The Lions’ rushing attack has been the topic of discussion for a couple of weeks and the trade/no trade for Ronnie Brown fanned the flames of discussion further. After reading several articles, message boards and blogs I have noticed that the opinions vary on why the run game is struggling, but nobody has hit the nail on the head yet.
There’s the usual discussions of specific members of the offensive line being to blame, the entire offensive line and some about how Jahvid Best is too small to be an every down back. The truth does contain elements from all of those discussions, but the real culprit for the Lions’ run game woes is the play calling.
The Lions have built this offense around Matthew Stafford and an explosive down field passing game. They have used free agency, trades and high draft picks to assemble a receiving corps that can take advantage of Matthew Stafford’s strong arm and quick release. I understand maximizing talent and knowing your weaknesses and I respect that the coaching staff plays to their strengths on offense. The Lions are a passing team first and they will use the run game when they have to. New Orleans, Indianapolis and Green Bay all have similarly constructed offenses and they have had a great deal of success with it.
The real issue is not the build of the offense, but the actual play calling. Matthew Stafford is more comfortable in the shotgun because he can view the whole field while taking the snap rather than having to drop back and read the defense at the same time. Generally speaking, an NFL quarterback should have 2.5 to 3 seconds from the snap of the ball to get a throw off. When taking snaps from under center, about one second is spent dropping back leaving 1.5 to 2 seconds to get the ball out. The shotgun eliminates that step and gives the quarterback the full 2.5 to 3 seconds to make the throw.
Keeping the quarterback in the shotgun helps the passing game, but if the team lines up in the shotgun on passing plays and under center on running plays, the offense is predictable. So the Lions built their running game out of the shotgun formation. The shotgun does offer some opportunities in the running game because the defense is spread out and thinking pass, so delayed handoffs and misdirection runs can open huge running lanes. That’s where Jahvid Best’s speed can make a defense pay, like he did against the Bears.
However, the downside is much greater in the NFL when you chose to run almost exclusively out of the shotgun. This is problematic for several reasons.
- The running back is lined up four yards behind the line of scrimmage. When the quarterback is under center they line up about seven yards back. The running back has less time to read holes and cut back lanes because he is closer to the line.
- The running back lines up next to the quarterback instead of behind, so he takes the handoff standing still rather than with three yard head start.
- There is rarely a lead blocker in the shotgun, so every offensive lineman has to win his matchup, otherwise a defender is free to fill a gap.
- To create a lead blocker, a lineman must pull or use a trap block to create a hole, those blocks require precise timing otherwise defenders are running free through the gaps.
- Jahvid Best is not the type of back that breaks tackles, most of the running plays out of the shotgun go up the middle. Best does most of his damage in space.
No NFL team has had success running the ball almost exclusively out of the shotgun for all the reasons listed above and more. Even teams with great offensive lines and superstar running backs run out of the shotgun as a change of pace or on obvious passing downs.
The Lions have actually had a decent amount of success running the ball when Stafford is under center, and they ran it fairly well at the end of last season when Shaun Hill and Drew Stanton spent more time under center than Stafford did. The Lions do have deficiencies on the offensive line. Dominic Raiola is an average run blocker, Stephen Peterman has played below average and Gosder Cherilus’ inconsistency is plaguing him again. But the offensive line is not being put in a position to maximize their strengths and hide their weaknesses right now.
Now that Jahvid Best may miss quite a bit of time, look for the Lions to get back to more traditional running plays because Maurice Morris and Keiland Williams are not big play threats. Best is a great player and his absence from the lineup will be missed, but it might be an opportunity to get back to basics for the Lions’ run game and ultimately help the team in the long run.