Detroit Lions grades: Matthew Stafford gets first A of season after clutch TD vs. Falcons

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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ATLANTA — Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett grades the Detroit Lions after Sunday’s 23-22 win over the Atlanta Falcons.

Quarterback

The clutch Matthew Stafford was back for the Lions. Stafford completed 25 of 36 passes for a season-high 340 yards Sunday and was at his best with time winding down at the end of both halves. Stafford led the Lions to a field goal just before halftime on a drive that started at the Lions’ 25 with 29 seconds on the clock, and he engineered the winning 75-yard touchdown drive after taking possession with 1:04 to play. Stafford spread the ball around to seven different receivers, did not commit a turnover and converted a fourth down with heads-up recognition to see a Falcons penalty. He played probably his best game of the season. Grade: A

Running backs

The Lions did not have a great day running the football, with D’Andre Swift and Adrian Peterson combining for just 56 yards on 20 carries. Swift did show good vision on his first quarter touchdown run, when he bounced outside to an open rushing lane, and he caught four passes out of the backfield. I’m not sure he could have stopped Keanu Neal given how quickly Neal got through the backfield, but Swift did have pass protection responsibilities on Neal’s third-quarter sack. Peterson, likewise, had little chance to convert a fourth-and-2 deep in Atlanta territory when Dante Fowler came flying in off the edge. Grade: B-minus

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Wide receivers/tight ends

Kenny Golladay might be the most underappreciated wide receiver in the NFL, and he proved once again Sunday why he’s worthy of a new contract. Golladay hurt his arm late in the first half but still finished with six catches for 114 yards and had a handful of man-sized grabs. Golladay went high and came down hard on a 29-yard catch on third-and-11 in the third quarter, but his most important grab was another 29-yarder with 12 seconds to play that set up the Lions’ winning touchdown. Marvin Jones (five catches, 80 yards) had his best day of the season and T.J. Hockenson scored the winner, but the unit had a few hiccups as well. Jones and Hockenson ran to the same spot on a third-and-7 incompletion in the third quarter, Jesse James had a holding penalty that negated a long Swift run (then sprung Adrian Peterson for a first down with a nice block a few plays later), and in one first-quarter sequence, Jones missed a block on Neal and Danny Amendola dropped a would-be third down conversion. Grade: B-plus

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Offensive line

The Lions did not do a good enough job creating holes for the running game Sunday. Tyrell Crosby missed a block on Tyeler Davison when Peterson was stopped for a 1-yard loss, and Halapoulivaati Vaitai let Fowler get a clean shot on Swift’s negative-yard run in the fourth quarter. On the bright side, Frank Ragnow was out front on back-to-back gains of 8 and 13 yards by Swift in the first quarter. In pass protection, the line did a solid job keeping Grady Jarrett at bay. Stafford was sacked twice, but both times Atlanta had free rushers. Up front, the Lions played a penalty-free game. Grade: B

Defensive line

The Lions stifled Atlanta’s rushing attack (26 carries, 66 yards) by using a front of Danny Shelton, Nick Williams and John Penisini on most rushing downs. Trey Flowers did not start the game, but he had two huge plays, dripping into coverage to deflect a fourth-and-5 pass with 11:57 left and recovering a Matt Ryan fumble. Romeo Okwara beat left tackle Jake Matthews to force that turnover, and he looked around Kaleb McGrary for another sack on third-and-5, when the Lions got good coverage downfield. Danny Shelton did let Matt Ryan slip out of one sack for an 11-yard completion, and Penisini missed a potentially costly tackle in the backfield late. Da’Shawn Hand has had a quiet year, but he shed a block from Luke Stocker to make a third-down run stuff early in the game. Grade: A-minus

Linebackers

Jamie Collins led the front seven with six tackles and had the quarterback pressure on Flowers’ fourth down pass deflection. Jarrad Davis, after playing a limited role in recent weeks, saw a small uptick in playing time. He had two important third down blitz pressures in the first quarter as Atlanta struggled to get its offense in track. Davis and Reggie Ragland missed tackles on Todd Gurley’s longest run of the day, a 13-yarder, and Christian Jones appeared to be the player at fault when Hayden Hurst ran free for an easy fourth-and-1 pickup in the first half. Grade: B

Defensive backs

Ryan completed 31 of 42 passes for 338 yards and would have had more if not for a couple drops. The Lions’ secondary had a bad final drive of the first half, when Calvin Ridley beat Amani Oruwariye for a 27-yard catch with the Falcons backed up in third-and-8 near their own goal line, and Jeff Okudah got beat for what should have been a touchdown at the end of the drive. Ridley carelessly stepped out of bounds on that play, then scored one play later against a busted coverage, when it appeared as if Duron Harmon covered the wrong man. Oruwariye did make a nice run stop on Gurley’s 6-yard loss in the fourth quarter, when Jones did a good job setting the edge, and Okudah drew a handsy pass interference penalty a few plays after Jayron Kearse was called for defensive holding on Atlanta’s first touchdown drive. Grade: C

Special teams

Matt Prater missed his fourth kick of the year, pushing a 46-yarder wide right in the second half, but Prater was clutch with two 50-yard kicks, a 49-yarder that gave the Lions a brief fourth-quarter lead and a 48-yard extra point to win the game. Jack Fox had another banner day kicking the ball, on both punts and kickoffs. He netted 52.3 yards a punt, had a 67-yard touchback, and the Lions’ kick cover team routinely pinned the Falcons inside their own 25-yard line. Jamal Agnew got too greedy when he brought a kick out of the end zone to start the second half and managed just 6 yards on his two punt returns. Grade: A-minus

Coaching

If the Falcons would have taken a knee on their final drive, they likely would have kicked the winning field goal as time expired. But they got greedy, and the Lions made the right decision to let them score a touchdown with 1:04 to play to give themselves a chance to win. Offensively, the Lions did not do enough against to challenge one of the NFL’s worst defenses, though Stafford came through in the clutch. Defensively, however, the personnel changes up front had their desired impact and the Lions mixed in a fair amount of zone blitzes for the second straight week. Matt Patricia made the right call to go for a fourth-and-2 even though the play failed; maybe the Lions should account for the edge rusher in the future. Patricia passed on a winnable challenge when Hayden Hurst was well short of the first down on a third quarter catch, but he played things right on the one challenge he did make when the Falcons had 12 men on the field. Grade: B-plus

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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