After putting together an impressive three game winning-streak in November, the Detroit Lions came up just short against the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving day, losing in the final seconds, 28-25. Despite being down several starters, the Lions kept things close, but ultimately, the combination of Bills’ star quarterback Josh Allen and All-Pro wide receiver Stefon Diggs proved to be too much in crunch time for a shorthanded Lions’ secondary.
Moral victories aside, there was a lot to like about this performance from the Lions, even if it didn’t result in a win in the standings, like the performance of several of their young players. Let’s take a closer look at how each member of the Lions’ 2022 draft class fared in the Week 12 loss against the Bills.
Aidan Hutchinson, DL
61 snaps (79% of total defensive snaps) — 5 special teams snap (19%)
PFF defensive grade: 59.8
From a statistical standpoint, it certainly wasn’t Hutchinson’s best game of the season. As a defensive end, there are going to be weeks where the opponent does the absolute most to minimize your impact on the game. Other weeks, a tackle may have the favorable matchup. This is life in the NFL, especially as a young player who is still learning the intricacies of the professional game.
With Hutchinson, even in a game where he didn’t record a tackle or a sack, he still made his presence felt in other ways.
Per PFF, Hutchinson was credited with two hurries on the day, including the one below. Working against right tackle Spencer Brown, Hutchinson works his bull, and transitions to a quick long-arm as he gauges how deep Allen is in his drop. Noticing that Allen is beginning to climb the pocket, Hutchinson hits a quick spin move back upfield, forcing Allen to leave the pocket and find a checkdown receiver. I talked last week about Hutchinson beginning to string moves together, and this is a perfect example of that ability paying off. Counter-moves are critical in a league where ends are consistently working against the best pass-protectors in the world.
wasn't his most impactful game on the stat sheet, but he still had his moments. good rush here forces Allen out of the pocket and into a checkdown pic.twitter.com/HPRsPqoJjm— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 30, 2022
I am not sure what happens to the tackle’s footing here, but either way, this is an excellent job by Hutchinson of defeating the block, and squeezing that gap. It takes all 11 players executing at a high level to consistently stop the run. It isn’t all the way there yet, but over the last several weeks, there has been significant progress made since the beginning of the season.
Jameson Williams, WR
DNP: On reserve/NFI while recovering from a knee injury suffered in January 2022. Based on Campbell’s comments on Monday, it sounds like we may have to wait another week for Williams’ Lion debut.
Josh Paschal, DL
DNP: Recovering from knee injury suffered in Lions’ Week 10 win over the Bears
Kerby Joseph, S
77 (100%) — 11 (42%)
PFF defensive grade: 64.6
If you told me at the beginning of the season that we would be getting this level of play from Joseph at any point during his rookie campaign, I would have been thrilled. After all, many scouts were intrigued by Joseph’s potential as a safety, but it doesn’t always happen overnight. Ask Philadelphia Eagles’ Pro-Bowl cornerback Darius Slay—sometimes it can take multiple years for things to click. Yet, in just his eighth game as a starter at safety, Joseph is making some really impressive plays.
Pre-snap, Joseph is deep, half of a two-deep safety look along with DeShon Elliott. Watching Allen’s eyes, he immediately begins pressing down towards the slot where receiver Stefon Diggs has found a soft spot in the coverage. Seeing this, Allen keeps his eyes fixed on Diggs as he evades the rush, escaping towards his left shoulder. Being the kind of quarterback he is, Allen appears to take a look a the routes developing behind Joseph, thinking maybe he can drop one in behind the rookie safety, now that he has crept up towards the line of scrimmage. Joseph is all over that too, taking a few steps back towards the 25-yard line—making it too risky for Allen to do anything else but scramble out of bounds for a short gain.
watch all of the ground Kerby covers here. only 8 weeks in as a starter and he is starting to have some real feel for the position pic.twitter.com/Zhd8xy4MCL— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 30, 2022
And look, it isn’t going to be perfect. There will still be bumps in the road along the way, like some of the issues he and other members of the Lions’ secondary had in their narrow win over the Chicago Bears in Week 10. Progress may not always be perfectly linear, but it is still progress.
Joseph finished with six total tackles against the Bills.
James Mitchell, TE
17 (24%) — 9 (35%)
PFF offensive grade: 66.6
Early on against the Bills, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson went to go with a lot of heavy-personnel looks. Here we have a play from the Lions’ second offensive possession that begins with Mitchell lined up to the outside of right tackle Penei Sewell. Once the ball is snapped, Mitchell pulls and is responsible for helping clear a path for running back Jamaal Williams. It didn’t result in a big play, but the Lions are slowly asking more of Mitchell, and his all-around game as a tight end is beginning to flash.
didn't result in a big play, but the fact that the Lions feel comfortable asking Mitchell to pull as a run blocker is a big positive imo pic.twitter.com/m5VGdeJhHS— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
On his 22-yard catch to get the Lions down into the redzone, Mitchell does several things really well. Initially, he sells the run-action by working down the line toward Sewell’s outside hip. This sells Buffalo linebacker Matt Milano, as he vacates the space by strafing towards the sideline in order to stay with Goff as he rolls out. After selling the run-block, Mitchell makes himself available to Goff, while also taking a peek upfield to see where Milano is. Noticing that Milano has widened out with Goff on the rollout, Mitchell begins getting vertical in his route, allowing himself more room to run after the catch, and presenting an easy throwing angle for Goff. Sometimes it is just about finding some empty grass, and making yourself available as a receiver.
a lot of nuance here with this James Mitchell route pic.twitter.com/zpByqF2ziK— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 30, 2022
Malcolm Rodriguez, LB
38 (49%) — 2 (8%)
PFF defensive grade: 90.5
After starting the season red-hot, Rodriguez had a bit of a rookie-slump in November. Certainly the elbow injury he suffered in the Lions’ win against the Green Bay Packers played a role, but all of that is now in the rearview mirror. Without a doubt, Rodriguez was the best player on the Lions’ defense against the Bills.
