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Detroit Lions midseason report card: Positional grades after an 0-8 start

A closer look at the Lions’ performance over the first eight games.

Cincinnati Bengals v Detroit Lions Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions are 0-8 at the midway point in the season, and it’s mostly well deserved. Sure, they probably should have at least one win if the Football Gods hadn’t determined that this franchise needed one more piece of historically bad luck, but it’s hard to make an argument that the Lions are currently better than really any other team in the NFL.

But before we kick things into Week 10 gear and prepare for the Pittsburgh Steelers, let’s take one last look at the first eight games of the season and which parts of this team are working and which positional groups just aren’t.

Here is my midseason Detroit Lions report card.

Quarterback: D-

Here’s a look at where Jared Goff ranks among NFL quarterbacks in several critical statistics.

  • Yards per attempt: 6.5 (30th)
  • Passer rating: 85.3 (26th)
  • QBR: 38.9 (31st)
  • Intended air yards per pass attempt: 6.1 (32nd)
  • TD percentage: 2.6 (28th)
  • INT percentage: 1.9 (11th)

Goff is far from the team’s only problem on offense. He’s had to deal with a patchwork offensive line and a receiving corps full of truly zero starting wideouts. In some of these disaster games—like against the Eagles—he’s far from the biggest problem.

But it’s also important to point out that he’s been a problem in some of the closer games this season. He threw a critical interception against the Rams with the game on the line. He fumbled twice in the second half in Green Bay after holding a lead at halftime. He’s been particularly awful on fourth down:

Poor reads, inaccuracy and sometimes just a brain fart that results in throwing the ball away on fourth down. It’s been rough.

Running backs: B

Jamaal Williams has been fantastic this year, giving the Lions a true between-the-tackles runner. He runs decisively, and his physical nature typically picks up more yards than expected on any given play. He’s currently averaging 4.4 yards per carry—a career high for him—and his 75.3 PFF grade actually ranks him 13th among all NFL running backs.

D’Andre Swift has struggled as a runner (3.2 YPC), but he’s still Detroit’s biggest offensive weapon due to his skills as a receiver. Swift is second in the team with 47 catches and 415 yards. His 434 yards after the catch are 262 more yards than any other player on the team, and his 74.9 PFF receiving grade is 10th among running backs.

This unit is still missing its ability to make big plays in the running game—Detroit’s longest run from a back is just 20 yards—but overall, you have to be pretty happy with this running back duo.

Tight ends: B

One of my biggest questions heading into the season was whether T.J. Hockenson could continue his upward trajectory with a lot more attention from opposing defenses this year. The answer to that is still inconclusive, as Hockenson has been shut down in some games, and still dominant in others.

He’s undoubtedly one of the most important parts of this offense, as he leads the team in catches (48), yards (448) and first downs (25), and he’s shown improvement as a pass blocker this year, as well. There are still struggles in run blocking, but for the most part, Hockenson has shown good hands, an improved ability to get yards after the catch, and is one of Goff’s few trusted players.

The rest of the depth chart is a work in progress, as Darren Fells—now on the waiver wire—played adequately, but was nothing special. Rookie Brock Wright has showed improvement from training camp in his two game appearances.

Wide receivers: F

There’s no way to get around this one. The Lions wide receiver have not been getting open. They haven’t been blocking well on the edges. They aren’t making any huge plays.

It’s a ragtag group of players that came in with low expectations, and they’re unfortunately not even reaching those expectations.

Don’t get me wrong. There has been some positives. Kalif Raymond has played above expectations despite being forced into the team’s No. 1 receiver role when he’s better served as a slot receiver. Amon-Ra St. Brown has shown some flashes, but hasn’t been consistent enough to pop off. Quintez Cephus may have been on his way to an improved season before breaking his collarbone.

Everything else, though, is a disaster. The trade for Trinity Benson has resulted in six catches for 55 yards. Desperate to find some talent, the Lions have shuffled between KhaDarel Hodge (six catches, 51 yards) and Geronimo Allison (zero catches).

Offensive line: C+

Despite losing its two best pieces early in the season, the Lions have managed to keep the offensive line playing at a somewhat productive level. Evan Brown has performed admirably (70.8 PFF grade) at center, Jonah Jackson is showing the Year 2 jump you’re hoping to see out of a young player, and Penei Sewell, despite some inconsistencies, is starting to show why he’s special.

