Of all the ways to lose a game, that had to be among the roughest.
Sure, it wasn’t a Super Bowl collapse, but for a team seemingly on the rise, Sunday’s loss to the Minnesota Vikings was a gut punch. The Detroit Lions had ample opportunities to close out the game, but things fell apart when the game was truly on the line. Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, as you could put it.
With the loss, the Lions sit at 1-2, and while the season is far from over, it certainly feels like this team could and should be better than they have.
What can be learned from the close loss to the Vikings?
The Lions are given four downs, and they’re going to use four downs
Aggressiveness was the story of the 2021 Detroit Lions, and for good reason. With a fairly subpar roster, the Lions needed to take chances in order to make up for it. Head coach Dan Campbell frequently went for fourth down conversions over kicking or punting. There was some debate about whether that mentality would continue into 2022, and through three weeks, it looks like the same story—and for good reason:
Whether it’s a side effect of an unreliable kicking game—Austin Seibert audibly donged a ball off the upright on the first drive—or having faith in the offense to convert, the Lions are going for it early and often. The best part of these decisions is that they are often supported by analytics. A common thread of the Matt Patricia and Jim Caldwell eras of Lions football was risk averseness, opting for safer plays like field goals and punts.
For the most part, the gambles are paying off. The Lions’ first touchdown came on the back of a fourth-and-5 conversion. Their next touchdown drive was a result of two converted fourth down tries. A second half drive was also saved by a conversion, though this one ended with a field goal. The Lions are getting points from these risks, but they are risks nonetheless. The Vikings turned a failed fourth down attempt into a touchdown themselves.
Still, the aggressiveness is encouraging, and it is making a difference for the Lions. If anything, the aggressiveness might need to get ramped up because...
Coaching threw this game away
I heaped a lot of praise on Campbell for his decision-making, and it was excellent for most of the game. However, the mistakes made in the waning minutes of the fourth quarter cost the Lions this victory, and there is nobody to blame but Campbell. There are three aspects I want to focus on:
- Running the ball when everyone in the stadium knew it was coming. The Lions are trying to pride themselves as a dominant run team, and there is nothing wrong with that. However, the predictable run calls late in this game really killed them in the long run. A few first downs would have iced the game, but the Lions instead opted for running into a stacked defensive line for minimal gain. Jamaal Williams broke a 10-yard carry on third down, but had they not wasted the first two downs with runs up the gut, he might have gotten a first down instead of a fourth-and-4.
- Attempting a late field goal. With the score 24-21, a field goal doesn’t do too much for Detroit, especially when it’s a 54-yard attempt. Minnesota had no timeouts, so they were likely in touchdown-or-bust mode regardless of the deficit—lo and behold, they did just that. The Lions could have won the game with a first down, and it’s not like the offense was failing consistently to convert these fourth down attempts. Fourth-and-4 is totally doable. Had they failed the attempt, they would have been in the exact same situation as a missed field goal—in fact, slightly better because Minnesota would have gotten the ball at the 36-yard line instead of the 44. Even punting it would have been a better option. The defense had been far from stout, so relying on them to win the game was ill-advised at best.
- Calling a timeout on Minnesota’s ensuing drive. Minnesota had just completed a 28-yard pass—in bounds, mind you—and were hustling down the field as the clock approached one minute left. The Lions call a timeout, likely to give their guys a rest and make sure they have the right call for this crucial moment. Well, the very next play was another 28-yard gain, except this one was for a touchdown. Sure, Detroit got time to plan, but so too did Minnesota. Running a hurry-up offense with seconds remaining in the game is difficult, and the Lions made it easy with that timeout. Worse yet, Detroit had zero timeouts for their comeback attempt, eventually ending with a Jared Goff interception that was more prayer than pass.
If the Lions don’t make one of these three mistakes, they might have won the game. They were aggressive early, but they turtled when it mattered most.
Oruwariye isn’t cutting it
When Jeff Okudah went down with injury in 2021, it fell on Amani Oruwariye to step up into the CB1 role. A six-interception campaign made it seem like Oruwariye could be counted upon as a solid corner to pair with a now-healthy Okudah, but that sadly hasn’t been the case so far.
Oruwariye was dinged for multiple penalties on Sunday, costing the defense dearly—the Vikings scored a pair of touchdowns thanks in part to a pair of Oruwariye illegal contact penalties. On the day, he was called for four penalties—he had a fifth one declined—an absolutely back-breaking amount. When he wasn’t flagged, he was seemingly playing catch-up for most of the afternoon. He had a nice open-field tackle on K.J. Osborn and provided some decent run support, but his coverage woes are troubling. One play that stood out was a 12-yard reception by Ben Ellefson where Oruwariye failed to keep up with the blocking tight end.
It might be too soon to bench Oruwariye, especially without a viable replacement for him at the moment, but the Lions will need him to find his form sooner than later. Oruwariye will continue to get targeted because...
Okudah is turning into a shutdown corner
Jeff Okudah’s rookie season was rough, and his second year was no better due to an early Achilles injury. Through three weeks in his third season, he is looking like the shutdown corner the Lions envisioned him as. Okudah was credited with allowing just 32 and 31 yards in the first two games, respectively, and Sunday was another impressive outing. Justin Jefferson had just three catches for 14 yards, and Okudah’s blanket coverage was a key reason why—a few drops by Jefferson helped as well.
In a game where the pass rush wasn’t getting home and Oruwariye was struggling, being able to rely on Okudah to shut down his receiver was instrumental.
Offense is battered and bruised
For all the improvements made by the Lions’ offense, they needed health to go their way. Just a mere three games into the season, the Lions are facing a string of injuries that are hindering their offense.
The injuries along the offensive line need no introduction, though Detroit thankfully saw Frank Ragnow return to duty this week. However, the bumps and bruises are adding up elsewhere. Amon-Ra St. Brown suffered a lower body injury and looked hobbled for most of the second half. It was a similar story for D’Andre Swift, who hurt his shoulder after already entering this game with an ankle injury. To add salt to the wound, Josh Reynolds experienced friendly-fire on a crossing route, hitting his knee in a collision with Kalif Raymond.
The defense has been banged up too—Tracy Walker’s injury could be serious, while Aidan Hutchinson didn’t look 100 percent—but it’s particularly troubling to see what could be a high-powered offense getting held back so early in the season by injuries. St. Brown’s injury is perhaps the one most worth monitoring, but the Swift injury is really disappointing. Injuries have marred his entire career, and with things finally clicking in 2022, they reared their head yet again.
T.J. Hockenson is still a shadow
T.J. Hockenson’s fifth-year option was picked up back in April, and it was looking like a stepping stone towards a new contract. He was coming off a Pro Bowl nod in 2020 and a solid, albeit injured, 2021 season. Given the start to his 2022 season, not only are some reconsidering the merit of a new deal, but also the $9.4 million price tag that comes with his option next season.
Hockenson caught a touchdown on Sunday, and his blocking has been a positive note as well. However, a former eighth-overall pick needs to do more. Through three games, Hockenson has 82 yards on 10 receptions with the lone touchdown. The current regime shouldn’t be blamed for the selection of Hockenson, but it is concerning how little he is being utilized. He is on pace for around 460 receiving yards, and he hasn’t really stood out when he’s had the ball.
Hockenson has looked more like a replacement-level tight end than an elite one. Given how much of an improvement Brock Wright has had as a blocker, how steep is the drop-off from Hockenson? With James Mitchell waiting in the wings as a pass-catching tight end, would it be worth paying Hockenson a sizable contract? The Lions will have a difficult decision to make if his play on the field doesn’t rebound.