With just under four minutes remaining in the Detroit Lions' first preseason game of 2021, versus the Buffalo Bills, the offense had the ball trailing 13-12.
The Lions' first play of the drive was a 35-yard completion from David Blough to UDFA rookie Javon McKinley, setting them up at midfield. Blough was sacked on the next play, followed up by an 11-yard run by newly signed Craig Reynolds, and at the two-minute warning, it was third-and-4 for the Lions. On the third down play, Blough hit Tom Kennedy for 29 yards, taking the Lions down to the Bills' 15-yard line.
With one minute, 52-seconds remaining, the Lions had an opportunity to take time off the clock, force the Bills to use their timeouts, and kick a short field goal to gain the lead. And if it was the regular season, that’s probably what would’ve happened. But it’s not. And instead, the Lions ended up running on first down, then throwing a pass to the sidelines where they could be pushed out of bounds, followed by an incomplete pass on third down. They successfully kicked a field goal, leaving 1:38 on the clock and a timeout still in Buffalo’s possession.
In total, the Lions four downs amounted to just 11 seconds taken off the clock and they drew plenty of criticism for their lack of clock management skills. When the Bills drove down the field for the go-ahead field goal, the “clock mismanagement” narrative continued and coach Dan Campbell’s approach at the end of the game was once again brought into question.
When asked about his end of game strategy during Monday’s press conference, Campbell took the opportunity to explain what the Lions were trying to accomplish with their approach.
“To me, that was about getting Blough a couple of throws or see if we could throw a touchdown in the tight red (zone),” Campbell said. “Ordinarily, we would have milked those timeouts out of our opponent—that was my first inclination. Then I was like, ‘Hey man, Blough’s going pretty good here, we're moving the ball a little bit, let’s see if we can find a way to get it in the end zone, or get some throws.’”
It’s important to remember that as a first-year staff, a lot of the play calls during a preseason game are about getting certain looks on film so that they can go back and utilize them as a teaching tool later.
“I’m trying to get a look on these guys,” Campbell continued. “All of us (coaches). The benefit of (that situation) is, that if you don’t get it, then your defense is in a two-minute—which is what happened at the end—and then you get another look at those guys in a high-stress situation.”
The preseason is all about situational work and the Lions' approach gained them the benefit of getting both sides of the ball specific looks that they could learn from, as opposed to trying to win a preseason game.
“It’s tough,” Campbell said, “because you want to win the game, but you also are trying to evaluate these guys under certain circumstances. And so, that’s really what the focus was.”
As a new organization, it makes sense for coaches to try and maximize their player evaluations, but at the same time, the staff also needs to be practicing how they would handle those late-game situations. Campbell explained that those concepts are important for the staff, and they make time to incorporate these concepts into practices to help.
“We do those things in the walkthroughs,” Campbell said, “and we will be amping that stuff up over the next couple of weeks.”
This falls under the “Rome wasn’t built in a day” concept for the Lions. It’d be nice to get both the players’ and coachs’ experience in certain situations but not every situation presents itself like that and organizational priorities will influence decisions. With three more weeks of training camp and two more preseason games left to go, the Lions have plenty more evaluating opportunities ahead of them.