Four Downs: Lions’ offense, pass rush figure out working formula

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 34-16 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars. 

First down

Do you know the last time the Lions scored 34 points in a game? It was the season finale in 2017, Jim Caldwell’s last game as coach. In that otherwise meaningless contest, the Lions dropped 35 in a home victory over the Green Bay Packers. 

The offense took a major step back the following season and despite some bright spots last year, it went in the tank after quarterback Matthew Stafford was sidelined by a season-ending back injury. 

In the 36 previous games under Matt Patricia, the Lions scored 30 or more points just six times, peaking with 32 in a victory over the Miami Dolphins in 2018. Some of the blame falls under the banners of personnel and execution, but plenty also goes to ball control being a pillar of Patricia’s offensive philosophy. 

An offensive philosophy must be married to what your team does well, and grinding out victories typically works best when you have an effective ground game and solid defense. That’s two things Detroit has long lacked.

That’s made for a frustrating recipe for the Lions, who had developed a knack for blowing double-digit leads during Patricia’s tenure because of the inability to keep the pressure on offense as much as anything else. 

Against the Jaguars, the Lions flashed their unnerving, conservative approach to start the second half, running it twice with little success to set up a third-and-long. Forced to throw on third down, Stafford’s pass was batted near the line of scrimmage and intercepted deep in their own territory. Against a better opponent, that could have easily been a turning point. 

But in this game, the defense repeatedly stepped up. As did the run game. To the point at hand, the best adjustment the Lions made going forward was avoiding the run, run, pass formula on first through third down, at least until the fourth quarter, once the lead had been extended to three scores. 

The Lions aren’t going to put up big points like this often. It’s just not who they are, despite having the weapons to stress opposing defenses every down. But there shouldn’t be such a significant gap between what the Lions are doing and the NFL’s top offenses. At 33.8 points per game, the Seattle Seahawks are essentially averaging what the Lions scored Sunday every week.

Points are up across the league this season. Seven teams are averaging more than 30 and, not surprisingly, they’ve combined for a 27-8 record.

We talk about the need for Detroit’s defense to be better, for obvious reasons, but this victory also serves as a reminder that the offense hasn’t been producing near well enough either. 

Second down

There was a perception the Lions blitzed more than normal on Sunday, and when they did blitz, it was highly effective. But neither turned out to be true. According to data tracked by Pro Football Focus, the Lions sent an extra rusher on nine of Gardner Minshew’s 47 drop backs (19.1%, on par with their season average). And on those plays, he completed 7 of 9 throws. 

That explains why Patricia praised the Jaguars quarterback immediately after the game for escaping some difficult situations in the pocket. 

But what is true is the Lions got far more pass-rush pressure than normal. Furthermore, it wasn’t coming from a concentrated source. Again referencing PFF, a dozen different defenders disrupted Minshew, proving the Lions found creative ways to successful pressure the quarterback by just rushing four. 

Maybe it was a symptom of feeling more comfortable against a pocket passer, as opposed to the string of dual-threats they saw to start the year, but it’s an area the Lions will need to continue to have success if they want to turn this thing around. 

Third down

One of the most remarkable aspects of Sunday’s victory was the performance of the offensive line. Because of heat-related issues for both right tackle Tyrell Crosby and right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai, the Lions had to play all eight of their offensive linemen, including wildly inexperienced offensive tackle Matt Nelson, who only  converted from playing defensive line as a rookie last season. 

But despite an afternoon filled with mixing and matching — one where Nelson and Oday Aboushi, the fourth guard on the depth chart, each played 46 snaps — the group held together remarkably well. 

Yes, there were some penalty issues, but the line didn’t allow a single sack and gave up just seven total pressures on Stafford’s 37 drop backs. And while the backs, tight ends and receivers also had a role, the offensive line certainly played its part in Detroit’s season-high 180 yards on the ground. 

And while credit first and foremost goes to the players for being prepared for the day’s demands, position coach Hank Fraley also deserves praise for having his group ready to meet the challenge. 

Fraley, in his first season running the room, has done impressive work with his group. He has multiple linemen, including veteran left tackle Taylor Decker, playing at the best level of their careers. The coach also helped get rookie Jonah Jackson up to speed quickly enough to be an adequate Day 1 starter. But this week’s performance was an exclamation point on how much Fraley has done to build competent depth across the board.  

Fourth down

At cornerback this offseason, the Lions brought in a former Pro Bowler in Desmond Trufant and drafted Jeff Okudah higher than any player at the position in the past two decades. But despite expectations built around that pairing, Amani Oruwariye has been the team’s most consistent performer. 

In his second season out of Penn State, Oruwariye continued to stack good performances on top of one another, delivering one of his best overall outings of his young career against the Jaguars. 

Covering Jacksonville’s underrated tandem of DJ Chark and Keelan Cole, Oruwariye was targeted in coverage 10 times on Sunday, but only allowed two receptions for 12 yards.

On the flip side, he broke up three passes, including one in the end zone and another, a deep ball, where he recovered to separate the ball after being beat early in the route. 

As for Okudah, he got badly worked over on a double-move early in the game, but bounced back to have his best game this season. He gave up four more catches the rest of the day, but those grabs only netted 26 yards.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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