It’s rare that a team looks so drastically different from week-to-week in the NFL. Sure a team can improve over the course of an entire season, or maybe a team just matches up better against an opponent, leading to a better outcome. But Sunday night’s performance out of the Detroit Lions came out of nowhere. Just about everywhere this team struggled—defending the run, running the ball, playing in the third quarter—was not only fixed against the New England Patriots but made the team look completely different.
So it should come as no surprise that their Week 3 report card looks a lot different from the other two.
Matthew Stafford still was far from perfect. His interception was a poorly placed ball to Luke Willson, who had a step on his receiver. Stafford also missed a couple of red zone passes, and overlooked some open receivers.
But overall, it was a pretty great day for the Lions quarterback and easily his best performance of the season, and his stats are indicative of that: 75.0 completion percentage, 7.3 yards per attempt, two touchdowns and a pick (101.9 passer rating).
Running Backs: A-
Kerryon Johnson was phenomenal every single time he touched the ball. I haven’t been this excited to see a Lions running back touch the ball since... well, I won’t even go there. Johnson managed to average 6.3 yards per carry without a long run on the day. His longest rush was 15 yards, which just goes to show you how consistently good he was every time he touched the ball.
The only reason this wasn’t an A+ was because of LeGarrette Blount, who struggled to find the holes that Johnson consistently and patiently found. Blount also fumbled at the end of the game, which could’ve been disastrous had the Patriots recovered.
Tight ends: C
I’ll have to go back to the film to see how big of a role tight ends played in the Lions’ run blocking game, but as receivers, the Lions tight ends were again a non factor. Luke Willson was responsible for just two catches for 10 yards on three targets. Oddly, the one guy that gave Detroit some hope in the receiving game, Michael Roberts, was a healthy scratch on Sunday.
Wide receivers: A
The Lions’ wide variety of talent at receiver was fully on display Sunday night. Golden Tate racked up 69 yards—45 of which was after the catch. Kenny Golladay picked up a quiet, but effective 53 yards on six catches. And the Stafford-to-Marvin Jones Jr. connection was back and open for business. The 33-yard hook-up between Stafford and Jones was one of the best executed plays we’ve seen from this offense all season:
Offensive line: A
Matthew Stafford was sacked just one time on a slow-developing play where Taylor Decker admittedly got beat pretty handily. The Lions running game racked up 159 yards and 4.8 yards per carry—their highest total of rushing yards since that same game in 2013 when they last had a 100-yard rusher.
This was a magnificent performance from the Lions offensive line and one we haven’t seen in quite some time. Yes, the Patriots’ front-seven is not very good, but the Lions hadn’t been able to take advantage of bad defenses over the past five years. This is something very, very different.
Defensive line: D+
For as dominant as the Lions defense was all night, it wasn’t really thanks to a good performance out of the defensive line. Tom Brady had a lot of time in the pocket to find an open receiver, and New England actually ran for 4.7 yards per carry—though 32 of their 89 rushing yards came on those odd draw plays on the final drive of the game.
Still, there weren’t many plays made from this unit, and there should still be concern that a better passing offense would’ve been able to utilize all that time in the pocket better.
No Lions unit has seen more criticism from myself than the Lions linebackers, but credit where credit is due: the Lions’f second level on defense was all over the place on Sunday night. When Tom Brady was looking to check down, the linebackers had good coverage. When running backs were threatening to break into the secondary, the linebackers were much better at wrapping up. And when the defensive line was failing to create pressure, the likes of Christian Jones, Devon Kennard and Eli Harold were all there to make Brady uncomfortable late.
I’d still like a little more consistency from this group, but this was a huge step in the right direction.
It cannot be overstated just how key the Lions secondary was to this victory. Even with all the time in the world, Brady threw for just 133 yards and completed 53.8 percent of his passes.
Tom Brady's 5.12 yards per attempt vs. #Lions was his lowest since Week 17 of 2014.— Pride of Detroit (@PrideOfDetroit) September 24, 2018
I know the Patriots’ receiving corps is bad, but it’s not easy for coverage to hold up for as long as they did, and it’s never easy to take Rob Gronkowski essentially out of the game completely (four catches, 51 yards). This was just a superb performance all around.
Special Teams: D
The Lions opened the game by ceding a 45-yard kick return, and while Jamal Agnew continues to look great as a punt returner, the Lions committed two special teams penalties on punt returns, erasing 42 yards from Agnew’s statline and putting the Lions in rough field position.
While I would’ve loved to see Matt Patricia go for it on fourth-and-inches earlier in the game, it was a toss-up decision and Patricia admitted as much after the game.
“That’s a really tough call,” Patricia said of the scenario. “I know the crowd favorite would have been to go for it, but I think in that point of the game being so early, you need points.”
I’m willing to accept that and not ding him for it. And Patricia gets bonus points for his smart timeout at the end of the half to give his offense one more chance at points before halftime. Of course, the Lions’ clock management on that extra offensive drive left plenty to be desired, but it wasn’t an easy spot for the offense.
Patricia also won his challenge, giving Detroit its first touchdown of the game, and he managed to keep morale high enough for the Lions to come out with serious confidence over a team everyone thought was much better. There’s not a lot to complain about this week.