Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 23-22 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.
Another week brings another reminder the Lions need to pay Kenny Golladay.
Since returning to the lineup after missing the first two games of the season with a hamstring injury, Golladay has either caught a touchdown or gone over 100 yards receiving each of the past four games. Whether it’s through his own abilities as a big-play threat, or the coverage he dictates from opposing defenses, the Lions deep-passing attack has sparked back to life since he’s been back in the fold.
And it’s no coincidence the Lions are 3-1 since his return.
Golladay’s game is predicated on his size and making contested catches. He’s never going to be a guy who consistently wins with separation, but he continues to prove that’s not an issue.
In fact, he’s been as efficient as ever, hauling in better than 70 percent of the balls throw his direction. Against Atlanta, all six of his grabs were contested catches.
Tight end T.J. Hockenson described it best.
“When the ball is in the air, it’s not 50-50 with Kenny, it’s almost 100 percent to him,” Hockenson said.
In the first half against Atlanta, Golladay demonstrated the physical sacrifices he’s willing to make to come up with a ball in traffic, leaving his feet even though he knew he would take a big hit in the air.
“As far as the catch, any time the ball is in the air, you know, I want it to be mine,” Golladay said. “It has to be mine. I just gotta make that play and I’m grateful when Staff always gives me an opportunity to make the play.”
Yes, the Lions have the franchise tag with their disposal, but there’s not reason to let it get to that point, potentially creating unnecessary discontent with one of their most-important players. Golladay has played out his rookie deal at a bargain rate and now it’s time to reward him for his steady contributions and improvement.
When we’ve talked about the pass-rush ability of Trey Flowers in the past, we’ve had to separate his middle-of-the-road sack numbers with the impressive amount of overall pressure he generates on opposing quarterbacks. Of course you’d love to see those hurries and hits translate into more sacks, but that just hasn’t been the reality.
And in many ways, you could say the same thing about Romeo Okwara.
In 2019, for example, Okwara got pressure on the quarterback 34 times. That’s not an elite number, by any means, but respectable given his responsibilities within the team’s defensive scheme. But of those 34 pressures, he only netted 1.5 sacks. By any measure, that wasn’t good enough.
But Okwara has quietly taken his game to another level this season. Well, maybe not so quietly after his performance against Atlanta. His 2.0 sacks in the victory give him 4.0 on the year, putting him on pace for a career-high, while his pressure total has been through the roof.
In six games, Okwara has racked up 23 pressures on the quarterback. And in terms of how frequently he’s affecting the QB, Pro Football Focus ranks him as the sixth-most efficient edge rusher in the NFL through this stage of the season.
And here’s where it gets wild. Okwara is only 25 years old. He’s still scratching the surface on his ability. Additionally, like Golladay, he’s on an expiring contract. So the Lions have another big financial decision to figure out this offseason.
A few years back, it felt like Matthew Stafford was leading some kind of crazy comeback every other week, but that element of his game has been largely dormant during Matt Patricia’s tenure as coach.
Pro Football Reference credited Stafford with four game-winning drives since 2018 prior to yesterday’s win, including the team’s 23-20 win over Arizona early this season, but when was the last time Stafford led a game-winning touchdown drive in the closing minutes of regulation?
You have to go back four years, to Oct. 23, 2016.
The situations were almost identical. Against Atlanta, the Lions had 64 seconds. In that 2016 game against Washington, 65. Both drives started at the Lions’ 25-yard line, and with both, a pair of 20-plus yard completions set up the game-winning score.
After Sunday’s game, Falcons’ running back Todd Gurley talked about Stafford’s reputation in the clutch, but the reality is we haven’t seen it enough in recent years. In 2016, Detroit’s ability to overcome late deficits proved contagious and fueled a postseason berth, the franchise’s last.
As the Lions look to get back into the thick of the playoff race this year, they’ll likely need that rediscovered moxie of their unquestioned leader.
Speaking of the playoffs, it’s obviously still early, but now that the Lions have clawed back to .500 on the season, it’s worth looking how things are setting up in the NFC.
And what you quickly realize is Detroit has a long road ahead if they hope to qualify for the postseason. Currently, they’re 10th in the conference, a game behind the San Francisco 49ers in the win column.
The top of the NFC is loaded, with five teams already at five wins and perennial contenders San Francisco, Los Angeles and New Orleans all sitting on four victories.
The Lions did what they had to do the past two weeks, besting struggling opponents to get on track. Fortunately, there’s plenty more where that came from. Among the team’s next five games, only next week’s opponent, the Indianapolis Colts, has a winning record.
If Detroit can keep its momentum going and beat Indianapolis, there’s a legitimate opportunity to get on a roll. And with so many quality teams ahead of them in the standings, and a tough finishing stretch against Tennessee, Green Bay and Tampa Bay, they’ll need it.