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Lions-Steelers report card: Coaches squander a good performance

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The Detroit Lions may have played their best game all season, and it was all wasted.

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NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Detroit Lions Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

When you look back on the Week 8 game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Detroit Lions, it will go down as one of the weirdest looking box scores. The Lions and Steelers combined for 874 yards of offense, but just 35 points.

Detroit had more total yards, more yards per play, won the turnover battle, won time of possession, yet lost, and was trailing for most of the game.

Let’s dive into the positional grades to see if we can find out where things went wrong for Detroit.

Quarterbacks: B+

Considering Matthew Stafford was going up against one of the best pass defenses in the league, his output on Sunday was phenomenal. Prior to this week, the Steelers hadn’t given up more than 223 net passing yards or a passer rating above 88.6. Stafford threw for 411 yards and a passer rating of 91.2.

However, there were a couple crucial mistakes from Stafford. He was a bit inaccurate in the red zone, he nearly threw a couple interceptions near the end of the game, and, according to Michael Rothstein, he was responsible for the world’s worst audible. Facing a third-and-goal from Pittsburgh’s 6-yard line with just 2:06 remaining, Stafford checked the play at the line into a Theo Riddick draw that went for -2 yards.

Stafford, overall, had a pretty darn good game, but when it comes down to it, this looms large:

Running backs: C-

Ameer Abdullah didn’t have a very good game, but he did have a few highlight-reel jukes. Theo Riddick saw some success running the ball for the first time all year. But when the Lions needed the running game the most, no back seemed up for the challenge.

A big reason the Lions struggled in the red zone was their inability to run the ball. And a big reason they weren’t able to run the ball, is because their backs were unable to get any yardage after first contact. Dwayne Washington was easily the most culpable here, earning just 12 yards on six carries, four of which came in the red zone.

However, I do want to give credit to the running back position as a whole for their pass protection. All three backs were phenomenal in picking up extra rushers and it often gave Stafford the time he desperately needed.

Tight ends: D-

Eric Ebron’s two late catches weren’t enough to move the needle here. Some of the Lions’ red zone troubles can be attributed to the Lions’ tight end corps. Darren Fells, Michael Roberts and Ebron all had tough drops in this game, and it cost the Lions dearly.

There are plenty of trade rumors swirling around Ebron right now, but if Sunday was a test to see if the other Lions tight ends could step up in his place, it was a miserable failure.

Wide receivers: B+

Marvin Jones Jr., Golden Tate and T.J. Jones all had over 80 yards receiving against the Steelers and all were pretty sure-handed. Marvin was getting uncharacteristically open against a good Steelers secondary. T.J. has looked surprisingly good all season, and has made some excellent catches in traffic.

But the play that will define this group is Golden Tate’s fumble, and it was devastating enough to take this unit from an A to a B+. Detroit would have had the ball first-and-10 at the Steelers’ 26-yard line down just five points. Instead, Tate literally handed Pittsburgh the ball.

Offensive line: B

Easily the biggest pleasant surprise of the day was the play of Detroit’s offensive line. Stafford was only sacked twice on the day, and at least one of those was a coverage sack. Brian Mihalik played as good as anyone could expect for someone in their first career start, while the rest of the line seemed to hold up okay.

There are obviously still some serious problems in the running game, but this was a huge step in the right direction for Detroit’s offensive line.

Defensive line: C

Again, quarterback pressure was a problem on Sunday, but the Lions’ two best defensive ends—Ezekiel Ansah and Anthony Zettel—both stuck out in a positive way on Sunday. Even though Detroit had no sacks on the day, Zettel and Ansah both had a tackle for loss and occasionally forced Ben Roethlisberger into a bad pass or two.

They also remained somewhat disciplined against Le’Veon Bell and the Steelers’ rushing attack. Bell averaged just 3.04 YPC, and much of that was due to the Lions’ defensive line sticking to their assignments and remaining patient.

Linebackers: A-

Going along with that, the Lions’ linebackers did an amazing job at shooting gaps and meeting Bell in the backfield. Jalen Reeves-Maybin had his best professional game, totaling five tackles and one tackle for loss. Jarrad Davis and Tahir Whitehead didn’t show up a ton on the stat sheet (2 and 3 tackles, respectively), but aside from maybe a missed tackle or two, they didn’t make any errors, either.

Secondary: C-

Let’s start with the good. Darius Slay was masterful against Antonio Brown, holding him to just one catch for 9 yards while defending Brown (according to PFF). Glover Quin remains an absolute beast at free safety. And Quandre Diggs was a tackling machine (5 tackles, 2 TFLs).

But it was all downhill from there. Nevin Lawson got picked on early and often. Miles Killebrew had his worst game of the year. Diggs was burned for a 97-yard touchdown on the biggest play of the game.

The Lions secondary made some big plays and dealt with a good Steelers offense, but they gave up one too many plays, and there were way too many coverage breakdowns for a single game. Detroit was bailed out on at least three occasions when Steelers receivers couldn’t haul in an easy play.

Special teams: C

Jamal Agnew: Good.
Matt Prater: Great.
Sam Martin: Um... welcome back. You look rusty.

Coaching: F

Normally, I’m one of the most aggressive-thinking coach critics, but even I thought the Lions should have kicked a field goal down just a single point from the 1-yard line deep into the third quarter. But then for Jim Caldwell to decide to kick a field goal on the next drive facing an almost identical fourth-and-goal from the 1? It’s hard to make any sense of those two, key choices.

If Detroit decided to kick a field goal in both of those situations, we could very well be celebrating a win on Monday morning.

But even if you support those decisions, you have to really put a lot of blame on the coaches for the red zone failures. The decision to keep feeding Dwayne Washington on the goal line is a choice that needs to be seriously reconsidered. Ameer Abdullah and Zach Zenner have both shown to be just as good, if not better, as a goal line back than the inexperienced Washington.

The play-calling is also completely uninventive. Across the league, you’ll see plenty of teams come up with interesting short-yardage plays—for example, the Steelers’ shovel pass on third-and-1 on their final drive of the game.

The Lions have shown that they cannot simply line up and beat opposing defenses with their typical game plan. It’s time to get creative. Actually, no. The time to get creative was three weeks ago. Now there’s no excuse. The Lions coaching needs to be better, because they just cost the team a potentially huge win.