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Lions-Falcons report card: Linebackers fail, secondary sails

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The Lions weren’t helped by the officials, but they didn’t do themselves any favors, either.

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Atlanta Falcons v Detroit Lions Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

While the big story out of Sunday’s game remains the controversial ending, there was a game that happened in the prior 59 minutes of the contest. The Detroit Lions had some positives to take from the game and many negatives.

Here’s a look at their report card after their 30-26 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Quarterbacks: B+

It wasn’t Matthew Stafford’s best game, but he was once again clearly the best player on this Lions offense.

He shook off some early inaccuracies to put together a pretty solid overall game. He made just enough plays to bring the Lions to the brink of a victory against one of the NFL’s best teams.

Also, can we talk about some of those touch passes? We’ve occasionally criticized Stafford for using his fastball a little too often, but he was on point with his touch passes on Sunday.

Considering he had to deal with no running game and a few crucial drops from his receivers, Stafford did well for himself.

Running backs: C+

The Lions aforementioned running game—or lack thereof—can only partially be blamed on the play of Ameer Abdullah, who turned 14 carries into just 47 yards (3.4 YPC). Abdullah was able to make a few guys miss on Sunday, but failed to deliver any huge plays on the ground.

However, both Abdullah and Theo Riddick were key components in the passing game against the Falcons. The two combined for seven catches and 77 yards.

Tight ends: D-

Eric Ebron had a horrible game. There’s no getting around it. He had two absolutely inexcusable drops in the second half and failed to pull in either of his two targets during the final series of the game.

To his credit, Ebron owned up to the performance after the game.

That won’t be enough to win back fans--and it shouldn’t be—but Ebron knows he needs to be better, and he’s absolutely right.

Darren Fells, however, remains a solid blocker, preventing this unit from turning in an F.

Wide receivers: B-

Lions receivers didn’t have any egregious mistakes in this game, but, again, it seemed like they had trouble getting open in this game. For the entire game, Matthew Stafford was throwing into tight coverage.

To the receivers’ credit, however, they mostly caught what came their way. Specifically, Golden Tate and T.J. Jones combined for 10 catches on 14 attempts. Extra kudos to Jones for holding onto that pass on the final drive, despite a huge hit. He single-handedly gave Detroit a chance at a comeback.

Offensive line: D

Considering last week’s debacle and the amount of injuries the Lions were dealing with, pass protection was actually a little better than expected... but it still wasn’t good. Stafford was only sacked twice on Sunday, and the offensive line absolutely did their job on the final drive of the game (despite a poor holding call by the refs).

However, this team continues to be hampered by a non-existent running game, and that is almost completely because of poor line play. Expectations were low when it was announced Zac Kerin would be the starting left guard. Those expectations were met.

Defensive line: D-

The Lions got two quick sacks against the Falcons, in the first half, then the Lions defensive line was never seen again. They weren’t getting any push, nor clogging any lanes in the running game. Matt Ryan often had times to look to his second or third reads on passing plays. And Ezekiel Ansah was an absolute ghost for the entire game. The Pro Bowl defensive end didn’t record a single tackle nor a single pressure on the quarterback. Ansah has remained on the injury report every day since the beginning of the 2017 season, and it appears he is still not himself.

Linebackers: F-

This was just a horrid performance by the Lions’ shorthanded linebacker crew. With Jarrad Davis sidelined for the game, the Lions were forced to rely upon the likes of Paul Worrilow and Nick Bellore. It did not go well.

The Falcons absolutely gashed this unit in the running game. Not only were the linebackers unable to jump into running lanes, but in the rare case they did get a hand on either Devonta Freeman or Tevin Coleman, they rarely brought the runner down. According to Pro Football Focus, Freeman alone forced six missed tackles on just 21 carries.

Secondary: A

The Lions defensive backs were getting torched in the first quarter of the game, but they were able to settle in nicely after that. Not only did Detroit do a good job preventing Ryan from connecting on any deep shots, but they were able to create game-changing turnovers that could have—and should have—turned the game in the Lions’ favor.

Glover Quin and Darius Slay both had outstanding games and nearly handed the team a win on a silver platter.

But one of the most underrated aspects of this secondary is their ability to tackle. There were some missed tackles here and there, but for the most part, the likes of Miles Killebrew, Quin and Slay were cleaning up the mess left by the linebackers, and preventing 15-20 yard runs from turning into 40+ yard runs.

Special teams: C-

Matt Prater’s four field goals, two from 55 or longer, weren’t enough to save this unit from a below average grade.

For the first time in a long time, the Lions’ coverage units did not look very good against the team’s former kick and punt returner, Andre Roberts. Roberts averaged 27.0 yards per kick return and 19.0 yards per punt return.

The Lions, on the other hand, continue to look for answers in the kick return game. Though they mostly took knees on Sunday, Jamal Agnew had the team’s sole return and took it just 11 yards, pinning Detroit deep in their own zone.

Coaching: D

The Lions didn’t seem to come out with a successful gameplan on either side of the ball. On offense, the Lions remained stubborn with their uninventive running game, despite being extremely shorthanded on the offensive line. The most exotic their play-calling got was a few second-and-10 draw plays, which were mostly ineffective.

Defensively, Detroit admittedly was in a tough spot with key players injured.

But what frustrated me the most was head coach Jim Caldwell’s conservative style rearing its ugly head in the first half. Twice the Lions faced a fourth-and-short on the between the Falcons’ 30 and 40-yard line, and both time Caldwell decided to attempt a long field goal.

Now these weren’t obvious “go for it” scenarios by any stretch of the imagination, and when you have a weapon like Matt Prater, a 55-yard field goal isn’t as improbable of a scoring play as it is for most teams. However, we all knew coming into this game that this would be a shootout, and the Lions would have limited possessions. Detroit needed touchdowns on Sunday and Caldwell instead settled for long field goals instead.

Even if the Lions go for it both times and convert on just one of them, there’s a chance they score a touchdown, which would obviously result in one more point than the two field goals they settled for.

Again, Caldwell’s decisions were debateable, but a little bit of boldness and innovation is required to beat a team like the Falcons, especially when the Lions were getting outplayed. Caldwell and his coaches failed to deliver on that on Sunday.