It may not have been a literal must-win game, but the Detroit Lions absolutely needed that win over the Arizona Cardinals. They didn’t make it easy—and they may have been gifted a handful of mistakes from Arizona—but Detroit did just enough to notch their first win in their past 11 attempts.
While the national narrative will likely surround Kyler Murray and the Cardinals losing this one, the Lions did plenty on their own to earn this win—especially in crunch time. The defense finally saw some playmaking ability, and a few players on offense made game-changing plays. Then, of course, there was the Lions’ most consistently good unit: special teams.
But perhaps the most notable performance on Sunday was that of the coaching staff, who made some key decisions on critical downs.
Here are my Week 3 grades for the Detroit Lions:
This may seem like a harsh grade for Matthew Stafford, who finished the day 22-of-31 for 270 yards, two touchdowns and a passer rating of 119.0. But that doesn’t tell half the story of Stafford’s day.
The truth is Stafford and the offense was awarded three takeaways by the defense, and put up a measly 10 points because of it. The truth is the Lions took six trips into the red zone and came away with four field goals. When you win the turnover battle 3-0, you should not be winning on a last-second field goal. You should be up two touchdowns.
Is that all on Stafford? Of course not. But the Lions quarterback missed a lot of early throws, took more uncharacteristic sacks, and really still seems to be shaking off some serious rust—to the point where you have to question whether this is truly rust.
Still, Stafford looked closest to his old self in the fourth quarter. He went 10-for-13 for 144 yards in the final stanza, and his best pass of the season was a go-ahead touchdown to Marvin Hall that didn’t end up counting. He was on when he absolutely needed to be, but there’s still another gear we’re waiting to see from Stafford.
Running backs: C-
Adrian Peterson looked hot coming out of the gates in Week 3, but he quickly ran out of steam. Never did I think Detroit would use Peterson like a workhorse back at age 35, but his 22 carries were the most from a Lions running back since Week 4 of the 2019 season. In the second half, Peterson looked uncharacteristically bad. He was jumping all around rather than playing like his decisive self, and managed just 9 yards on eight carries.
Kerryon Johnson was mostly on pass protection duties and did an adequate job, but he was also partially responsible for a sack off the edge when both he and T.J. Hockenson whiffed on a guy. I do not blame Johnson for losing a one-on-one with an untouched nose tackle, though.
Tight ends: A-
Welcome to the party, Jesse James.
After receiving exactly zero targets through two games, the Lions unleashed their secret weapon on the Cardinals. James may have only finished with three catches for 28 yards and a score, but they came at critical moments of the game. Most notably: a fourth-and-1 touchdown catch, and a third-and-1 conversion to keep the drive alive.
Meanwhile, T.J. Hockenson continues to quietly lead the team in receiving yards. He’s had at least four catches and 50 yards in all three games this season.
Wide receivers: B
Kenny Golladay is back. And while he certainly looked a little slower out there than usual with his hamstring still not 100 percent, he can still make catches like this:
Man, have I missed seeing that.
Marvin Jones Jr. was also huge on the game-winning drive, first hauling in 20-yard pass to get the Lions to midfield. Then following it up with another 20-yard gain—this time to put away the game for good.
Admittedly, it was a quiet day otherwise, but that appears to be more a reflection of Detroit spreading the ball all around.
Offensive line: D+
The Lions made a curious move before the game, shuffling the offensive line due to the return of Halapoulivaati Vaitai and the poor play of Oday Aboushi last week. Rather than simply plugging Vaitai into the lineup at his right tackle position, they slid him over to right guard, kept Tyrell Crosby at right tackle, and shifted Jonah Jackson to the left side.
As a result, there seemed to be far too many miscommunications between the group, and Vaitai looked anything but comfortable at guard. Just look at the confusion here:
It’s hard to play G in the NFL. It’s REALLY hard when you don’t know what to do... (sound on) pic.twitter.com/ZU5FsNeTnC— SandmanLions (@Sandman7773) September 28, 2020
“What do you want me to do?”
Vaitai gave up a couple sacks, got called for a holding penalty on a game-winning touchdown, and just looked lost out there.
However, the left side of the offensive line continues to look very good. Taylor Decker played a clean game aside from a false start, Jonah Jackson was invisible (a good thing) despite the position move, and Frank Ragnow continues to be a force at center.
Defensive line: B-
Who would’ve thought that it was Romeo Okwara that would bring in some pressure from the Lions defensive front? Okwara got the lone sack of the game and nearly had another one late that would’ve given Detroit a safety.
Elsewhere, I thought Da’Shawn Hand quietly had a solid game, and after a shaky start, the interior of the line did a better job at slowing Arizona’s solid run game. Would like to see more disruption from the team overall, but it was a promising step in the right direction.
Sunday was Jamie Collins Sr.’s breakout party. He looked dominant in all three phases. His pass rush led to one of Kyler Murray’s interceptions. His coverage led to one of the most impressive interceptions I’ve seen from a Lions linebacker in quite some time, and he even laid the boom once or twice as a run defender.
It was a quiet day from the rest of the linebacking crew—Jarrad Davis played in just 15 snaps—but Collins’ big day was enough to elevate the entire position group.
This is a tough one to grade. On one hand, the Lions don’t win this game if Duron Harmon and Jeff Okudah don’t get those interceptions. On the other hand, every other play looked like the same things we got from this secondary in the previous two weeks.
Kyler Murray was picking this secondary apart 10 yards at a time for most of the game, as we continued to see Lions players one, two, sometimes even three steps behind their receiver. It was nice to see Okudah pick up his first career interception, but he still isn’t playing confidently out there. Andy Isabella made Darryl Roberts look silly at times. Amani Oruwariye was likely Detroit’s best corner, but he wasn’t good, either.
That being said, give Duron Harmon credit for a fantastic day. Harmon notched two passes defended, one interception and should have had another. The Lions safeties, overall, did a much better job in this game, as the Cardinals didn’t have a run over 15 yards nor a passing play over 30.
Special teams: A
Jack Fox is a punting god. He’ll get downgraded in the box score because of a touchback, but even that punt was perfect. Due to his impressive power but even more impressive hangtime, the Lions have allowed just 6 yards of punt return for the season—zero in this game.
Matt Prater was perfect. Jamal Agnew had a key, 19-yard punt return, and Detroit challenged the Cardinals to return kickoffs and they couldn’t. The only blemish on the day was a holding penalty on Elijah Lee on a kickoff that backed the Lions up to start a late-game drive.
While the curious personnel decisions on the offensive line continue to confuse me, this was an overall great day from the coaching staff. They cleared up the Tracy Walker situation by never taking him off the field on Sunday. They had this team motivated and ready to play despite the rough start to the season. And most importantly to me, they actually got aggressive when they needed to.
They went for it on fourth-and-1 early in the game—something we don’t see Matt Patricia do often. And as I noted in my “Dagger Time” article, the decision to throw on second down on the final possession of the game—rather than just run the ball twice—was something I’ve been waiting to see for YEARS from this coaching staff. Let’s just hope this is the new normal.