One of the biggest criticisms that came from the Detroit Lions’ disappointing tie to the Arizona Cardinals was at Detroit’s defensive collapse at the end of the game. Through the first three quarters, Detroit held Arizona to just six points and 100 total yards of offense.
But suddenly, the Lions lost their spark. Rookie quarterback Kyler Murray led the Cardinals to three straight scoring drives to end the game—two touchdowns and field goal—all of which were 55 yards or longer. The defense that had really only been responsible for three points all game suddenly gave up 18 in the final 14 minutes.
The first wave of criticism blamed play calling. The Lions got too conservative, gave Murray too much time and let him pick apart the secondary that had spent the first half knocking every ball in the vicinity of a receiver away.
But Lions head coach Matt Patricia pushed back on that criticism during his Monday afternoon press conference.
“We definitely didn’t back off from a standpoint of playcalls or anything like that,” Patricia said. “Not at all. We know how dangerous (Murray) is. He’s, obviously, a great player. He was a great college player and he finished off the game really well last night.”
Even some analysts started to buck the narrative that the Lions fell back into a prevent defense in the crucial moments of the game. PFF’s Brett Whitefield tweeted this on Monday morning, well after the “prevent” narrative was off and running:
The Lions didn’t play a single snap of prevent defense/coverage in the 4th or OT. They stuck with mostly man until the bitter end. Coverage was pretty tight also. DL was just gassed.— Brett Whitefield (@PFF_Brett) September 9, 2019
So if the Lions didn’t fall back into a conservative game plan, what went wrong? How did the Lions defense go from dominant to defeated in the blink of an eye.
It appears some of it simply has to do with fatigue. The Lions defense played a total of 89 snaps—where the league average is around the mid-60s. Patricia said he liked the overall conditioning of his players, but admitted not everyone was up to speed.
“Conditioning for us is something that we build and we go through,” Patricia said. “There was some good guys out there that were in really good shape and running around and playing fast and all the way through, and some guys that still need to work on some of their conditioning and reps.”
The Lions’ game plan under Patricia has always been the exact opposite of what happened Sunday: draw out plays, limit possessions, keep your offense out there to give your defense some rest. But in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals dictated the tempo, and it clearly caught up with some players.
That is to be expected at the beginning of the year, especially with specific players that didn’t get a lot of reps in training camp and the preseason. Guys like Damon Harrison Sr., Trey Flowers, and Mike Daniels—among others—didn’t get the opportunity to go through all of training camp and could be still getting their conditioning in season form.
“It is a build-up process through the course of September where we’re trying to get guys acclimated to trying to play a full football game,” Patricia said. “We got caught in a situation last night where both sides of the ball played a lot of snaps and that’s probably a lot more than what most teams did at this point this week.”
But Patricia admitted the Cardinals made good adjustments that gave the Lions trouble late, and that, ultimately, falls on the coaches.
“It’s just coaching and execution,” Patricia said. “That’s the bottom line with it as far as that’s concerned. All that’s got to be better in the fourth quarter and we’ve got to go out, and we’ve got to find a way to win.”