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Lions-Cardinals report card: Who is this Detroit Lions’ defense?

For the first time in a long time, the Lions defense passed with flying colors.

Arizona Cardinals v Detroit Lions Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

If the first game of the season is any indication, the Detroit Lions’ weekly report cards are going to look a lot different than they did last year. While the offense was up to their normal inconsistent ways, the defensive performance against the Arizona Cardinals was unlike anything we’ve seen from this team in several years.

Time will tell whether this was an aberration, a performance against a bad Cardinals offense or a sign of things to come. But, for now, it’s a very good start.

Quarterbacks: A-

I almost gave this a straight-up A, but Jake Rudock’s snap bobble could have proven costly.

Okay, not really. Matthew Stafford had a phenomenal day and maybe one of his best fourth quarters ever, and that’s saying something:

In the other three quarters, Stafford mostly took what the Cardinals defense was giving him and was accurate and on point all game.

Obviously the ding from an A to an A- is for the early pick-six. Whether it was his fault or Golden Tate’s, that’s just not a play that can happen. That put Detroit in a hole they weren’t able to pull themselves out of until the final quarter.

Running backs: D+

The only real highlight out of this group of three backs was Theo Riddick’s gorgeous catch-and-juke touchdown.

Lions running backs combined for 51 rushing yards on 22 carries. While the Lions faced a tough defense and some of the blame falls on the offensive line, Ameer Abdullah just did not look like we had hoped. He failed to break many, if any, tackles. His speed was there, but just not all that useful on Sunday. And he was surprisingly ineffective in the passing game, as well (3 catches, 11 yards).

It was a tough challenge for the Lions running backs, but they did not rise to the occasion.

Tight ends: C

The Lions’ tight ends didn’t make much of an impact positively or negatively. Clearly the blocking of Darren Fells didn’t add much spark to the running game, but I didn’t see any egregious errors made by him, either.

As for Eric Ebron, it was a quiet debut for the former first-round pick. This was Ebron’s first action after sitting out the entire preseason, so a slow start isn’t completely unexpected. And, again, Ebron didn’t make any clear mistakes and even had a pretty clutch third down conversion.

Wide receivers: B

This was a pretty darn good Cardinals secondary and the Lions wide receivers played better than expected. For much of the game, Stafford had to look to his second or third options, indicating some receivers were having issues getting open. That was to be expected.

However, once the ball was in the air, the Lions’ receivers did an excellent job making plays on the ball. Golden Tate caught 10 of 12 targets, Marvin Jones caught both balls thrown his way. And even though Kenny Golladay dropped some early passes, he also did this:

All is forgiven, Rook.

Offensive line: D+

Matthew Stafford was only sacked one time in this game, but if it weren’t for his much improved pocket presence, that number could have been three or four times higher.

Don’t get me wrong, Rick Wagner was great in pass protection and Greg Robinson was all the Lions were hoping of him: adequate. But the rest of the offensive line has some work to do. Graham Glasgow continues to struggle at left guard. Sunday was a step back for Travis Swanson, too. T.J. Lang was okay, but much more is expected from him.

Nowhere were the failings of the offensive line more obvious than in the running game. Very rarely was there a lane for the Lions backs to squeak through against an admittedly good Cardinals front seven.

Defensive line: C+

The defensive line was certainly better than expected, there’s no doubt. Anthony Zettel continues to convince me that his improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 is real. A’Shawn Robinson is still very much a monster in the middle of that front four.

But this squad needs to make more plays. They were surrounding Carson Palmer all day, but couldn’t ever seem to bring him down. While it’s true that pressure can be enough to force quarterbacks into mistakes—and it certainly did with Palmer on Sunday—that won’t pass the test against more elusive, and, frankly, better quarterbacks.

But let’s also not overlook the fact that the Cardinals ran for just 45 yards on 18 carries (2.5 YPC).

Linebackers: B+

Jarrad Davis had an issue here and there in coverage, but otherwise had a very promising debut in which he played every single defensive snap. He led the team with nine tackles, while Tahir Whitehead had a quiet five.

What may have surprised me the most out of this unit was their ability to cover the center of the field. Tight ends used to kill this defense, yet the Cardinals’ tight ends were nowhere to be found on Sunday. Even Paul Worrilow managed to tally a pass breakup in his limited time out there.

Secondary: A

There isn’t a single doubt in my mind that the Lions’ secondary deserves an A here. Detroit’s secondary combined for three interceptions, nine passes defended and 23 tackles.

Darius Slay was his typical lockdown self. Glover Quin may have been the best defensive player on the field. Quandre Diggs had a breakout game and solidified his spot as the Lions’ nickel cornerback. Miles Killebrew had a pick-six. Tavon Wilson looked strong in run support and had a pick of his own.

The only downside to this secondary was at the No. 2 outside corner position. Both Nevin Lawson and DJ Hayden got picked on there, and it’s not clear who the team will go with forward.

Still, the rest of the secondary made more than enough plays to compensate for their struggles.

Special teams: F

Congratulations on your 58-yarder Matt Prater. Decent job returning punts, Jamal Agnew. END OF POSITIVE THINGS.

Special teams were a total disaster on Sunday. On a bad day, you can expect one or two plays to go wrong on special teams. The Lions had at least five.

It all started when punter Kasey Redfern bobbled a snap, panicked and turned the ball over on downs inside the Lions’ own red zone. The play, and subsequent injury, started a chain of events that decimated the Lions’ special teams for the rest of the game.

Jake Rudock was forced into snap-holding duties and immediately bobbled an extra point snap, taking another point off the board. Matt Prater took over punting duties and looked extremely rusty.

Then there’s Dwayne Washington. Not only did he panic and take a kickoff out of the endzone after it had bounced past him, but he also committed a boneheaded penalty that erased an 11-yard punt return, pinning the Lions back inside their own 14-yard line. Guess what happened four plays later? Yep, the Kasey Redfern play.

Oh, and I just remembered the “leaping” penalty on Anthony Zettel on Arizona’s field goal try. It didn’t end up costing the Lions any points, but it very easily could have.

Coaching: C+

When the Lions come out of the tunnel and commit so many mental mistakes, it’s hard not to immediately turn to the head coach and do some serious finger wagging. Some of the choices made by Lions players in the first quarter were absolutely unacceptable. And whether that’s a problem on the individual or coaching level, it all falls on Caldwell’s shoulders.

There were also a few game-management decisions I didn’t agree with. Near the end of the first half, the Lions were punting to the Cardinals just as the two-minute warning was approaching. For whatever reason, the Lions didn’t run the clock down to the warning, instead, punting just before and giving the Cardinals a few extra seconds for their two-minute drill. In the grand scheme of things, this was a very small error, but it was also an extremely obvious one.

I also didn’t really approve of going for two that early in the fourth quarter. I won’t bore you with the math, but when there are that many potential scores left in the game, I think the safe one point is the smart play there.

Now to the good stuff. The Lions came out of halftime with some clear adjustments made, specifically on the offensive side of the ball. They started to open up their passing game a little more and was rewarded by three straight touchdown drives spanning from the end of the third quarter to the final five minutes of the game.

Defensively, the game play was to make Carson Palmer beat the Lions’ secondary, and clearly he could not. Big props to Teryl Austin, who had been starting to lose street cred from the Lions faithful.

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