We here at TheSilverDomeBlues.com are always trying to improve content and provide our readers with up to date news and analysis based on factual understanding of football and statistical analysis. As writers, we also put our opinions in our work because the facts can be boring without opinion, even if it’s right. For the most part, we try to stay true to purpose and provide analysis based on fact, however. Being statistically minded, I was aghast as I scoured the internet at how few places you could compare situational statistics on the web. By few, I mean none. That is unacceptable. As such, thesilverdomeblues.com Editor in Chief, Senior Writer, and Grand Pubah, Dave Brown, decided to to make that simple device a reality, putting his strong programming skills and my own evil genius to work. It’s not ready yet, but we plan on using our collective intelligence and creativity to better humanity, improve living conditions, end hunger…or to quickly and easily compare Red Zone statistics of the Lions players to determine who was the best and who was the worst when points were on the line.
A Brief Introduction to the Red Zone
This may seem tedious, but I think it’s important to understand what the red zone is and why playcalling (and the players involved) are different than any other point on the field. The Red Zone is clearly indicated on every football field and is the final 20 yards before the opponents end zone. The playcalling is different in the red zone for a number of reasons, the biggest being that there is a shorter field so the Safeties are, by necessity, playing closer than normal. For the same reason, receivers cannot run the same routes. Slants, ins, and outs are more common than posts and streaks because the routes are simply impossible with that shortened distance. It’s a pretty simple concept, but from a playcalling perspective you are dealing with a different offense facing a different defense than you had up to that point. Run first teams tend to have a better red zone percentage because their playcalling doesn’t normally rely on deep routes and thus doesn’t limit them much in the red zone. The Lions are not a run first team, however, and have relied on the deep and intermediate routes more often than most teams in the NFL. Considering how much the Lions pass, that can cause problems in the red zone.
The Lions as a team were one of the best red zone teams in the NFL in 2011, and they maintained high marks in 2012 despite a drop. Their 2012 Red Zone offense was COMPLETELY different than their 2011 team, however, which I’ll go over in depth as we go along. As a team, the Lions scored a TD about 60% of the time in 2012, good for 7th in the NFL. While those numbers on most teams would mean far more, but the Lions fell into a unique category. If they made it to the red zone, they’d likely score, if they didn’t, they likely wouldn’t. All but one of the Lions rushing TDs came in the Red Zone, and 75% of the Lions passing TDs. That brings the total percentage of TDs scored in the Red Zone to 84% (31 out of 37 TDs). Most teams score a majority of their points from the red zone, but not by that wide of a margin. I mention TDs specifically because there is a clear distinction that needs to be made. You see, the Lions only kicked it in FOUR times from less than 30 yards. For contrast, Matthew Stafford threw the same amount of TDs in the Red Zone as the Lions made Field Goals. Twenty Seven Kickers made more FGs inside the 30 than Jason Hanson. It isn’t because Hanson is a poor Kicker (He was 100% from inside the 40), but because most of the time the Lions either made the Red Zone and scored a TD, turned the ball over, or simply didn’t make the red zone. In essence, the Red Zone was the Lions best part of the field, it was the other 80 yards that gave them trouble.
How About The Signal Caller?
The Lions soon to be franchise leader in everything was not very efficient in the Red Zone. His 47% completion percentage is one of the worst marks in the NFL, and the worst in the NFCN by a narrow margin to Jay Cutler (53%) and a wide margin to Ponder and Rodgers. Looking at the NFCN QBs as a whole, however, Stafford was the worst in the red zone by a very wide margin. Neither Cutler nor Rodgers threw an interception in the Red Zone, while Ponder threw only 2 (with 2 more TDs and more than 15% better completion percentage). Stafford also took more sacks than all but Ponder. He did rush well in the Red Zone, however, netting 4 TDs to 1 each for the other NFCN QBs. As Stafford is the clear cut starter at QB, there isn’t much to compare him to for 2013. He’s a one man show that has a LOT of room for improvement.
I’ve covered Joique Bell and Mikel Leshoure in a direct comparison before, but I’ll need to retread some of that ground to compare the RBs as a whole. Taking the rookies out of the equation, the Lions top four backs are Reggie Bush, Mikel Leshoure, Joique Bell, and Montell Owens. All things equal, you’d expect the clear starter of the bunch to be the best in the red zone, right? If you combined Bush, Bell, and Owens’ total TDs, they’d still have two fewer (7) than Mikel Leshoure on his own(9). Leshoure was not known for his big plays, and the red zone was no different with him netting the lowest YPC (3.2) and the lowest YPR (6.7) of the whole group. In an extremely small sample size (4 carries), Montell Owens was the only back to make 4 YPC and there was only a small difference between Bell(3.4) and Bush (3.6) when compared to Leshoure. So who was the best Red Zone Running Back? Well, we already know Leshoure had more TDs, but that only means he was productive, not efficient. Taking into account total touches in the Red Zone, carries and catches, we can see below who was the most efficient and most likely to score whenever he got the ball:
Huh. Will you look at that. Not only was Leshoure more productive in the Red Zone, Leshoure was VERY efficient with his touches, scoring nearly a third of the time. He may not have proven himself as an every down back in 2012, but he clearly showed that he is a good Red Zone Option. How good?
