Allen Park — Where does a great play design come from?
Most football coaches will tell you there’s not many new ideas left, merely derivatives of previous concepts, deployed with good timing and better execution.
In Detroit, reflective of the entirety of coach Dan Campbell’s philosophy, that process is collaborative. A great example would be a touchdown call that netted a score in the team’s 29-27 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
The 23-yard scoring strike from quarterback Jared Goff to rookie tight end Brock Wright was the result of conversation, planning, adjustments and execution. As he does with many concepts the team ultimately incorporates into the game plan, Campbell brought an idea to a coaching meeting and asked his staff what they thought.
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Campbell’s initial concept was simple. He wanted to show a run look out of a heavy formation, with two tight ends and a fullback, while actually planning to stress the defense with four vertical receiving routes, while further selling the run with play-action.
Ben Johnson, the team’s tight end coach who has taken on a bigger role in the passing game planning in recent weeks, looked the initial design over and made a small suggestion, adding a pre-snap shift by fullback Jason Cabinda. Another suggestion was to incorporate a pulling guard.
Both those changes furthered the impression that the Lions were running the ball, requiring the defense to commit. It worked to perfection. While the Vikings funneled toward the line of scrimmage to stop the hypothetical run, Wright ran free toward the end zone. The fake handoff, along with the added movements of the guard and fullback, created the window Goff needed to connect with the rookie on the score.
Even the usage of Wright was intentional. The coaching staff knew Pro Bowler T.J. Hockenson would naturally draw more attention as a receiving threat. But with Wright, who caught just seven passes during his college career at Notre Dame, there was a good chance he’d be initially ignored.
“It takes everybody,” Johnson said. “So we’re trying to show (the players) the vision, show them why we have a play in, and it’s up to them to bring it to life. That’s the challenge each week, and when you have the quarterback putting the ball in tight windows like he was last week, shoot, man, the sky’s the limit in terms of where we can go.
“Yeah, it’s really encouraging to see a tight end, to see Brock Wright — a guy who didn’t catch many balls in college come up big for us in a game. And, really, he is a vertical threat. You don’t see many Y tight ends that can run a legit 4.6 (40-yard dash) like he can. So I think that’s awesome. That’s just going to open up opportunities for him in the future.”
Lions cornerback Jerry Jacobs is coming off one of his best games, further solidifying the idea the team’s scouting staff unearthed a gem with the undrafted rookie cornerback.
“That was a guy that we looked at together as a player that we wanted,” defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn said. “We all know, I don’t care if it’s a first-round pick to a seventh-round pick to a free agent, you never what you’re going to get until you get the guy in. We knew that we had something. We didn’t know he was going to be who he is right now, but again, there is a long way for that player to go. So, you’ve got to be excited to have a player like that, that’s playing as well as he is. He’s still young and he has a lot more to learn. We’re excited about that player.”
A prime example that Jacobs is still figuring it out showed up in that victory against the Vikings, when he surrendered a 48-yard reception to star wide receiver Justin Jefferson in the second half.
After making several plays earlier in the game, and in position to make another, Jacobs failed to turn and locate the ball on the underthrown pass, resulting in an uncontested catch for Jefferson.
Glenn joked the play was a symptom of the media hype getting to Jacobs’ head, emphasizing the importance of keeping the young cornerback grounded as he continues to develop. But the coordinator also saw a player intimidated by the NFL’s aggressive officiating of defensive backs on downfield throws, providing him with a valuable coaching point, not just for Jacobs, but all of the team’s young defensive backs.
“I tell the guys like that the receiver is going to tell you the story,” Glenn said. “If you look at the receiver, the receiver was turning back, knew the ball was underthrown, so at that point he needs to turn back and look for the ball.
“He was so afraid of getting a PI, because that’s what this league does to defensive backs, makes them afraid to make plays, because he’s been hit on that before,” Glenn continued. “But I tell those guys, ‘Listen, you gotta always be aggressive, you gotta always stay aggressive.’ He understands that. Just hearing that from me, from AP (defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant), allows him to go out there with more confidence and go out there and play.”
Next man up
With Frank Ragnow out for the year after toe surgery and backup Evan Brown landing on the COVID-19 reserve list earlier this week, the Lions are expected to start undrafted rookie Ryan McCollum at center this Sunday against Denver.
“They’re a great team, great front, good defensive line,” McCollum said. “I’m excited. I get to showcase my skills, show everybody what I got.”
The Lions signed McCollum off the Houston Texans practice squad after Ragnow went on injured reserve. The rookie out of Texas A&M has been active the past eight weeks for the Lions, but has seen just seven offensive snaps during his debut season.