In just about every Detroit Lions game this season, the team has played two drastically different halves. Sunday’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles was no different. After a dominant first half that ended with the Lions ahead 21-10, everything started to fall apart and Detroit found themselves trailing late in the game. But thanks to a few late-game heroics, the Lions found a way to win. It was an ugly win, but a win nonetheless. Let’s hand out some grades after that wacky game.
Matthew Stafford earned an A+++ in the first half. It was no small feat to take on a pass defense that had not only given up zero passing touchdowns all year, but also hadn’t allowed a passer rating above 82 in three games; Stafford simply lit up the scoreboard in the first half. By halftime, Stafford had three touchdowns and just four incompletions. Unfortunately, Stafford didn’t do much of anything in the second half and had a back-breaking unforced fumble.
Overall, however, Stafford did enough to win the game. He threw the ball a career-low 25 times—in games he completed—and finished with a passer rating of 135.0. That’s hard to argue against.
Running backs: B-
Much like Stafford, Theo Riddick was dominant in the first half. He picked up two receiving touchdowns—the first Lions running back to do that in a game since Horace King in 1978—and looked like a legit runner. He rushed for 43 yards on just seven carries in the first two quarters. However, he would add just four more carries for all of six yards in the second half as the running game completely failed to milk clock in the second half. Zach Zenner was of no offensive help as his seven rushes for nine yards did nothing to swing the game.
Tight ends: D
It’s not that the tight ends particularly played poorly, but they were just a complete non-factor in the game. With Eric Ebron gone, it was newly acquired Clay Harbor who took the majority of snaps at tight end, and he barely played. Harbor took just 23 offensive snaps—38 percent—and did not haul in a catch all game. Instead, the Lions mostly relied on formations with six offensive linemen.
Wide receivers: B-
It wasn’t a huge day for any individual receiver. No Lions player had more than Anquan Boldin’s 48 yards receiving on the day. But for the most part, the Lions receivers did their job: catch the ball when it came their way. Boldin, Golden Tate and Marvin Jones combined for 11 catches on 14 targets for 124 yards and a touchdown. Again, not a breakout game for anyone, but it got the job done.
Offensive line: D
The offensive line was largely to thank for the Lions’ hot start, but they were also mostly to blame for their disappearing act in the second half. It’s still a little unclear whether Laken Tomlinson was benched or was injured, but Jim Caldwell claimed it was part of the plan to get Graham Glasgow in the game. The result was another inconsistent performance from the offensive line that ended up allowing four sacks and lost the semblance of any kind of running game in the final two quarters. So far, the Lions’ offensive line has proven they cannot be the kind of unit that can help their offense run the ball down the opponent’s throat when they have a lead. That’s a big reason we’ve seen Detroit blow three two-possession leads this year.
Defensive line: B
I thought this was a big breakout game from the defensive line. It wasn’t a dominant performance—they were still partially responsible for the Eagles’ 116 rushing yards at 5.5 yards per carry—but they were finally able to get a good amount of consistent pressure on Carson Wentz. They ended the game with three sacks and had Wentz on the move for much of the game.
Pro Football Focus may have given high grades for both Tahir Whitehead and Kyle Van Noy, but I saw things much differently. The linebacking crew as a whole missed several key tackles on third down and allowed mild 3-4 yard rushes to break out for 7-8 yards instead. Pass coverage was much improved for this unit, but as much as they progressed in that aspect of their game, they regressed in tackling and run defense. If I were grading on a curve for this linebacking corps, this probably would have been a B or B+ performance, but compared to the rest of the league, this is still a very poor unit.
This is a tough unit to grade. On one hand, Darius Slay was the hero of the game, coming up with three huge plays in the final quarter. On the other hand, Nevin Lawson and Quandre Diggs both were picked on in this game. In the end, the Lions allowed their fifth straight opposing quarterback to earn a passer rating of 100 or more.
I ended up giving them an average C because Slay’s play proved the difference, and despite some early struggles, Lawson battled back and actually notched two passes defended. This unit is still a bit of a disappointment, but this may have been their best game as a unit yet.
Special Teams: B
Kick and punt coverage teams continue to be brilliant, and both Matt Prater and Sam Martin have been continually consistent. However, the Lions still have no spark in the kick return game. I don’t like to harp too much on Andre Roberts simply because kick returns have become a mostly irrelevant part of football, but he has not been good at that role.
Let’s start with the good. I thought Jim Bob Cooter came out with a brilliant game plan considering the Lions basically had zero tight ends and were struggling to get Golden Tate involved. Jim Caldwell also deserves a ton of credit for the two fourth downs he decided to go for and the team promptly converted. The first decision was particularly bold, as the Lions were still on their own side of the field. But the decision paid off, as the Lions would go on to score a touchdown on that drive.
However, there was some bad coaching on Sunday, too. The Lions came out flat after halftime, and seemed to run out of ideas on offense in the second half.
Then there was the game-winning drive for the Lions. I had a few problems with the way that was handled. First, with the Lions already near field goal position, Detroit decided to run two plays before the two-minute warning, when they only had to run one. They could have burned some valuable time off the clock, but instead, they essentially gave the Eagles an extra timeout by running an additional play before the two-minute warning.
Then there was the play calling once the Lions got into a goal-to-go situation. Here was Caldwell’s strategy:
Caldwell said team's top priority during game-winning FG possession was making Eagles use their timeouts.— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) October 9, 2016
There are a few things problematic with this strategy. First of all, if the Lions’ priority was to get rid of Eagles timeouts, they should have declined the late-hit call on the Eagles that stopped the clock after Tate’s big grab. But that aside, Caldwell’s admitted priority was to essentially accept three points instead of going for six so that they could burn off 14 seconds of clock and leave the Eagles with around 90 seconds to get a field goal. Considering the state of the Lions’ defense, that seems like a terrible tradeoff. 90 seconds is an eternity in today’s NFL, with or without any timeouts. I would much rather try to get in the end zone and force the Eagles to go for a touchdown. If you don’t get that touchdown and Philadelphia ends up with a timeout or two with 90 or so seconds left on the clock, so be it. It’s not all that much of a different scenario than what ended up happening anyways.
Obviously, it ended up working as Wentz blew the entire possession on one play, but that sort of passiveness could get the Lions into trouble in the future.