Lions receivers bank on their ‘go-to moves’

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — In basketball, they’re often a more significant part of a player’s identity, but in the NFL, players can just as easily make a living off a signature move.

Last week, when talking about the developmental strides of Kenny Golladay, Lions coach Jim Caldwell discussed the importance of the rookie wide receiver finding his skyhook.

Maybe it’s a reference that doesn’t register with younger fans, but those who had the pleasure of watching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar play knew exactly what Caldwell was talking about. When the NBA’s all-time scoring king got the ball in the low post during his legendary 20-year career, the 7-foot-2 center would rely on his hook shot because of how difficult it was to defend.

Abdul-Jabbar is one of dozens of NBA stars known for their signature moves. Hakeem Olajuwon had the Dream Shake, Tim Hardaway the Killer Crossover and Kobe Bryant his fade-away jumper. And locally, who can forget Rip Hamilton’s baseline curl?

Golladay is a long way from figuring out what he does best, and the Lions’ are continuing to use him in different ways as they try to get a feel for how to maximize his talents. He’s shown flashes as a deep threat, operating through the backfield and even as a blocker, but there’s nothing we can say he does consistently to this point.

“Guys have a thing that they go to, that they know they can do as well as anybody, and it’s kind of a go-to move and I think he’s got to learn that part of his game, as well,” Caldwell said.

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That should come with time. But while he works on discovering his go-to, several Lions offensive players already have established their bread-and-butter plays, which we’re able to highlight thanks to data provided by Pro Football Focus.

For example, when it’s third down and the Lions need 6 yards, it’s a common sight to see Golden Tate slicing horizontally across the field on a shallow cross. And even though opponents know it’s coming, they’ve rarely been able to stop it.

Yes, it’s failed miserably twice this season, when defenders used the 5-yard buffer to blast Tate off his line, leading to a pair of interceptions. Otherwise, quarterback Matthew Stafford has connected with Tate 15 times on 19 other crossing route targets, resulting in 225 yards and a touchdown. The overall success rate is significantly higher than the NFL average for the route.

Caldwell said Tate is among the best at stopping and starting in the league. His ability to go from stationary to full speed when changing direction gives him the separation he needs to make the play.

The receiver deflects the success to his teammates. He credits the attention the Lions’ other weapons command in the deeper parts of the field, giving him the space he needs to operate across the middle. And consistently isn’t possible without the man throwing the football doing his job.

“Looking at film study throughout the year and seeing some of the other passes quarterbacks throw, Matt puts it somewhere where I can continue to run,” Tate said. “I’ve been studying film for a long time and I’ve seen those same passes either be broken up or just a 4-yard gain because it’s put on the back shoulder instead of the front shoulder. That’s something I’ve learned not to take for granted. His precision is spectacular and he gives me a chance to keep my momentum to get up field.”

Tate’s crosser is important because of how often it works on third down, but it’s far from the team’s only signature route.

Tight end Eric Ebron, although he doesn’t run it as often, has been even more unstoppable on crossing routes this season, catching nine balls on 10 targets.

Wide receiver Marvin Jones is crafting a reputation for being Detroit’s best deep threat, and look no further than his success on go routes. He’s hauled in 14 of his 26 targets on purely vertical patterns, gaining 435 yards and scoring six touchdowns. Stafford has an absurd 138.6 passer rating on those plays.

And no single route may be more unstoppable than Theo Riddick running an angle route — think a greater than or less than symbol, where he takes a 45-degree path out of the backfield and cuts back toward the middle at a similar bend.

“Theo just has an unusual ability to out-maneuver a leverage when guys have leverage on him from a coverage standpoint,” Caldwell said.

So much so that Riddick has hauled in 24 of the 28 passes thrown his way when running the route, and with his ability to make tacklers miss, he’s gained 240 yards and scored two touchdowns on those typically short passes.

When it comes to name recognition, Tate, Riddick or Jones won’t ever be in Abdul-Jabbar’s league, but each have a route that’s their skyhooks and it’s what makes the Lions’ offense go.