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How the Lions put Jared Goff in position to thrive

Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson is hitting all the right notes for Jared Goff

Minnesota Vikings v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

A few weeks ago, James Dator, JP Acosta and I put together a piece about what we got wrong about the 2022 NFL season.

It seems that I managed to somehow get one of those admissions wrong. A double-dose of foolishness.

Because in that piece, I outlined how I spent all summer telling anyone who would listen — family members, radio show hosts, podcast hosts, our cats, strangers on the street — that the Detroit Lions would play themselves into playoff contention. I even had a quick two-minute bit, talking about how when the holidays rolled around, and the networks put up their “Playoff Picture” graphics, there would be the Lions, listed in the “In the Hunt” category.

However, the Lions did not make it easy. Detroit got out to a 1-6 start, and instead of pushing towards the playoffs, it seemed like Dan Campbell might be pushing some moving boxes out of his office after being let go.

But just when it seemed like the Lions would slink to another single-digit win total, their fortunes changed. Now with Sunday’s win over the Minnesota Vikings — keeping the Lions’ slim NFC North title chances alive — Detroit has won five of their last six games.

The only loss? A three-point loss to the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving Day, in a game Detroit truly could have won.

Now, the Lions sit at 6-7, one game under .500 and firmly in the playoff chase. Detroit sits just outside of playoff position, and according to the Lions have a 22% chance of making the postseason.

With a win over the New York Jets in Week 15, those odds would jump to 39%.

How have the Lions turned things around? There a number of factors at play, but chief among them is an offense that is one of the top scoring offenses in the league ranking fifth with 26.8 points per game.

And the quarterback at the helm of that offense,

Yes Jared Goff. During Detroit’s 5-1 stretch, Goff has completed 131 of 195 passes for 1,448 yards and 10 touchdown passes, against just one interception. After starting the season with six interceptions in Detroit’s first seven games, Goff has just the lone turnover in their recent stretch of good play.

That good play from the quarterback continued on Sunday against Minnesota, where he completed 27 of 39 passes for 330 yards and 3 touchdowns, without an interception.

What stood out from Goff on Sunday? Timing, rhythm, anticipation, his operation of an offense that puts him in position to be successful, and how he takes advantage of those opportunities.

Consider this first play, an under-center, play-action design on a 1st and 10 early in the second quarter:

Goff aligns under center, and carries out a run fake to Jamaal Williams — turning his back to the defense in the process — before snapping his eyes downfield to read out the coverage in the secondary. The Vikings drop into a two-deep coverage (Cover 6 or quarter-quarter-half depending on your terminology) with the Cover 4 side of their coverage towards the wide side of the field.

That is where Josh Reynolds is running a deep out route, which is the pattern Goff targets. The timing, rhythm, and anticipation on this throw is perfect. Look at the state of play when Goff starts his motion:

Reynolds is just getting into the break, and has yet to get his eyes towards Goff. But the ball is almost out of the QB’s hands, and by the time Reynolds gets his eyes around, the ball is in flight.

Very hard to defend that timing.

Anticipation is one of the critical factors of quarterback development. When you hear an analyst talk about how the game is “slowing down” for a young quarterback, where you see evidence of that on the field is when they make these anticipation throws, the timing of which make it difficult, if not impossible, for defenders to make a play on the football. Not that Goff is a young quarterback, but anticipation is an area where he has made great strides over his career.

Just before halftime, Goff connected with Amon-Ra St. Brown on this safety-splitter against another two-deep coverage. Again, pay attention to when Goff lets this go, and how he anticipates St. Brown breaking open between the safeties:

This play helped the Lions get into position for a field goal attempt just before halftime. While that kick was missed, it offers another example of Goff making an anticipation throw, right into the heart of the Minnesota defense. Again, this ball is on its way to St. Brown before the receiver even thinks of turning his head.

