Detroit Lions film review: I owe Will Harris an apology

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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I owe Will Harris an apology, and someone ought to get the second-year Detroit Lions safety an Academy Award, too.

I put Harris, a Detroit Lions safety, on my stock-down list after Sunday’s win over the Atlanta Falcons because, I wrote, “Harris almost declined the gift (Todd) Gurley gave the Lions” by trying to tackle the running back before he scored on a 10-yard run with 1:04 to play.

Gurley’s touchdown opened the door for the Lions’ wild comeback, and after rewatching the play and learning more about the Lions’ approach to their final defensive snap, it’s possible neither the touchdown nor the comeback would have happened if not for Harris.

Yes, Harris half-attempted to tackle Gurley before he got to the end zone, and his attempt might have went a tad further than it should have. But it seems his mock tackle, at least, was part of the Lions’ devious and well-coached plan to coax Gurley across the goal line.

“There’s definitely some coaching points in there that are critically important that we do try to emphasize in those situations,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said, without addressing Harris’ role specifically. “Those are tough moments, I think, on both sides of the ball and certainly, offensively, I think there’s situations in there where it’s hard when someone’s coming at you and they’re going to hit you really hard to stop your momentum. So sometimes you can try to use that a little bit to your advantage if you can get it just right.”

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Harris got it exactly right Sunday, 

Playing as a box safety to the left of the line, he was in the perfect spot to give Gurley the extra nudge he needed to score.

To recap: The Lions led 16-14 with 1:12 on the clock, no timeouts in their pocket and the Falcons facing a first-and-goal at the 10.

Atlanta could have taken two knees to spot the ball in the middle of the field — or on kicker Younghoe Koo’s preferred hash — and won the game with a chip-shot field goal.

For some reason, interim head coach Raheem Morris called for a handoff to Gurley instead.

“We wanted to take the knee on the 1,” Morris explained after the game. “He obviously tried and he fell in the end zone at the last second there, getting tripped up a little bit.”

More than trip-up Gurley, Harris essentially rode him into the end zone, seducing Gurley into thinking he was being tackled so the running back kept his momentum moving forward until he could not stop himself from scoring.

The Lions, playing out of a six-man defensive front, gave Gurley a clear path to the second level while engaging with Atlanta’s offensive line to at least give the appearance they were trying to prevent a score.

Jarrad Davis, who was lined up 5 yards off the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field, made a halfhearted attempt at an arm tackle on Gurley near the 7-yard line, just as Harris hit Gurley from the back.

Now, this is where things get a little murky on how far Harris was supposed to go, but rather than bring Gurley to ground, Harris let the running back carry him for 4 yards before pulling off. Gurley’s momentum took him the next 2 yards, and as he tried to fall sideways at the 1, the nose of the ball crossed the goal line for a touchdown.

Comically, Harris and several of his Lions teammates celebrated Gurley’s score, pointing at the end zone or signaling touchdown, while Gurley lay face down on the Mercedes-Benz Stadium turf.

“I was trying not to (score),” Gurley said. “My momentum took me in. It’s kind of crazy. The last time I played Detroit (with the Los Angeles Rams in 2018), I went down (at the 2 after a long run while trying to kill time). This time, I end up scoring. It’s like, what goes around comes around.”

Gurley said he’s been in “six or seven” similar situations in his career and “I’ve always gotten down.”

Patricia noted after the game that he has been in similar situations before, too.

“Unfortunately, I’ve been in that situation before in a very large game and it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to,” he said. “So I’m glad this one did.”

In Super Bowl XLVI, Patricia was the New England Patriots safeties coach and de facto defensive coordinator when the Patriots let New York Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw score on a 6-yard run with 57 seconds to play.

Like Atlanta, the Giants were trailing at the time, 17-15, and though the Patriots had one timeout left, the Giants would have been able to run out the clock and kick a short field goal as time expired.

Defensively, the coaching points on allowing a free touchdown appear to have changed. The Patriots did not feign a tackle attempt on their play, and no one jumped on Bradshaw’s back before he fell backward into the end zone after trying to stop at the 1.

New England got a final possession in the Super Bowl, but could not answer with a touchdown and lost, 21-17.

On Sunday, Matthew Stafford had just enough time to answer for the Lions, leading an eight-play, 75-yard drive that covered the final 64 seconds and culminated with an 11-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Hockenson as time expired.

If not for Gurley’s touchdown, and perhaps Harris’ help, that would not have been possible.

“Unbelievable plays all around made by our team,” Stafford said. “Great plays on defense. Shoot, letting them score. I had my helmet on thinking the game was probably going to be over. They let them score, gave us a chance, that’s all we needed. Proud of those guys for making that play.”

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

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