A group of unsung heroes shined for the Detroit Lions in their season opener against the Kansas City Chiefs on Thursday night, and those players were instrumental in the Lions putting the league on notice with a statement victory at Arrowhead Stadium.
As we’ll do every week throughout the season for this Lions team, we’ll comb through some of the advanced data courtesy of Pro Football Focus that can help us better understand the football the Lions have played thus far—and what to look forward to in the coming weeks. Let’s take a closer look at the Lions by the numbers after their win over the Chiefs in the Week 1 opener of the 2023 NFL regular season.
Pro Football Focus’ premium statistics are an invaluable data point for football fans to better understand the game. Consider subscribing to PFF to have full access to a plethora of stats and grades to keep you informed about the NFL—and college football, too.
0 pressures allowed, 82.9 run blocking grade
When the Lions signed Graham Glasgow during the early parts of free agency this past offseason, it seemed like Detroit was preparing for the former Lions draft pick in 2016 to be the team’s starting right guard. Halapoulivaati Vaitai, the team’s starter in 2021, suffered a back injury that put him on the shelf before the 2022 season even started, and when you started to add up all the missed time from his three seasons in Detroit—a foot injury that put him on injured reserve in 2020, a concussion in 2021, and then the back injury that required surgery as he neared the age of 30—it looked like the Lions were moving on.
A little over a week after the Glasgow signing, the Lions renegotiated Vaitai’s deal, keeping him in Detroit and in the mix for the Lions’ plan along the offensive line, whether it be at guard or as reserve tackle depth. But then the preseason began and Vaitai was repping as the team’s starting right guard, a spot he ultimately earned as Detroit headed into Kansas City for the season opener.
Vaitai didn’t allow a single quarterback pressure against the Chiefs on Thursday across 37 pass-blocking snaps and posted a team-best 82.9 run-blocking grade per PFF. If Detroit can have a healthy Vaitai for the 2023 season, their run game obviously stands to benefit in a big way—his 75.5 run-blocking grade in 2019 with the Philadelphia Eagles ranked sixth among guards in the NFL with at least 450 snaps and earned him a reputation for being a road grader. If he can team with budding superstar Penei Sewell on the right side of Detroit’s offensive line and keep Jared Goff clean in the pocket, this Lions offensive line might just live up to its preseason hype as being one of the best units in the league.
4 quarterback pressures, 74.3 run defense grade
From one player who had injuries cost them their 2022 season to another, Charles Harris—who also renegotiated his contract to stay in Detroit this past offseason—got off to the kind of start in the season opener that makes you remember why they earned a deal from Detroit in the first place.
Harris had a breakout season in 2021. In the midst of a rebuild, Harris was the team’s best pass rusher that year, setting a career-high in pressures (52), and the best defender against the run (a team-high 29 stops in run defense). On Thursday, Harris looked like he was getting back to his old ways.
Against the Chiefs, Harris posted four quarterback pressures—three hurries and one quarterback hit—which were the second-most for Detroit behind Aidan Hutchinson’s seven pressures. He also forced a crucial holding call after a nifty rip inside of Chiefs offensive tackle Donovan Smith, pushing Kansas City back to second-and-20 on their final drive of the game.
Donovan Smith called for a holding penalty that wiped out a clutch first down the Chiefs needed. pic.twitter.com/ukqfDs5ddL— The Pewter Plank (@ThePewterPlank) September 8, 2023
Aside from his impact as a pass rusher, Harris earned a 74.3 run defense grade, the fourth-best mark for a Lions defender. His ability to set the edge and pursue runners was a big reason Detroit was able to hold the Chiefs outside zone running attack in check and keep their backs to just 45 rushing yards on 14 carries.
75.0 adjusted completion percentage, 91.0 passer rating
Something was uncharacteristic about the Lions offense on Thursday, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until looking through some of the advanced passing numbers. Sure, the Lions struggled with getting their offense up off the ground, with four of their 11 drives on the night being three-and-out possessions. Detroit had struggled with that a bit in the early goings of last season, and, in retrospect, it felt like the group just needed some time to shake off the offseason rust.
Maybe Jared Goff's best throw from Thursday, imo anyway pic.twitter.com/4kiWhehxpq— Nick Baumgardner (@nickbaumgardner) September 9, 2023
But the three-and-outs, that wasn’t it—it was how the Lions were managing to move the ball down the field despite Goff facing the kind of pressure that normally disrupts his rhythm and decision-making—and ultimately led to a lot of turnovers a year ago.
Last year, Goff dropped back to pass 626 times, and on 187 of those dropbacks, Goff was under pressure according to PFF. On those dropbacks, Goff threw four of his seven interceptions on the season, had an adjusted completion percentage (63.6)—that ranked behind Derek Carr, Kenny Pickett, and Russell Wilson—and was t-seventh in turnover-worthy play rate (5.2 percent) with a 59.6 passer rating. His PFF passing grade was 41.8, worse than Davis Mills, Jacoby Brissett, and Daniel Jones.
On Thursday, Goff continued to protect the football, even in the face of pressure, and showed some serious poise on throws where he was under duress. On the ten dropbacks where Goff was under pressure against the Chiefs, he posted a 75.0 ADJ%, no turnover-worthy plays, and a 91.0 passer rating, and his passing grade was 82.4.
We can anticipate Goff and the offense knocking off the rust and getting more consistent in executing their offense in rhythm, but if he can be a big-time player under pressure, the Lions offense really might be one of the best in the league for a second year in a row.