Four Downs: Performance of Lions’ rookies a silver lining on a dreary day

Detroit News

Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 27-23 loss to the Chicago Bears.

First down

Before the start of the season, Pro Football Focus draft analyst Mike Renner projected no rookie class would be more impactful in 2020 than Detroit’s group. And while it’s understandably difficult to be excited about anything coming out of such a demoralizing defeat, the immediate returns from this crop of first-year players should be considered a silver lining. 

With Kenny Golladay banged up, the Lions leaned heavily on fifth-rounder Quintez Cephus to fill the void. That resulted in 10 targets for the rookie, and although the results weren’t quite there, you saw promising route-running ability. With a little more practice time to build chemistry with quarterback Matthew Stafford, the production should pick up. 

Along the offensive line, guard Jonah Jackson looked the part. No, it wasn’t a flawless performance — he got hit with a false start and was beat by his defender on the lone sack the line surrendered — but he was solid as a run blocker and only allowed that one pressure. 

And while the lasting impression from D’Andre Swift’s debut will be the drop in the closing seconds, the rookie running back played the most snaps in Detroit’s backfield rotation and looked comfortable with his assignments, including as a pass protector, where he struggled at times during training camp.

Swift’s two drops in the fourth quarter don’t mesh with his scouting report. Maybe it was related to the rust that built up while dealing with his hamstring injury, or simply a case of rookie nerves, but odds are the issues won’t linger. 

Overall, it was a good showing for the rookies, even with first-round pick Jeff Okudah sidelined by injury. The Lions will likely need him next week. More on that below. 

Second down

NFL teams often live and die by the play of their trenches, and coming out of the opener, there was some good news and some bad news for the Lions on that front. 

Already highlighted above with Jackson’s performance, Detroit’s offensive line had a strong debut. For the most part, they kept quarterback Matthew Stafford clean, while doing a better-than-usual job opening run lanes, particularly for Adrian Peterson. The weak link on Sunday was Tyrell Crosby, but you could reasonably expect some bumps in the road when a backup matches up against one of the best edge defenders in football. 

As for the defensive line, it didn’t deliver. The Bears were able to blow open massive lanes up the gut all day, resulting in 5.3 yards per carry. That’s going to irk coach Matt Patricia, who predicates his entire defense on stopping the run.

Additionally, the effectiveness of the pass rush continues to be far too inconsistent. Trey Flowers was steady, as usual, recording a handful of hurries and the team’s lone sack. The bigger concern is again the interior, which isn’t getting enough push into the pocket. 

Third down

In the immediate aftermath of the collapse, a frequent criticism on social media was of the conservative play-calling down the stretch. But was that an accurate reflection of reality?

Up 10 early in the fourth quarter, the Lions opened a series with a pass and threw four times on six snaps. They threw the ball on first down twice to start their next possession, as well. No, they weren’t downfield shots, in part because the Bears were playing a lot of Cover-2 to prevent those attempts, but it’s not like the Lions kept running the ball up the gut over and over. 

Detroit did run on both first and second down after the Bears cut the lead to three, trying to ride the hot hand of Adrian Peterson across the finish line. Those plays netted five yards and forced the Bears to use two timeouts. If the Lions convert on third-and-5, that likely seals the game. Instead, Stafford was baited into a bad throw, which resulted in an interception. 

If you want to be critical of a play call, it has to be Patricia’s decision to attempt a 55-yard field goal, up 10, with 4:08 remaining. At that deep stage of the game, Chicago’s longest drive was 58 yards, plus your punter was having a great day. It would have been better to force them to prove their ability to drive 85-90 yards than attempt to extend the lead from 10-13. 

The field goal, which went wide right, breathed life into the Bears’ comeback hopes. 

Fourth down

The Lions secondary has been decimated by hamstring injuries. As mentioned above, Okudah couldn’t go for his debut, while Justin Coleman and Desmond Trufant went down during the course of Sunday’s game. 

Anyone who has ever tweaked a hamstring knows how the injury can linger. At this point, the Lions can’t bank on either Trufant or Coleman being available for next Sunday’s game, which is problematic with Aaron Rodgers looming. 

Sticking with a personal script, Rodgers plays some of his best football when his detractors are the loudest. In the first game after the Packers drafted his heir apparent, Rodgers lit up the Vikings in Week 1, throwing for 364 yards, four touchdowns and zero interceptions. 

If Detroit can’t get healthy in a hurry, the weekend trip to Lambeau could turn into a bloodbath for the defense. 

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