The Detroit Lions offense is predictable and inefficient when they are faced with “gotta have it” plays.
And despite making changes at the bye, most notably coach Dan Campbell taking over play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, the offense has been one dimensional the last two weeks, and opposing defenses know it.
In Week 10 against the Pittsburgh Steelers, quarterback Jared Goff threw for a total of 79 yards in regulation (though he did bump his total to 114 passing yards with overtime). The Lions followed up that performance up with a 77 passing yards output by quarterback Tim Boyle in Week 11 against the Cleveland Browns.
With the Steelers and Browns having two of the better pass-rushing defenses in the league, Campbell noted that limiting the passing game was by design, as he didn’t want to put and injured Goff or inexperienced Boyle—making his first NFL start—in too tough a position.
“That was to try and not put him (Boyle) under duress,” Campbell said after the Browns game. “That’s a pretty good rush team. (Browns DE Myles Garrett) 95 and (Browns DE Jadeveon Clowney) 90 on the edge and those guys in the middle. Now, I thought our protection was pretty dang good when we did throw it. I thought (Taylor) Decker and (Penei) Sewell and those guys up front did a pretty good job.”
In all, they did do very well against the Browns slowing down the pass rush, not allowing the No. 1 sack producing defense to register a single sack on the day. Heck, they only allowed six total pressures: Decker allowed just four pressures to the NFL sack leader Garrett. Hal Vaiti and Jonah Jackson each allowed a single pressure from Browns’ defensive lineman Malik McDowell, and Sewell blanked former No. 1 overall pick Jadeveon Clowney.
The goal of limiting stress on Boyle worked—but at what cost?
“Look, I get it,” Campbell explained. “I’m sure there are a lot of people that question it and think that I was too conservative. Maybe I ought to throw it a lot more, but I’m just not ready to do that with where we were at here. [...] I just felt like the right thing to do was try to run it a little bit and try to take a little stress off of Tim (Boyle) and get him going. I mean look, it’s no secret that we need to be better in the pass game.”
It’s not just the passing game where the Lions need to improve, it’s overall efficiency, especially on third and fourth downs.
This past Sunday, the Lions had 11 third-down attempts. They ran the ball in five of those situations, only successfully converting once, on a D’Andre Swift 57-yard touchdown. The other six opportunities were passes, and while half of them were completed, two of those receptions came with less than 39 seconds in the half when the Browns were more than willing to cede yards and let the clock run out—which it did. The other completion went for a one-yard loss.
So, when you sit back and look at the “gotta have it plays” the Lions needed to sustain drives and give them a chance to compete, they realistically only successfully converted once.
“Third down hurt us,” Campbell continued. “Third down and then ultimately we had a couple of penalties that crushed us. They really hurt us.”
The Lions didn’t do themselves any favors on early downs either, as eight of those 11 third-down situations were seven yards or longer.
“Those third and longs weren’t going to be conducive to us having success today,” Campbell went on. “It was just the nature of the weather and where we’re at. I didn’t want to put Tim in tough situations like that until we had to.”
Here again, the issue of limiting stress on Boyle is driving decisions.
And when the Lions were faced with a third-and-14 late in the fourth quarter, down just three points, Campbell once again made a decision to protect his quarterback and handed the ball off to Swift, a decision that was far too passive and far too predictable.
“We saw that last week against the Steelers,” Garrett said about the Lions' late-game decision. “I feel like they’ll run it from third-and-two or third-and-12. Them rushing on third-and-14 did not surprise us at all.”
And that perfectly sums up the Lions' offense right now.
The running game is finding success, the passing game is falling short, and when the Lions need to have a play, they’re too protective of their quarterbacks to take a chance, and it’s stunting their ability to sustain their success.
“They had some success but I feel like they’ve got to mix it up a bit more,” Garrett said. “Pass and run. I mean, their rushing offense is looking very good.”
If the Lions hope to get a win this season, they’ll need to continue to recognize their limitations, but also not be scared to harness some of that bravado they showed in Los Angeles, and take some chances.