New offensive coordinator Ben Johnson deserves a ton of credit for how Goff is playing right now, and has become a name to watch for potential head coaching opportunities in the near future. Johnson has put Goff in position to be successful through his use of play action, as well as layered route concepts and half-field reads.

This play from the third quarter is just one example of how Johnson is helping his quarterback:

Johnson starts running back D’Andre Swift out aligned to the outside, before sending him in orbit motion across the formation just before the ball is snapped. Aligning the running back outside, and then sending him in motion, gives Goff some presnap indicators as to the coverage. A cornerback aligns across from Swift, and when he comes in motion, no one trails him.

However, as we know these indicators are not guarantees that the Vikings are indeed in zone coverage, and Goff will still need to read this out when the ball is snapped.

As the play begins, he makes a quick run fake and first peeks at a vertical route from D.J. Chark along the left side of the field. With the cornerback giving around eight yards of cushion, that route is a no-go. So Goff gets his eyes to tight end Brock Wright, running a shallow crossing route. But the Vikings swallow that route whole. Goff, still in rhythm, flips his eyes and his feet to St. Brown, and delivers a curl route to move the chains.

Why is this play notable?

Because of the design. This is basically Y-Cross, an Air Raid staple that Goff was running in college:

That video is almost seven years old. I’ve never felt older.

One of the main ways that offensive coordinators help their quarterbacks is through the use of play-action designs. Johnson is certainly among the coaches who leans into play-action, as headed into Week 14 Goff had attempted 115 throws off of play-action, ninth-most in the league according to charting data from Pro Football Focus.

On those 115 attempts, Goff completed 68.7% of those for 971 yards and 11 touchdowns, against 3 interceptions. He posted an Adjusted Completion Percentage (ACP) of 82.5% according to PFF, good for eighth-best in the NFL on play-action throws.

From the third quarter Sunday, another play-action design. Again, make note of the timing on this throw. Goff comes out of the fake and drives his right foot into the turf at the top of his drop, and the ball is coming out:

Back in 2018, when Goff and the Los Angeles Rams made it to Super Bowl LIII, the QB attempted 203 throws in the regular season off of play-action, the most in the NFL. On those throws, according to PFF, he posted a Yards per Attempt (Y/A) of 10.0, fourth-best in the NFL among qualified quarterbacks. He also threw for 15 touchdowns, the most in the NFL that season.

By leaning into play-action, Johnson is once more putting his QB in position to be successful.

Of course, Goff still needs to execute on the field. The last play we will look at is this third-down conversion from the fourth quarter. Here is the concept Johnson dials up:

Goff opens to his left, to read out the stick concept between St. Brown and Chark. But when he does not like the look, he quickly gets his eyes to the right side, picking up tight end Shane Zylstra on his in-breaking route:

Goff gets to his third read on the play, working full-field, to move the chains on third down.

Not too shabby.

With their recent stretch of play, the Lions are right in the thick of the playoff picture. When you consider their remaining schedule, it is not too difficult to see Detroit getting into the postseason. After the Jets in Week 15, the Lions go on the road again to play the Carolina Panthers in Week 16. Then they finish up with the Chicago Bears in Week 17, and the Green Bay Packers in Week 17.

Only one team with a winning record.

They could totally do this, and both Goff, along with Johnson, deserve a ton of credit for that possibility.

Of course, Goff’s recent play has opened the door to a discussion of his long-term future. A report over the weekend from Ian Rapoport of the NFL Network outlined how the organization believes Goff is not just their present, but their future: “Goff is believed to be their starting QB. Period. Not just until someone else comes along. With all due respect to the unknown — weird things happen in the NFL — the plan is for Goff to be in Detroit for the future.”

However, thanks to the trade that brought Goff to the Motor City, the Lions might have an opportunity to draft inside the top five next spring, and perhaps bring a new QB to town.

Would they really pass on a player like Will Levis, Anthony Richardson, C.J. Stroud or Bryce Young in favor of Goff?

Don’t ask me. My days of making Lions predictions are over.