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Detroit Lions report card: Secondary goes from zero to hero vs. Packers

Handing out positional grades after the Detroit Lions’ upset win over the Green Bay Packers.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

The Detroit Lions pulled off a pretty big upset win over the Green Bay Packers on Sunday, turning around the narrative of a tough week for the team. Let’s take a closer look at the team’s performance in our Week 9 report card.

Quarterback: D

The Lions defense was giving Jared Goff and the offense free possessions all day, and the Lions quarterback just could not take advantage. Goff was inaccurate and somewhat reckless with the ball all game. He threw one interception, but it probably should have been at least two or three more turnovers for Goff on the day.

Jared Goff’s completion percent above expectation, per NextGenStats, was -14.8%, the third-lowest of the week among quarterbacks.

Obviously, context of Goff’s performance is necessary this week. He was missing DJ Chark, Josh Reynolds and T.J. Hockenson—three of his top four weapons in the passing game. All game, he did not look on the same page of his receiving corps.

That said, on both of his touchdown passes, Goff showed decent patience and read progression to find the open receiver—who just happened to be two guys he has rarely thrown to in his career.

Running backs: C+

It was far from this running back tandem’s best day with Jamaal Williams averaging just. 3.4 yards per carry on a career-high 24 carries. D’Andre Swift only played on 10 snaps, but he made the most of them—turning that into five touches for 50 yards. Swift was particularly lethal as a receiver, with two catches that set the Lions up on first downs inside the red zone (one at the 1-yard line).

Tight ends: C

Shane Zylstra and James Mitchell scored the Lions’ only touchdowns on the day, and Mitchell also pitched in a key third-down conversion on Detroit’s final offensive drive of the game. Those are three huge plays in the game.

Unfortunately, that’s those are the only contributions the unit had for the day. In total, Lions tight ends combined for three catches and 9 yards. It’s easy to point at the touchdowns and say the Lions didn’t miss T.J. Hockenson, but it’s clear the passing offense struggled without him.

Brock Wright also threw in a critically bad holding penalty on a fourth quarter drive that would’ve been even more impactful had the Packers not committed a personal foul a few plays later.

Wide receivers: D

It was a short-handed unit from the Lions, but the Packers secondary has also been banged up and bad all year. So it was disappointing to see the Lions receiving corps not named Amon-Ra St. Brown combine for a total of four catches for 33 yards.

Even St. Brown’s performance—four catches on nine targets for 55 yards—was underwhelming. Hopefully the Lions can at least get Reynolds back next week and have a more conventional receiving corps.

Offensive line: C+

While Goff didn’t take a sack all game (he did, but it was nullified by a roughing the passer penalty), his pocket wasn’t quite as clean as you’d like. Granted, this Packers pass rush is a top-10 unit in the NFL.

What was more disappointing, however, was how the offensive line didn’t dominate the trenches in the run game. This was one of the worst run defenses in the league, and the Lions didn’t have any consistency on the ground. Detroit also remains incredibly frustrating in short-yardage situations. They failed to convert a third-and-3 and a third-and-1 on the ground in this game, the second of which almost lost the game for Detroit.

Defensive line: D

Detroit’s lack of pass rush remains a serious problem. Aaron Rodgers is a master in the pocket, and he made the Lions pay several times for both their lack of pass rush and their undisciplined play when it came to maintaining gap integrity. He converted both a third-and-17 and third-and-10 with his legs after the defensive line left wide open running lanes for the 38-year-old quarterback.

Detroit did get credited with five quarterback hits, but I’m willing to bet some of that was due to Rodgers holding onto the ball all day.

That said, the interior of the defensive line remains stout, especially in the run game. Green Bay has one of the best rushing attacks in the league, and their running backs managed just 66 yards on 21 carries (3.1 YPC). Plus, you’ve got to give Aidan Hutchinson credit for the red zone interception.

