The Detroit Lions’ performance against the Denver Broncos was both forgettable and forgivable. With their practice schedule flipped upside down due to COVID and flu spreads throughout the practice facility, Detroit was at a clear disadvantage, both in terms of personnel and preparation.
And although the score was an ugly 38-10 loss, there were some flashes of success on Sunday. Had there not been a few key mistakes at the beginning and middle of the game, this game could have a looked a lot different.
Let’s take a closer look with my positional grades in Detroit’s Week 14 report card.
Jared Goff was hardly the team’s biggest issue on Sunday, but when the team had to rely on him to pull them out of a multi-score deficit, he wasn’t up for the task. The Lions tried several deep shots in this game, and none of Goff’s passes came close to connecting with a receiver.
He was also woefully bad in the red zone, completing just 1-of-6 passes for 7 yards, one touchdown and an interception. I’m not sure there was a play more frustrating than this one:
I know this throw is harder than it looks because the defender at the 1 is in a lot of passing lanes.— Jeremy Reisman (@DetroitOnLion) December 13, 2021
But, man, this has to be a touchdown. pic.twitter.com/dUEv5VvF5J
Running backs: B-
Craig Reynolds continues to be an amazing story, as the practice squad running back is making the most of his limited opportunities. If the Lions are a little closer in this game in the second half, Reynolds likely becomes the next 100-yard rusher for the Lions. Instead, he finished with 83 yards on just 11 carries, while adding another 16 in the receiving games.
Unfortunately, Godwin Igwebuike wasn’t as successful in his biggest opportunity to date. He converted eight rushes into just 25 yards, and his fumble at the beginning of the second half was the turning point in the game. If the Lions score even a field goal on that opening drive, the entire rest of the game may play out differently. Instead, he basically gifted the Broncos a two-score lead, and Detroit is just not prepared to play from behind like that.
Tight ends: D
Without T.J. Hockenson, the Lions relied on rookies Brock Wright and Shane Zylstra as their top two tight ends. They turned 11 targets into just five catches and 38 yards. Wright was also blown up blocking on a running play that resulted in a big loss.
That being said, if we stick Jason Cabinda in this group as well, the run blocking from this unit was actually quite good for most of the day. Both Cabinda and Wright had key blocks on Reynolds’ 35-yard run—the longest the Broncos have allowed all year.
Wide receivers: B
Amon-Ra St. Brown continues to be the Lions’ swiss-army knife. The Lions used him in just about every position on Sunday and it resulted in a respectable 73 yards on eight catches. Josh Reynolds is Detroit’s most consistently-open receiver as he pulled in over 50 receiving yards for his third straight game. And the Lions found out a clever way to use Kalif Raymond’s speed for Detroit’s only touchdown of the day.
Not an explosive day from this unit, but they certainly helped more than they hurt.
Offensive line: A-
While the Broncos don’t exactly have the best of defensive fronts, the Lions took care of business in the trenches on offense. Goff was working from a mostly clean pocket all day, and 118 rushing yards at 5.6 yards per carry speaks for itself—especially on a day in which the Lions couldn’t afford to run the ball much.
That being said, third-string center Ryan McCollum had some understandable struggles for most of the game. Seeing as it was his first career start, I’ll be a bit forgiving here.
Defensive line: F
This unit was hit hardest by injuries and illness, particularly on the edges. Julian Okwara was out, Austin Bryant barely played, and we’re talking about a unit that has already lost Romeo Okwara and Trey Flowers for the rest of the season. The production from who was remaining—Charles Harris, Jessie Lemonier and Rashod Berry—was as underwhelming as expected.
On the interior, the Lions were gashed all day by the Broncos’ running game. Alim McNeill and Levi Onwuzurike didn’t practice all week and it showed. Among all defensive interior players, just one recorded a “stop” by PFF’s measure (a tackle that constitutes a failure for the offense). But, hey, McNeill got the first sack of his career.
After Alex Anzalone went down in the first quarter, it was up to Josh Woods and Derrick Barnes to hold down the middle of the field. It did not go particularly well, despite Woods’ 13 tackles on the day (including two for losses). Gap discipline was a problem for this unit.
“We made too many mistakes,” head coach Dan Campbell said of the team’s run defense. “Guys were in improper gaps, and we weren’t lining up right. It wasn’t clean.”
Barnes also got beat deep by Noah Fant for a 32-yard gain. The rookie linebacker is still learning and developing those coverage skills.
Can’t be too tough on a secondary unit that wasn’t challenged much on Sunday. Teddy Bridgewater threw just 25 passes on Sunday, but the Lions only managed to get their hands on one.
That being said, tackling was pretty rough from this unit, as they were clearly missing Tracy Walker in the running game, and once Jerry Jacobs was out, Nickell Robey-Coleman looked like he had considerable rust.
Still, this unit didn’t negatively impact the game like some of the other defensive units.
Special teams: C-
There were no really significant plays on special teams on Sunday, but Kalif Raymond’s -4 yard punt return certainly didn’t help the Lions with field position.
Dan Campbell was especially aggressive in this game, as the Lions went for it on fourth down five times in this game—three from their own side of the field. Of those, the most controversial was in the third quarter. The Lions were down 14 points, facing a fourth-and-2 from their own 33-yard line. Detroit threw the ball and didn’t convert, giving the Broncos a short field, which they turned into a touchdown and unmanageable 21-point lead. That was certainly on the overly aggressive end of the spectrum, but given how the defense had been playing all day, I understood the feeling to be aggressive in that moment. For what it’s worth, analytics called it a push:
---> DET (10) @ DEN (24) <---— 4th down decision bot (@ben_bot_baldwin) December 12, 2021
DET has 4th & 2 at the DET 33
Recommendation : Toss-up (+0.2 WP)
Actual play: (Shotgun) J.Goff pass incomplete short right to S.Zylstra (D.Jones). pic.twitter.com/p09nM4rEHl
Elsewhere, the Lions did have two annoying runs on third-and-5, but they actually threw the ball downfield on a third-and-22 (and nearly picked up the first down!). I thought Detroit’s offense continued to be a little more aggressive, and we’re starting to see some of the early-season creativity—like the touchdown play to Raymond or St. Brown in the backfield—that had been missing during the middle part of the season.