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Matthew Stafford and the Lions are masters of the 2-minute offense

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The Lions set a record with seven fourth-quarter comebacks. NFL offensive linemen Geoff Schwartz explains what makes their two-minute drill so effective.

NFL: Jacksonville Jaguars at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

NFL games are most often won or lost in the fourth quarter. No matter how evenly matched, or overmatched teams are, the margin of winning and losing is slim.

It’s easy to lose a game ... turnovers, penalties, drops, sacks, poor plays, etc. It’s a skill to be able to win a game. Make the plays needed when the time counts.

This season, the Detroit Lions have made the plays when it counts.

The Detroit Lions are 7-4 and lead the NFC North. That isn’t surprising to me. I was in camp with the Lions this summer. I saw the talent in the locker room, but talent alone doesn’t win games. You make plays to win games and the Lions have no shortage of playmakers.

Detroit set an NFL record with seven fourth-quarter comebacks wins in their first 11 games. In fact, they have trailed in the fourth quarter in every game this season. It’s remarkable what they have done in the two-minute drill.

The two-minute drill, which often starts well outside of two minutes, is the period at the end of a half or game where the offense is in hurry-up mode, trying to score as quickly as possible.

This tempo of the offense is different than a standard no huddle tempo. In a standard no huddle tempo offense, running the ball is an option. Also, you vary the snap count to get a key on the defense. Even though you may not be huddling, you can, and often do, take your time snapping the ball. In a two-minute drill, there is one snap count. There is little to no running the ball. You’re trying to complete passes in order to get out of bounds. It’s totally different than anything else.

Two minute was my least favorite period of practice. It’s all pass blocking and the defense knows it. It’s at the end of practice, it’s tiring, and it’s a tough period. It needs to be a difficult part of practice because it’s so important. It wins and loses games.

However, I love those two minutes in a game. I love the pressure of the situation. I love pass protecting against tired defensive linemen. When you drive down the field to win a game, not much can beat that.

There are certain characteristics that make an offense and a quarterback more successful in high stress situations. And trust me, I’ve played with quarterbacks who function well under stress and those who struggle. I’ve learned these factors are most important in a quarterback during these situations. It goes hand in hand with being successful, and quite frankly, these are the same traits that make quarterbacks excel regardless.

  1. Confidence. That confidence is built by knowing exactly what the entire offense is doing on a given play and what the defense is doing. You can see the confidence in the quarterback when he enters the huddle. Whenever Eli Manning came into the huddle for a two-minute drive, I could see it in his eyes, he was ready and it gave us confidence.
  2. Quick decision making. There’s no time to sit in the pocket and make your reads. Time is of the essence and the ball has to be gone now. The ball also needs to be gone quickly because of the pass rush. Defensive lines know a pass is coming. You can read some of my previous work about how difficult that is. Offensive lines don’t always hold up in this situation.
  3. Accuracy and arm strength. I think these go together because in a two-minute situation, when you’re throwing the ball quickly, being accurate is important, but also, being able to get the ball down the field in tight windows. Most quarterbacks who are successful in two-minute drills have excellent arms.

For an offense to be continuously successful in a two-minute situation, it needs skill position plays who can run crisp routes to get open in the zone and run after the catch. Defenses typically play off coverage, not wanting to get beat deep. So there’s plenty of underneath area that’s open, which means being able to run after a short catch is pivotal.

It’s easy to say being able to pass protect is a key, but I think we understand that’s a given. I’ve also noticed over the years offensive coordinators are starting to get more creative in this situation. I’ll get to more of this below.

So, all that was a long-winded way to say the Detroit Lions offense is perfectly built for the two-minute situation.

Stafford has a cannon of an arm and full command of the offense. He’s accurate, as well, completing 66.8 percent of his passes, just below his career high for a season, but well above his career average.

He’s completing a ridiculous 75 percent, 18 of 24, (including a spike) of his passes in late game-winning or game-tying drives. When you take a look at some advance stats by Pro Football Focus, his adjusted completion percentage (taking out drops, etc.) is 77.9 percent, which is good for fifth in the NFL. He’s sixth with a 53.5 percent completion rate under pressure, which is a huge during the two-minute situation. Lastly, he’s near the bottom of pass attempts down the field, which means he’s getting the ball out quickly and to his playmakers.

The Lions have studly playmakers on offense. Marvin Jones, Eric Ebron, Golden Tate, Anquan Boldin, and Theo Riddick. Any of these guys can make plays with the ball in their hands. Let’s take note of Tate and Riddick. I stated above it’s vital to run after the catch in two-minute plays. Well, Tate is leading NFL receivers in yards after the catch and Riddick is seventh overall, fourth for running backs. These guys can take short passes for long gains.

One last note on two-minute offenses. It’s extremely critical to start off a drive with a positive play. It builds confidence in the offense and gets the ball rolling. This shouldn’t be overlooked, but the Lions have started their six de facto game-winning or regulation tying drives with completions. It’s such a big morale booster to get some yards on the first play.

I mentioned above how offensive coordinators are getting smarter and more creative with two-minute plays. I could be wrong, but as a young player I never remember practicing an actual late, end of game play where we purposely catch the ball inbounds, then run up and kill the clock. We had always been taught to get out of bounds and if you can’t, then hurry up and spike it. Generally speaking, and it’s possible this number has changed, but 16 seconds is the minimum you need to run a play and spike the ball. Anything less than that and the clock hits triple zeros.

The Lions executed a late game, middle of the field pass and spike. It was impressive and this is something I’ve noticed that’s starting to be taught around the league. It makes sense because the defense is allowing completions in the middle of the field. It’s easier to take that, hustle to spike it, than struggle to throw towards the sidelines.

Here is that play, from Week 9, a 22-16 overtime win in Minnesota.

The Lions are at their own 32-yard line with no timeouts. They need 30 yards to get into field range with only 17 seconds left. Stafford hits Andre Roberts down the middle for 27 yards, and they spike the ball with two seconds left. Prater kicks a 58-yard field goal to head to overtime.

They won with a 28-yard touchdown pass to Tate that capped off their first possession in overtime.

There are multiple situations in the game. Red zone, third down, goal line, short yardage and so on. More often than not, games are won and lost in the two-minute situation. The Lions are winning because they have excelled at the art of winning the two-minute drill.