The Lions are leading (if not winning) with a dominant rushing attack

The 2922 Detroit Lions are 1-2 and at the bottom of the NFC North after the first three weeks of the season, so it may seem odd to write an entire article about how awesome Detroit’s offense is. But it’s important to evaluate the process as opposed to the outcome. The Lions lost 38-35 to the Philadelphia Eagles in the opener, and the Eagles look very much like a Super Bowl team. They then beat the Washington Commanders, 36-27, and that’s what you want to do when you’re a team on the rise — beat the teams beneath you in the pecking order.

Sunday’s 28-24 loss to the Minnesota Vikings was the real killer; Detroit had a 24-14 third-quarter lead, and they then let it get away. We don’t really know what the Vikings are yet, just as we don’t know what the Lions are. But what we do know is that the offense led by head coach Dan Campbell, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, and assistant head coach/running backs coach Duce Staley, has brought an entirely new energy and productiveness than we’ve seen before.

Atypically, the strength of this offense is the run game, and everything works off that. Even in the Vikings loss, the Lions ran the ball 35 times for 139 yards and two touchdowns, and though they were more efficient and explosive in the passing game against Minnesota, those explosive plays were built to a great degree off that run threat.

We’ll get to that in a bit, but let’s start with how the Lions are killing defenses with run concepts of every stripe, in every situation.

“It goes back to thought process,” Staley said last week, when asked why this rushing attack is working now, when it didn’t in previous years. “It goes back to OTAs, training camp, and making a commitment. And not just the players making a commitment, the coaches also. So, you see [offensive line coach] Hank [Fraley], myself being – everybody, you make a commitment to run a ball, you just – you spend a couple extra hours in the office trying to get it right.”

The multiplicity of concepts are most impressive, especially with injuries all over their offensive line. Let’s start with how Detroit’s run game beats defenses from the head down.

It's a trap!

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

Injuries have forced the Lions to go with their second- and third-stringers at multiple positions along the offensive line, which makes the coordination of their run game all the more impressive. The trap play, where the offense intentionally leaves an interior defensive lineman unblocked in a pulling scheme, requires another blocker to pick that defender up — or, obviously, things are going to get blown up in the middle of your offense.

D’Andre Swift’s 50-yard run early in the Eagles game (more on this specific play later as well) was an ideal example of how you want a trap play to work. Left tackle Taylor Decker blocked end Josh Sweat on the edge, while left guard Jonah Jackson set up the trap by vacating his gap against defensive tackle Jovon Hargrave and pulling instead to take defensive tackle Fletcher Cox out of the play. That left tight end T.J. Hockenson to come in and block Hargrave to seal the other side of Swift’s gap, which Hockenson did perfectly.

Two plays into their first game of the season, the Lions were showing the ability to execute complex run concepts to perfection.

Sweep the leg!

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

Sometimes, you just want to go mano a mano and blow defenders out of the way with old-school power sweeps. The Lions can do that, too. With 2:00 left in the first half of the Eagles game, Swift scored a seven-yard rushing touchdown, and this was led by tight end T.J Hockenson cutting linebacker Kyzir White, and left guard Jonah Jackson pulling to take out cornerback James Bradberry. Again, the coordination is exactly what you want here.

Using receivers in the run game.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

Lions receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown has proven to be a legitimate No. 1 target in his second NFL season, but he’s also quite effective when it’s time to run a receiver sweep or reverse. The Commanders really found this out in Week 2, when St. Brown rushed twice for 68 yards. Detroit was helped by Washington’s lack of discipline on defense (as all Commanders opponents are), but when you watch how Detroit’s line slams to the right, and St. Brown zooms away from that action for 58 yards, it’s easy to theorize that other defenses will be bamboozled by this concept down the road.

Speaking of receiver buy-in on run plays, check out Quintez Cephus’ block to the right side which takes out cornerbacks William Jackson III and Benjamin St-Juste.

Getting favorable looks by running in passing situations.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

The Philadelphia Eagles selected Georgia defensive lineman/small planet Jordan Davis with the 13th overall pick in the 2022 draft in part to help settle their run defense. So far, that’s worked well. Through the first two weeks of the season, the Eagles were allowing 4.4 yards per attempt and 1.0 yards after contact when Davis is on the field, and 7.2 yards per carry and 3.2 yards after contact when he’s not.

The absolute primary reason for this was what the Lions did to that defense in Week 1 by running in obvious passing situations, when the Eagles would like to sub Davis out. Swift had six explosive plays in that game — five as a runner and one as a receiver — and three of those runs came in situations where a defense would absolutely expect a passing play.

Davis was not on the field for any of these plays. We know that under Campbell, the Lions want to break tendencies and show you things you do not expect in certain downs and distances. And they really exploited that against what has turned out to be a fabulous Eagles defense.

Swift’s 50-yard trap run shown before came on second-and-11 with just 33 seconds elapsed in the first quarter of the season’s first game for both teams showed that Campbell and his crew had made this a focus in the offseason. You don’t expect a successful trap play in that down and distance situation, but it happened.

Using play-action to win in obvious rushing situations.

(Syndication: Detroit Free Press)

If you want to lead your offense with the run game in today’s NFL, you had better be able to execute your concepts in atypical situations to the point where you can tell the defense what’s up, as opposed to the negative inverse. The Lions, at least early in this season, have had no problem dictating terms to enemy defenses with a multi-faceted run game that defenses simply aren’t prepared to play. Why? Because this run game gives defenses all kinds of looks, and creates math and personnel issues defenses can’t quite manage in the moment.

Against the Vikings, the Lions were 3-fot-16 on third-down conversions, but they were 4-of-6 on fourth down. Goff threw the ball on four of those fourth-down attempts, converting three.

Goff said after the Vikings game that the Lions see themselves as a four-down team — most of the time.

“A think a lot of the times we’re playing with two downs,” he said about the lack of third-down success. “So the numbers may look poor, but we’re converting on fourth, and we’re doing it somewhat on purpose. It’s not always that way, but there’s some where we’re throwing it short of the sticks and knowing it’s fourth and two, we’re going to go for it.”

The fourth-and-1 throw to Josh Reynolds from the Minnesota 35-yard line at the start of the second quarter was a perfect example of an offense leading with the run, getting defenses to expect that in obvious running situations, and turning the wheel to create a huge play in the passing game.

The Vikings start this play with six defenders in the box, but watch what happens when Goff fakes to Jamaal Williams — there’s a hesitation in their single-high man look, and that allows Goff to hit Reynolds on the intermediate crosser; that hesitation created the free space for that 17-yard play to happen. It’s every man for himself downfield, and all Goff has to do is wait for the opening.

So, it’s not as simple as the run game setting up play-action, though that’s the view. It’s more about turning tendencies on their heads, and winning when it makes no sense.

With the Lions, objects in the rear view are closer than they appear.

(Syndication: USA TODAY)

Jared Goff is tired of being close, and not there.

That sounds like a losing quarterback trying to polish something less than pleasant, but he’s not wrong. The Lions are explosive in all dimensions of their offense, and that makes them dangerous down the road. They’ll seek recompense next Sunday against a Seahawks team that can’t stop the run with discipline and consistency at all, so that should be a good get-well game.

Folks, the Detroit Lions are where they need to be on offense. Focus on the process, not the outcome. The positive outcomes will come soon enough.

Story originally appeared on Touchdown Wire