Allen Park —The more they trust each other, the less they need to talk about it.
So if you’re looking for a sign things really are clicking for the Lions, see how they approach each play on offense. No huddle? No worries.
Or at least that’s the idea behind Jim Bob Cooter’s scheme in Detroit, where the Lions opened the season with an impressive Week 1 performance against Arizona in which nearly half their offensive plays — 34 of 69 snaps — came without a huddle. That was the highest total in the league, by far, and while the results were mixed — spotty early, but spot-on late — there’s no mistaking the methodology in play here.
“I think we’ve shown to be dangerous when we’re no-huddling,” said receiver Golden Tate, who caught a game-high 10 passes for 107 yards against Arizona. “And this year we’re a lot stronger, we have a lot more confidence in our offense out of no huddle.”
The confidence starts with quarterback Matthew Stafford’s command of the offense, one that’s based on the system longtime NFL coordinator Tom Moore perfected with Peyton Manning in Indianapolis a decade ago. Moore, who also steered the Lions’ league-leading unit in the mid-1990s, had Jim Caldwell as his quarterbacks coach with the Colts, and Cooter arrived as a young assistant in 2009 when Caldwell succeeded Tony Dungy as head coach in Indianapolis.
Cooter then went on to briefly join forces again with Manning in Denver, working as an offensive assistant with the Broncos in 2013 as they rolled to another AFC title led by their MVP quarterback. The Broncos set NFL single-season records for passing yards, touchdowns and points that year, and they did it by going without a huddle on 46.3 percent of the plays.
The Lions probably won’t match that ratio this season. But that doesn’t mean they won’t try. As Stafford says with a laugh, “I don’t have to push anybody to use it, I don’t think.”
Tonight will be an interesting test in that regard, though, facing a hostile — and noisy — crowd at MetLife Stadium for a prime-time game against the Giants.
“A loud road environment will add some communication stresses in certain aspects,” Cooter said. “We’ve got to really evaluate that every time we go on the road. But we’re looking at a lot of different things and we do think (the no-huddle offense) provides value versus certain opponents or when we get the right looks.”
By the looks of it, the Lions are better prepared to utilize it this season, so long as Stafford, who was 19 of 25 for 115 yards and two touchdowns without a huddle in the opener, has a healthy complement of offensive weapons. And so long as the Lions’ defense is up to the task, too.
The Lions were forced to limit their no-huddle usage last season — at 22.7 percent, it was still a huge increase from 2014 (2.7 percent) and ’15 (6.4 percent) — due in part to injuries in the backfield (first Ameer Abdullah, then Theo Riddick) and inexperience up front with two rookie starters on the offensive line.
But it also was dialed back to protect a defense that simply couldn’t get off the field. The Lions ranked 31st in third-down defense, 32nd in opponents’ average drive time and set a modern-day record for highest completion percentage allowed.
There’s always that cost-benefit analysis involved in running an up-tempo offense.
“It’s tough on the other defense when they’re converting,” said Glover Quin, the Lions’ veteran safety. “But it’s tough on your defense when you’re not converting. … You play against some teams and they’re poised and they’re ready for it, and you try to go no-huddle and then boom-boom-boom and your (offense is) off the field in 45 seconds.”
It works for Stafford
Yet the Lions’ no-huddle approach is less about expediency than it is exploiting mismatches. In fact, the Lions ranked in the bottom half in the league in seconds-per-play (28.57) in Week 1, according to Football Outsiders “pace” statistics.
The beauty of the offense Manning ran, first in Indianapolis and later in Denver, was in its simplicity, utilizing perhaps a dozen pass concepts and a handful of running plays. Where he’d win was with precision and pre-snap reads, and that’s where the Lions hope to do the same with the NFL’s highest-paid player calling the shots.
It might look a bit static. You won’t see a lot of motion with receivers crossing the field, for instance.
Just a shift here or there, and lots of yelling and pointing from Stafford as the play clock winds down, trying to identify the unblocked man and adjusting protections.
But by using the no-huddle approach, the quarterback often is able to force the defense to show its hand, restricting substitutions and limiting the number of exotic looks he sees. And then at the line of scrimmage, the quarterback gets to be the play-caller as well, going on what he sees in front of him rather than what a coach from the sideline expects to see.
That requires a smart, savvy quarterback, obviously. But that’s what the Lions have in Stafford now, a ninth-year pro who has seen it all and has had two full offseasons to work with Cooter as the coordinator in Detroit.
“He looks very comfortable out there in what they’re doing,” Quin said, “and he looks in control.”
We saw that in the opener as Stafford used hard counts at the line to sniff out some blitzes before they came firing at him, most notably with safety Tyrann Mathieu. Stafford even appeared to fool receiver Kenny Golladay into a false start on the first play of the second quarter. (That got the rookie sent to the sideline for a play, and you could see Caldwell reminding him as he did, “Just relax, just relax.”)
We also saw it in the way they operated almost exclusively in “11” personnel — one back, one tight end, three wide receivers. That’s a league-wide trend as teams try to spread defenses out while maintaining run-pass flexibility, but only the Giants used it more than the Lions last season.
What’s different in Detroit, though, is the way it’s used without huddling, giving the Lions a chance to lock in favorable matchups.
But that only works if everyone on offense is locked in, particularly the guys running the routes.
“I would say the toughest part for a receiver is it’s imperative that you know how to play the ‘X’ and ‘Z’ (positions),” Tate said. “Because you might be on the backside one play and the next play you might stay on the same side but you’ll be on the front side. So just knowing the offense is probably the toughest thing.
“But again, we have a bunch of intelligent guys who understand the game of football, who understand the complete concepts, that you can move around. I think that helps us.”
And as long as that’s the case, you can expect to see a lot more of it.
Lions vs. Giants
When: Monday, 8:30 p.m.
Where: MetLife Stadium, East Rutherford, N.J.
TV / radio: ESPN / WJR 760
Records: Lions 1-0, Giants 0-1
Line: Giants by 3