One way the Lions hope to exploit defenses

June, 5, 2014
Jun 5
2:00
PM ET
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The pick was largely criticized at first, the Detroit Lions going with an offensive player in the first round of the NFL draft when a defensive player appeared to be the obvious need.

And to go with a tight end, a position largely not selected in the top 10 of any draft, was even a little more confusing no matter how talented Eric Ebron might end up being. Why the Lions made the pick, though, is beginning to come into focus more and more as the offseason workouts continue.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson and Eric Ebron
AP Photo/Paul SancyaCalvin Johnson (left) and Eric Ebron are a part of a varied offense that will look to exploit mismatches.
Ebron's selection all but guaranteed the Lions would be using two tight end sets as their primary offensive package this fall, even if Ebron is a large wide receiver stuck with a different positional tag. The team invested too much money in Ebron and Brandon Pettigrew during the offseason to suddenly move away from that set.

"It's a different offense so I think the role changes for everybody," Pettigrew said. "I think we're doing a lot of different stuff. We're adjusting. I think it's going to be good for us."

The reasoning behind making the shift has to do with trying to force opponents -- particularly teams in the NFC North -- into matchup issues. This is a division, after all, where secondary help was clearly needed. All three divisional opponents drafted defense in the first round of May's draft, including Chicago (Kyle Fuller) and Green Bay (Ha Ha Clinton-Dix) focusing specifically on the secondary.

Clearly those teams saw their secondaries as an area of need entering the 2014 season. Playing a two tight end set could exacerbate those problems for opponents.

"It challenges the defense because you come in with two safeties or you take a safety out and put in a nickel, which is a smaller, less physical individual," former Lions tight end Charlie Sanders said. "What do you do when you take a guy of his talent and put him out on a position where Calvin [Johnson] is and move Calvin inside. How do you counter those types of situations?"

That's what the Lions are hoping opposing defensive coordinators end up asking themselves this fall. Considering how much Detroit invested in its offense during the offseason, from Ebron and Pettigrew to Golden Tate and a new coaching staff with an offensive slant, this is their goal.

They want to create the mismatches they are hoping the combination of running backs, receivers and tight ends they have brought in will force.

"There's been a lot of two tights," Pettigrew said. "It's a tight end offense. It's not just a receiver deal. There's plenty of opportunities out there for everyone."

The Lions plan on doing that by moving essentially every piece around somewhere else in the offense. Don't be surprised if running backs line up out wide, receivers line up in the slot, outside and tight close to the line and tight ends become pieces that can be strategically moved everywhere.

The consistent movement of players to different spots on the field can make them somewhat tough to locate, but it also increases how much every player has to learn and how long that will take. Some of the offensive struggles in picking up the new offense during the offseason can be attributed to the breadth of movement and knowledge needed to run what Joe Lombardi wants.

That and the Lions are essentially moving from an offense predicated on playing with three wide receivers, a tight end and a running back to one with two tight ends.

In today's NFL, this is not always the most common thing seen by opposing defenses. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Chicago faced 339 snaps of two tight ends on the field in 2013. Green Bay saw the personnel grouping on 308 snaps and Minnesota on 278 snaps. For each of the NFC North teams, that usually equated to a third or less of the snaps the defenses faced during the season.

So if Detroit can master that, it could give the Lions an offensive advantage based on personnel and scheme as much as the talent they have accumulated on offense.

"So we basically start dictating to the defense instead of the defense dictating to us," Sanders said. "Everybody in this division is basically strong safety conscious. They have two physical, strong safeties because we're a physical division.

"Now all of a sudden you start spreading people out and putting safeties that are used to seeing everything in tight out on an island, now what?"

If defenses ask that this fall, then Detroit is probably in good shape. If not, the Lions might be asking themselves the same thing.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter

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