There are days when everything seems to be going great, then the other shoe drops. Those are the kind of days where you just hope that everything will work out in the end, because the plans are not working. That was the kind of game the Detroit Lions had against the St. Louis Rams.
It all started well enough. The Lions took the opening kickoff all the way down the field on a methodical, clock-eating drive. When the Lions were finally on the verge of pay dirt, Matthew Stafford threw an interception to make it all an exercise in futility. The Rams took the resulting possession down the field for a field goal and executed what was probably a 10-point swing on the scoreboard.
The opening drive by the Lions, and most of the first half of play, was exactly what the Rams were hoping for. Stafford led the Lions down the field only to be stopped short. The Lions had to settle for field goals, or worse, for no points at all. Even worse yet, the Rams even turned a Lions possession into points on their side of the scoreboard with an interception for a touchdown by Cortland Finnegan. All the while, the game clock was ticking away.
Rams coach Jeff Fisher wanted to make the Lions use up the clock while giving up as few points as possible. The Rams executed their game plan to perfection in the first half, with a lot of help from the Detroit offense. Stafford dutifully accepted what the Rams gave to him on the short routes, then he turned the ball over before he could put it in the end zone.
The results of the first half must have played heavily on the mind of Stafford, because he came out in the second half throwing hard. In fact, he was overthrowing just about everything. It took some time for Stafford to settle down again and start playing like he can.
When the game was on the line and the Lions had to score, Stafford executed the offense masterfully. It is almost like he really needs pressure to stop thinking too much and get into the flow of the game. The Lions finally started connecting on long passes and became the explosive offense that we saw at the end of last season.
The thing that is most perplexing about this whole chain of events is that the Lions should have been going down the field with passes from the beginning of the game. We can't really credit the Rams defense for forcing short passes. The Rams were in a full-on deep pass prevent defense toward the end of the game and the Lions managed to complete long passes anyway.
I don't know why the Lions fell for the Rams' rope-a-dope tactics early in the game. If the Lions wish to be an elite offense, they have to prove that they can impose their will upon the opposing defense regardless of what they do. The Lions beat you with 15-yard, and deeper, passing plays. It is what the Lions do well. They need to prove to other teams that they can execute those passes even if you stack the defense to stop it. When they can do that, they will be a truly elite offense. Unless they believe they are capable of accomplishing that, they will never reach that lofty pinnacle.
Kevin Smith had a very nice game for the Lions. He ran the ball effectively and made plays. Except for a couple of dropped passes, Smith did as much as the Lions could have hoped for. He was good enough to make the linebackers pay attention to him and not bail out to cover runs from the snap of the ball. That is really all the Lions need from their running game.
The wide receivers were good. They caught what Stafford put into their area code. They even went up in the air to make some good catches on the high throws that Stafford was making, despite the danger of getting hammered by Rams defenders. The only really notable mistake was on a play where Brandon Pettigrew dropped a touchdown pass. It would have been a tough catch, but it was a play that Pettigrew should have made.
The offensive line kept Stafford clean in the pocket for most of the day. They were also, predictably, inconsistent in run blocking. As much as we would like to see the linemen open gaping holes for the running backs, it is not likely to happen until some of the players are replaced. Until then, we will have to settle for a very good pass blocking offensive line that is a bit below average in run blocking. That is fine since the Lions are predominantly a passing team.
The Lions defense played extremely well. In fact, they far surpassed what I expected from them. They repeatedly stopped the Rams and gave the ball back to the offense in good field position. If it weren't for the Lions defense, the Rams would have probably left Ford Field with a win. We expect the offense to carry the Lions to victory, but that is not how it worked in this game.
The defensive line was very good, but the play of the defensive tackles, in particular, was superb. We repeatedly saw all four defensive tackles make plays in the Rams backfield. They were able to finally show Lions fans what it looks like when you play the run on the way to the quarterback. If the defensive ends can pick up their game just a bit, the Lions defensive line is going to be dominant this season.
The linebackers were good, especially Justin Durant and Stephen Tulloch. They were around the ball all day and made some excellent plays in the running game. The only down side is that they often failed to get the job done in pass coverage. DeAndre Levy also missed some tackles, which shows he still has that problem left over from last season. This linebacker unit is half a step from becoming really good.
The secondary held up better than most Lions fans would have suspected. I fear that the lack of speed from the Rams wide receivers helped them. The secondary will get a stiffer test against the San Francisco 49ers. Then we will see what they are really made of. Hopefully we will see Louis Delmas and Chris Houston playing in that game.
Against the Rams, the cornerbacks were just acceptable. By that I mean that there were opportunities to complete passes against them, but they managed to make enough plays to prevent anything really big from being completed. The most memorable cornerback play of the day was a pass breakup by Drayton Florence.
The safety play was steady, if unspectacular. Erik Coleman was consistently around the ball on runs and John Wendling played well as the deep center fielder. The play of the safety duo was better than what we saw last season from that position. While it would really help the Lions to have the safeties make a bigger impact on the game, it is good that we are not seeing the big negative impact the safeties made last season. All things considered, I can live with the play from the safeties for now.
The special teams play was good all day and they made a generally positive impact for the Lions. Stefan Logan was good on punt returns and the coverage units were solid. If they can play like that all season then we can expect that special teams will not hurt the Lions as they did last season.
Overall, the effort by the Lions was very good. If not for the three unanswered turnovers, the Lions would have beaten the Rams quite comfortably. It is clear that the Lions have some work to do, especially Matthew Stafford. There is reason to believe that Stafford will learn from his mistakes and get better in the process because he always has. That is good reason for Lions fans to wipe the sweat from their brow and look forward with optimism.