The Detroit Lions come out of the bye finding themselves with a lot of work to do to get back to relevancy. It’s astonishing how quickly the season spiraled out of control. After taking the Philadelphia Eagles to the wire and then picking up an impressive win against the Washington Commanders, it appeared the team was turning the corner. But after blowing a lead against the Minnesota Vikings, it has been all downhill since and the Lions are 1-4 and searching for answers.
Let’s take a look at how we got here by handing out positional grades for each unit through the first five games of the season.
Stats: Goff — 111 of 186 (59.7%) for 1,355 yards (7.3 Y/A), 11 TDs, 4 INTs
Jared Goff is far down the list of Detroit’s problems right now. In fact, for many of the games this year, he’s one of the biggest reasons they were still in it. He kept pace with the Seahawks when getting zero help from his defense. He made it a game against the Eagles. He held off the Commanders’ late surge with a near-perfect second half.
But he’s also hurt the Lions in some serious ways, too. His awful first half against the Eagles was largely the reason for Detroit falling behind 31-14. His two turnovers against the Patriots undeniably changed the trajectory of the game. Even his great game against the Seahawks was marred by a costly pick-six.
Ultimately, he’s playing much better than he was last year, and most teams could win games with his level of play right now. But the Lions need him to be better and more careful with the football.
Running backs: A-
- Jamaal Williams — 77 carries, 332 yards (4.3 YPC), 6 TDs; 5 catches, 30 yards
- D’Andre Swift — 27 carries, 231 yards (8.6 YPC), 1 TD; 8 catches, 77 yards, 1 TD
The Lions running backs have been pretty fantastic this season. Sure, they’ve been helped by big rushing lanes, but both Williams and Swift have done an excellent job turning good runs into great runs. Detroit is the only team with four rushes of 50 or more yards, and they rank 13th in yards after contact per attempt and fourth in open field yards.
That said, backs have struggled in short-yardage situations, and that has really cost the Lions on third and fourth down this year.
Tight ends: D
- T.J. Hockenson: 19 catches, 267 yards, 3 TDs
- Brock Wright: 1 catch, 25 yards
On the surface, Hockenson’s stat line doesn’t look too bad. In fact, he currently ranks seventh among NFL tight ends with 267 receiving yards. However, for four of the Lions’ five games, Hockenson has been a non-factor (11 catches, 88 yards).
It’s not much better in terms of blocking, either. Among Lions players with at least 50 run blocking snaps, Hockenson and Wright are the team’s two lowest-graded run blockers on the team with 43.5 and 49.1 grades, respectively.
Wide receivers: B
- Josh Reynolds: 23 catches, 335 yards, 2 TDs
- Amon-Ra St. Brown: 27 catches, 271 yards, 3 TDs
- DJ Chark: 6 catches, 98 yards, 1 TD
In general, there have been far more drops than expected out of this group, and DJ Chark’s slow start to the season is a significant disappointment given how good he looked in training camp.
That said, the rest of the crew has been pretty darn good. Amon-Ra St. Brown, when healthy, still looks like a weapon no defense has had an answer for, while Josh Reynolds is quietly on pace for a 1,000-yard season. Detroit has even gotten a few big plays for their depth pieces like Tom Kennedy and Kalif Raymond.
Also not to be overlooked, this unit continues to be essential to the Lions’ running game
Offensive line: B
The Lions offensive line has incurred a ridiculous amount of injuries in the first 5 weeks:
- Starting RG Halapoulivaati Vaitai (5 games missed)
- Starting C Frank Ragnow (1 game missed, injury lingering)
- Starting LG Jonah Jackson (3 games missed)
- Backup RG Tommy Kraemer (5 games missed)
- Backup OT Matt Nelson (1 game missed)
- Third-string G Kayode Awosika (1 game missed)
Given all of that, the Lions offensive line deserves a ton of credit for the team’s rushing success. The Lions currently rank sixth in yards before contact per rush and third in Football Outsiders’ adjusted line yards.
That said, pass protection has been a bit of an issue and that was very apparent in Week 5’s loss to the Patriots. In total, the Lions rank 18th in pass block win rate and 28th in team PFF pass blocking rate.
Defensive line: D-
The defensive line certainly wins the “most disappointing unit” award for the team thus far. Despite having a pair of talented edge rushers in Aidan Hutchinson and Charles Harris plus a young, disruptive force in defensive tackle Alim McNeill, it’s hard to praise this defensive front for anything. Detroit is 31st in pass rush win rate, 27th in PFF pass rush grade, and they have produced just seven sacks in five games (32nd).
While Detroit’s defensive line has done an okay job at stuffing the run up the middle, the Lions are getting gashed on the edges and by mobile quarterbacks. It’s hard to feel good about the run defense in any legitimate way when Detroit is allowing 5.5 yards per carry (30th).
Malcolm Rodriguez is playing his butt off, and at times it looks like even Alex Anzalone is playing at a starting level. Both have been pretty darn good at defending the run when the defense gives them a chance to run free.
However, both have also been liabilities in coverage. Together, Anzalone and Rodriguez have allowed 24 of 30 completions for 189 yards and a touchdown, per PFF. Chris Board has been a little better in that role.
That said, it’s certainly been a disappointment that Derrick Barnes has yet to make any meaningful contributions, as it seemed like the team was relying on him to take a Year 2 jump.
Amani Oruwariye ranks 107 out of 107 cornerbacks in PFF grade. Mike Hughes is not much further up at 93rd.
It’s never a good sign when two of the starting three cornerback jobs are still up for grabs at the bye week, but that’s where the Lions currently stand with both Oruwariye and Hughes getting benched in Week 5.
The safety position has been a little better, but the injury to Tracy Walker has been devastating to the unit—and DeShon Elliott was benched last week, too. So for those keeping score, three out of five starters in the secondary have already been benched, while one of the other positions is out for the year with an Achilles injury.
Who would’ve thought that Jeff Okudah was the only steady, good player in the secondary so far?
Special teams: C
Punting game is fine. The return game has had a few splash plays, and the coverage teams have overall been good.
But, for the love of god, can this team find a kicker, please? Lions kickers are 4-of-6 on field goals this year, which doesn’t sound all that bad, but the misses—both against the Vikings via Austin Seibert—proved to be devastating. And when Detroit had to rely on their practice squad kicker, Dominik Eberle, the reserve missed a couple of extra points. Now both are gone, and the Lions have two practice squad kickers who they apparently don’t trust enough to attempt a 50-yard field goal.
The Lions are more talented than they were last year, but they are no longer punching above their weight class like they seemed to last year. Their biggest failure has to be the lack of a pass rush despite a clearly improved defensive front.
But, unfortunately, that’s not where the issues stop. While some are frustrated by Dan Campbell’s over-aggressiveness, his biggest sin of the season remains the one time he dialed it down—opting to try a long field goal against the Vikings when a fourth-and-4 conversion would’ve ended the game or even a punt would’ve forced Minnesota to go the length of the field to tie or win the game.
However, all season I haven’t been giving enough love to offensive coordinator Ben Johnson in this section, and he deserves it. Sure, he has a pretty good set of players at his disposal, but the offense is still producing at levels that not even the most optimistic of Lions fans could’ve dreamed. This team got shut out against the Patriots, and still rank third in points per game through five games.