A New Beginning
As training camp gets going, we’ll be able to dive more into Xs and Os, but for now I just want to give everyone a brief overview of the Joe Lombardi offense, which is a version of the “Gulf Coast” offense system that’s been used in New Orleans since 2006. The Detroit Lions offensive scheme will now be a motion-heavy, multiple-set version of the West Coast offense.
At its simplest, a traditional West Coast offense features a lot quick, high percentage passes. The Detroit Lions offensive philosophy will also add in a heavy dose vertical shots down the field, much like New Orleans has done over the last eight years. Saints head coach Sean Payton also added several wrinkles to the traditional West Coast offense, including using versatile running backs and tight ends to create mismatches all over the field.
No One-trick Pony Offense
What makes the Lions offensive philosophy so unique is the amount of personnel changes that happen, not just from drive to drive, but from play to play. The offense may only run a few plays, but they’ll run each of them from several formations to keep defenses guessing. Even the average onlooker should be able to the difference between the new and the former offenses, even if it’s just by looking at the pre-snap motion.
"[The Saints] are not a team that just lines up and goes and plays football. They sub out personnel every single play,” backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky said on a recent Ross Tucker Podcast. “They get in different formations, they run the same play 10 times but 10 different ways. They motion guys. And there’s going to be a lot of those aspects that come to Detroit because there are so many weapons on our offense now."
Weapons. Oh, the Lions have weapons. After signing wide receiver Golden Tate and selecting tight end Eric Ebron with the tenth pick in this year’s draft, the Lions have now stockpiled one of the most dynamic offenses in the league.
Whereas most offenses might sub out two or three players in between plays, it’s not uncommon to see as many as five players sub in and out on any given play.
Think about the matchup nightmares defenses will have trying to account for everyone on the field. Here are just a few things opposing defenses will have to think about every time the Lions offense lines up:
First off, how do we cover Calvin Johnson? Do we trust our cornerback to play out there on an island, or do we need to help him out with a safety over the top?
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Where is Ebron? Is he on the line or split out in the slot? Do we go to nickel or stay in base formation and put a linebacker on him? If we’re shading Johnson, the middle of the field could be exposed.
Is Reggie Bush on the field? We need to account for him both as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.
What about Golden Tate? We can let Tate catch the ball, but we have to secure the tackle.
How do we account for Joseph Fauria in the red zone?
You get the idea, and I didn’t even mention guys like Joique Bell, Brandon Pettigrew, and Ryan Broyles. The Lions offense is stacked. And the scheme should allow everyone to create mismatches against the defense in one way or another. Even the fullback will have a role in this offense, both as a blocker and receiver. If everything is covered downfield, Jed Collins gives Matthew Stafford an outlet to pick up a few yards. It’s not earth shattering, but after getting beat several times for short gains in the flat, that cornerback might hesitate just a bit to trail the receiver downfield. Small things like a fullback in the flat could pay off with big dividends later in the game.
Scheme Players Open
The multiplicity of the offensive formations makes anyone on the field a weapon. Lombardi will be able to align his weapons to get favorable matchups.
Here you can see the Saints are in 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR). Tight end Jimmy Graham motions from the backfield to the slot at the snap, with cornerback Aquib Talib trailing him. The Patriots are in man coverage with a single deep safety. Both Graham and Kenny Stills run vertical (clear out) routs to keep the deep safety honest, while tight end Ben Watson runs a crossing route in the middle of the field.
Watson was matched up against a poor coverage linebacker in Brandon Spikes. This is the exact type of mismatch this offense looks to create. The two outside vertical routes hold the safety deep long enough for Brees to make a sure pass to a wide open Watson down the field. This is why even a guy like Brandon Pettigrew has a role in this offense. Lombardi will do his best to scheme players opportunities, regardless of where they stand on the depth chart.
No Small Parts, Only Small Actors
One of the truly neat parts about Joe Lombardi’s offense is that he’ll utilize specific players for specific roles. Take Travaris Cadet for example. I know what you’re thinking, Travaris who? Cadet was signed as an undrafted free agent in 2012 by the New Orleans Saints. He had only five receptions last season, but one of them came on a perfectly designed touchdown.
Here, you can see the Saints put three running backs– Pierre Thomas (1), Darren Sproles (2), and Cadet (3)–in the formation. Cadet is brilliantly schemed wide open. He did not win because of overmatching athletic ability, he won because of his function within the offense. By placing an unknown, third string running back next to Jimmy Graham, Payton was able to play the defense against itself. Coordinators don’t dare take their attention off Graham, and so the unknown running back slips through the cracks.
This is the perfect role for a player like Theo Riddick. Riddick’s stat line may not be the 50 catches that’s been touted around, but Lombardi will be able to scheme him some opportunities throughout the season. The same can be said for guys like Joseph Fauria and Brandon Pettigrew. They may not be the focal points of the offense, but they should still be able to produce in certain situations throughout the season.
And all of this is just scratching the surface. Joe Lombardi’s offense will be fast, multiple and chaotically organized to keep defenses on their heels. I’m sure we’ll learn even more as training camp moves forward and the preseason begins.