Here we have a snap from Buffalo’s second offensive series where Allen is attempting to find running back James Cook in the flat. Before Cook even has a chance at securing the ball, Rodriguez is on top of him, and delivers a big hit in the process.
RODRIGO W THE HIT STICK pic.twitter.com/A16F2n1jut— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
He isn’t in on the tackle on this snap, but is still a big part of this being a solid run-fit for the Lions’ defense. Rodriguez does a good job of working downhill while still stretching this play out laterally, keeping his outside shoulder free so he can still funnel the ball carrier back towards the pursuit. The impressive thing is he does all of this despite having Bills’ center Ryan Bates attached to his hip.
good job of funneling the ball back inside towards the pursuit. not the easiest thing to do as a LB when you have a lineman attached to your hip pic.twitter.com/Vq9ZvJIV7i— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
This was just a really impressive open field tackle on Cook.
more great linebacker play from Malcolm. check out that closing speed and finish pic.twitter.com/JnBEhRCrNk— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
I don’t know what else to really say about this rep from Rodriguez other than to say it was perfect. Zero wasted steps, immediately diagnoses the play, blasts the offensive lineman, and caps it off by getting the runner on the ground for the tackle for loss. Pure linebacker bliss.
if you paid attention to the thanksgiving day game, then you know Malcolm Rodriguez had himself a day.— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
this is picture perfect linebacker play from "the Detroit cowboy" pic.twitter.com/G8FzwvmqVt
Then there was the interception by fellow linebacker Alex Anzalone. And while there are no half-interceptions in football, this would be about as close to one as you can get. Allen is trying to go to Diggs, who had initially beaten cornerback Jerry Jacobs off of the line. Reacting to the play-action, Rodriguez is drawn up towards the line, and at the last second, jumps up and almost comes down with his first career interception.
Malcolm almostttt made this play. either way, great job of getting a hand on this pass and assisting on the takeaway pic.twitter.com/XpTz08jAWE— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
Similar to being a shorter running back, and getting lost behind the mammoths on the offensive line, linebackers can also get lost in the shuffle, making it difficult to see where they may be lurking in coverage.
Chase Lucas, DB
0 (0%) — 12 (46%)
Lucas was active against the Bills but was limited to special teams.
James Houston, LB
5 (6%) — 10 (38%)
PFF defensive grade: 78.9
As far as first games go, that had to have been a wild ride for Houston. After forcing a three-and-out on Buffalo’s first offensive possession, punt returner Kalif Raymond was attempting to evade a tackler when he had the ball dislodged. Lions fans in attendance and at home held their breath, waiting for it to roll out of bounds, but much to their horror, the ball ran out of gas a few feet from the sideline. But before another Buffalo player could capitalize, Houston jumped on the ball, keeping the Lions’ defense out of a short field situation. Crisis averted, thanks to the rookie out of Jackson State University.
Let’s take a look at his first sack, which came at a huge time for the Lions. At the end of the first half, the Lions defense was doing their best at keeping Buffalo out of the endzone. On third down, the Bills are in an empty formation, with defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn opting to go with his version of the “Nascar” package along the defensive line. Cominsky and Hutchinson lined up inside, with Houston and Julian Okwara at the end spots. Because of the Lions’ pre-snap alignment, the right tackle is on an island with Houston after running back Devin Singletary’s chip didn’t do much to slow down the rookie. From there, Houston swats away the tackle’s initial right-hand punch, leaving the linemen off balance, and reaching for Houston. After that, it was all over. Houston’s abilities were on full display as he turned the corner, dipped his right shoulder, and left Brown grasping at air. Bonus points for getting Allen on the ground by himself. Because make no mistake about it—that is not an easy task in itself.
that tackle had no chance once Houston dipped his shoulder. beautiful rush from the rookie pic.twitter.com/5HmSyhmHf4— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
This was another creative pre-snap look from the defense, this time with Houston and Austin Bryant on one side, and Hutchinson, Cominsky, and Anzalone on the other. Cominsky shoots straight up field, drawing the attention of both the tackle and the guard. While that is happening, Hutchinson quickly loops back around and has a path to the quarterback. Most wouldn’t have even escaped the pocket, but Allen isn’t most quarterbacks. He tucks the ball away for a moment, squeezes through what little space there was between Cominsky and Hutchinson, and gets his eyes back downfield. However, Houston never stopped working, and is able to notch his second sack with a shoestring tackle.
Cominsky and Hutch run a creative game on one side of the line, moving Allen off of his spot. from there, Houston makes the shoestring tackle for his 2nd sack pic.twitter.com/yBFhZKncEM— Morgan Cannon (@MCannon313) November 29, 2022
Moving forward, I believe Houston will have a role as a pass-rushing specialist. If they do try and extend his responsibilities and snap counts due to the injury of Julian Okwara, I will be interested to see how he fares against the run. If he can properly set an edge and anchor against the run—well then general manager Brad Holmes may have struck gold yet again in the late rounds.