The Detroit Lions continued to keep the good times rolling with an impressive win over the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. With that win, the Lions have turned playoff talk that seemed premature and incredibly lofty a few weeks ago into a legitimate discussion.
Perhaps most impressive of Sunday’s win was that it was far from their best performance. Detroit’s defense gave up far too many explosive plays, and early on, the Lions had way too many penalties that dug themselves into a hole.
Yet they weathered the storm, kept a comfortable lead for most of the game, and still ended up winning by multiple scores over a 10-2 team.
Let’s hand out some positional grades for the Lions after their 34-23 victory in Week 14.
Quietly, the Detroit Lions running game has evaporated over the past month. Early in the season, that likely would have meant the offense would stall. But over the last two weeks in particular, the Lions have put the game in Jared Goff’s hands, and the veteran quarterback has risen to the challenge in a way we haven’t seen since he landed in Detroit.
Against the Vikings, Goff was as close to perfect as you can get. No turnover-worthy plays, no sacks taken. When one of your worst passes of the day is a 41-yard touchdown to Jameson Williams, you know you’re balling.
And you can see the confidence brimming in Goff right now. Just watch him break down the team at the end of the locker room celebration video, while his teammates continue to scream “J.G!” throughout the entire video.
He has taken ownership of not only this offense, but the entire team.
Running backs: C+
Justin Jackson was the best running back on the field on Sunday, and that both speaks to his growth and the struggles of D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams. There was far too much hesitation from both in the backfield, leading to Williams and Swift combining for just 58 yards on 22 carries (2.6 YPC).
Jackson, though, was shifty, and his 15-yard touchdown run showed the amount of sneaky athleticism he has:
Tight ends: B
On the above touchdown run, watch what Brock Wright does to set the edge. The tight ends continue to improve week-by-week, especially in the run game. The Lions are even starting to trust them more when it comes to pass protection, although that is still very much a work in progress.
We’ve seen their production drop off recently in terms of the receiving game—Shane Zylstra’s two catches for 18 yards were the only tally on the box score this week—but that was to be expected after the T.J. Hockenson trade and the emerging health of Detroit’s receiver room.
Wide receivers: A
Speaking of which, the Lions suddenly have a cavalcade of weapons at receiver. DJ Chark is finally hitting the stride that we thought we’d see earlier after what he did in training camp. Amon-Ra St. Brown continues to be the reliable chain-mover. Josh Reynolds had some important catches in this game, and, of course, there was Jameson Williams’ 41-yard bomb that opened up the scoring.
Heck, even Kalif Raymond had a key third-down conversion in the red zone that led to a touchdown.
This group just completely overwhelmed a Vikings defense that was supposed to be celebrating the return of cornerback Cameron Dantzler.
Offensive line: A-
Some of the running game woes certainly fall on the offensive line, but because the Lions relied so heavily on the passing game against the Vikings, it was up to this from to protect Goff. So how’d they do?
The Vikings tallied zero sacks and just three quarterback hits. The feared duo of Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter combined for a total of three tackles, one quarterback hit, and zero sacks. Detroit’s offensive tackles continue to show why they should be considered a top-five unit in this league.
I suppose Penei Sewell adding the game-clinching reception deserves some praise in this section because that was no easy play for a 335-pound player:
Defensive line: B+
The Lions pass rush wasn’t exactly consistent in this game, and sometimes the lack of it allowed Cousins to attack Detroit’s defense deep. Still, it feels nitpicky to complain about that too much when the Lions notched nine quarterback hits and four sacks.
James Houston and Aidan Hutchinson continue to lead the way on the edges, but Detroit’s best performer on the defensive line this week was Isaiah Buggs. The emotional leader of the defense was giving fits to the Vikings’ interior offensive line all game. Watch what he does on Aidan Hutchinson’s sack:
He basically did the exact same thing on his biggest play of the game: a sack of Dalvin Cook (yes, you read that right). That not only prevented a likely touchdown on a trick play, but it erased a red zone trip completely and give the Lions an opportunity to add to their lead before the half.
Those are just the flashy plays from Buggs. He still continues to do the dirty work on early downs, which has transformed Detroit’s run defense into a much improved unit. The Vikings could only muster 22 rushing yards at 1.3 yards per carry on Sunday.
Alex Anzalone continues his steady level of play, leading the team with nine tackles on the day. He and Chris Board also tallied pass breakups in coverage. Overall, this unit did a good job making sure plays that got to the second level rarely made it beyond that. Tackling has not been a problem for this unit in some time, which is quite the accomplishment given where they were at last year and even early this season.
Even Jarrad Davis made a play or two.
The good: Detroit’s defensive backs continue to show up in the run game. Jeff Okudah had a brilliant stop on an early fourth-down attempt from the Vikings, and Mike Hughes made a couple tackles for loss, too. Additionally, Jerry Jacobs had a textbook pass breakup on a deep ball to Adam Thielen and an impressive sack on a blitz.
On a normal day, that would be enough to give this unit a C grade or higher, but unfortunately, Kirk Cousins spent the rest of the game picking on this secondary. Cousins averaged 10.4 yards per attempt against Detroit and completed over 75 percent of his passes. The Lions allowed six passing plays of 20+ yards on Sunday, and Justin Jefferson set a Vikings franchise record for receiving yards in a game (223).
Special teams: A-
Michael Badgley, fresh off his NFC Special Teams Player of the Week honors, missed demoralizing 47-yard kick that would’ve pushed the Lions’ lead to two scores at the half. However, he made amends by going perfect the rest of the day, including a game-sealing 48-yard kick.
Elsewhere, Kalif Raymond continues to be a weapon in the punt return game. He had a 13-yard return that prevented the Lions from starting inside their own 20-yard line and his electric 35-yard return immediately set up DJ Chark’s 48-yard touchdown catch.
Even Jack Fox was feeling it. His first punt went 66 yards—all through the air—and his second pinned the Vikings at their own 10-yard line.
Oh, right. The fake punt. Credit to C.J. Moore for an incredible run on a play that the Vikings didn’t even do a horrible job defending.
The Vikings had every reason to come in here and win the division. They could have had played the disrespect card being underdogs at 10-2. They had to back up the words of foolish Jalen Reagor, who guaranteed a win.
Yet, the Lions were the team that was ready for a fight. From the opening whistle, the Lions played like the better team, and the ugly truth for the Vikings is that Detroit has now outplayed Minnesota in seven of eight quarters this year.
Kudos to the Lions coaching staff for, again, not taking the foot off the gas. With Detroit nursing a two-score lead with 10:47, they orchestrated a 12-play drive that ate up 6:41 of the clock. And instead of being over reliant on a run game that wasn’t working, they extended the drive with clutch passes on third down.
Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson continues to dial up great plays in key moments. Not only were the Lions great on third down (7-of-15), but they were again perfect in red zone trips.
Then there were the trick plays. We wondered last year if the Lions would quit doing them once they started winning and didn’t need them to even contend. Asked and answered. The Lions have to be one of the best fake punt teams in NFL history.
But nothing was more gutsy—and, essentially, rewarding—than the play to put Penei Sewell in position to win the game. Sure, that’s a play we’re probably denouncing if it fails spectacularly, but Sewell is an athletic dude, and the Lions knew it. I will never fault a coaching staff for trusting a player who has earned that trust. Plus it was fun, and I like fun.
Please stay, Ben Johnson.