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Detroit Lions Week 7 grades, report card: Defense shows signs of life vs. Cowboys

While it was a turnover party on the offensive side of the ball, the Detroit Lions defense made some real strides vs. the Cowboys.

Detroit Lions v Dallas Cowboys Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions finally got an acceptable defensive performance on Sunday, and the team squandered it. We’ve already beaten the topic to death, but it bears repeating that a team is not going to win many five-turnover games, even if two of those turnovers come well after the game has been decided.

Jared Goff will be the topic of the discussion this week, as he was the source of four of those turnovers, but there are some legitimate positives to take from the other side of the ball that are worth exploring.

The good thing about our weekly report card is that we talk about it all. So let’s hand out some grades for the Detroit Lions’ 24-6 loss to the Dallas Cowboys.

Quarterback: D-

In the first half, Jared Goff was playing well. Nothing spectacular, but he was taking what the defense was giving him and pretty steadily moving the team downfield—although the team stalled every time it got into Dallas territory. In the first two quarters, Goff was 10-of-12 for 85 yards (7.1 Y/A).

But the second half was an unmitigated disaster for Goff. Perhaps most disappointing about Goff’s two second-half interceptions is that neither came under pressure—and the first came on a very favorable second-and-2 play. Put that ball where only the receiver can get it and live to fight another very favorable third-and-2.

Then came the fumbles—an all-too-familiar issue with Goff. The Lions quarterback has an uncanny ability to make a situation he’s pressured in much, much worse by his lack of effective mobility and inability to secure the ball.

Early in the season, it appeared Goff had made strides in navigating the pocket. That feels like a distant memory when you see potential splash plays like this go to waste:

Running backs: D+

For the majority of the game, Jamaal Williams was his typical effective self, and Craig Reynolds had a couple of nice runs where he broke several tackles.

But when you fumble on the goal line when your team was about to take a fourth-quarter lead, you get demerited hard. That was the turning point in the game and had Williams held onto the ball, it’s very possible I’m recapping the Lions’ second win of the season.

Tight ends: B

Brock Wright and T.J. Hockenson combined for eight catches (on nine targets) and 105 yards, which is a pretty nice output for National Tight Ends Day. Detroit needed that kind of efficiency from the group with Detroit down several weapons elsewhere.

However, it wasn’t the greatest blocking day for this unit, particularly in pass protection.

Wide receivers: D+

It was clear this group of receivers were missing DJ Chark and Amon-Ra St. Brown. As Tony Romo highlighted a few times during the broadcast, Goff’s day was made tough with this set of receivers failing to get open. Kalif Raymond was the most successful of the bunch, hauling in five catches for 75 yards (and a huge block on a Jamaal Williams run), but the rest of the unit combined for four catches and 26 yards.

Offensive line: C-

The Lions gave up five quarterback hits—all of them turning into sacks due to Goff’s lack of mobility—but a few of those were on other aspects of pass protection (RBs, TES). For the most part, I thought pass protection held up pretty well until everything fell apart in the fourth quarter.

It took a while to get the running game going, with Detroit tallying just 18 yards rushing on seven attempts in the first quarter. However, the Lions front started imposing their will and Detroit rushed for 99 yards on 18 carries (5.5 YPC) the rest of the way.

That said, the Lions need Matt Nelson back, because Dan Skipper as the sixth offensive lineman is not working. He gave up a couple pressures, and was also culpable in Williams’ critical fumble:

They could also use Halapoulivaati Vaitai back because Evan Brown is struggling at right guard.

Defensive line: B+

What a difference one player can make. Rookie defensive lineman Josh Paschal made his NFL debut on Sunday, and made an immediate impact, logging a run stop and being the catalyst for a third-down stop—all on the first defensive drive of the game.

Perhaps even more important, though, was Paschal’s ability to assume the big defensive end position, allowing Aidan Hutchinson to roam more, and—what do you know—when the Lions coaching staff gets the opportunity to put Hutchinson in more favorable positions, he plays better! Hutchinson was credited with 1.5 sacks on the day and had three quarterback hits. In fact, the entire team was credited with six quarterback hits on the day, a clear step in the right direction.

Linebackers: C

The Lions linebacking corps did what they’ve done pretty much all season: been a pretty nice asset in the run game, but have struggled in coverage. Anzalone led the group with seven tackles and a half-sack, but it was otherwise a forgettable day for the linebacking corps.

Defensive backs: B

Jeff Okudah was an absolute defensive weapon in this game, specifically in the run game. The Lions got creative with his usage—often playing more as a linebacker or box safety (PFF lists 18 of his 57 snaps as a “box linebacker”—and his gap integrity was as outstanding as his tackling. He finished the day with 15 tackles, one tackle for loss, and numerous run stops.

Coverage was a little more hit-and-miss for the Lions secondary, as Dak Prescott completed 76 percent of his passes for 8.3 yards per attempt. Still, the Lions were able to keep most of that in front of them, as Prescott only completed one pass that went beyond 15 yards of the line of scrimmage.

Kerby Joseph, too, deserves a shoutout. Not only did his huge hit force a turnover in the red zone, but he also tallied a pass breakup that likely should have been an interception.

Special teams: C

Michael Badgley kicked the Lions’ second 50+ yard field goal in the Dan Campbell era, which provided Lions fans with a huge sigh of relief. However, the Lions gave up a 52-yard punt return in the fourth quarter that could have put the game away had the defense not forced yet another three-and-out.

There weren’t many other data points on special teams, as neither team had a kickoff return.

Coaching: B

Credit the coaching staff for developing a defensive game plan that utilized their players in the best possible way. They got their players with the most raw talent—Hutchinson and Okudah—in new positions, and both players thrived.

And even though the shine is starting to wear off on offensive coordinator Ben Johnson, it’s also hard to blame him much for this offensive performance. The Lions actually moved the ball fairly effectively. They averaged more yards per pass attempt (8.8) than the Cowboys (8.3). They averaged more yards per carry (4.7) than the Cowboys (4.3). They punted fewer times (3) than the Cowboys (5). Hard to blame the coaches when the team is turning the ball over time after time.

As for game management issues, there are really only two points of contention. One was Detroit failing to challenge the spot on Brock Wright’s near-touchdown. Interestingly, Dan Campbell said he really wanted to challenge that play but never got the go-ahead from the booth. As I pointed out in this post, the Lions were not going to win that challenge, though the ball may have been moved closer to the goal line. So credit to the booth for not giving the green light there.

The other gripe was Campbell packing it in at the end of the first half. Detroit was holding a 6-3 lead, had all three timeouts, and had pulled themselves out of the shadow of their own end zone with a couple of nice run plays. Detroit is essentially at their own 16-yard line with 1:12 left and three timeouts—more than enough time to get into field goal range for modern NFL offenses. Instead, Campbell dialed up two more runs and ran out the clock.

Normally, I’d be upset about wasting a valuable possession here, but not in this case. Context matters and the context here is that this is a very dangerous defense to be in obvious passing downs against. They can disrupt your quarterback and make him turn the ball over. If you need a reminder of that, watch the fourth quarter again. Meanwhile, the Lions were short their best offensive weapons. They were also getting the ball at the start of the second half.

I’m still not in love with the move to waste a possession like that, but I can certainly understand it enough to not be too bothered by it.

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