Linebackers: B

While I’m sure the Lions linebackers would like a couple of those Rodgers scrambles back, this was a nice day from Detroit’s second line of defense. Derrick Barnes was all over the field when an injury to Malcolm Rodriguez forced him into the lineup more than normal. Barnes finished with a team-high 12 tackles, while adding a pass defense (with his head) that led to an interception—plus a quarterback hit, to boot.

Even Alex Anzalone had a solid game that got him some post-game press conference love from Dan Campbell.

“I thought Alex played well,” Campbell said, unprompted.

Secondary: A-

It wasn’t the cleanest game for anyone in the secondary, but they made the most plays of any unit from either team, and they are the number one reason the Lions won this ball game.

What I particularly liked about the Lions secondary on Sunday was their resiliency. After Jeff Okudah gave up a touchdown, he batted down the two point attempt when Rodgers tested him again. After Jerry Jacobs got called for pass interference, he came up with a drive-ending stop a few plays later.

Then, of course, there was Kerby Joseph, who is quickly becoming the most impressive rookie on the Lions roster in what is looking more and more like a stacked class. Joseph had two picks on the day and a gorgeous pass breakup on a deep shot from Rodgers. Throw in 10 total tackles, and it was the most complete game of Joseph’s young career. Let’s hope his brain injury isn’t too serious.

Special teams: B

Jack Fox had a beautiful punt—and great recovery from Anthony Pittman—that pinned the Packers at the 1-yard line. Also, credit to Brandon Zylstra for an impromptu opening kickoff return that put the Lions at the 38-yard line to start.

Kick and punt coverage units were average at best, and the Lions missed an extra point due to a bad snap, but were bailed out by a running into the kicker penalty.

In all, the most significant play on special teams all day was Fox’s punt, so it was a net positive game.

Coaching: B

There’s a lot to unpack here, but I want to break down four critical moments in this game.

The first came on Detroit’s opening drive. Campbell ramped up the aggressiveness again, going for it on fourth-and-1 from the Packers 7-yard line. I will almost always advocate going for it on fourth-and-1 in the red zone. You’re too close to a touchdown to settle, and fourth-and-1 is a high-percentage play, even for a Detroit offense that seems to struggle in those situations. Worst case scenario is you pin the opposing offense back. I’m in favor of this.

Next up: Campbell challenging the deep shot to Allen Lazard on fourth-and-3. This turned out to be a huge decision—and a potential 15-point swing. If Campbell hadn’t challenged, the Packers would’ve been set up first-and-10 at the Lions 12 yard line. Instead, Detroit got the ball at the Packers’ 39 yard line, and would eventually score. Huge moment in coaching.

Moment 3: Third-and-1 for the Lions offense at the Packers 41-yard line with over two minutes to go. Just a terrible play call. A slow-developing counter run that the Packers were all over, causing Detroit to lose 2 yards. Which set up....

Decision 4: Going for it on fourth-and-3 late in the game. This was almost an identical situation to Campbell’s biggest coaching mistake of his life against the Vikings earlier in the season. While Campbell didn’t go for the field goal this time (it would’ve been a 61 yarder), he did choose the controversial option of going for it, and it nearly cost the Lions the game.

This offense has not been good in short-yardage situations, and Detroit’s offense had been terrible all game. I thought this was an unnecessarily risky play, even though the analytics supported the move. Here’s Campbell’s explanation for it:

“I felt like I liked where we were at, and I thought we would convert that. But, if we did not, I had three timeouts in my pockets, and yeah, our defense was playing pretty good. So, I just felt like that was the way to go.”

Even if the Lions had converted, the game would not have been over. The Packers still had three timeouts and Detroit was still not quite in field goal range yet.

Instead, I think the right play was making the Packers drive the entirety of the field against your stingy defense. Campbell was bailed out by his defense anyways, but if he hadn’t been, we’d be having a very different discussion today.

On a more general note, though, give Campbell—and defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn—a ton of credit for navigating this team through a difficult week. The Lions got rid of a well-liked coach and the quarterback’s security blanket, and they held it together to pull off an emotional upset. That’s a credit to the culture the Lions have worked so hard to establish.

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