It’s not perfect, though. Matt Nelson has been downright bad at right tackle, and Detroit’s pass protection has gotten worse as the season has gone on. The Lions currently rank 25th in PFF’s pass protection ranking, but they are 15th in run blocking.

Defensive line: D

Chalk this up as another declining unit. The Lions started the year promising, ranking in the top 10 in pressure rate and doing a fairly good job against the run—especially against teams like the Packers, Ravens and Vikings.

But they were physically dominated by the Bengals and Eagles and their pressure stats are basically non-existent over the past month. For the season, they’re getting pressure on just 22.7 percent of plays, ranking them 24th, and they have just 27 quarterback hits—the fewest in the league by six.

Obviously, the loss of Romeo Okwara hurt, and the knee injury to Trey Flowers has clearly been affecting his game. However, you’d like to see better performances from their veterans in the middle. Michael Brockers has just a 41.6 PFF grade, while Nick Williams’ grade is just 54.2.

Linebackers: D+

Alex Anzalone has been a wild ride this year. Sometimes he’s looked like the worst player on the field, sometimes he looks like the only one trying out there. There’s been far more bad than good, but there’s something to be said about his relentless motor and infectious passion for the game.

After the Lions decided to move on from Jamie Collins Sr. a few weeks into the season, the linebacking corps did manage to look at little better with Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Derrick Barnes replacing the veteran. Both have had their fair share of struggles at times, but with both players’ inexperience, those inconsistencies should be expected.

Truth be told, the Lions have shown some small improvement in coverage from their linebacking corps this year, and the entire unit seems to be trending up. But there’s still a long ways to go.

Secondary: C-

This is a tough one to grade, because on one hand, the Lions are 32nd in passer rating allowed (112.7), 32nd in yards per attempt allowed (9.3), 28th in passes defended (24) and rank 28th in pass defense DVOA. On the other hand, they’re trotting out two undrafted rookies who are actually playing pretty damn well in Jerry Jacobs and AJ Parker, and they’ve got Tracy Walker playing as one of the best safeties in the league.

To put plainly, the Lions’ extremely young secondary is starting to come together, but they’ve also made some critical mistakes in critical moments. They’re playing way above expectations, though, and if they continue on that upward trend, the experience alone will make this unit better.

Special teams: A-

Checking in on Jack Fox: fourth in punting average (50.4) and second in net average (45.1). Yep, still awesome.

But a lot of credit goes to special teams coordinator Dave Fipp, who has kept Detroit’s special teams units—especially their coverage teams—among the NFL’s best. Their return units haven’t been anything special, but that has become such a minor part of the game, it’s not really noticeable.

Of course, we can’t talk special teams without the incredible game against the Rams, in which the lions pulled off three tricks: two successful fake punts and a surprise onside kick recovery. Detroit also recovered an onside kick in Week 1 against the 49ers. Last year, the NFL saw three total successful onside kick recoveries for the entire season. The Lions already have two in 2021.

Despite losing Matt Prater, kicking hasn’t been an issue this year. Detroit is 11-of-13 of field goals and perfect in nine extra point attempts.

Coaching: B-

Last week’s game against the Eagles left a sour taste in everyone’s mouth, because the Lions staff was outcoached in every possible way.

However, that has been the outlier this season. Detroit has been in most of their games , and they’ve nearly stolen two contests against the best teams in the NFL (Rams, Ravens). It’s clear this coaching staff is willing to do whatever they can to put their players in the best position to succeed each week. And we’ve seen plenty of improvement from Detroit’s young, inexperienced roster from week to week.

That being said, it feels like Dan Campbell can be a little too over-reactionary in the moment. Detroit has been aggressive—which I’m in favor of—but at times, it appears they’re too hurried and manic. Other times, they’ve gone into a conservative shell that very well could have cost them wins against the Vikings and Ravens.

And while we’ve seen improvement and hope on the defensive side of the ball, we’ve seen none of that on offense. Offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn isn’t dealing with the greatest set of skill players, but there’s enough there to produce better than 16.8 points per game.

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