The Detroit Lions hung with one of the best teams in the NFL thanks to some improved play, specifically on the defensive side of the ball. But when it came down to it, it was the poor play of some of the most reliable players that doomed Detroit against the Minnesota Vikings.
Here are our positional grades from Detroit’s 23-30 loss to Minnesota.
There’s no way to spin this, this was one of Matthew Stafford’s poorest games of the season. Granted, this is one of the toughest pass defenses in the league, and Stafford wasn’t always awarded great protection from his offensive line, but Stafford was inaccurate before and especially after his lower leg injury.
His 57.1 completion percentage was the third worst this season, and some of those misses came at absolutely devastating times. He overshot Golden Tate by at least five feet on third down of a potential game-tying drive late in the game. He followed it up with a horribly thrown ball to Marvin Jones on fourth down that ended up being picked off.
Stafford made some good plays, too. He dropped some dimes to Darren Fells, who promptly dropped them, and his savvy play to get a free play off while the Vikings were substituting resulted in Marvin Jones Jr.’s incredible touchdown. But overall, Stafford held this team back significantly.
Running backs: F
There’s nothing to say here. Ameer Abdullah has just not been effective enough as of late. While, typically, I’m quick to put the blame on the offensive line, I think Abdullah didn’t make the most of his opportunities on Thursday. Additionally, the botched handoff that resulted in another early turnover was on him, regardless of whether Stafford took blame or not.
Detroit only ran the ball 15 time in this game, but every time they did, it seemed like a wasted down. The offensive line is to blame a bit, but these running backs aren’t making the plays they need to be right now.
Tight ends: C
This is a tough one, because it was the story of two players. Eric Ebron caught all four passes thrown his way for 34 yards and three first downs. Darren Fells caught zero of four targets and dropped two touchdown passes (although one was a really tough grab).
I don’t think the Lions ever expected Fells to play such a big part in the receiving game, but if he’s getting the targets it means they trust him to catch it. He let the team down on Thursday.
Wide receivers: A-
Once again, the Lions were able to establish a deep passing game, thanks to impressive catches from both Marvin Jones Jr. and Kenny Golladay. The Minnesota Vikings had given up just two plays of 40+ yards all season through the air. The Lions were able to match that number on Thursday alone.
For Jones, especially, this was a breakout game. Not many receivers that are lined up against Xavier Rhodes come out alive. Even though Rhodes got the late interception, Jones dominated the matchup.
I’m only dinging the receivers a half grade because of the play of Golden Tate. He was a non-factor, actually gaining more rushing yards (13) than receiving (7). But it was a third-down play in which Tate had a first down, but scaled back in an effort to gain more YAC that really hurt Detroit. He came up a yard short, and the Lions lost an opportunity to gain the lead in the fourth quarter.
Offensive line: C-
Considering the tough matchup, I thought the pass protection held up better than expected. Taylor Decker struggled against Everson Griffen, but so does everyone. Griffen literally has a sack in all but one game this year.
Aside from that, I think Detroit held up okay in protection. In fact, according to PFF, T.J. Lang, Graham Glasgow and Travis Swanson all did not give up a single pressure in the game.
But running lanes were, again, absent from this offense. Say what you will about Abdullah, but he’s getting very little help from his men up front, and as a result, he’s having to dance in the backfield and hope for blocks from his quarterback.
Defensive line: B+
I don’t know where this performance came from, but this was probably the best game by the defensive line all year. Akeem Spence and A’Shawn Robinson were dominant up the middle, while Ezekiel Ansah, Cornelius Washington and Anthony Zettel actually provided some real pass rush.
Detroit was able to hold the Vikings’ running game in check all game* and as a result, forced a ton of third-and-longs. Sadly for Detroit, the Vikings managed to convert half of those to keep drives going.
But considering this was a Vikings offensive line that had only allowed 10 sacks all year, I think Detroit’s two-sack, nine-quarterback hits performance was quite impressive.
Jarrad Davis had a statement game on Thursday after many—myself included—were highly critical of his play this season. Per Pro Football Focus, Davis didn’t miss a single tackle, was not targeted once in the passing game and made five run stops against the Vikings. (Although, the Lions purposely took Davis off the field during many passing downs.)
But it was the mostly reliable Tahir Whitehead that cost the team dearly on Thursday. He allowed Kyle Rudolph to get two or three steps on him on a devastating 34-yard touchdown pass in the first half.
The Lions’ secondary didn’t give up any real big plays and managed to keep the receivers in front of them. However, they weren’t able to really challenge any passes on the day. Detroit managed just two passes defended all game, and one of those came from defensive lineman Cornelius Washington.
The Lions defense managed to get into a lot of favorable third down situations, but it always seemed like the Lions’ secondary would give the Vikings just a little too much room to convert, especially in the first half. In the end Case Keenum essentially lit up this secondary, completing 70 percent of his passes for 9.4 yards per attempt. That’s not good enough.
Special teams: A
Nothing to complain about here. The Lions were perfect in the kicking game. They got two blocked kicks (and almost a third) from the defensive side. Sam Martin was (mostly) good, and the Lions even got a good kick return out of TJ Jones. This remains the Lions’ best and most consistent unit on the team.
On the Vikings’ first touchdown of the game, the Lions had just 10 men on the field. That cannot happen.
There were also some questionable decisions from Jim Caldwell in the game—and I don’t include his “failure” to hurry up the extra point among them. Deciding to go for it on fourth-and-8 with three minutes remaining seemed a bit desperate. It essentially put the Lions in a do-or-die situation, and given the offense’s struggles (especially with an injured Matthew Stafford), converting a fourth-and-8 seemed less likely than forcing a three-and-out on defense. It was a toss up, but I prefered punt in that situation.
However, I do have to give Caldwell props for not challenging the Vikings’ third-down conversion late in the game. Many fans were clamoring for a challenge flag, but not only is it tough to overturn the spotting of a ball, that one seemed correctly called. Caldwell saved what could have been an extremely important timeout. I think a lot of head coaches would have been tempted to throw the flag there since it was such an important play, but Caldwell showed good discipline.
Still, it’s hard not to put some of this game on the coaches. The team has looked completely unprepared to start games over the past three weeks, especially on offense:
Lions first 2 drives:— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) November 23, 2017
vs. Browns: 3-and-out, INT
vs. Bears: Fumble, Punt
vs. Vikings: 3-and-out, Fumble
Most teams script out their first 10-15 plays on offense. If that’s the case with Jim Bob Cooter, he needs a new scriptwriter.
Also, the way the Lions defense came out in the second half was completely unacceptable. I don’t know why the Lions run defense suddenly reverted to Bears/Browns level, but considering they were so good the rest of the game, I have to assume they were literally just unprepared. That’s on the coaches.