Last year, the Detroit Lions defense was considered one of the worst in the team’s history. They gave up nearly 420 yards of offense and 32.4 points per games. Opposing quarterbacks averaged a passer rating of 112.4. They were awful.
The Lions went into the offseason changed coaches, changed defensive philosophies and overhauled a lot of personnel. But in Sunday’s opener against the San Francisco 49ers, none of that seemed to improve Detroit’s daunting situation on defense. The end result: 442 yards of offense allowed, 41 points, and a passer rating of 136.5—all worse figures than last year’s averages.
Of course, this was just Game 1 of a new era. With a roster full of young player in a new scheme, it would be foolish to have expected an immediate turnaround. But it wouldn’t have been absurd to expect more than that.
Let’s take a look at the Lions’ overall performance against the 49ers.
Jared Goff showed us exactly what we saw in training camp: a quarterback that doesn’t have the confidence to test a defense deep, and is far too willing to check the ball down. For the first half of the game, that meant not capitalizing on early opportunities. The Lions drove into 49ers territory on all four of their first drives, thanks largely to an efficient run game, but Goff couldn’t make many big plays with his arm, and head coach Dan Campbell said as much after the game.
“We need to create some explosive plays in the pass game,” Campbell said after the game. “It doesn’t mean you’re throwing it downfield every play, but we got to find a way to get better at pushing the ball down the field because we can’t live that way and we’re about to face an opponent who’s going to force us to score some points now. So, we got to find a way to get it down field a little bit.”
Goff threw 38 completions on Sunday. Thirty of them were thrown within 7 yards of the line of scrimmage:
Of course, if you look at Goff’s final statline it doesn’t look too bad. He started to push the ball downfield more at the end of the game and it worked. You can argue that it was garbage time or the 49ers were playing more prevent—and you wouldn’t be wrong—but Goff got the Lions back into the game, and he did it with a bunch of subpar receivers.
Still, Goff needs to find his comfort zone, and there’s absolutely no excuse for that pick-six, either.
Running backs: B+
Let’s start with the bad, because there were a couple small mistakes that had big consequences. Jamaal Williams got bit by the turf monster and stumbled in the backfield on a fourth-and-1. D’Andre Swift dropped a pass that would’ve put the Lions in field goal position early in the second half.
But, otherwise, it was a solid game for both backs Williams ran with power and decisiveness, averaging 6.0 yards per carry. Swift was less efficient as a runner, but one of Detroit’s biggest weapons through the air, hauling in 65 yards on eight catches.
In total, Lions running backs were responsible for 96 rushing yards, 121 receiving yards. Together, that’s 217 of Detroit’s 430 total yards.
Tight ends: A
T.J. Hockenson’s 97-yard performance was best among all Week 1 tight ends (Monday Night Football pending). He not only tallied a bunch of yards, but he was efficient with his opportunities, catching eight of 10 targets. Seven of those eight catches earned first downs (or touchdowns), and he added a two-point conversion, as well.
Darren Fells had a quieter day as a receiver, but helped out noticeably in pass protection, as expected.
Wide receivers: C-
Collectively, the Lions’ wide receivers caught 13 passes on 24 attempts for 118 yards. That’s not a very efficient day, although some of that can be blamed on Goff’s early inaccuracies.
Now was Goff’s hesitancy to throw deep a result of receivers not getting open, or Goff’s lack of confidence? The answer probably lies somewhere in the middle, but you’d sure like to see this receiving corps do a little more in future games.
Offensive line B+
Penei Sewell’s debut at left tackle went just about as well as you could expect for a rookie who was forced to switch positions a few days before the game. But it wasn’t just him. In total, the Lions’ pass protection was far better than expected against a very tough 49ers defensive front.
On Goff’s 60 (!!) dropbacks, the Lions allowed three sacks and nine quarterback hits. That’s not an A+ performance by any means, but given the circumstances, you have to give the offensive line credit. That said, Matt Nelson is a bit of a problem right now.
Detroit’s front five gets high marks mostly, though, because of the running game. The interior of the Lions’ offensive line was as advertised, as Detroit opened up some huge holes for their running backs. Plus, Jonah Jackson got a shoutout from D’Andre Swift after a screen play went for 43 yards and a touchdown.
