Despite some late heroics, the Detroit Lions fell to the Atlanta Falcons, in their second Jared Goff-less game of the season. The battle for draft position heats up, and for those of you hoping for the first overall pick, today was a good outcome.
For those of you hoping for good football, it was a mixed bag from the Lions on Sunday.
What takeaways can be had from the 20-16 loss?
Get Amon-Ra St. Brown the ball any way you can
The emergence of Amon-Ra St. Brown has been one of the best stories of this late-season surge. He has quickly jumped into the role of WR1 for the Lions, and despite the quarterback change, he continued to roll against the Falcons with nine catches for 91 yards and a touchdown. Whereas Josh Reynolds and Tim Boyle struggled with chemistry, St. Brown was far and away the best player on the field. From aggressive route running to YAC yardage, it’s hard not to be impressed with the rookie.
That’s not even including his performance on the ground. While the Lions aren’t using him like Deebo Samuel quite yet, St. Brown is making plays out of the backfield as well. He had a pair of carries for 19 yards, one of which went for a key first down. Whether he’s in motion, in the slot, out wide, or in the backfield, the Lions are dialing up some creative plays involving him and, best of all, they are working.
An up-and-down encore for Tim Boyle
After a brutal debut against the Browns in which he threw for just 77 yards, Boyle looked more comfortable in the Lions' offense versus the Falcons. Still, his flaws were front and center with the game on the line. He finished with 187 passing yards, although it amounted to a mere 5.5 yards per attempt. His inaccuracy cost him some deep completions, but the intermediate routes were successful, with St. Brown shining as his primary target. It wasn’t anything special from the backup, but it was manageable—or so it was until the very end.
His late interception sealed it, and it wasn’t a particularly close pass either. Foyesade Oluokun easily intercepted the ball, the ball came nowhere close to intended target Kalif Raymond. While it was his lone turnover on the day, the big plays were missing from the offense.
With Boyle signed to just a one-year contract, it remains to be seen if he is a long-term option at backup. In recent years, the Lions whiffed on the likes of Matt Cassel and Chase Daniel as free agent backups, and it appears as though Boyle is following suit. With Jared Goff likely to return next season, the Lions will have to decide if they want to invest in a backup with more potential than Boyle.
False starts galore
For all the good the Lions' offensive line has done this year, false starts are a major reoccurring issue. The Lions had six penalties on the day, but every single one was a false start on offense. A new player was penalized every time: Shane Zylstra, Penei Sewell, Jonah Jackson, Taylor Decker, Brock Wright, and finally Tim Boyle himself.
For a team that struggles with long-distance downs, the Lions cannot keep punishing themselves. The run game was largely effective on Sunday, as was the short passing game. However, these penalties push them into distances that require longer passes. The Lions have improved on third-and-long in recent weeks, but a change of quarterback changes the mentality of the offense. Boyle was ineffective downfield, and any success in that regard came from creative play calling.
The Lions have had many substitutions along the offensive line this year due to injury and illness, and perhaps this is a factor impacting the cohesion. Still, false start penalties are critical mistakes that an already bad team cannot afford.
A bad decision bailed out
On fourth-and-5 at the Falcons 8, down 20-13 with 2:41 left in the game, the Lions opted to kick a field goal. The analytics say go for it, but the main problem I have with the decision is the rest of the drive. The Lions went for it on fourth down twice on that same drive and converted both attempts. While those were both short-yardage plays, why would you not go for it again on the same drive? The distance was doable, and the Lions needed a touchdown—a field goal only made it a four-point game.
The Lions got bailed out on a clutch forced fumble by Jalen Reeves-Maybin, but that doesn’t make coach Dan Campbell’s decision better in hindsight. The Falcons had scored on their previous two possessions, and the Lions' defense was struggling to contain Kyle Pitts. If the Falcons drove down the field and scored a touchdown, the game would be over. If the Falcons drove down the field and kicked a field goal, it would have left the Lions with little time to score a touchdown. The Lions got one of the best possible outcomes—a quick turnover—but they still needed a touchdown drive to take the lead, something that proved too difficult for the Boyle-led offense.
Deep in Falcons territory is the right time to take that fourth down risk. If you turn it over, the Falcons get the ball in their own red zone. If you manage to score a touchdown, you have the option to kick the extra point and tie it or go for two for the win. If you convert, the Falcons now have to muster a game-winning drive. If you fail, you are in a similar position as a successful field goal: you still need to get the ball back and drive downfield.
This was certainly a situation where T.J. Hockenson would have made a difference, but I still think it was an incorrect decision to kick. You are hinging on your opponent faltering, which is often a risky gambit. The Lions had timeouts to spare, and the Falcons were struggling to run the ball, but I feel the Lions passed up a prime opportunity to score a game-changing touchdown.