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Lions-Vikings report card: Linebackers finally turning things around

Linebacking play was key to the Detroit Lions’ victory on Thursday.

NFL: Minnesota Vikings at Detroit Lions Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

The Detroit Lions are a team that slacks off during the entire semester and is staring down a failing grade with just a few weeks left in class. Just when you think they’re going to have to try again next year, they ace the final exam, pass the class and move to the top of the class. The Lions aced the final exam on Thursday and now they’re comfortably the valedictorian of the North. So let’s check the report card.

Quarterback: B

Matthew Stafford came out firing, completing his first six passes on the opening drive. After that, however, Stafford and the offense did a disappearing act until the last half of the fourth quarter... again. Stafford was pretty inaccurate for nearly three quarters of play, but he still managed to keep the Lions afloat.

What was most impressive about Stafford and continues to be his biggest area of improvement this season is his management of the pocket. He seems to finally have that sixth sense of when and where to escape when pressure is imminent. We joke about “Wheels” Stafford, but his rushing skills are no mirage. They’re a result of his excellent pocket presence. He added another 30 rushing yards to his total on Thursday.

Running back: C+

It was a quiet day from most of the running backs. Though the Lions totaled 94 rushing yards at 4.9 a carry, Theo Riddick actually had his second-fewest yardage total for the season with just 58 total yards. Dwayne Washington did not look very efficient as a runner and Zach Zenner failed to convert a key fourth-and-1. Still, this was an above-average running day for the unit against a pretty solid defense.

Wide receivers: B

Though the passing game disappeared for a long period of time, the wide receivers were typically the ones to pull the offense out of a funk. Golden Tate had a huge 41-yard catch, Marvin Jones had a few big plays down the stretch, and Anquan Boldin was absolutely key in Thursday’s victory. Boldin caught seven of his nine targets for 69 yards and the only touchdown of the game for the Lions. Receivers are still having issues creating separation, but they made enough plays to win the game against the Vikings.

Tight ends: D

Eric Ebron only saw one target all game and didn’t catch the ball. Matthew Mulligan and Ebron helped out a lot blocking and did a respectable job, but Ebron was such a huge factor in this offense for the past month, so it was disappointing to see him shut out in this one.

Offensive line: D+

Pass protection was near perfect in the first half of the game. This is an incredibly tough defensive line to go against, and that became clear for nearly the entire second half. The Vikings were dialing up blitzes from every direction and Stafford was under duress all half. Graham Glasgow was getting benched again, while Larry Warford had another rough game. Their performance is somewhat acceptable when considering the Vikings defense, but if you’re looking for a reason the Lions offense failed for the majority of the game, it’s because of the offensive line.

Defensive line: INC

It’s hard to grade the defensive line when Sam Bradford was getting the ball out incredibly quick. Bradford’s average depth per pass was just 3.5 yards past the line of scrimmage, by far the lowest of any quarterback playing on Thanksgiving. Therefore, generating any type of a pass rush never really stood a chance.

The Lions were okay in stopping the run against Minnesota, and give the line credit for the two batted passes by A’Shawn Robinson and Haloti Ngata, but the Vikings essentially made this unit irrelevant, so I can’t give them a fair grade.

Linebackers: B

Yes, you read that correct. The Lions linebackers not only avoided a failing grade, but they nearly aced the game. Tahir Whitehead and Josh Bynes were tackling machines, with Bynes making a few key stops on third down.

I couldn’t in good faith give the linebackers an A with Bradford completing 84 percent of his passes, with most of those coming over the middle of the field. Kyle Rudolph and Jerick McKinnon combined for 12 catches and 109 yards. Still, for the most part, the Lions kept the offense in front of them and stopped them before the sticks. The Vikings were just 2-10 on third down conversions.

Secondary: B+

Again, the high completion percentage is troubling, even if the passes were low-risk, quick throws. However, it wasn’t receivers that were catching most of the passes. Vikings receivers combined for 15 catches but just 80 yards. At times, it was frustrating to see the cornerbacks give receivers too much cushion, but their tackling was sound. Glover Quin deserves to get dinged for the dumpoff to McKinnon, but Darius Slay’s game-winning interception is more than enough to counteract that error.

Special teams: A

With Don Carey, the Lions’ special team’s MVP out with an injury, and the Vikings sporting one of the best returners in the game in Cordarrelle Patterson, it looked like the Lions may have a troublesome matchup on their hands. Instead, the Lions allowed just a 20-yard kickoff return and a total of zero yards on two punt returns. The coverage units were perfect again, as was Matt Prater, who kicked the game-tying and game-winning field goals within two minutes of each other.

Coaching: D

The Lions made it hard on themselves to win this game. I have no problem with any timeout usage or decisions to challenge, but during a few key moments in the game, the Lions made some questionable play-calling that could have lost the game. No decision was more egregious than the Lions’ decision on third-and-inches on the offense’s game-tying drive. The Lions had been using Riddick in the passing game all drive, so it was no surprise when Vikings linebacker Eric Kendricks sniffed it out immediately. The yardage was short enough that a quarterback sneak on second or third down—or both—could have easily picked up the first down and given the Lions a chance at a game-winning touchdown rather than a game-tying field goal. No need to get fancy there. And, yeah, that third-and-long draw isn’t going to work again against this Vikings defense, Jim Bob.

Also, with Bradford not daring to challenge the Lions deep, it’s curious as to why the Lions defensive backs continued to give Vikings receivers space for the majority of the game. Thankfully, a few big plays from the players themselves were enough to keep the team’s head above water.

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