“I really didn’t have to do much,” Swift said. “Jonah did a good job of making a kickout block on the linebacker. I really didn’t have to do much, just get out vertical and make a man miss thanks to Jonah.”
Defensive line (including edge defenders): C
I’m going to include the outside linebackers for simplicity’s sake here.
While the Lions didn’t get to Jimmy Garoppolo much in this game and they didn’t do a great job stopping the run, I’m not going to put much of that on the defensive front. Most of the 49ers’ rushing yards were made on the edges, as the interior of Detroit’s defensive line remained stout. If you need further proof that the Lions’ interior defenders did their job in the run game, look no further than PFF’s recap of the game:
Detroit’s play against the run was downright dominant, limiting San Francisco to an EPA of -.241 on running plays while holding the 49ers to an average of just 1.3 yards before contact. Rookie Alim Mcneil was the highest graded run defender in the unit, totaling four tackles with an average depth of tackle of 3.25 yards en route to a 65.3 run defense grade.
Even the Lions outside linebackers seemed to set the edge fairly well on most plays. And while the pass rush was mostly quiet in this game, Detroit rarely found themselves in opportunities to pin their ears back, as they forced just two third downs in the entire first half.
Off-ball linebackers: D-
Jamie Collins and Alex Anzalone didn’t make any noticeably big plays in the run game, and they were undeniably a liability in coverage. It’s a disappointing development after the Lions moved on from two players (Jarrad Davis, Jahlani Tavai) that were struggling with the same mistakes. It got to a point where rookie Derrick Barnes was in the game on the final defensive drive of the game, when the Lions absolutely needed a three-and-out (and got it, partially thanks to Barnes’ two tackles)
Without a doubt, this was the most disappointing unit of the day. Their struggles weren’t a complete surprise given the youth of Detroit’s defensive backs and the problems they had last year. However, there was hope Aaron Glenn and Aubrey Pleasant would turn this group around.
Of course, that won’t happen overnight, but there wasn’t much of anything promising to take from Sunday’s performance. Garoppolo was throwing to wide open receivers all game, and the 49ers quarterback finished with 12.6 yards per attempt—the third highest of his career. His first incomplete pass came with 39 seconds left in the first half.
Jeff Okudah gave up another big play, Will Harris was having some serious tackling issues, and Amani Oruwariye was picked on more than any other Lions defensive player. If there’s a sliver lining here, I’m not seeing it, especially with Okudah potentially dealing with a serious injury.
Special teams: C-
Jack Fox, you’re fine. You’re beautiful.
The Lions’ kick and punt coverage teams were good enough.
But Godwin Igwebuike looked pretty awful as the team’s kick returner, and new kicker Austin Seibert missed 51-yard field goal.
There was nothing egregiously back from this group, but there was slightly more bad than good.
First of all, love the in-game aggressiveness from Dan Campbell. The Lions went for it five times on fourth down, which is obviously going to happen when you fall behind 28 points. But two of those fourth down attempts came in the first quarter, and one of those two led to a touchdown.
Additionally, I thought it was a very strong game from offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn, who had some very creative looks early in the first half. Detroit had the 49ers defense on its heels for most of the first half, even if they didn’t end up converting on their opportunities.
Okay, let’s talk about the Aubrey Pleasant moment. FOX cameras caught the Lions defensive backs coach chewing out Okudah in a very intense way.
Do not piss off Aubrey Pleasant. Not sure what Okudah did, but man, yikes. pic.twitter.com/TAwuoY7ZoJ— Scott Warheit (@swarheit) September 12, 2021
On the surface, it’s not a great look. At the end, it even looks like Tracy Walker tries to get Pleasant to calm down. But put into proper context: these players adore this guy. That outburst undoubtedly came from a place of love, because he expects a lot out of Okudah and expects him to be better. If there’s any doubt about his true care for the guy, it was revealed later when Pleasant embraced Okudah after his big mistake.
So y’all not gonna show this part?— Will Blackmon (@WillBlackmon) September 13, 2021
Pleasant may have gone overboard—and I think he’d probably admit it, too—but I don’t think there will be any ill will in that locker room.