Lions face challenge of the 'unknown' in Kyler Murray, Kliff Kingsbury

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Paul Pasqualoni started leafing through his personal archives, compiled over 23 years, as he started to research in his garage in Connecticut. In preparing for his team’s season opener against the Arizona Cardinals, the Detroit Lions defensive coordinator needed to go back to the past to decipher what might work in the present.

In his long college career, he faced enough offenses that he figured he could find something from his decades of experience that might help.

There are very few certainties when it comes to what Detroit will face Sunday with first-time NFL coach Kliff Kingsbury and rookie quarterback Kyler Murray. Like most NFL teams, Arizona ran a bland offense in the preseason, waiting until Week 1 to unleash a version of the high-powered offense Kingsbury ran as Texas Tech’s head coach.

That leaves Pasqualoni and the Lions knowing that “there is quite a bit of the unknown as you go into this game.” It will mean more in-game adjustments than normal. When it came to researching a plan, it sent Pasqualoni notebook-diving.

“Right now, you use every resource you can get your hands on,” Pasqualoni said. “Right now, you’re watching as much as you can watch and trying to write down and catalog anything that looks good. Anything that anybody’s done, you don’t care who has done it right now, but if it looks like it might work, you’re considering it.”

That includes:

  • The triple-option offense Syracuse ran when Pasqualoni was the team’s head coach.

  • West Virginia’s offense under former coach Rich Rodriguez, which Pasqualoni faced in his later years with the Orange.

  • Notes from 20 years ago, when the Orange beat Kentucky in the 1999 Music City Bowl. The Wildcats ran the Air Raid with Hal Mumme as head coach and Mike Leach as offensive coordinator.

  • In the Kevin Bacon game that is the coaching world, Leach’s first truly successful quarterback as Texas Tech’s head coach was Kingsbury. Kingsbury has run the system as a coordinator at Houston and Texas A&M and as a head coach at Texas Tech.

    That gave Pasqualoni and the Lions' staff a place to start.

    “When you look at a big body of work like Texas Tech, there is a lot to that offense,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “How much are they going to run in the first game? We don’t know. We are just going to have to be able to handle whatever it is.

    “Pace, tempo, line of scrimmage checks, different formations, different personnel groups, those are all things that will be in-game adjustments for us that are going to be really difficult, especially playing in their stadium.”

    In game one, there’s an advantage in the unknown. Particularly in this case because it's the first time since 1989 that a head coach/quarterback combination are both in their first year with no prior NFL experience. The 1989 duo was Jimmy Johnson and Troy Aikman with the Dallas Cowboys.

    “There is no pro tape from that aspect of it,” Patricia said. “The biggest part about it is not having a season of professional tape to look at from this level to see. It’s just much different. The defenses, how they attack, how they look at guys, how they play, it’s just so much different than what maybe you’re looking at on tape from college.

    “It does make it more complex from that standpoint.”

    All of this sent the Lions back to watching film of Kingsbury’s offense at Texas Tech and Murray at Oklahoma. Lions safety Quandre Diggs, who faced Kingsbury for two years at Texas -- and held the Red Raiders to fewer than 20 points in 2013 and 2014 -- spoke to some friends from later Longhorns teams “to find as many tips as I can.” He relayed his own experiences to teammates to offer advice on how to defend a Kingsbury offense.

    Defensive end Trey Flowers faced Texas Tech in 2014 at Arkansas. Although he doesn’t have his notes from back then, it stuck out to him because “it was a unique style. Very different, obviously, than a lot of teams that I faced.” It’s an offense that was tough to prep for physically and will require in-game adjustments.

    When he watched Texas Tech film, Flowers watched for scheme, formations, differences in formations, tempo and clues for where the team liked to throw and run (inside vs. outside). What he likely saw is a shotgun, spread-out, up-tempo style that scored more than 20 points in 65 of Kingsbury’s 75 games at Texas Tech.

    For Murray, he focused on the rookie’s running style and tendencies.

    “Do he got a dead leg in there, do he spin off tackles, do he like to run to the right? Just about everything, you kind of break it down,” Flowers said. “Do he like to run to the left? Do he like to step out of the pocket or step up in the pocket? Throw the ball more outside? Do he throw the ball low? Throw the ball high?

    “You kind of watch him, personally, how he plays, and that’s kind of how you assess it.”

    Despite all the prep, the Lions know there is mystery around Arizona’s plan. They know Murray is dynamic, throws a strong deep ball and has speed to be an effective runner excelling in making defenders miss. They know Kingsbury has a plan for him. And they know Kingsbury knows how to get the most out of his quarterbacks, from Case Keenum to Davis Webb to Patrick Mahomes.

    Murray, potentially, is next.

    “Every quarterback that he has coached has gone on and done amazing things. So he has that pedigree, just to keep putting quarterbacks in the league, and I think he’s going to make Kyler Murray a star also,” Diggs said. “Not saying that he’s not already a star, but at the end of the day, Kliff, he has a great idea how to go with those quarterbacks.

    “I’m excited just to go up against that offense again. It’s been a while since I’ve played against a college offense, so it’ll be dope.”