| Detroit Free Press
Debating Detroit Lions at midseason; what’s on line vs. Washington?
Debating the Detroit Lions’ good and bad at midseason, and what’s on the line vs. Washington this week? Filmed Nov. 12, 2020.
Forty games into his tenure as Detroit Lions coach, it seems like the end is near for Matt Patricia.
The Lions are no better at the midpoint of this season than they were at the halfway mark of his first season in 2018. Beyond identical 3-5 records, the Lions are dealing with familiar problems such as shoddy run defense, the inability to hold a lead and not enough resilience to bounce back when things go wrong.
Patricia declined to address the years-long rut this organization has been in under his command this week, saying, “I think for us, it’s on 2020 right now.” But even taking into account only what has happened since September, the Lions are underachieving in regards to their talent and too often uncompetitive in big games (see: losses to the Packers, Saints, Colts and Vikings).
With eight games left in the regular season, the Lions likely need a miraculous turnaround to save Patricia’s job. That’s not out of the question given games against lowly Washington, Carolina and Houston the next 11 days afford them the chance to get over .500.
But as you’ll see in this year’s midseason report card, the Lions don’t have a single unit or even player that has inspired enough confidence to think that kind of change is in the cards.
Offensively, the Lions have gone eerily quiet for large stretches of games, with turnovers a major issue. Defensively, things have been worse. On the rare occasions the Lions seem to patch a hole, another one or two emerge.
“There’s a lot of plays where it’s 10 out of 11,” center Frank Ragnow said. “Ten out of 11 guys doing their job, and we just need to get — once we get to 11 out of 11 guys doing their job, then I think that’ll help us a lot.”
Ragnow was talking about the offense, but he could have been speaking for the team as a whole, with grades reflecting as much in this year’s position-by-position first half report card.
When the Lions hit the midpoint of the season last year, Matthew Stafford was playing some of the best football of his career. Then a back injury popped up out of nowhere, and after missing the final eight games last season, he has not looked the same.
Stafford has not been bad. He still is easily a top-half-of-the-NFL quarterback. But as brilliant as he was leading 2-minute and end-of-game drives in a come-from-behind win over the Atlanta Falcons, and nearly doing the same in a Week 1 loss to the Chicago Bears, he has been just as head-scratching at times with uncharacteristic turnovers.
Two of Stafford’s seven interceptions have been returned for touchdowns, and two more (plus a fumble) have come in the red zone. His completion percentage (62.6%) is at a six-year low, and he has dropped nearly a yard per pass attempt as the Lions have struggled to push the ball downfield. Along with the Falcons game, I thought Stafford was at his best in a Week 3 win over the Arizona Cardinals, when he made a couple clutch throws in the fourth quarter. He has not played particularly well the last two weeks though, and the Lions have no chance when their quarterback is mediocre. Grade: C-plus
D’Andre Swift had the lowlight of the first half, dropping the would-be winning touchdown pass against the Bears with 6 seconds to play. He has had some fits and starts as a runner; take away a 54-yard rush against the Jacksonville Jaguars on a busted defensive play and he’s averaging just 3.7 yards per carry. And he has a team-high four dropped passes, according to Pro Football Reference. But Swift has shown a surprising nose for the end zone (5 TDs) and he has been mostly solid in two-minute work.
Adrian Peterson remains the Lions’ de facto starter at running back, though Swift has more snaps and more touches in each of the last four games. Peterson was at his best in the opener, rushing for 93 yards against the Bears after a week on the team. But with a small volume of carries, he has not found a rhythm and has not been as effective in short yardage as the Lions hoped.
Kerryon Johnson, the Lions’ leading rusher the last two seasons, has been reduced to a supporting role with just 29 carries and eight receptions on the season. His biggest contributions have come in pass protection, where he stands apart from his peers. The Lions don’t have a fumble in 166 rushes by their running backs this season, which is good. But they also have just four runs of 20-plus yards, which is not. Grade: C
Wide receivers/tight ends
Kenny Golladay has followed up a breakout 2019 season in which he led the NFL in touchdown catches with a dud of a 2020 campaign. He has missed three and a half games already because of injuries and has just 20 catches at the midpoint of the season. He’s still a No. 1 receiver, and he proved as much with dominant 100-yard performances against the Jaguars and Falcons, but his absence has impacted the passing game.
Marvin Jones is averaging fewer targets per game than at any point since his missed season of 2014. He had a two-touchdown game against the Colts, but has three drops, has been the intended receiver on three of Stafford’s interceptions and has mostly become a dirty-work receiver blocking. Danny Amendola leads the Lions with 401 yards receiving, but few of his catches have been true impact plays and he has made some uncharacteristic mistakes such as picking up two 15-yard penalties and failing to get to the sticks on a third down pass last week.
