The Chicago Bears currently sit at first place in the NFC North at 5-3, percentage points ahead of the Minnesota Vikings. If the new “Monsters of the Midway” are going to make a run to a division title, the next three weeks will prove to be a pivotal stretch. Chicago faces three divisional games, including two against the Detroit Lions. The Lions entered the 2018 season with high hopes at making a playoff run of their own. But two straight losses, plus a trade of a key factor of their offense, have the Lions sliding back in the division standings. Here is a look at some of what the Bears will see Sunday in the Detroit passing game, with a focus on a receiver tasked with stepping up in the wake of the Golden Tate trade: Kenny Golladay.
Motion and pre-snap movement is a critical factor in giving your quarterback information before the snap, as well as trying to isolate advantageous matchups in the passing game. So far this season Jim Bob Cooter has made effective use of motion to give Matthew Stafford some pre-snap clues about the defensive coverage while creating some opportunities in the passing game.
Here is one example, from Detroit’s Week 4 game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Lions face a third-and-3 in the first quarter, and line up with Stafford (#9) in the shotgun and three receivers to the left side of the formation. The Cowboys counter with a 4-2-5 nickel package:
Looking at the Dallas defense, you can see the information available to Stafford at this point. The Cowboys have one safety high, with both outside corners aligned in press coverage. Stafford can be fairly confident that the Cowboys are in man coverage. But then the Lions send Golden Tate (#15) in motion across the formation:
Now Stafford can be sure this is man coverage, as a defender trails Tate across the formation. Even better, Tate will run a quick out pattern just beyond the first down marker:
The motion helps this play in two ways. First, it gives the quarterback one more clue as to the coverage in the secondary, and the more information a QB has at his disposal pre-snap, the faster his post-snap decision will be. Second, with a defender trailing Tate across the formation, the wide receiver has leverage to the outside at the snap, giving him an advantage on his route. Stafford hits Tate coming out of his break, and the Lions move the chains:
Here is another example of the Lions using pre-snap movement to help Stafford identify the coverage and put one of their receivers in position for success. Last week against the Minnesota Vikings, the Lions faced a second-and-5 at the Minnesota 27-yard line midway through the second quarter. The Lions align with Stafford in the shotgun and two recievers to the right, with Golladay (#19) inside of TE Luke Willson (#82):
From this pre-snap look, Stafford is thinking the Vikings are likely in some sort of zone coverage. Willson has a cornerback across from him while the Vikings also show two deep safeties. But then WIllson slides inside, and the defense adjusts as well:
Given how the defenders just slide, instead of trailing Willson in motion, Stafford can be very confident that Minnesota is in zone coverage here, and they are, and the Lions have a great play called for this situation:
Safety Harrison Smith (#22) slides down into the box and the Vikings run a Cover 3 coverage on this play. The Lions have a Flat-7 Smash design called, with Willson releasing to the flat while Golladay runs the deeper pattern breaking to the outside. Because the Vikings are in a Cover 3 look, the outside cornerback has to respect the vertical route because he does not have safety help over the top, and Golladay is able to flip the corner’s hips and get separation when he breaks to the outside:
Again, using motion gives the quarterback additional information before the play, leading to a successful throw downfield.
The Back-Shoulder Throw
Now we can combine pre-snap movement and motion with another concept the Lions love to call upon for big plays in the vertical passing game. Cooter’s offense relies heavily on screens, short throws and shallow crossing routes, but he also will work in throws downfield to stress the defense vertically. The back-shoulder throw — whether on pure vertical routes or on routes working out of the slot — is a big component of this aspect of their playbook.
Here is another pre-snap movement the Lions will use:
The Lions line up for a second- and-6 play against the Green Bay Packers with Stafford alone in the backfield. RB Kerryon Johnson (#33) begins the play aligned as one of the two receivers to the right side of the formation. As you can see that causes some adjustment in the secondary, as FS HaHa Clinton-Dix (#21) slides outside to cover the running back, leaving no safety in the middle of the field. But then Johnson shifts back into the backfield, and Clinton-Dix slides back into the middle of the field. Piecing this together, Stafford can be pretty sure the Packers are in a man coverage scheme.
