O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: New offense running efficiently

Posted Aug 18, 2014

All things have to be proven over the long haul in the regular season, but the evidence to date is that the offense will be more efficient than previously.

The Monday Countdown after two weeks of the Lions’ preseason: The progression of the Lions’ offense and Matthew Stafford’s evolution as trigger man, leader and teacher; how the quarterback depth chart is developing; where the Lions’ offense has its root; snap judgments on preseason snap counts; how Ryan Broyles’ resolve is proving that all Achilles injuries are not the same; my take (I hate it!!!) on the 33-yard extra point experiment and the fallout of one rules change.

We start with Stafford – his words, and those of his teammates:

1. Design change: There was considerable speculation in the offseason about how the offense would look under new head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi compared to what the Lions ran for five years under former coordinator Scott Linehan.

Stafford was asked in a conversation between the offseason workouts and training camp if an average fan could notice a difference.

“I think it’s going to be visible, just the way we line up, the way we move,” he said then. “I think there will be a tangible difference to the common fan, even.”

That has proven true. Even the common sportswriter can see the difference – not just in design and formations, with more use of a fullback, but how the ball is being spread to different receivers.

This is not a dump-on-Linehan exercise. In the last three seasons, with Stafford available to start all 48 games, the Lions ranked third, second and fourth in passing yards and sixth, third and fifth in total yards.

All things have to be proven over the long haul in the regular season, but the evidence to date is that the offense will be more efficient than previously.

2. Spread sheet: Calvin Johnson is still the go-to receiver, but center Dominic Raiola expects more receivers will be involved.

The Lions’ second scoring drive Friday night at Oakland showed that.

Stafford completed seven of eight passes for 60 yards and his second touchdown of the quarter – a four-yard throw to Kris Durham in the end zone.

Five receivers had receptions – two by Golden Tate and Durham, and one each by Reggie Bush, Kevin Ogletree and rookie tight end Eric Ebron.

Johnson was held out for the second straight week.

“Everybody’s alive,” Raiola said. “Think back to last year when we didn’t have Calvin on the field. It was hard to run the offense, wasn’t it?”

Stafford has been noticeably more active as a leader this year.

“He said it; he’s being coached differently,” Raiola said. “I applaud the (former) coaches for taking us to a point where we are now. Now it’s the next step – turning him into an elite quarterback.

“He’s aware of what’s going on. It’s unreal. I’m excited.”

3. Quarterback teacher: After one pass play during practice last week, Stafford huddled on the sideline with Johnson and Jeremy Ross and went over in detail how he wanted a particular play run. Without going into detail here, Stafford went through the steps and where the ball would be placed.

“He was just kind of letting us know how he wanted the route to be run, and where we should be expecting the ball,” Ross said. “He brought it up. He knew kind of what he wanted. When he saw me do it, he was like, ‘Hey, this is what you should expect.’

“I took a mental note for next time, when it comes up again.”

4. Offense DNA: There have been questions of the offense’s identity and its roots since Caldwell hired Lombardi. Would it based on what Caldwell ran as head coach and assistant with Indy and as an assistant in Baltimore? Would Lombardi bring in the system he learned in seven seasons under Sean Payton in New Orleans? Or would it be a hybrid?

Based on what Bush said last week when he was describing the learning curve for Ebron, the roots are in New Orleans.

“I remember my rookie year in this exact offense,” said Bush, who played his first five seasons in New Orleans. “My head was swimming.”

And Raiola offered this: “It’s the same offense we didn’t see punt in the playoff game.”

That was a reference to the Saints’ 45-28 victory over the Lions in the 2011 season wild-card playoffs, when the Saints ran up 626 yards and never punted.

5. Backup plan: Coach Jim Caldwell spoke in detail Saturday about the importance of the second and third quarterbacks, and the value of their support of the starter.

Caldwell’s comments included the following:

“I think there’s a comfort level that particularly the starting quarterback gains from his wingman. Often times, he’s kind of the eyes and ears.

“(The backup) sees around corners ... because he’s (the starter) focused in on getting ready for the game, and this guy comes up with all the other information.”

6. QB depth chart: I’ll be shocked if the Lions don’t keep three quarterbacks on the final 53-player roster. That makes Dan Orlovsky and Kellen Moore No. 2-3 respectively.

7. Broyles’ return: Ryan Broyles is making his third comeback in three seasons from a season-ending injury, and he’s staking a claim as a third or fourth receiver with his play in the preseason.

Ryan BroylesRyan Broyles (Photo: Gavin Smith / Detroit Lions)

Broyles had three catches against Cleveland in the first game and two for 42 yards against Oakland. One went for 34 yards when he was able to make a move and add 32 yards after the catch.

Broyles is nine months and three weeks removed from sustaining a season-ending Achilles injury on a punt-return play against Dallas on Oct. 27 last year. The previous two seasons – at Oklahoma and as a rookie with the Lions – were ended by knee injuries.

Broyles never complains about bad luck, and he acts like a football player, not a rehab project.

“I can’t ask to feel any better,” he said. “I’m pain free. My Achilles is perfectly fine.”

8. Fairley’s snap count: Defensive tackle Nick Fairley’s weight, performance and play time are being closely watched, and none of it seems to add up in his favor.

Caldwell ended any speculation about whether Fairley had been demoted to second string behind C.J. Mosley with his comments after the Oakland game, saying Mosley had been practicing with the No. 1 defense “because he’s playing better.”

Fairley started the first preseason game against Cleveland and played 15 snaps compared to 20 for Mosley, who came off the bench.  As a starter at Oakland, Mosley played 17 snaps to 12 for Fairley, who did nothing to show he should get his starting job back.

It isn’t the snaps that count or when they come, but how a player performs, and Fairley needs to do better.

9. Extra point experiment: The experiment of moving the line of scrimmage back from the two-yard line to the 15 is over after the second full week of the preseason, and my vote is to never bring it back.

I get the premise. Kickers are so proficient that they make more than 99 percent of kicks with the line of scrimmage at the two. Having the line of scrimmage at the 15 requires a 33-yard kick for an extra point and also might spur coaches to go for two points more often.

But to me, all that is over shadowed by instances of what happened in the Lions-Raiders game Friday night.

Rookie Nate Freese missed one 33-yard extra-point kick but made another for one point.

On field goals, the Raiders’ Sebastian Janikowski made a 28-yarder for three points, while the Lions got a 25-yarder from Giorgio Tavecchio and a 55-yarder from Freese, also worth three.

If kickers being too proficient is a reason for longer kicks for an extra point, logic – mine, anyway – says that the numbers don’t add up. Why should 25- and 28-yard field goals get the same value as a 55-yarder and be worth three times as much as a 33-yard extra point?

10. Attacking defense: It’s a good thing that the Lions plan to blitz and attack more on defense, but it comes with consequences if they don’t get to the quarterback.

With officials calling holding more closely, it puts more pressure on the secondary to cover. The result is more holding calls, until defensive backs adjust to avoid getting called for holding.

But if they’re afraid to put their hands on receivers, will that lead to more big pass plays?

Either way, defensive backs around the league will be in more jeopardy than ever.