The Detroit Lions played in one of the most wacky, unappealing games you’ll ever see. The final score of 16-16 is a pretty good representation of what that game was, and it’s hard to know exactly how to feel about Detroit’s performance out of the bye. It wasn’t a loss, which is a big step in the right direction. But it wasn’t a win, either, and it certainly didn’t feel like they played well enough to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The main story was the offense, which I will call Schrodinger’s Offense, because it was simultaneously explosive for the first time all season and familiarly horrible.
I’ll explain more in my Week 10 report card.
Hard to give the quarterback a good grade when you’re struggling to find a single positive play from his entire day. I supposed his 30-yard pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown qualifies, but there wasn’t much beyond that.
Goff wasn’t a big part of the game plan on Sunday—well, as little a quarterback could be—and he still managed to make some horrible plays against the Steelers. He missed Kalif Raymond on what should have been an easy 52-yard touchdown pass. He took more frustratingly avoidable sacks. And with the game on the line, Goff still looked too scared to throw the ball downfield.
Obviously, the weather and his oblique injury need to be considered here, but Goff said the injury was not affecting his throws.
“It just kinda nagged me throughout the game,” Goff said. “I felt like I was fine to stay in there. Felt like it didn’t affect me through the game, but it will be a little sore tomorrow, but I’ll be fine.”
If that’s the case, then you’ve only got the weather to blame, and that’s not enough to excuse that performances. But, hey, no turnovers!
Running backs: A
For the first time all season, D’Andre Swift looked like a complete back capable of running through the tackles. Not only was his vision much better, but he created plenty of yards on his own via broken tackles and incredible hurdles like this:
Even better, the Lions got production out of their backups, even with Jamaal Williams out. Jermar Jefferson produced the Lions’ longest run of the season with a 28-yard score only to be outdone by fourth-string running back Godwin Igwebuike, who bursted through the middle with a 42-yard scamper.
The only reason this unit didn’t get an A+ is because some of Swift’s indecisiveness showed up late and I believe was part of the reason Detroit’s running game was so ineffective late (14 rushes, 29 yards in the fourth quarter).
Tight ends: D
The Lions tight ends were used primarily as blockers on Sunday and it was a mixed bag there. T.J. Hockenson was called for two penalties, including a killer holding penalty that erased an opportunity for a 43-yard game winning field goal.
In the passing game, Hockenson was targeted just once, while Brock Wright turned two targets into one catch and 2 yards.
Wide receivers: D
Early in the game, I was going to give this unit an “INC” grade, seeing as they simply weren’t part of the game plan. The Lions were often employing six offensive linemen and two tight ends, meaning there was just one receiver on the field.
However, late in the game the Lions really needed a receiver to make a play or get open. And aside from the aforementioned 30-yard pass to St. Brown, the Lions didn’t get anything. Goff gave this unit at least a couple of opportunities to make a play, and they didn’t.
Let’s hope Josh Reynolds breathes some life into this unit next week.
Offensive line: A-
The return of Taylor Decker and the addition of a sixth offensive lineman did wonders for Detroit’s running game against a really good Steelers defense. Matt Nelson struggled in the starting lineup at right tackle, but as the sixth lineman, he was a revelation. Here’s Dan Campbell after the game:
“To be able to have Nelson going in to play our jumbo tight end, he’s outstanding, man. He’s a good football player,” Campbell said.
Unfortunately, Nelson suffered an injury in the second half, and the Lions had to rely on Will Holden down the stretch. That likely also played a part in why Detroit’s running game was so ineffective late.
Detroit’s pass protection was up and down. On play-action passes, it seemed like the Steelers were never fooled—which is more a scheme problem than it is for the offensive line. However, when they lined up for a normal pass play, the offensive line seemed perfectly fine, which is an accomplishment on its own.
Oh, and that whole STOP MOVING PENEI SEWELL thing? Yeah, that worked out okay:
Defensive line: D-
Against a beat-up Steelers offensive line, it was an extremely disappointing game from the Lions’ defensive front. Mason Rudolph dropped back to pass 50 times, and the Lions applied exactly zero quarterback hits and sacks.
