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Detroit Lions film breakdown: Young players dominate in Week 1 vs. Chiefs

Examining how the Detroit Lions performed in their Week 1 win over the Kansas City Chiefs.

Syndication: Detroit Free Press Junfu Han / USA TODAY NETWORK

Week 1 of the Detroit Lions’ season is in the books, and despite having the tall task of going into Arrowhead Stadium to take on the defending World Champion Kansas City Chiefs in the NFL’s opening game—the Lions’ record stands 1-0.

Things were far from perfect for the Lions, and that might be the most impressive aspect of their 21-20 victory. Thursday night in Kansas City was far from their best effort, and yet they still managed to make enough plays to defeat the Chiefs, and their All-World quarterback Patrick Mahomes.

There were missed assignments and low levels of execution early on, which is to be expected for most teams—especially early in the season. Veteran wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. uncharacteristically put a ball on the ground, resulting in a dreaded red zone turnover for the Lions. And in years past, a handful of mistakes like that were usually enough to bury this young team.

However, that is not the case anymore. Mistakes were overcome, and Detroit made enough plays to do what most outside of Detroit assumed was next to impossible—beat the Chiefs on an evening in which they were unveiling the second championship banner in the Mahomes era.

Let’s take a look at the film of the Lions’ victory, and see how this young team was able to leave Arrowhead 1-0.

For this iteration of my film review series, I will be going through the game from start to finish, and to avoid redundant language—each video being referenced will be directly under its accompanying paragraph.

First quarter

There were hiccups early on for Detroit, particularly on offense, as quarterback Jared Goff and the rest of the unit tried to find a rhythm. In our first clip, Goff attempts to get the ball to Marvin Jones Jr, but before the ball can get past the line of scrimmage, defensive end Mike Danna is able to get his hands up and bat the pass down. Both left tackle Taylor Decker and left guard Jonah Jackson attempted and failed to cut their blocking assignments, presumably to get them on the ground in order to open up a passing lane for their quarterback.

The Lions’ offensive line is an elite unit, but even top-tier units still need time to iron out the finer details, and I expect things like this to be ironed out as the season progresses.

In our next clip, we have one of my favorite aspects of watching Lions football—watching right tackle Penei Sewell be an absolute monster. Here the Lions are lined up in 13 personnel (one running back, three tight ends), with all three tight ends lined up outside of Sewell.

The handoff goes to running back David Montgomery, and while the play only results in a 5-yard gain, it is the manner in which Sewell finishes the play that stands out. Watch him latch onto number 93 of the Chiefs and drive him into the ground. Sewell plays the game with a nasty streak, and I cannot wait to see how he progresses in year three of his career.

Next we have rookie running back Jahmyr Gibbs taking a handoff out of the shotgun, and what is the best thing to combine with an explosive ball carrier like Gibbs? Athletic linemen who are capable of pulling, and operating in space downfield. Keep your eye on All-Pro center Frank Ragnow, and Pro-Bowl left guard Jonah Jackson.

In nearly perfect sync and with no wasted movement, both Ragnow and Jackson immediately open to their left once the ball is snapped, sprinting down the line in order to get out in front of the speedy Gibbs. Each get a hat on a defender, leaving Gibbs one-on-one with Chiefs’ safety Justin Reid. Gibbs leaves Reid grasping at air, resulting in a big play for the Lions’ rushing attack.

Later in the first quarter, the Lions have worked their way down to the Chiefs’ 9-yard line. Montgomery is to Goff’s right in the shotgun, with receivers Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jones Jr. split towards the top of the screen.

Once snapped, the two execute a switch-release, where St. Brown dips in towards the right, underneath Jones Jr, allowing the veteran receiver to run a clear-out route of sorts. As St. Brown is running across the field towards the hash, fellow receiver Josh Reynolds is also running a drag in the opposite direction, and ends up slightly impeding the progress of the defender assigned to St. Brown. That little assistance is all the Sun God needs, catching the pass at the six, breaking a tackle, and getting into the endzone for his first score of the season.

It was simple, but I love the way offensive coordinator Ben Johnson incorporates little things like switch-releases and rubs/picks in order to create space in the red zone. Work smarter, not harder.

Second quarter

One of the things that has stood out about the play of Lions defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson since his arrival in Detroit has been his ability to lineup anywhere on the defensive side of the ball. Up high as the single-high defender, or down near the line of scrimmage as a box safety—the former Florida Gator can do it all, and is willing to tell you about it, if you care to listen.

Just watch here as he is lined up behind defensive end Charles Harris at the start of the play. Mahomes hands the ball off to running back Isaiah Pacheco as the second-year back works towards the left side of the line. Another former Gator, linebacker Alex Anzalone, does a great job of getting downhill and fitting, which gives Gardner-Johnson the opportunity he needs to dip under the block of center Creed Humphrey. From there, he shoots his hands and rolls Pacheco to the ground, losing his helmet in the process.

A perfect rep from Gardner-Johnson who finished the day with five total tackles and two pass breakups.

Here is another play from the second quarter that is sure to make Lions fans everywhere smile. Mahomes is again working out of the shotgun, with third-year defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike lined up at the three-technique working against Pro-Bowl guard Joe Thuney. Shortly after engaging, Onwuzurike is able to dispose of Thuney after beating his hands, ripping underneath the guard’s left shoulder.

