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Looking Ahead: Detroit Lions

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Here’s an analysis of what we saw on Sunday from the Green Bay Packers’ next opponent, the Detroit Lions.

If you stuck around on FOX, after the Packer game, you had the pleasure of watching the end of the matchup between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears. We were able to catch the very end of the game but missed the beginning. Given the lack of preseason action, a slow start was expected, and that’s exactly what happened. The first quarter ended with the score tied, 3-3, what a barn-burner…

However, the Lions found their groove toward the end of the second quarter. Field goals by each team and a Detroit touchdown just prior to the end of the first half brought the score to 13-6. The Lions continued to surge, starting the third quarter off with their second touchdown. Another Matt Prater field goal brought the score to 23-6, in favor of Detroit.

The fourth quarter began with a 4th & 1 for the Bears, from the Detroit 10. The pitch to Cordarelle Patterson (also known as the FB Fake HB Flip for all you Madden enthusiasts) netted three yards, setting the Bears up for a 1st and goal from the 7.

The Bears scored three plays later, on a jump-ball to Jimmy Graham. The Lions’ following drive sputtered near midfield, leading to a punt. The Bears next drive ended with possibly the most embarrassing play of the weekend, from Mitch Trubisky, which led to a 4th & 41, pulling the Bears out of field goal position.

The Lions were able to give Matt Prater a 55-yard field goal attempt on their next drive but it was unsuccessful. Trubisky, then, redeemed himself by driving the Bears down the field for a quick touchdown, bringing the score to DET- 23, CHI- 20.

Detroit got the ball back with 2:58 left on the clock. Two Adrian Peterson runs and two quick timeouts from the Bears left Detroit with a 3rd & 6 with 2:45 remaining. Stafford forced a pass to Marvin Jones which was tipped into the air and intercepted by Kyle Fuller.

That gave the Bears the ball at the DET 39 with 2:35 on the clock. A perfect Trubisky throw to Anthony Miller, on the second play of the ensuing drive, gave the Bears their third touchdown in their last four drives and a 27-23 lead with 1:54 remaining.

With two timeouts and 75 yards of grass in front of them, it would be now or never for Stafford and the Detroit Lions. Stafford turned it on, using both his arm and his legs, and brought the Lions down to the CHI 16 yard-line with 11 seconds remaining.

D’Andre Swift worked his way open near the goal-line and Stafford placed the ball perfectly to set Swift up for a game-winning touchdown, however, Swift was unable to hold onto the ball. With 6 seconds left on the clock, the Lions had one more opportunity to steal victory from the Bears.

Stafford took the snap from shotgun, rolled to his right to avoid pressure, re-set his feet, and threw a strike to Marvin Jones with no time remaining. The pass was broken up in the endzone by the Bears’ second-rounder, Jaylon Johnson, to secure the victory for the Bears.

In the post-game interview, Matt Nagy admitted that there was some luck involved in the win. What he viewed as luck was really sub-par play from the Lions. Injuries to the secondary and an inability to perform in the clutch led to a heartbreaking loss, something Lions fans are all too familiar with.

Since Matt Patricia took over the Detroit Lions in 2018, the Lions are 4-12-1 in games decided by seven points or fewer. The Green Bay Packers delivered two such losses to the Lions in 2019. The Lions have plenty of talent on the roster but consistently fall short. Maybe that’s just who they are under Patricia, or maybe this game will be an outlier for an otherwise successful 2020 season – I’m leaning toward the former.

Since the Packers are hosting the Lions next Sunday, let’s take an in-depth look at how they were able to deliver such a Lions-esque disappointment.

Gameplan

Inactives inevitably affect the gameplan, which was the case for the Detroit Lions on Sunday. Kenny Golladay (hamstring), Jeffrey Okuday (hamstring), and Halapoulivaati Vaitai (foot) were all unavailable for this game.

Golladay is maybe a top-ten wide receiver in this league and a huge part of the offense. Okudah was the Lions first-round pick (3rd overall) and was set to see plenty of playing time. Halapoulivaati Vaitai was signed to a 5-year $50 million this contract this past offseason, to start at right tackle. Three huge pieces were inactive against the Bears. We’ll be keeping an eye on their health throughout the week.

On the offensive side of the ball, Darrell Bevell returns as coordinator and play-caller. He has fifteen years of experience in that role, which was obvious on Sunday. After a pass-heavy game script to open the game, Bevell opened up the playbook. Leaning on the legs of Adrian Peterson, we saw a much more balanced offense. That led to more success through the second and third quarters and a big lead heading into the fourth.

When the Detroit Lions were surging, they used pre-snap motion from the shotgun, with a heavy backfield rotation, and various personnel packages. Kerryon Johnson opened the game as the starting running back but when the offense was in the groove, it was rotating between Adrian Peterson and D’Andre Swift.

