Before I get into this week’s grades for the Detroit Lions’ game against the New Orleans Saints, we need to talk. The Lions have been completely outmatched in three of their four last games. A flurry of late-game scores in all three games have helped distract some—myself included—to the real problems with this team.
There’s no way around it. Over the past four games, this Detroit Lions team has been bad. Not just 1-3 record bad, but should-have-been-blown-out bad. The Saints, Panthers and Falcons are good, but they aren’t as good as the Lions made them look over the past month. The Lions made these teams look good, because the Lions are bad.
Onto the grades.
Blame it on the injury. Blame it on the receivers not getting open (we will). Blame it on the offensive line being a complete disaster (we will). Blame it on uninspired play calling (we will).
But at some point your quarterback has to take some responsibility for five turnovers.
Matthew Stafford was inaccurate, panicked, and careless with the football all game. This all seemed excusable against good defenses like the Giants, Panthers and Vikings, but it is unacceptable against the Saints, I don’t care how much they’ve improved in a year.
Stafford cannot continue to take bad sacks. He can’t continue to hold the ball carelessly when pressure is around. And he can’t possibly turn the ball over five times in a game. There are no excuses for that.
Running backs: C-
Ameer Abdullah had a long run and that’s about it. Theo Riddick was valuable in the passing game. Zach Zenner had a really nice blitz pickup on Golden Tate’s touchdown.
Obviously, I’d like to see more plays from this unit, but they a fair amount given the lack of help from their teammates, and, as far as I can tell, they didn’t make any egregious mistakes, outside of the miscommunication between Riddick and Stafford on the second fumble of the game.
Wide receivers: C
Golden Tate was magnificent, as he always seems to be against the Saints. But the rest of the receiving corps continues to struggle in finding any separation.
Marvin Jones made a few good contested catches, including this fantastic snag to start Detroit’s near-comeback.
But these plays were few and far between for the first two quarters of the game. By the time the Lions receivers started racking up the yards, the Saints defense was in full prevent mode.
Tight ends: D
Some thought that Eric Ebron would take a week of criticism and turn it into something positive against the Saints. That... did not happen. Ebron was targeted three times and only ended up catching a single pass (that wasn’t even for him) for 9 yards.
Ebron was always supposed to be the athletic mismatch: too fast for linebackers, too strong for cornerbacks. The hands were always a question. But now he’s not even getting targets thrown his way meaning either Stafford has lost trust in him or he’s not even getting open anymore. Either way, it’s concerning.
Darren Fells caught a touchdown again and is tied for the most touchdown receptions on the team (3).
Offensive line: F
Five more sacks on Sunday. 3.5 yards per carry in the running game. But by far the most frustrating and infuriating thing about the Lions’ offensive line performance was this:
12. Batted. Balls. Throw in a couple passes defended in the secondary and you’re left with this mind-boggling statistic:
The Saints had 16 passes defensed today. They had 15 total in the first four games.— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) October 15, 2017
I know the Lions were dealt a horrible hand with injuries in this game, but Detroit’s paper thin depth on the offensive line was no secret, and it showed on Sunday.
Defensive line: D
Zero sacks, 193 rushing yards allowed at 5.3 yards a pop. We’ve talked plenty about Ezekiel Ansah and how absent he has been this year, but we should think about putting a missing persons report for Anthony Zettel now, too. Zettel had just two total tackles on Sunday.
That being said, Akeem Spence and A’Shawn Robinson played okay. Robinson had the play of the game for the Lions with his impressive pick-six of Drew Brees at the goal line. Spence provided a few pressures of his own. Together, Robinson and Spence combined for 13 tackles on the game.
But the rest of the defensive line was defined by little pressure and missed tackles.
Speaking of missed tackles... this was a huge step back for the Lions’ linebackers. As someone who defended this unit as part of my argument against signing a guy like NaVorro Bowman, I can say I was possibly a bit premature in my crowning of Jarrad Davis and Tahir Whitehead.
Their missed tackles were much of the reason the Saints were able to rush for 193 yards in the game, but the Lions linebackers were also culpable in the pass defense failures. Lions linebackers were constantly taking poor angles, not dropping deep enough in coverage and were just plain out of position more often than not. Per Pro Football Focus, Davis and Whitehead combined to allow six catches in seven targets against the Saints.
While Darius Slay had a huge bounceback game, grabbing an interception while holding Michael Thomas to just three catches for 11 yards. He wasn’t perfect, however, as he appeared to blow coverage at least once while in zone coverage.
As for the rest of the secondary, outside of a D.J. Hayden pass breakup, no defensive backs got a single hand on the ball of a Saints pass. Brees’ final statline may not look all that impressive, but he didn’t have to pass it all that much in the second half.
Special teams: B
Jamal Agnew’s punt return touchdown turned a game that was almost certainly out of hand into one where the Lions could realistically mount a comeback. Just prior to that touchdown, Agnew had an impressive 26-yard punt return.
However, just as the Lions were ready to take possession of the ball down just a single score, Agnew made a crucial mistake. He muffed a punt that went over his head and recovered on the 1-yard line. Two plays later, Stafford threw the game-clinching pick-six.
While I want to give Jim Caldwell credit for keeping the Lions level-headed enough to nearly mount what would have been an epic comeback, I just can’t do it.
Despite the near comeback, Caldwell deserves a fair amount of criticism for keeping Stafford in the game with a 35-point deficit, a bum ankle, sore ribs and a depleted offensive line. It turns out it may have been the right decision, but the results don’t always mean the decision was right.
Then there were a few other puzzling choices made by Caldwell. Attempting a 56-yard field goal down 21 points was ill-advised. Punting the ball down 14 points with just 2:47 left in the game and one timeout left is just idiotic, even if it was fourth-and-21. By punting you are guaranteeing that you won’t get the ball back with anything more than 80 seconds left. Scoring two touchdowns with 80 seconds left is essentially impossible, even with Stafford behind center.
The play-calling on offense is another issue that has been tirelessly discussed already, but is definitely noteworthy. And defensively, the Lions need to find a way to generate pressure, because apparently benching Cornelius Washington didn’t work.