It has been a mixed bag for the rest of the Lions’ receivers, as their supporting roles make them tough to evaluate. I would like to see more Jamal Agnew at slot receiver, but with just 53 yards on nine touches this season (three of them carries), the production does not warrant that. Rookie Quintez Cephus has a couple drops and seemed to not be on the same page with Stafford when he was pressed into the starting lineup with Golladay out early in the season. And Marvin Hall still has burners, but his 15% drop rate is highest among Lions receivers.
Last year, tight end play weighed down this grade, as Jesse James was a free agent disappointment and T.J. Hockenson was adjusting to his first NFL season. This year, James still isn’t playing much, though he has proven to be a solid blocker, and Hockenson has emerged as Stafford’s favorite target with 34 catches for 360 yards and five touchdowns. Hockenson still has lots of work to do in protection, but he has matured as a route runner and had nice games against the Colts and Falcons, when he caught the winning touchdown pass. Grade: C
This flies somewhat in the face of the numbers, since the Lions rank 24th in the NFL in rushing and are allowing sacks on 7.2% of their pass attempts, but I think the offensive line has been a bright spot for this team. Ragnow and left tackle Taylor Decker have emerged as upper-echelon players, and Jonah Jackson has impressed as a rookie even though the Lions have bounced him around both guard positions.
Decker, for my money, has been the team’s best lineman. He has not allowed a sack since December, though he might have been partly at fault for a sack-fumble against the Colts when the Lions had communication issues up front on one Darius Leonard blitz. Ragnow is a close second. He ranks in the top 10 in ESPN’s pass block and run block win rates (95% and 73%, respectively), and draws regular praise from coaches for his communication skills up front.
Jackson got beat for a sack in the opener by Akiem Hicks (on a play Stafford admittedly held the ball too long) and was partially responsible for another sack a week later against the Packers. But the third-round pick has shown surprising poise in playing both guard spots while under the offseason and preseason constraints of a pandemic. Tyrell Crosby has been solid, but slightly less consistent while starting most of the first half at right tackle. He’s allowed two sacks and shared in the responsibility for two others, and has outperformed the free agent the Lions paid to start over him, Halapoulivaati Vaitai.
Vaitai has been a major disappointment. He missed the first two games of the season with a foot injury and struggled mightily upon his return (when, to be fair to him, the Lions played him at right guard after having repped him at tackle all of training camp). Vaitai got trucked on a third-and-goal play last week that went for a 4-yard loss and I’ve tagged him with 4.5 sacks allowed this year. Joe Dahl has played sparingly because of injury. He played well in Week 1 against the Bears, but was not good against the Colts (two sacks allowed) in what may have been an injury-related performance. Grade: B-minus
The Lions have been pretty average on offense this season, and well below average on defense, where they’ve struggled to stop the run (148.1 yards per game) and get enough pressure on quarterbacks.
First for the good: Trey Flowers is this team’s best defensive player, even if he’s not a monster pass rusher at right defensive end. He’s an excellent edge-setter against the run, he’s relentless in his effort and he has made a few plays dropping into coverage. Flowers has forced fumbles with both of his sacks this season, but he was a non-factor against the Packers and is out now with a shoulder injury. Romeo Okwara leads the Lions with five sacks and has been disruptive in pass rush packages. He seemed to fall out of favor a year ago, perhaps because of his deficiencies as a run defender, but is a couple months away from landing a nice free agent contract.
While the Lions have gotten solid play from their top two ends, the interior of their defensive line has been less effective. Danny Shelton has one tackle for loss in eight games and has not been the troublemaking presence the Lions hoped for when they signed him as a free agent. Nick Williams has not provided any pass rush, which the Lions foolishly gambled on after his six-sack season — the only six sacks of his career — a year ago. Da’Shawn Hand had a nice game against the Falcons, but has not made any impact plays. And while John Penisini deserves credit for playing above expectations as a sixth-round pick, he is not yet a difference maker against the run. Grade: C-minus
Some of the Lions’ defensive struggles are schematic, yes, but a bigger problem is the lack of true playmakers. That’s most apparent in the linebacking room, where the group has eight tackles for loss and one takeaway — an interception by Jamie Collins — in eight games.
Collins is the Lions’ best linebacker. He has a team-high 55 tackles, four for loss, a couple pass breakups and has generally had a hand in some of the defense’s biggest plays, such as when his pass rush forced a Kyler Murray interception in Week 3. But he also has had his share of moments like last week, when he got beat for two big pass plays, one on a third-and-10, and appeared late in diagnosing a screen pass that went for a touchdown.
Outside of Collins, the unit rarely does anything that stands out. Jahlani Tavai has an unimpressive 22 tackles in 303 snaps this season. His most memorable moment was either reacting late to a pass that Nyheim Hines took for a touchdown or scrambling off the field in the same game and leaving the Lions to play a two-point conversion with 10 men on defense. Christian Jones had a goal line stop against the Vikings last week, but like Tavai rarely makes any impact plays. Jarrad Davis had his role scaled way back after a rough outing against the Packers, which actually seemed to help his play. Reggie Ragland, who had six tackles and a sack against the Saints, has been more effective than most of his cohorts in a backup role. Grade: D
It has been tough to get a read on the secondary as two of the Lions’ best defensive backs, Desmond Trufant and Justin Coleman, each missed five games (and parts of others) with a hamstring injury, and one of the safeties they are leaning most heavily on now, Jayron Kearse, was suspended for the season’s first three games.
