, though, as Robert Quinn beat Penei Sewell for a sack-fumble.

Certainly, the Lions need to find reliable short-yardage weapons other than Hockenson, but for now he is their best ticket to success on got-to-have-it plays. Defenses have paid him more attention of late, and it’s incumbent upon both Hockenson to find ways to beat double coverage and Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn to do a better job of scheming him open.

Campbell hinted that Jamaal Williams could play a bigger role in short-yardage situations, but I think the Lions have done a good job mixing run and pass — and doing so out of similar formations.

First, it’s important to note the NFL has trended more towards passing on short-yardage plays in recent years, and specifically on plays of longer than 1 yard to go. The Lions are 4-for-4 converting third- or fourth-and-1 rushing attempts this season, and 4-for-8 on passes. They appeared set to attempt a fifth short-yardage run on a fourth-and-1 play against the Baltimore Ravens, but Sewell was flagged for a false start before the snap.

Williams’ lone short-yardage fail this season came in Week 1 against the 49ers. He stumbled taking a handoff from Goff, and two 49ers defenders — Nick Bosa and Jaquiski Tartt — blew through the line of scrimmage for an easy stop.

The Lions have an above-average NFL offensive line, and even if injuries to Taylor Decker and Frank Ragnow have cut into its effectiveness, I think the Lions can run the ball more in short-yardage situations. Williams is a powerful back and the Sewell-Jonah Jackson combo on the left side of the line has been effective creating holes.

Still, the volume of runs the Lions have attempted is much less of an issue than the execution of the plays they’ve called, and passing as much as they have has opened up a variety of short-yardage options. Williams had his longest short-yardage carry of 6 yards on a shotgun dive when the Lions outflanked a 49ers defense geared to defend the pass.

By creating passing tendencies the first four weeks, the Lions should be set up to succeed by working against them going forward.

The Lions have run 19 short-yardage passing plays and five short-yardage running plays this season, but those numbers are heavily skewed by game script.

Of the Lions’ 19 short-yardage passing plays, eight have come when trailing by double digits in the fourth quarter, one of those eight was a free play when a defender jumped offsides and another was a shot downfield on third-and-1 in what the Lions were treating as two-down territory.

For most teams, third- or fourth-and 3 is a clear passing down, and third- or fourth-and-2 often is as well. Eliminating late-game/trail situations, the Lions have actually attempted the same number of runs and passes on third- or fourth-and-1s.

Nothing about the Lions’ balance seems out of the ordinary.

Jared Goff has to be better.

Goff has played well for stretches this season, but he has missed several crucial short-yardage throws. On a third-and-2 pass to Hockenson in the opener, Goff threw behind the Lions’ tight end in the right flat, forcing him to turn back toward the defense upon making the catch. Hockenson was stopped for a 1-yard gain, and the Lions converted on fourth-and-1 on the next play, a simple rub route to Tyrell Williams.

Goff made another poor throw on a similar third-and-2 speed out to Kalif Raymond against the Ravens. Goff placed the ball in Raymond’s chest rather than leading him toward the sideline, which caused Raymond to spin inside toward the defense. He, too, was stopped a yard short of a first down.

Last week, Goff missed St. Brown in the left flat on the Lions’ final offensive play. Goff said he was at fault for the throw, and he may have been, but St. Brown, operating out of the left slot, could have run a flater route toward the first down marker.

Add in a drop by fullback Jason Cabinda on a third-and-1 play in the opener, Goff’s sack-fumble against the Bears and another play when he simply had the ball slip out of his hands against the Packers, and there are six short-yardage conversions the Lions squandered. If they make even four of the six, their conversion rate soars to over 60%.

A few final thoughts:

Goff is not the most mobile quarterback, but he has done a good job using his feet to extend plays on third down. He spun out of a would-be sack in the fourth quarter against the Bears and bought time on a 46-yard pass to Cephus against the Packers, when his first read, Hockenson, was covered in the flat.

Swift, the Lions’ second-best skill player behind Hockenson, has not been a focal point of the Lions’ short-yardage offense. That’s understandable on one level. Williams is the better rushing option, in most instances, and superior in pass protection. But the Lions need Swift and his play-making ability on the field as much as possible and can use him effectively as a short-yardage receiver.

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Case in point: Swift was open on one third-and-3 incompletion against the Packers, when he and Hockenson aligned side-by-side to the right of the formation with an empty backfield. He ran a simple crossing route, but was forced to adjust the route’s depth when Trinity Benson ran a crosser from the other direction deeper than expected to avoid linebacker Jonathan Garvin. Goff threw short of Swift on the play, presumably because he was throwing to the spot he expected Swift to be on the field.

It is trite to say, but poor execution has been the Lions’ biggest downfall in short-yardage situations this year. They need more out of their quarterback, they need more players who can win on their own, and they need to make better use of their best playmakers, too.

They should not be as bad as they’ve been in short-yardage situations, and the fact that they are falls on everyone involved.

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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