There was just over 11 minutes left in the game and the Lions were on the wrong end of a 13-9 score. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had just scrambled for 18 yards, placing the ball on the Oakland Raiders’ five-yard line.
Faced with a critical play, the Lions bunched four receivers to the left and had receiver Calvin Johnson alone on the right. Stafford called for the ball, saw the opening the play was designed to create and took the ball to pay dirt, putting the winning points on the board for the Lions.
“I don’t know if our coordinator just thought I had the legs going or something,” joked Stafford. “No, it was the perfect call and I’m glad it worked.”
There haven’t been many “perfect play calls” for the Lions, a team that has fired three offensive coaches – including the coordinator – this season. However, this game perhaps is the demonstrative action of the Lions adjustments.
Stafford joked that new offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter was playing the hot hand with Stafford in the run game but the truth buried within that statement is that Cooter is putting his players in a position to succeed while making deviations from the predictable.
This is most evident within the offensive line, where noticeable strides have been made since the Lions bye after a disastrous first-half of the year.
“Obviously we made some changes offensively, during the bye week especially, and tried to just give (the offensive line) direct orders and go play from there and I’ll handle the rest of it,” said Stafford. “Hots and sights and all that kind of stuff. They’re not having to do as much, probably, up front. They’re able to focus and just play, just block the guy in front of you and play. The guys in the backfield are doing a great job of picking up blitzes and running with the ball and I’m doing everything I can to get it out quick, it’s not every time but our guys on the outside are winning one-on-one battles and that helps me get the ball out faster.”
What Stafford is alluding to is that more responsibly has been placed on his shoulders and that of the pass-catchers to account for the blitz than the offensive line. This is enabling them to simplify what they are doing and be more comfortable in the scheme.
“This helps us not have to think so much at the line, allows us to play more aggressively,” said guard Larry Warford. “We know how to work with each other. Just these last few weeks have been really good in forming that cohesion and learning these protections together. It’s just really simple for us now.”
It’s not just the simplicity but it’s the play calling and play design that’s making a difference. For starters, the Lions are running the ball more, averaging 28.5 rushing attempts per game since the bye week after averaging 18.75 in the weeks before the bye.
“It’s important (to run the ball), especially for our offensive line,” said Stafford. “To be able to let those guys lean on them a little bit, especially in the middle of the game and early on, to not always have to drop back and pass protect is big.”
The Lions have also diversified their blocking scheme in the running game. Of course, no team runs exclusively one blocking scheme but the Lions were a heavy zone run blocking team under former offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi. The team seemed to mix in a lot more man since Cooter took over and used a lot of man-blocking against the Raiders.
“Yeah, you got to mix up the scheme a little bit,” said Warford. “It depends on what team we’re playing. You want to mix up the schemes on them, some teams are better at defending zone schemes and some teams are better at defending against man. You want to mix it up a little bit. That’s with any offense. You don’t want to be a one dimensional team.”
The Lions have done a much better job of establishing balance, mixing up their play calling and helping their players succeed on offense.
The results haven’t been gaudy from a statistical standpoint but they have resulted in consecutive wins for a team that had only won a single game in the first seven weeks.