Leshoure’s future in the NFL is still up in the air coming off a mixed rookie season, and we’ve heard the term “inconsistent” thrown a lot in reference to him. One place he’s not inconsistent? The Red Zone.
Ideally, a Tight End will be the first and best target in the Red Zone. Suited for the shorter routes that are normally ran with a shorter field, Tight Ends are often already used to catching passes in traffic, so the crowded field isn’t a change from their normal routine. Play Action is an essential part of any red zone offense, and a TE is an essential part of any play action. The Lions are a poor play action team, however, even with as well as Leshoure played in the Red Zone. Matthew Stafford completed 39 passes in the Red Zone, and you’d expect a good portion of that to go to the Tight Ends. With only 9 Red Zone catches between them, Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler combined for 23% of the Lions passing offense in the red zone. Each Lions TD accounted for a Red Zone Interception, although both happened in the same game against the Rams. So how did they measure up in the Red Zone? Well this is an instance where the numbers are a little bit deceiving. While the Lions Tight Ends combined for the most drops by any TE tandem in the NFL, it was the Red Zone where that was most apparent. Between them, Pettigrew dropped two Touchdown passes and Scheffler didn’t fare much better. There seems to be this belief that Scheffler is the better red zone target, but the numbers don’t back that up. Here’s how the two big men measured up in the Red Zone:
Those numbers surprised me. Not only did Pettigrew have more TDs than he had drops (lulz), but he was just…so…much better than Scheffler. Neither were particularly good, as there were several drops and a couple of interceptions between them. The biggest tell of all is the fact that NEITHER Tight End caught a single pass in a goal line situation. With only 3 passes between them inside the 10, the Tight Ends’ closest thing to a goal line TD was Tony Scheffler’s 3 yard TD against GB…after which he received a 15 yard penalty for Excessive Celebration.
The Pass Catchers
Ah, the real meat and potatoes of the Lions offense. Due to injuries and general idiocy, the Lions receiving corps was nearly completely wiped out by the end of 2012. The meat and potatoes play of 2011 was a jump ball to Calvin Johnson, which led to a 16 TD season for the best receiver in the league. 2012? Well…let’s just say not so much. As a whole, the Lions receivers did not do that well last season. Their red zone numbers looked just as bad. How bad? Well, far worse than you’d think. These numbers shocked me.
So let me get this straight. Calvin Johnson. Arguably the best Wide Receiver to have ever lived and clearly the best receiver in the NFL today. Had as many Red Zone touches and TDs as Nate Burleson. Who played in SIX games in 2012. I don’t know what to say to that. Even more amazing is that Johnson had the same amount of Red Zone TDs as Ryan Broyles and Titus Young, and FEWER than Brandon Pettigrew. Yes kids. If you look at the table above and compare it to the previous one, the Lions BEST Red Zone receiver was not Calvin Johnson. Not Nate Burleson. But Brandon. Pettigrew. Wow.
Going a little deeper with the receivers, it should be noted that the entire receiver group was targeted on two of Stafford’s red zone interceptions. One was picked off while targeting Ryan Broyles, while the other gives Kris Durham as the only receiver to have no catches, no TDs, a drop, and an interception in the red zone. I doubt that’s what fans expected when the 6’6″ former Stafford roommate was picked up and thrown to the wolves. Also of note, Ryan Broyles made almost every one of his catches while playing in the slot, however the Lions moved him outside in the red zone where he made both of his Touchdown receptions.
Is the outlook for 2013 any better for the WRs? It’s likely Johnson will return to form, and assuming health we can expect more out of Burleson and Broyles than we got out of Durham and Thomas. As far as the Red Zone is concerned, I liked what the Lions did with Ryan Broyles when they got that close. Brimming with Megatron-ness in the Red Zone, the Lions used opposing teams’ aggressive coverage of #81 against them, putting Broyles outside and having him find a spot where the coverage was pulled. Going by how they played in 2012, I’d put Broyles and Burleson’s numbers ahead of even Johnson’s in 2013 if the team uses them similarly this season.
What does it all mean!?!
The Lions Red Zone offense was good in 2012, but moreso because teams took away their best options. In the past, the Lions couldn’t beat teams in the red zone if they removed Calvin Johnson. In 2011, teams simply couldn’t remove Calvin Johnson. In 2012, he was erased completely from most red zone plays, but the Lions found ways to make them pay, either through the running game or by using their receivers underneath or in the middle of the goal posts. With the possible addition of players like Joe Fauria and Patrick Edwards, the Lions could add threats to make better use of slants (Fauria) and drags (Edwards) to increase playcalling options. With someone like Theo Riddick or Reggie Bush, the Lions have options that can move all around the field to cause mismatches. If teams want to take Calvin Johnson out of the picture, the Lions have options in nearly every formation, and can score through the air and on the ground. Again, assuming health, this offense may do more than simply continue to be efficient in the Red Zone, it might actually improve. That is a scary concept. Scary good.