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Air and Space: Detroit's horizontal passing

Longtime Detroit Lions beat writer Tom Kowalski recently tackled the relevant topic of the Lions' punchless downfield passing attack, a surprising dynamic considering the presence of receiver Calvin Johnson, tailback Jahvid Best and tight ends Brandon Pettigrew and Tony Scheffler.

Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan essentially said his scheme won't force passes downfield when opposing defenses are gearing to stop that aspect of their game.

"We're getting a lot of zone coverage, so you want to be able to attack the zone aggressively," Linehan said. "But if the defense is weighing your patience by getting depth on those drops, you've got to go from high to low fast because you don't have five seconds to see if he's open."

So for this week's Air and Space installment, let's take a closer look at what the Lions have -- and haven't done -- on offense this season. We'll use a series of statistics from ESPN's Stats & Information to flesh it out.

The statistics are too varied to encapsulate in chart form, so bear with me here in the text:

  • Quarterback Shaun Hill has played all but one and a half quarters this season since replacing starter Matthew Stafford. Hill doesn't have the arm that Stafford does, but it's more than adequate to push the ball downfield. But to this point, Hill's average pass has traveled 7.5 yards in the air. That ranks him No. 29 among NFL quarterbacks with at least 30 attempts.

  • Hill has completed 36.4 percent of passes (eight of 22) that have traveled between 11 and 20 yards, ranking him 27th in the league. Finally, Hill has completed only one of the 11 passes that have traveled more than 21 yards in the air.

  • If teams truly are playing a deep zone against the Lions, the best way to defeat it is through short passing and open-field running. On that point, they're actually performing well relative to the rest of the league. Boosted by Best's 75-yard touchdown on a screen pass, the Lions have accounted for 58.3 percent of their passing total via yards after the catch (YAC). That ranks second in the NFL.

  • The issue isn't totally based on downfield decisions, however. The Lions also rank fourth in the NFL with nine drops.

My own feeling on this issue: Generally speaking, it makes sense to avoid throwing too many deep passes against deep zone coverages. Short-range passes should be open, and the Lions have a perfect YAC antidote in Best. You saw what he could do when healthy in Week 2 against the Philadelphia Eagles.

But there also comes a time when you must weigh the strengths of your team versus the tenets of your scheme. Johnson is a special player, and the Lions have targeted him on 28 passes this season. That's the 10th-highest total among NFL receivers, but he doesn't have a catch longer than 21 yards.

It shouldn't be easy to take him out of the downfield equation. Sometimes, it might make sense to throw it his way even when the coverage doesn't dictate it.

A similar situation arose in 2002 when Linehan took over the Minnesota Vikings' offense, which at the time was built around receiver Randy Moss. Then-coach Mike Tice instituted a "Randy Ratio" that required the Vikings to throw 40 percent of their passes his way.

The "Randy Ratio" failed for a number of reasons, and I'm not advocating such an overt public plan here. But the intent of the Randy Ratio carries a valuable lesson: Sometimes your talent gives you the opportunity to dictate the terms of engagement rather than accept what it gives you. It will be interesting to see if the Lions get more aggressive in that area.