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Cowboys vs. Lions: Previewing Detroit’s Offensive Personnel

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A look at the offensive strengths and weaknesses of the Cowboys' Week 16 opponent.

NFL: Detroit Lions at New York Giants Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

In the final home regular-season game of the year the Detroit Lions will visit AT&T Stadium. Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of their offensive personnel.

Quarterback

The leader of the Lions offense is Matthew Stafford, a 2014 Pro Bowler and eight-year veteran who has played his entire career in Detroit after being drafted first overall in the 2009 draft. Stafford is a mercurial player who many had pegged for super-stardom after he threw for over 5,000 yards and 41 touchdowns to just 16 interceptions in 2011, but since then he settled into the tier just below the elite-level quarterbacks in the league. Then in the past couple of years, especially in 2016, he has had a re-birth.

2015 was Stafford’s best since 2011 as he put up 32 touchdowns to just 13 interceptions, to go along with a career best completion percentage of 67.2%, which was a significant jump after completing just about 58%-60% of his passes over the previous few seasons. Despite the retirement of Calvin Johnson he is on pace for similar production in 2016, completing 66.3% of his passes, and putting up an impressive 22 touchdowns to just 8 interceptions. Much of that newfound success is due to Stafford no longer forcing the ball downfield as much, as he is much more willing to check the ball down for short gains and he only looks for the deep ball judiciously. He is much more patient than he used to be, although that has resulted in far fewer explosive plays.

Stafford has arguably the biggest arm in the league, up there with the likes of Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton, although he doesn’t possess the athleticism or mobility of either of those two, nor the accuracy of Rodgers. He has reasonable athleticism, mobility, and accuracy; he just isn’t exactly elite in any of those areas. He can hurt you on the move occasionally and he can tear up your defense with pinpoint accuracy at times, but just not consistently. Overall, he’s a very good NFL quarterback, historically right on the fringe of the top 10 in the league, although his recent play has elevated his status.

Wide Receivers and Tight Ends

Similar to the Giants and the Buccaneers, the Lions offense revolves around their passing attack due to the fact that they have one of the worst running games in the league. Unlike the previous two who generally rely on a single, elite superstar receiver, the Lions have a deep group of credible threats, although none are considered among the best in the league at their position.

Neither Golden Tate nor Marvin Jones is a true number one type of receiver, but they’re both very good number two’s who defenses must account for. Their stats are nearly identical, with Tate putting up 79 catches for 942 yards and three touchdowns, while Jones has 49 catches for 838 yards and four touchdowns, although their styles of play are vastly different. Tate (5-10, 197) is a smaller, shiftier player who generally looks for pockets of space and then will threaten your secondary with very good run after the catch ability. On the other hand, Jones (6-2, 198) is the deep threat who looks to take the top off of the defense, while also using his size to beat defensive backs on slants and in-breaking routes. Jones has never gone over 1,000 yards in a season while Tate has only done so once, but both are clearly on pace to do so with two games left in 2016. Tate did suffer an injury against the Giants so it’s unknown what his availability will be for Monday’s game, if he is out it will obviously be a huge loss.

The next most significant target in the passing game is tight end Eric Ebron, the 10th-overall pick in the 2014 draft. Ebron hasn’t exactly lived up to the expectations of his high draft position, but he has put solid seasons together in 2015 and 2016. After gaining 537 yards receiving to go along with five touchdowns in 2015 Ebron has improved on that so far in 2016 with 557 yards, although he does have just one touchdown. He is a big-bodied threat at 6-4, 253 who can box out defenders over the middle while also threatening down the seam. Despite missing three games he is third on the team in receiving yards.

Behind Tate and Jones at receiver is the old 14-year veteran Anquan Boldin. Despite the fact that father time has taken a significant toll on Boldin’s speed and athleticism, he is still dangerous as a possession receiver and red zone target as he is second on the team in receptions with 58, and leads the team in touchdowns with seven. Of course the flip side of that is that he only has 494 yards on the year for an average of 8.5 YPC. He is no longer a vertical threat of any kind but he is someone Stafford trusts in tight spaces on third down and in the red zone, and he can still use his wide frame and veteran craftiness to get open across the middle in traffic.

Running Backs

As stated previously, the Lions have one of the worst running games in the league. It’s so bad that their leading rusher, Theo Riddick, actually has more yards receiving (371) than rushing (357). On the year Riddick averages just 3.9 YPC on only 92 attempts, although he is a significant threat as a receiver out of the backfield, ranking third on the team in receptions (53) and second in touchdowns (five). He does an excellent job of knowing when to release out into a route and he has a terrific rapport with Stafford. Oddly enough, Riddick is arguably Stafford’s preferred red-zone target along with Boldin, which is very odd to say of a running back. With that said, Riddick has missed the last two games with a wrist injury and it is unclear whether or not he will play Monday, if he does, the Cowboys linebackers and safeties will have to be aware of where he is at all times.

There isn’t much behind Riddick as Dwayne Washington and Zach Zenner have combined for just 449 yards rushing on the year, along with 188 receiving. The Lions rank at the very bottom of the league in rushing yards per game, attempts per game, and yards per carry, so basically they don’t stick with the run at all and aren’t effective or efficient when they do run it. By and large the Cowboys defense should be able to ignore the running game outside of the occasional shotgun draw out of spread formations.

Offensive Line

The good news here?

The Lions starting line consists of three first rounders (right tackle Riley Reiff – 23rd overall in 2012, left guard Laken Tomlinson – 28th overall in 2015, and left tackle Taylor Decker – 16th overall in 2016), along with three third-rounders in center Travis Swanson, center/guard Graham Glasgow and right guard Larry Warford.

The bad news?

Despite spending three first-round picks and two third-round picks, this line is mostly average.

First, Tomlinson has struggled since entering the league and was even benched early this season for poor play. He’s back in the starting lineup, but only because Swanson, the starting center, has missed the last two games. If Swanson is able to go Monday expect Tomlinson to go back to the bench in favor of Glasgow. Reiff was the left tackle up until this season but he was poor in that spot, which is why the team drafted Decker and moved Reiff to right tackle. He has been better on the right side but he’s still generally average. Decker and Glasgow have both been solid as rookies, although at the end of the day they’re still rookies and are prone to mistakes. Warford and Swanson are perhaps their best offensive lineman but neither is exactly elite either.

The best thing about this line is that it’s a young group that can continue to grow together, but that isn’t particularly helpful right now. They aren’t a terrible group, they’re just average, but that’s not what you want after investing so much into a unit. They are certainly better in pass protection than in the run game, although Stafford helps to shield them in that regard with how quickly he looks to get rid of the ball and how willing he is to take check downs.

Where The Cowboys Can Take Advantage:

  • No elite talents at the skill positions
  • One of the worst running games in the league
  • No semblance of balance as far as their run to pass ratio
  • Average offensive line

What The Cowboys Must Fear:

  • Stafford picking the defense apart with quick-hitting plays that gets the ball out of his hand quickly and keeps the chains moving
  • Allowing Stafford time in the pocket to get comfortable
  • Deep group of receiving targets that makes it difficult for the linebackers and secondary to hone in on just one or two guys