So this is a perfect time to turn to one of the things Detroit loves to do in the more vertical passing game, the back-shoulder throw:
Golladay runs a fade route out of the slot, and Stafford puts this throw toward his back shoulder and the boundary, away from the leverage of the defender. From there Golladay does the rest, fighting through bodies and turning this into a 60-yard gain. For his part, Stafford does a great job moving the free safety with his eyes. But there is a reason the Lions turn to the back-shoulder throw multiple times a game, and it starts with the ball placement from the quarterback. Stafford’s throw here is in a perfect spot for his receiver.
This next play is another example of how Stafford’s precision on the back-shoulder throw gives Detroit opportunities in the downfield passing game. On this play against the Cowboys in Week 4, the Lions face a second-and-11 on their own 41-yard line. They line up with Stafford in the shotgun and Golladay split wide to the right, and they send Golladay on a vertical route along the boundary:
The coverage here from the cornerback is near perfect, but because Golladay gets outside on his release and Stafford puts this throw in an ideal spot, the defender does not have a chance to prevent this completion:
The back-shoulder throw is so hard to defend, making it a component of many offenses in today’s NFL — and the Lions are no exception.
Now we can turn to the main way the Lions have implemented Golladay this season: On crossing routes working the middle of the field. In researching this piece, I spoke with Bryce Rossler, who covers the Detroit Lions for LionsWire. Rossler told me the Lions likely felt comfortable in trading Tate because of the emergence of Golladay as a player who can win in the middle of the field on crossing routes.
On this play back in Week 4, the Lions face a third-and-11 against the Cowboys on the Detroit 22-yard line. They line up with Golladay as the single receiver to the left in a 3x1 alignment, with a bunch formation to the right. The Lions run Golladay on a shallow crossing route working underneath:
The Cowboys look to be in a Cover 6 coverage here, with the hard corner down over Golladay, trying to get a jam on the receiver as he releases off the line of scrimmage. But Golladay is able to work free underneath against the zone look, and turns a short reception into a fresh set of downs for the Lions thanks to his acceleration after the catch:
Golladay catches this pass in front of multiple defenders, but even though the backside Cowboys’ cornerback had the angle on him, Golladay beats him around the edge and picks up the first down.
Another thing the Lions love to do with Golladay on these crossing routes is to implement them while Stafford is working off play-action. On this play against the Miami Dolphins, the Lions come out of the huddle using "21" offensive personnel, but they align in the backfield using a pistol diamond formation:
Here is the route concept Cooter calls for working off play-action:
Longtime readers of these columns likely recognize this play: The Mills Concept. This is a route combination that works to high-low the free safety in the middle of the field with a post route over the top, and a dig route in front of him. Here, the safety drops to help on the deep post route, so Golladay is isolated in a one-on-one situation over the middle. Stafford puts this throw on the money, and the Lions move the chains:
We can close this out looking at a play against the Packers that combined Golladay on a crossing route with a multiple-level read to one side of the field. This gives Stafford multiple options on the play:
This is a variation of the Mills Concept often called NCAA Mills. It combines the post route from the left with the dig route from Golladay and a shallow crossing route from the tight end. This gives Stafford the opportunity to first hit Golladay over the middle, or let the play develop a bit where he ends up with a three-level stretch on the left side of the field, with the post, dig and shallow combination. Here, Stafford waits a bit before hitting Golladay as he works from right to left:
As these plays have shown, the Lions likely felt comfortable moving on from Tate given the emergence of Golladay on these routes working over the middle. With his ability to win on these crossing routes, Golladay also frees up space on the outside for some of the Lions’ other weapons, while stressing the defense at multiple levels of the field.
These three elements to the Lions’ passing game: Movement, the back-shoulder throw and the crossing route, have one common thread right now for Detroit: Golladay. His growth as a receiver within Detroit’s offense has given the Lions continued weapons in the passing game, despite trading away Tate to the Philadelphia Eagles. As the Bears are tasked with facing this offense twice in the next three weeks, these are elements to the Detroit offense that Chicago needs to be ready for.