The subsequent pressure from Onwuzurike forces a hurried throw from Mahomes, resulting in an off-target pass to wide receiver Rashee Rice. It’s been a long time coming, but this kind of play is exactly what had Lions’ general manager Brad Holmes select Onwuzurike at 41st overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. His get-off, power, and explosion on the interior were all on display during his time at the University of Washington. Let’s see if he can string together a few good performances early in the season to build some momentum.

And in our final play from the second quarter of the Chiefs game, the Lions’ defense had the Kansas City offense in an obvious passing situation. Edge rushers James Houston and Charles Harris were set on the outside of the Chiefs’ offensive line, with second-year star Aidan Hutchinson and veteran John Cominsky on the interior.

Personally, I love when defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn opts for these personnel groupings on passing downs. Getting players like Hutchinson, Cominsky, and Josh Paschal against interior offensive linemen is typically going to be a favorable matchup for the Lions, with this example of Hutchinson working against left guard Trey Smith as a shining example.

As he did all game, Hutchinson fires off the ball, and immediately begins working Smith’s hands. Using his right arm to rip underneath the guard’s grasp, Hutchinson keeps Smith on his hip as he makes a beeline for Mahomes in the pocket. But because Mahomes is Mahomes, he is able to roll his back shoulder, avoiding Hutchinson as he slides up in the pocket. But unfortunately for the Chiefs’ star, Houston is now there and a hurried throw is stopped for a short gain by Lions safety Kerby Joseph. Smith was also flagged for holding on the play as he desperately attempted to keep Hutchinson’s grasp away from the fleeing Mahomes.

Wherever Hutchinson lined up against the Chiefs, he was a problem. Right tackle Jawaan Taylor might have Hutchinson-related nightmares for the next few weeks, as the former University of Michigan star was credited with three quarterback hits, and another four hurries, per PFF.

Extra impressive when you consider Taylor was lined up illegally for most of the evening.

Third quarter

If you are looking for a defining series from the Lions’ rookies against the Chiefs, look no further than the possession that culminated in the Brian Branch pick six. But before we get to the game-defining defensive score from Branch, we have to start with this gorgeous pass breakup from rookie linebacker Jack Campbell.

Coming out of the University of Iowa, we knew Campbell was a menace against the run. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, Campbell has prototypical size and speed to be a difference-maker as a thumping middle linebacker. But his ability to turn and run with pass-catchers is likely what landed him in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft.

On this play, the Lions are in zone, with Campbell patrolling the middle of the field once the ball is snapped. The most impressive aspect of this rep is that Campbell’s hips are opened towards the far side of the field when Mahomes cuts this ball loose. Despite that, Campbell is able to flip his hips in an instant, extending his body and breaking up a pass intended for receiver Kadarius Toney.

If he can continue to show this kind of ability, it won’t be long before Campbell is the type of linebacker that never needs to be taken off of the field.

After a run stop by Branch on second down, the Chiefs are facing a third-and-long situation. With Mahomes operating in the gun, he attempts to connect with Toney again, but the pass glances off the receiver’s hands and into the waiting arms of Branch—who was right where he was supposed to be in terms of his responsibility. From there, Branch turns on the burners on the way to his first interception and touchdown of his young NFL career.

Fourth quarter

Another thing that almost immediately stood out while watching the film of the Lions’ Week 1 win over the Chiefs was just how far the linebacker room has come in three years. Just watch this rep from Derrick Barnes here.

He keeps his shoulders square to the line of scrimmage, easily overcomes the attempted block from Chiefs left tackle Donovan Smith, and meets Toney in the backfield on the end-around for a loss on the play. Beautiful stuff here from the former Boilermaker.

Hutchinson received a lot of praise for his Week 1 performance, and rightfully so. The man practically lived in the Chiefs’ backfield. But it was another second-year pass-rusher that made one of the bigger plays of the game.

Edge rusher James Houston is lined up on the left side of your screen, working against Smith. And just like he did last year on countless occasions, Houston bends the corner, dipping under the outstretched arms of Smith. However, Houston loses his footing and ends up on his stomach prior to reaching his landmark.

Almost as soon as his belly touches the turf, Houston extends an arm, grabbing onto the right ankle of Mahomes before working his way into a grip on both legs. Once again, this speeds up Mahomes’ process, and as a result—forces another incompletion. He made plenty of plays with his feet throughout the course of the game, but the Lions’ pass rush had Mahomes in a hurried state most of the night.

If you have been following my film reviews for a while, you know I have a soft spot for the big boys up front. Offensive line play and gap-schemes give me life.

Look at this flawless execution here from Jackson and rookie tight end Sam LaPorta. LaPorta had a few big catches in the game, but I don’t think any one reception had the impact that this block on linebacker Nick Bolton had. Both pull towards the playside and are crucial to creating the alley for Montgomery to score.

Since OTA’s, we have known LaPorta is going to be a problem in the passing game, but if he can consistently do this as a blocker? Watch out.

Lastly, for good measure, we have yet another pass breakup from Gardner-Johnson. As I mentioned before, he can really do it all. This is how you break on the ball and make a play without drawing a flag. Textbook stuff here from one of the Lions’ emotional leaders.

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