A Film Review Of The Lions’ 2016 Red Zone Performance
Theo Riddick Displays Top “Open Field Ability”
How a team performs in the red zone is one of the biggest factors in deciding the outcome of a game. Often times, you can look at a team’s red zone performance and render a fairly educated guess on who won. This is especially true when applying this evaluation across the entire season.
With a season full of ups and downs for the Lions, it can be hard to pinpoint exactly what went right and what went wrong until you can dive into the tape. Watching how the Lions utilize Theo Riddick in the passing game, it is easy to see how the offense started great and ended bad. The common factor was whether Riddick was in the game or not.
Theo Riddick has shown time and time again that he can combine his top end acceleration and agility to not only juke out defenders but also run crisp routes like a wide receiver. While he’s listed as a running back make no mistake, Theo does his damage in the pass game.
Riddick’s route running ability has allowed offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter to get really creative with his play calling and utilization of Riddick in the red zone. Cooter does a great job switching up the routes for Riddick, creating hesitation for defenders.
This setup combined with Riddick’s great burst, allows the Lions to take advantage of defenders in poor position. There are several times throughout the year where Cooter has Riddick run an “angle” route, where he takes a 45 degree angle to the outside and then cuts back inside after five yards. Opposing linebackers began to diagnose this tendency and would cheat inside because they knew that play was coming.
This play recognition would usually slow down a running back’s ability to get open. However, Riddick has more route running options than the average running back in the NFL. This is due to his ability to create separation with his burst and agility. This gave Cooter the ability to call a five yard “out” route for Riddick with great success.
With the linebackers now cheating inside after giving up a big play on the out route, they are set up for Riddick to take advantage. Similarly, this is what happened against the Eagles this season. Early in the season Riddick had burned opponents, much like he did to Eagles middle linebacker Mychael Kendricks in 2015, on an angle route. The Eagles and Kendricks were prepared for it this time. But Cooter had a trick up his sleeve.
Once the Lions got their first trip in the red zone, Cooter called the out route for Riddick. Theo started his route like he was going to run another angle, taking a 45 degree angle. When he reached five yards he motioned his head like he is going to cut inside where Kendricks was waiting. But instead of cutting inside, Riddick planted his foot and drove toward the sideline. This created huge separation and set the Lions up for an easy touchdown.
This play is a great example of Riddick’s versatility that makes him so lethal in the red zone. These routes combined with a mixture of screens and rub routes allowed Riddick to become Stafford’s favorite target in the red zone outside of wide receiver Anquan Boldin.
Riddick scored five touchdowns in the red zone in 2016, four of which were in the passing game. These targets were a big help during the Lions 8-4 start to the season. Unfortunately, Riddick got injured week 13 against the Saints. The Lions really missed having Riddick as their “X Factor” during the final four game stretch of the regular season where the Lions only won a single game.
Boldin Uses “Old Man Strength” To Create Separation
Lions wide receiver Anquan Boldin was Matthew Stafford’s primary target in the red zone this year. One reason for Boldin’s ability to succeed in the red zone was that he has the most sure hands on the Lions roster this year. His sure hands helped quarterback Matthew Stafford gain trust in Boldin quickly.
This is important for Stafford as it gave him a reliable target to go to when he needed it most. Stafford always had this in the recently retired Calvin Johnson. Forced to move on from Johnson, Stafford found his new favorite target in Boldin.
However, the biggest reason for Boldin’s success was that he was constantly open in the red zone. Where Golden Tate and Marvin Jones struggled against tough man corners, Boldin reveled in it. He plays like a power forward in basketball, always battling for position. From the second the ball is snapped until he catches it, he is always working to get open.
Combine this competitive drive with a physically imposing body and Boldin easily out-muscled cornerbacks in 2016. Very few times was Boldin stopped by a defender from completing his route this year, especially in the red zone. Boldin led the Lions with five receiving touchdowns in the red zone on the season. In a season decided by one score games, Boldin’s ability to get open came up huge for the Lions and helped them to a playoff birth.