Part of the fun of watching a football game is second-guessing the play calling. From the comfort of their couches (or Twitter), fans will criticize an offensive coordinator for running too much or too little, not helping a struggling lineman enough, not using a dangerous weapon, or any number of other sins. One curious play that undoubtedly had Detroit Lions fans yelling at their televisions came in the fourth quarter of Detroit’s 16-13 Thanksgiving Day victory over the Minnesota Vikings. Trailing by 3 with 10 minutes left in the game and facing third-and-seven, the Lions ran Theo Riddick up the middle for 3 yards. What could offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter have been thinking?
The Answer is 42
Observant Detroit diehards may have noticed that the Lions ran a nearly identical play three weeks earlier when the teams met in Minnesota. On 3rd-and-7, the Minnesota Vikings sugar the A gap, a staple of Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer’s defense. Linebackers Emmanuel Lamur (#59) and Anthony Barr (#55) line up to either side of Detroit center Travis Swanson (#64). Normally those gaps are controlled by 300-pound war daddies, not 250-pound linebackers. This alignment also means there is no one patrolling the second level behind the defensive line. Moreover, the Vikings put defensive ends Everson Griffen (#97) and Danielle Hunter (#99) in wide 9 formation, well outside the tackles to either side (and in Hunter’s case, well outside the tight end).
The Vikings are inviting the run – and why shouldn’t they? Third and seven is clearly a passing situation. League-wide, teams only run on 3rd-and-7 11% of the time, and a good portion of those runs are quarterback scrambles, not designed running plays. In this case, however, the look that the Vikings present is too enticing for the Lions. They hand the ball off to halfback Theo Riddick (#25):
The blocking scheme is basic power. Swanson blocks down on Barr while right guard Larry Warford (#75) pulls to block Lamur. Left tackle Taylor Decker (#68) and left guard Graham Glasgow (#60) double-team Tom Johnson (#92). After the initial contact, both Decker and Glasgow move on to other targets, with Decker moving up to safety Andrew Sendejo (#34) while Glasgow seals off Griffen. Presumably, one of the players got his assignment wrong. Right tackle Riley Reiff (#70) also struggles with his reach block on Brian Robison (#96), allowing Robison to get inside. Johnson and Robison are both able to get a hand on Riddick as he bursts through the hole, but not enough to slow him significantly.
The Lions get one pretty significant break in addition to the favorable alignment. Lamur appears to be running a game with Johnson and angles towards Glasgow, looking at the guard and getting a quick shove on him rather than attacking the backfield. Lamur effectively runs himself out of the play. Riddick bursts through the line and finds himself in wide open space with Decker and tight end Eric Ebron (#85) blocking downfield. He rumbles for a 42-yard gain before cornerback Captain Munnerlyn (#24) chases him down from the other side of the field.
Second Try for Three
With the context of that successful run less than a month earlier, Cooter’s decision Sunday makes more sense. The Vikings show a similar look, with linebackers Eric Kendricks (#54) and Barr lined up in the A gaps and Hunter in a wide 9, although Griffen sets up inside tight end Ebron this time. Detroit runs almost the same play:
Swanson and Glasgow block down on Barr and Johnson, respectively. While guards are the most common pullers, left tackle Decker pulls to block Kendricks this time. The double-team is on the offensive right side, with Reiff and Warford combo-blocking Robison. Ebron reach blocks Griffen.
The Lions block this pretty well, opening up a decent hole. Swanson gets push on Barr, and Reiff comes off the combo block to provide some blocking in front. But the play is doomed from the start. Kendricks penetrates more aggressively into the backfield than Lamur did on the earlier play, resulting in Decker not quite pushing to where he wants to be. Riddick trips over Decker’s foot in the backfield and can only stumble forward for a 3-yard gain. Had he gotten through cleanly, there might have been enough space and blocking to convert the first down, but instead the Vikings forced a key punt, necessitating more late-game heroics from the cardiac Lions.
Running on 3rd-and-long is not a high-percentage play. But because it is not a high-percentage play, defenses tend to discount the possibility entirely. Offenses must find a way to take advantage. The Lions were able to get a huge play once running the ball on 3rd-and-7, and while that approach failed on Thursday, so do a lot of 3rd-and-7 plays – the conversion rate in 2016 is only 38% even when passing. Moreover, the willingness to run occasionally in passing situations forces the defense to respect that possibility. If you never run on 3rd-and-long, the D can sell out to defend the pass, so from a game theory standpoint, the periodic handoff makes sense. The three-yard run is the sort of play that makes fans throw their remotes, but a broader look at the context around the play suggests Cooter and the Lions have a method to their madness.