The Dallas Cowboys face their most talented passer to date as they host Matthew Stafford and the Detroit Lions this Sunday. The Lions have struggled to start the season but rebounded against perennial Super Bowl contender New England Patriots. With an impressive 26-10 win on Sunday Night Football, Detroit has seemingly found its form under new head coach Matt Patricia.
Since he was the first overall pick in 2009, Stafford has had one of the best arms in the league. He’s averaged close to 300 yards passing per game in 2018. That’s more than 130 yards better per week than Dak Prescott. The former Georgia Bulldog has also tossed six touchdowns, three times more than Dallas. However, largely due to a horrendous season opener, Stafford has thrown five interceptions, more than twice the amount of Prescott.
Here’s a look at some of the Lions’ tendencies as well as a peek at their gameplan this weekend:
Outside the Numbers
A significant portion of Stafford’s throws are outside the numbers. He’s quite comfortable targeting receivers from the short flat depth to the deeper corner of the field.
In his past two games, 30 of 89 throws (33.7 percent) were outside the numbers. Of those 30 passes, 18 (60 percent) were to the flat region.
Cowboys defenders must expect him to hit the flat on early downs as soon as he sees an opening. Stafford’s first pass last week is a prime example.
This was a 2nd-and-7 on Detroit’s opening drive and converted for a 1st down. The offense needed easy yards that also moved the chains and Stafford provided.
But he doesn’t only target the flats. Stafford processes information quickly, reading defenses on the fly to find the weaknesses in coverage. At San Francisco in Week 2, he does precisely that and throws a red zone touchdown against the 49ers’ Cover-6 zone. Cover-6 is when the defense is in Cover-4 on one half of the field and Cover-2 on the other.
Here’s the end zone angle of the play in real time. Watch how he smoothly reads the safeties to identify the 2-high zone, looks to his left and sees the flat defender, confirming that side of the field as Cover-2, then sees his tight end on the corner route. All of this happens in a few seconds.
Hitting Back Side Routes
Like most coordinators, Jim Bob Cooter will combine multiple concepts to give his quarterback options against different defensive looks. And in addition to reading defenses in short order, the Lions’ starter is also unafraid to target receivers on the back side of plays.
Another example from Week 2 was a sail concept versus Cover-3 zone.
The sail concept is a three-level stretch of the defense that sends receivers on short, intermediate, and deep routes. This is an excellent Cover-3 beater as the out route is often open. This is because the deep third defender is occupied by the vertical route while the flat defender is drawn in by the flat route.
Against the 49ers, Cooter deployed the sail with a backside dig route on 3rd-and-10. Stafford saw the flat defender favored the out route due to the down and distance. This meant his intended receiver was covered. He then decisively turned to the back side and hit Marvin Jones on a tight-window pass.
From the end zone angle, the Highland Park native quickly progresses through his reads and shows the talent to back up the confidence he has in his arm.
— Allan Uy (@AllanUy22) September 27, 2018
With a trio of good receivers in Jones, Golden Tate, and Kenny Golladay, the Lions boast a strong aerial attack. And because Stafford frequently throws to the back side instead of the play-side concept, cornerbacks Byron Jones, Chido Awuzie, and Anthony Brown need to be in phase against their receivers at all times. There are rarely any ‘dead’ routes in a play call.
The Lions offense features a lot of two-and three-receiver groupings called stacks and bunches. Almost half of their offensive snaps use a formation that contains a stack or bunch.
One of their tendencies has been to run when in a bunch set where one of the receivers is a tight end in the wing position.
Detroit used this formation, or one close to it, 11 times. That amounted to five-and-a-half times per game these past two weeks. They ran the ball on nine of 11 plays (81.8 percent). And virtually every one of these plays was from 11 personnel.
Split Zone with Orbit Motion
Since Week 2, Detroit has run the split zone with orbit motion from the above formation six times, all of them on 1st down. Orbit motion is when a receiver speeds into the backfield as if he’s running an end-around or reverse.
The split zone is an inside zone run where a tight end or halfback motions across the formation to block the backside defender. The runner often cuts back with the tight end in this concept, but not always. Ultimately, he reads the blocks to tell him where to move.
This particular play offers at least three different concepts. In the second game of the season, the Lions would utilize all three.
Late in the first quarter, Cooter called the split zone with orbit motion as illustrated above.
A full quarter later, he dialed up an end-around with split-zone action. This was the exact play from before except Stafford flipped the ball to Tate instead of handing it off to LeGarrette Blount.
Then in the early third quarter, they attempted a screen pass off this same play-action.
Unfortunately for Detroit, the pass was incomplete.
Against the Patriots in Week 3, Cooter tweaked this play design by having Tate line up wide before motioning inside. But this was essentially the same play as the week prior.
Detroit ran this concept three times in the second half against New England for seven, 13 and four yards. All three of these plays occurred at the start of drives.
The good news for the Cowboys is they faced this concept last week at Seattle, so they’re already familiar with it.
The defense acquitted itself well on this play with every defender fulfilling his assignment.
However, Rod Marinelli and Kris Richard can’t allow their players to become complacent. Even with a run ratio of 81.8 percent from this formation, the Lions can and will pass from it.
The Patriots found this out late in the third quarter. Stafford executed a bootleg pass and found Marvin Jones on a 33-yard over route for a touchdown.
Dallas’ secondary will have its hands full containing three quality receivers and a pro-bowl level quarterback with an elite arm. Add to that a resurgent running game featuring veteran Blount and rookie Kerryon Johnson behind a re-tooled offensive line, and the defense faces one of its toughest challenges of the season.
Given the current state of the Cowboys’ offense and the likelihood of defensive captain Sean Lee missing a few games, Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, DeMarcus Lawrence, Byron Jones and the rest of their teammates may need to put on a near-perfect performance this weekend.
The unit could use a lot of help from their own running game which appears to have resurfaced. But until the offense truly contributes, they can’t be relied upon for more than two touchdowns at best. If the defense is required to keep Detroit below 14 points, then there’s no reason to expect a Dallas win.
You can follow Allan on Twitter at @AllanUy22
*Animations derived from NFL Game Pass.