Against the run, they weren’t much better. Steelers running back Najee Harris was consistently making it to the second level. That being said Lions defensive linemen were credited with two tackles for loss (Charles Harris, Nick Williams).
The only thing preventing this from being a straight F was Julian Okwara picking up an interceptions, even though that felt like a gift from Rudolph.
For the most part, I think we got “good” Alex Anzalone this week, who led the team with nine tackles. Najee Harris is a tough back to bring down, and he got his fair share of broken tackles on Sunday, but the second level of the defense did a good job making sure he never broke a long one (longest rush was 12 yards).
Where I thought the linebacking corps really shined was in coverage. Pat Freiermuth was a huge concern in this game, but he only managed five catches for 31 yards in this game. Derrick Barnes also had an impressive tipped pass at the line.
Nothing flashy from this unit on Sunday, but overall solid play.
I’m very torn on the overall secondary grade here. Because like the linebackers, I thought the secondary did a relatively good job against the run on Sunday.
Their coverage, however, is best described by the overtime play from Mark Gilbert. He gave up a huge pass play, but completely redeemed himself by chasing down Diontae Johnson and punching the ball loose.
The Lions secondary was responsible for both overtime turnovers (Will Harris forced a fumble to seal the tie), and they also logged five pass breakups against Rudolph. But had the Steelers quarterback been a bit more accurate on Sunday, he could have exposed the Lions defensive backs. He had open receivers pretty much all day, as the Lions continue to struggle from both mental and physical mistakes.
We should probably give the unit a break considering after Jerry Jacobs’ injury, the Lions were dealing with approximately sixth-string cornerbacks out there.
Special teams: D
Jack Fox was probably his most mortal self on his 10 (!!!) punts, and the Lions special teams units had trouble downing the ball before a touchback on two of them. However, Godwin Igwebuike and Kalif Raymond gave the Lions significant sparks in the return game.
Unfortunately, kicking is the most important special teams unit in today’s NFL, and it was a day to forget for backup kicker Ryan Santoso. He missed an extra point that every Lions fan knew was going to come back and bite them in the ass. But more importantly, when given a shot to hand the Lions their first win of the season, he mishit a 48-yard field goal that never had a chance.
I’m still trying to process everything that happened in this game. This game was always going to be a huge litmus test for the coaching staff. They had two weeks to self-scout and come up with something better than what they were doing through the first half of the season.
On one hand, the heavy sets on offense was a brilliant adjustment and it clearly caught the Steelers off-guard.
“I think we got a lot of looks we didn’t necessarily practice during the week,” Steelers linebacker Joe Schobert said per The Detroit News. “Their big tight end that they brought in, we knew Fells was gone. We didn’t know what they were going to do to replace him. They gave us a lot of looks and it took us probably longer than it should have to be able to start nailing the screws down on that.”
But the big news with Lions coaching was Dan Campbell taking over offensive play calling duties, and I’m still not sure what to think about his performance. You have to take into context the rain and Goff’s injuries, but running as much as they did on third down was simply unacceptable. Campbell promised all week that the offense was going to start trusting their receivers to make plays, and that simply never happened.
There were also some questionable personnel decisions. Godwin Igwebuike had two rushes in the game: a 14-yard run that picked up a first down and a 42-yard touchdown. After that second run—which happened on the very first drive of the second half—Igwebuike never ran the ball again. Instead, the Lions ran Swift into the ground, and Detroit’s premier back gained a whopping 18 yards on 13 rushes in the fourth quarter. It would’ve been bold to go away from the more experienced back, but Igwebuike should have at least been sprinkled in there.
And someone please explain to me why Brock Wright had more targets than T.J. Hockenson?
I didn’t have any issues with in-game clock management or anything like that. In fact, I thought they did a pretty good job at the end of both halves ensuring that the Steelers wouldn’t get an opportunity to score.