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Dan Campbell explains late-game conservative play, decision to call timeout

Campbell showed little regret for his controversial late-game decisions.

Baltimore Ravens vs Detroit Lions Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Detroit Lions head coach Dan Campbell came under some criticism over the weekend with some late-game coaching decisions that could have swayed the game.

The first came at the two-minute warning. With the Lions down 16-14, the offense was in field goal position to take the lead. The Baltimore Ravens had two timeouts and the Lions were first-and-10 at the Ravens’ 14-yard line. A first down from the offense would essentially ice the game, assuming kicker Ryan Santoso made the kick. The other option—the one that Campbell ended up taking—was to run the ball three times, make Baltimore use their two remaining timeouts, and use that final down to milk 40 seconds off the clock.

The Ravens then got the ball back on the 25-yard line with 1:04 left, no timeouts, and down one point. The Lions nearly got the defensive stop they needed, forcing Lamar Jackson into a fourth-and-19 immediately thanks to two sacks. But on a broken play, Jackson found Sammy Watkins wide open for a 36-yard pass, and that was all that was needed before Justin Tucker broke the NFL record with a 66-yard field goal.

Asked on Monday if he regrets getting conservative on offense in that situation, Campbell said no.

“I loved where our defense was at,” Campbell said. “I loved the way they were playing, and I wanted to put it in their hands. I felt like we were going to shut them down.”

To Campbell’s credit, he was almost right. Detroit was one play and the longest field goal in NFL history away from stopping the Ravens, and rendering his decision correct.

If you’re worried that Campbell will always go into a conservative shell in situations like this, he did say this is a game-to-game kind of choice.

“I feel like you have to take each game as it comes.”

There was another problem along the way, though. When the Lions had the Ravens on the ropes in that fourth-and-19 situation, Campbell called a timeout, giving Baltimore—and Jackson—a chance to catch their breath, regroup, and call a better play.

“Coach changed the play,” Jackson said Sunday night. “He went to another play, and that’s what helped us get that field goal drive going. I was happy for that timeout because we needed a little breather. Our linemen needed a little breather.”

Campbell’s explanation for the timeout: they wanted to regroup, too.

“What I was hoping to gain was to get everybody settled and get everybody on the same page,” Campbell said. “And we did. We had everybody on the same page but one person and it hurt us.”

Campbell didn’t go into details as to which player was not on the same page. Safety Will Harris was the closest man to Watkins, but without knowing the play, it’s hard to just immediately blame him. Per Campbell, there were a lot of communication issues between the linebackers and defensive backs on Sunday.

“It’s not the scheme, it’s the communication between our players, between our back end and our linebackers that we have to, man, we’ve got to clean it up,” Campbell said. “That was the errors that showed.”

Of course, on Sunday the Lions were starting a bunch of players who had never played together before and had rarely played in a regular season NFL game. Bobby Price made his first career start at cornerback after transitioning from safety a month ago. Derrick Barnes made his first career start at linebacker. AJ Parker is out there as an undrafted rookie. That played a part in Detroit’s miscommunications, but Campbell won’t use that as an excuse.

“We’ve got a lot of babies out there, and they made some young errors for sure, but they’re not the only ones. So some of our veterans, man, they have to step up and they have to be much more clear, and they have to be loud. That’ll be a major point of emphasis this week is our communication, and we’re not going to allow it to go any other way. If I have to stop practice and I have to see demonstrative hand signals and screaming and everything it takes, we’re going to do it.”