The Lions started the game on fire, rattling off three quick scores to take a 21-0 lead midway through the first quarter. Yet that fire was just as quickly snuffed as the offense stalled and the defense started to bend and break. A 21-0 score would quickly turn into a 24-21 lead after the halftime break. A Lions touchdown would elevate the score to 33 for Detroit, but the Saints would answer right back and make it a five-point lead late.
Thankfully, the team came up clutch and finished it out to put the Lions’ record at 9-3. Let’s examine some takeaways.
Cursed offensive line
The Lions offensive line cannot catch a break. Billed as an elite unit on paper, the injury bug has bit them hard all season. It reared its head on Sunday when Frank Ragnow left the game and did not return. While Graham Glasgow is a solid replacement at center, it led to Colby Sorsdal entering the game and the blocking up front falling out of sync.
This isn’t all on Sorsdal, but it highlights how important consistency is up front. The Lions have had none this season, and you can thank Hank Fraley for coaching up the backups. Halapoulivaati Vaitai might never suit up for the Lions again. Jonah Jackson and Taylor Decker have missed multiple games. The Lions offensive line has exceeded expectations given all of the injuries, but potentially losing Ragnow for any amount of time might be too much to overcome. We’re in wait-and-see mode, but the early signs are encouraging:
Dan Campbell says Frank Ragnow's injury was initially believed to be more serious, but now they think it might not be so bad. Won't know definitively until further testing tomorrow— kyle meinke (@kmeinke) December 3, 2023
Much-needed Goff rebound
Jared Goff needed to bounce back from back-to-back three turnover games. The offense had sputtered when he did, and with the defense struggling as a whole, the Lions needed Goff back on track.
While Goff’s final numbers aren’t massive—just 213 yards and two touchdowns on the day—it was his confidence that really shined throughout. In the face of more injuries to the offensive line, Goff demonstrated some surprising elusiveness. With the game clock ticking down, Goff masterfully maneuvered his way through a collapsing pocket and threw to David Montgomery, but he dropped the guaranteed first down. This forced a punt and gave the Saints one more shot at the lead.
Yet when the Saints failed to convert and the game was once again on the line, Goff stepped up. Goff again evaded traffic in the pocket and delivered a desperate ball to Josh Reynolds to seal the game.
A battered and bewildered Goff from the last two games would not make this play. Goff shook off the demons that plagued him as of late. The Lions do not win this game without him stepping up literally—and metaphorically.
Jerry Jacobs has undoubtedly exceeded expectations as a former undrafted rookie. To be on an NFL roster, let alone be in the starting lineup, is a testament to Jacobs. That being said, his time in the starting role might not last beyond this season.
Jacobs has been struggling of late, being credited with allowing touchdowns in three straight games entering Week 13. He was not officially credited with a touchdown allowed against the Saints, but he was credited in spirit. Jacobs gave up a 33-yard reception to Chris Olave on a play where he failed to locate the ball and Olave had him beat early.
This has become a surprising trend for the Lions defense, as Jacobs has been matched up with the opposition’s WR1 fairly frequently to mixed results at best. Jacobs projects well as a depth cornerback, but the Lions reliance on him to cover top pass catchers is bizarre.
The safeties have been disappointments as well. Tracy Walker got juked by a 37-year old Jimmy Graham for a touchdown, while Kerby Joseph had a bad missed tackle and nearly gave up a bomb to Olave. The coverage has been anything but lockdown, and the safeties are to blame as much as the corners. This unit badly needs C.J. Gardner-Johnson to return as soon as possible.
The need for speed
Jameson Williams has steadily seen an increased presence on offense, and he is certainly warranting it. When Williams gets his hands on the ball, magic can happen:
This type of speed is uncoachable. Look at how quickly Williams outran the Saints defenders that had angles on him. The numbers back up the eye test as well:
Jameson Williams reached a top speed of 20.70 mph on his 19-yard end around TD.— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) December 3, 2023
Williams has reached 20+ mph on 4 of his 16 career touches (25.0%), the highest rate in the NFL since 2022 (min. 10 touches).#DETvsNO | #OnePride pic.twitter.com/ypssV1RFed
Williams also had an 11-yard contested catch where he fought off illegal coverage, highlighting that he can be more than just a deep threat. I won’t be drastic and predict a 100-yard game next week, but it’s clear that good things happen when he is involved.
With Alex Anzalone out for the game and possibly more, it seemed like Jack Campbell was destined to step up in his place. While Campbell did have a great game wearing the green dot on defense (leading the team with nine tackles, two of them for a loss), it was Jalen Reeves-Maybin making the biggest surprise on the day. Along with being his usual menacing self on special teams, Reeves-Maybin was a key contributor on defense. He finished with six tackles, including a blown up reverse, a pass defended, and quarterback hit. Getting such a performance from a player billed as a special teams ace is phenomenal for the Lions.
Gold stars for LaPorta and McNeill
I want to give nods to two young stars on both sides of the ball. On offense, Sam LaPorta’s impact was obvious. He recorded a career-high 140 receiving yards and a touchdown, but his impact goes beyond the statistics. He was frequently fighting hard for extra yards post-catch and has become as reliable of a target as you can get. For as much as we label Amon-Ra St. Brown as Jared Goff’s safety net, LaPorta is on that same level of dependability.
Alim McNeill had a quieter game in contrast to LaPorta, but he deserves praise for battling in the trenches. McNeill was taking a beating in this one but held up well in spite of it. It always feels like McNeill is good for a play or two each game, but that number could be larger if the Lions had more success beside him up front. The Lions got some success from Josh Paschal playing inside, so keep an eye on this going forward.
John’s Turning Point: Brian Branch’s interception
Brian Branch has two career interceptions and both have been worthy of a juggler. After intercepting Patrick Mahomes in his season debut, Branch added another tipped pick against Derek Carr:
This set up the Lions deep in Saints territory, field position they would capitalize on three plays later. The Lions would soon after jump out to a 21-0 lead, and they would coast on this lead for most of the game—that in itself is an issue, however. If Branch does not secure this interception early, then the Lions might have been looking at a much tighter game.
Do the Lions lose this game without that early 21-0 lead? Do the Lions play more aggressively if the lead is smaller? There is no definitive answer to these questions, but we can definitively say that Brian Branch is an important part of this defense.