For the cornerbacks who’ve seen the most action, it has been a roller coastert. Amani Oruwariye gave up the winning touchdown against the Bears, had two defensive holding penalties on one scoring drive by the Packers and had a rough series last week against the Vikings. He has been mostly solid in coverage, though, and gives the Lions a promising young cornerback to pair with Jeff Okudah.
The No. 3 pick of the draft, Okudah got off to a rough start. The Lions held him out of the opener with what they said was a hamstring injury, then he struggled the next two weeks against top receivers Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins. Okudah has had more downs than ups this season, but he had an important interception against the Cardinals, has been a willing and capable run defender and has shown improvement in coverage in recent weeks. Darryl Roberts, the Lions’ primary nickel corner in Coleman’s absence, has four penalties, tied with Oruwariye for most on the team.
At safety, Duron Harmon has a pair of interceptions this season and made a heads-up block to spring Okudah for a long return on his pick. He has been solid if unspectacular, and is fourth on the team with 32 tackles. Tracy Walker has had a down year after a strong 2019, something he chalked up Friday to, “life.” Walker, whose cousin, Ahmaud Arbery, was killed while out for a February jog, opened the season on the bench and has been inconsistent since he regained his starting job. He has 51 tackles and four pass breakups in seven games, but has given up touchdowns to Jimmy Graham and Jack Doyle and got beat for a long pass by Keelan Cole. Will Harris, who opened the season as starter, was relegated to a backup role after a poor outing against the Packers, when he took a bad angle on a long run by Aaron Jones and had two costly personal fouls to set up Green Bay’s go-ahead touchdown. Grade: C-minus
Like everything else in their 3-5 start, the Lions have gotten mixed performances from their special teams. Jack Fox has excelled as a punter and the Lions have three blocked punts as a team, something they have not accomplished since 1975. But Matt Prater has struggled on field goals, missing six kicks this year.
Fox is netting an impressive 47.7 yards per punt, easily ahead of Johnny Hekker’s NFL record (46.0 yards). Fox is a candidate for regression in the second half as a first-year punter, but he was NFC Special Teams Player of the Month in September and is a big reason why the Lions have controlled field position in most games. Tony McRae deserves mention for his play as a gunner, though he’s out for the season with a torn ACL. On punt rush, Okwara, Miles Killebrew and Austin Bryant have blocks this season, and Killebrew, as usual, has been one of the best Lions’ top players on kick coverage.
Prater’s struggles are bit head-scratching. He’s had plenty of distance on all his kicks, but has lacked his usual precision. He made the winning 39-yard field goal as time expired to beat the Cardinals, and kicked a 48-yard extra point to win against Atlanta. But he’s just 2 of 5 on tries of 50-plus yards and has miss-hit balls the last two weeks. Grade: B-plus
It must be said that this has been an incredibly difficult year to navigate, with COVID-19 restrictions limiting offseason work and training camp, and the social unrest of the summer. In that regard, Patricia and his staff deserve credit for how they’ve handled things. They’ve made players feel safe coming to work and given them the platform to use their voice off the field. That matters to players, but there’s a disconnect between that and what’s happened on the field.
Too often, the Lions have seemed overwhelmed by good teams. They were non-competitive for large stretches of losses to the Packers, Saints, Colts and Vikings, and would have lost to the Falcons if not for inexcusable coaching gaffes by interim Atlanta coach Raheem Morris. Some of the Lions’ personnel decisions have been head-scratching — playing Harris over Walker to start the season, for instance, and starting Vaitai over Crosby at right tackle against the Colts — and Patricia’s game management has been costly at times, such as when he opted for a long field goal rather than punt and pin a struggling Bears offense deep in Chicago’s Week 1 comeback.
Give Patricia and defensive coordinator Cory Undlin credit for the game plan they devised to stop Kyler Murray and the Cardinals, and Undlin has shown a willingness to mix up his approach by week. The Lions found some success against the run by giving Penisini more time, only to revert back to their old struggles the last two weeks.
Offensively, Darrell Bevell’s offense has been hamstrung by Golladay’s injuries and the fact that opponents don’t seem to respect the Lions’ play-action pass, but he has had familiar problems, too, where he has run out of answers after good opening-game scripts. On special teams, Brayden Coombs’ aggressive approach plays well, and his unit has been a bright spot in another dismal year.
Overall, this team has underachieved through eight games, and while this does not absolve players of their share in the mess, Patricia and his staff deserve a large share of the blame. Grade: D-plus