On defense, Matt Patricia stuck to his guns. He operated out of a base nickel package, with three down linemen, which was successful until Trubisky performed his best Aaron Rodgers impression. Even with Okudah inactive, and Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman sidelined with hamstring injuries in the second half, Patricia clung to his Cover-one, press-man scheme.

We saw a lot of rotation along the defensive front. Even with the heavy nickel use, ten players in the front seven still managed 25% or more of the defensive snaps. When the group was healthy, Patricia used Coleman and safety, Tracy Walker, interchangeably as the nickel corner.

Jamie Collins was ejected in the 2nd quarter which pushed Jahlani Tavai into a starting role. Okudah’s absence guaranteed that Amani Oruwariye would be a starter at outside corner. That leads to the first of my three highlights from the Lions and Bears matchup

Three Highlights

  1. Questions mounting in the Lions cornerback group.

Okudah, Trufant, and Coleman will all begin the week with injury designations due to hamstring concerns. Of the four corners listed in the two-deep, only Oruwariye remains healthy. While he played every snap and was mostly effective, teams need three or even four decent cornerbacks to be successful.

Darryl Roberts debuted in the third quarter and he played well enough, highlighted by a nice pass breakup on Allen Robinson near the sideline. However, the dam really opened when Trufant came off the field. Tony McRae took over for Trufant, and he didn’t belong on the field.

We saw the proof during the Bears’ fourth-quarter comeback. The Lions will likely look to add a free agent for depth while they get healthy. They used three safeties often and there’s a good chance that they start three against the Packers, to hide their lack of cornerback depth. Things don’t look good for the Lions’ secondary.

2. Taylor Decker was worth the extension.

On September 1st, Decker and the Lions agreed to an extension netting him $85 million over the next six years, making him the 5th highest paid tackle in the NFL, on a per-year basis. The extension was a surprise to many but Decker has a great track record as a starting left tackle in the NFL.

While he’s just average in the run-game, Decker has proven to be a quality pass-blocker. He’s got quick feet and great hand-technique, which were on display on Sunday. Of his true pass sets, of which there were dozens, Decker only had two losses. Both of which were to Khalil Mack. While they only met for one-on-ones about a dozen times, two losses to a pass-rusher of Mack’s caliber is a win in my book. Mack only generated one pressure against Decker.

3. TJ Hockenson is still one-dimensional

Hockenson had a fine day as a receiver, catching all five of his targets for 56 yards and one touchdown – his touchdown reception was especially impressive. However, he continues to struggle as an in-line blocker. He lacks vision in the run-game and his footwork is a real problem. He graded as the second-worst run blocker this past weekend for all qualifying tight ends, courtesy of Pro Football Focus

The Lions’ second offensive snap is a perfect example of Hockenson’s struggles. Beginning detached from the formation, Hockenson motions in-line. He’s supposed to combo the defensive tackle, Akiem Hicks, with right guard, Jonah Jackson. However, Hockenson is late to the spot and immediately leveraged out of the contact point.

This keeps Jackson tied to Hicks and leaves inside linebacker, Roquan Smith, free to work downhill. To make things worse, Hockenson is pushed into Kerryon Johnson’s rushing path, forcing Johnson straight into Smith for a one-yard loss.

Plays like this have become all too common for Hockenson. The Lions brought in Jesse James during the offseason to assist in the run-game. James played 39 snaps to Hockenson’s 50 but that number could flip if Hockenson continues to struggle as a blocker.

Quick Hitters

With Golladay sidelined, Wisconsin product, Quintez Cephus, started as the ‘X’ receiver. He performed fine for a fifth-round draft-pick playing in his first game following a limited offseason – that’s a lot of qualifiers, but Cephus did play well. He only converted three of his ten targets but showed the same route-running ability that made him so popular in Madison.

Jason Cabinda started the game at fullback and played really well. He should get a lot of praise for the Lions ability to move the ball on the ground. Cabinda played fourteen snaps and graded as the top fullback in the NFL for the week (PFF).

After Collins’ ejection, Jahlani Tavai stepped in as the Will linebacker. The Detroit Lions transitioned him to middle linebacker and took Jarrad Davis off the field during passing situations. Tavai struggled in coverage and missed a couple of tackle opportunities. Collins won’t be suspended but it’s worth paying attention to this situation next weekend.

This was an embarrassing loss for the Detroit Lions. The Bears played horribly for three quarters, especially on offense but Detroit invited them back into the game, in typical Lions fashion, and the Bears finally showed up when it counted.

The Packers performed similarly, allowing the Vikings to stick around, but were able to put it away when in the end. If the Lions perform this poorly and the Packers perform as well as they did we could see some record-breaking offensive performances from the Packers.

I expect the Lions to tighten up along the front seven and continue to expand on the successes that they had on offense. This should be a classic Lions-Packers matchup.

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