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Detroit Lions report card: Improvement easy to see everywhere

Despite the loss, the Detroit Lions proved they are playing decent football again.

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NFL: DEC 26 Lions at Falcons Photo by Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I’ll be honest, even I’m caught off guard with how okay this loss felt for the Detroit Lions. I’m not much of a believer in moral victories, and I’m certainly not of the belief that a team should prioritize losing down the stretch of a playoff-less season to maximize draft pick value.

But there was something about the Lions’ 20-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons that felt perfectly acceptable, even somewhat promising. And that’s with the concession that the Falcons are not a very good team. The Lions just looked... competent. Sure, there were penalties, and yes, a horrible interception when the game was in their hands was frustrating. But the overall gameplay was actually quite good. Players were making plays.

Even head coach Dan Campbell, who looked as pissed as ever that they lost, admitted the progress he continues to see on the field is promising.

“We’re playing better football right now than we did when we started and that’s what you’re looking for,” Campbell said. “And ultimately the guys who will be here next year, they’re going to learn from this and this is a bitter taste in their mouth that I hope they never freaking forget.”

With that in mind, here are my oddly optimistic grades for the Lions’ 20-16 loss to the Falcons.

Quarterback: D+

Up until the final throw of the game, Tim Boyle was doing okay. He hadn’t made any amazing throws, but he hadn’t made many mistakes, either. True, he did miss a touchdown opportunity on Detroit’s first drive of the game and a few passes on their first half two-minute drill, but it was otherwise an acceptable game from Boyle. It was a safe game plan, and he was running it quite efficiently.

Unfortunately, none of that erases a devastating interception 9 yards away from winning the game. And for it to happen on first down somehow makes it much worse.

Running backs: B

Jamaal Williams stepped back in and looked like his normal self, running with authority and decisiveness. Combined with Craig Reynolds, Detroit ran for 106 yards on 30 carries. That’s not an incredibly efficient day, but they mostly picked up yards when they needed to, and both Williams and Reynolds did a good job creating some yardage after contact.

Tight ends: C-

The Lions lost both Jason Cabinda and Shane Zylstra in this game, and head coach Dan Campbell sure made it sound like neither will play again this year.

“I would say right now both of them probably don’t look very favorable for next week.”

That left Brock Wright to hold the tight end position on his own for most of Sunday’s game. He was basically a non-factor in the passing game (three catches, 4 yards), and didn’t do anything notable as a blocker. He also had one of the Lions’ six false start penalties. Zylstra had another.

Wide receiver: B+

I don’t know what more I can say about Amon-Ra St. Brown that hasn’t already been said in the past 24 hours. So let’s just watch his ridiculous touchdown again:

Josh Reynolds continues to be an effective big-play threat for the Lions' offense. Despite clearly not having the chemistry with Boyle that he has with Jared Goff, Reynolds pulled in 36 receiving yards.

Additionally, KhaDarel Hodge had one of the most important plays of the game, pulling off a nice move on the Lions’ fake punt that gave Jack Fox an easy target.

Offensive line: A-

Oddly enough, the offensive line was only responsible for three of the team’s six false starts. Otherwise, it was another extremely solid game up front. Per PFF, the entire Lions offensive line was responsible for just two pressures all game, and again, they successfully created rushing lanes consistently for the Lions tailbacks. Can’t ask for much better of a day from the fellas up front.

Defensive line: B+

Detroit picked up three sacks on the opening drive of the game, and while they didn’t take Matt Ryan down the rest of the game, the pressure persisted for most of the contest. Charles Harris’ day was underwhelming if you just looked at his box score (3 tackles, 1 TFL), but he continued to be a pain in the quarterback’s behind all game:

Meanwhile, the interior of the Lions’ defensive was much better, despite losing Michael Brockers for much of the game. The Falcons managed just 47 rushing yards and 2.6 yards per carry.

Linebackers: C

Jalen Reeves-Maybin was all over the statsheet, leading the team in tackles, deflecting a pass at the line, but no play was more important than his strip sack that gave the Lions a prime opportunity to win the ballgame.

Rookie Derrick Barnes notched his first career sack and Anthony Pittman also had a pass defended. However, this unit struggled in coverage quite a bit, which evened out their overall play.

Secondary: D

Not much good to report from this unit other than a nice third down pass breakup from AJ Parker. Matt Ryan didn’t exactly tear up this defense, but the Lions' secondary failed to make any sort of plays all game. Kyle Pitts proved to be a serious issue, as rookie cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu struggled especially against the first-year tight end.

Special teams: B

Riley Patterson continues his perfect streak, although he wasn’t really tested with a long field goal of 37 yards in this game. Kalif Raymond had a nice 19-yard punt return. However, the coverage units weren’t great in this game.

That being said, the most notable special teams play was Detroit’s fake punt, which kept the Lions’ drive alive and led to their only touchdown of the game.

Coaching: B

In terms of game planning, I thought the Lions did an excellent job minimizing their weaknesses. On offense, they had a nice, simple game plan for Tim Boyle. Long, methodical drives kept the score low, and most of Boyle’s production came within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. They did a great job getting Amon-Ra St. Brown involved in any way possible, and for the most part, play calling was very good on critical downs. Detroit went three-for-four on fourth down and the only non-conversion was the Hail Mary at the end of the first half.

Defensively, Aaron Glenn did an excellent job manufacturing pressure to help out an ailing defensive secondary.

But we’ve got to talk about the decision to kick a field goal on fourth-and-5 down seven points with 2:42 left in the game. Analytically speaking, that decision was either a slight mistake or horrific, depending on which model you like the best:

But let’s put analytics aside for a second. The Lions were in the middle of a 10-minute drive. Earlier, they had passed up field goal attempts TWICE in the drive—a 46-yarder and a 35-yarder. They chose, instead, to go for it on fourth-and-1s, essentially committing to a shot at a touchdown over saving time for another drive.

Obviously, fourth-and-5 is a much different situation. The difference in odds of a converting a fourth-and-5 compared to a fourth-and-1 drop is about 25 percent. But even if you don’t convert, your situation wouldn’t have changed all that much. The Falcons would take over inside their own 10-yard line, you’d have all three timeouts, and you’d still need a touchdown—but for a tie, not a win.

Now, to be fair, Dan Campbell’s strategy “worked.” The Lions got a field goal, they got even better than a defensive stop by forcing a turnover, and his decision ultimately gave Detroit the best opportunity to win. Here’s him explaining the decision:

“I knew I had three timeouts. And I had a feeling that he was going to be conservative, and we were going to be able to stop the run and get the ball back. So I felt very good about getting the ball back knowing that we would have plenty of time to go down and score.”

Maybe Campbell had tendency analytics and knew Arthur Smith would get conservative on offense, despite the fact that Kyle Pitts was killing Detroit in the second half. If so, kudos to Campbell for that.

However, I don’t like taking that chance. Detroit’s defense wasn’t playing well, and all it took was a first down or two for the Falcons to put that game on ice.

Just because Campbell got the right result doesn’t mean it was a logically sound decision. I’ll admit this was not a clear-cut decision for Detroit, and the fact that they had a backup quarterback likely factored into the decision. Still, I would hope Campbell would be more open to going for it there in the future.