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Lions-Saints report card: Detroit finally looks like a complete team

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Everyone earned high marks against the Saints.

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NFL: Detroit Lions at New Orleans Saints Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Teachers these days are commonly being accused of grade inflation. Grade inflation is basically when all of the students in the class undeservingly earn a high grade, essentially removing the meaning behind grades where “C” no longer means average, but instead something way worse.

After Sunday’s victory over the New Orleans Saints, it may look like the Detroit Lions are the beneficiary of grade inflation, but they earned every mark they got. Here’s our report card for Week 13.

Quarterback: A+

In a game we all believed would be a shootout, Matthew Stafford was the only one packing in New Orleans. Stafford was lethally accurate, perfectly aware in the pocket and just near perfect all around. At one point he completed 13 straight passes—a team record—and in all he just threw 12 incompletions in 42 attempts. Most importantly, for the seventh time in his last eight games, he avoided throwing an interception.

Running backs: B

It may not look like it from the box score—20 rushes for 63 yards—but the Lions had some minor success running the ball with their tailbacks. Dwayne Washington ran downfield with a purpose before an injury ended his day. When Zach Zenner took over in the second half, the Lions running game didn’t skip a beat. Zenner has some key runs in last few drives of the game that extended drives and milked clock. By the game’s end, he had nine rushes for a respectable 40 yards. 4.4 yards per carry is his most efficient output of his career in a game when he rushed more than five times.

Surprisingly, it was Theo Riddick who dragged this unit down. He was again ineffective as a runner—including one important failed third-down conversion—and he wasn’t his usual dangerous self in the passing game.

Wide receivers: A

When Marvin Jones was declared out this week, most believed the Lions would fall short in the shootout, but that was hardly the case on Sunday. Golden Tate had his second-best statistical game this season and one of his best a Detroit Lion. TJ Jones had a few big catches in his first action in 2016 and Andre Roberts even brought it again.

The only downside to this group was in the red zone. The Lions really missed Jones in this aspect of their offense as the defense seemed to key in on Stafford’s favorite red zone target: Anquan Boldin. Without Boldin available, the Lions failed to punch it in too many times.

Tight end: B-

Eric Ebron didn’t do anything wrong on Sunday—he collected four catches on six targets without a true drop—but again he didn’t seem to be a big part of the Lions gameplan. That’s a bit disappointing considering the loss of Marvin Jones, but the Lions offense hummed along without him fine.

Offensive line: C+

Protection had an up-and-down day for the offensive line. Stafford was sacked twice on the day, but at times he went long periods of time without being touched. Run blocking continues to be a serious issue, especially in short-yardage situations. Still, as the game wound down, the offensive line stepped up its game and created some key holes for Zenner to seal the game.

Defensive line: A-

I thought this was the best game from the defensive line all year. Ezekiel Ansah may still be struggling, but nearly everyone else showed up. Drew Brees is an extremely tough guy to sack, so it doesn’t surprise me the Lions only had one sack, but they had him under constant pressure. Pro Football Focus credits the Lions with eight pressures, and considering how quickly the Saints get rid of the ball, that’s pretty good.

The interior of the line continues to do an amazing job getting their hands on passes, with A’Shawn Robinson and Haloti Ngata notching another pass defended each on Sunday.

Linebacker: C+

Considering this group was without their starting middle linebacker, they fared extremely well. No one would have expected the likes of Josh Bynes and rookie Antwione Williams to manage the middle of the field in a way that wasn’t disastrous against a high-flying Saints offense.

Still, things weren’t exactly good over the middle of the field. Tight end Coby Fleener led the Saints with five catches for 86 yards, while running back Travaris Cadet added five for 53. But the Lions linebackers did a good job of limiting yards after the catch with these players.

Secondary: A

Don’t look now, but this Lions secondary is starting to play like we had all hoped they would at the beginning of the year. Darius Slay did an admirable job shutting down Michael Thomas (four catches for 42 yards). And what more can you say about these safeties? Glover Quin, Tavon Wilson and Miles Killebrew all notched interceptions on Sunday and forced Brees into a passer rating of 63.3, his lowest total since November 2015.

If you held the 2016 Saints to just 13 points with only one sack, chances are your defensive backs balled out. And they did.

Special teams: B+

Matt Prater was perfect again, earning himself a Game Ball nomination. However, overall I thought this was a below-average game from this excellent squad. Sam Martin only punted twice all game, but one of those punts was returned for 24 yards late in the game. That could have proved critical had the defense not been playing lights out. In the return game, the Lions failed to notch a single punt return and Andre Roberts was average on kickoff duties.

Coaching: A

I’ll admit I was a little peeved when Jim Caldwell decided against going for it on fourth-and-1 very late in the game, but the Lions’ win probability was already so high at that point that the decision didn’t turn out to be all that important—and in retrospect, he probably made the right choice.

Otherwise, you have to give it up for this coaching staff. The Lions were without some key players against a team that had all the tools to exploit that, and they came away with a decisive road victory against the Saints, who were in “must-win” mode. The defensive gameplan was sound, and while the offense had some questionable decisions in the red zone, 422 offensive yards was the team’s best offensive output since Week 1.