Four Downs: Did the Lions get an up-close look at a candidate to be their next head coach?

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
| The Detroit News

Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 20-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

First down

If you came here looking for another piece calling for the jobs of Matt Patricia and Bob Quinn, you’re going to be disappointed. That’s not because I believe there’s any viable defense for either the coach or general manager, but there’s nothing really to add to the situation. We knew, before the season, what the expectations were. And barring some kind of miraculous, six-game winning streak starting on Thanksgiving, there’s not much they can do to save themselves.

The plug wasn’t ever going to be pulled this Monday, just given the short week of preparation ahead for this week’s Thanksgiving game. But Friday? That feels like a real possibility, just like it did ahead of the Jacksonville and Washington games. A win against Houston likely buys another stay of execution, but a loss leaves little reason to wait.

For now, we’ll just let Wojo’s column from after the game fill your needs on the topic of changes at the top.

That said, sooner than later, we’re going to have to start looking toward the future and what’s next. And while I’ve been working on curating a list of potential candidates for both job positions, those will remain unpublished until the team actually pulls the trigger. But since this is a reflection on Sunday’s game, it’s worth mentioning one candidate: Carolina offensive coordinator Joe Brady.

Let’s be real, this era of NFL football is built around offense. The Kansas City Chiefs are Super Bowl champs and the gold standard, while the rest of the league is just trying to keep up in the arms race. NFL franchises are searching for bright, young offensive minds to lead their franchises with Sean McVay and Kliff Kingsbury as the poster boys of the movement.

That brings us to Brady, who certainly fits the mold.

Plucked from the college ranks by Carolina coach Matt Rhule — another offensive-minded, first-year coach — after helping orchestrate one of the most prolific offensive attacks in recent NCAA history at LSU, Brady also has the unique pedigree of working under Sean Payton, one of the league’s standard bearers of this era of offense, along with Andy Reid and Bruce Arians.

Watching Carolina’s game plan yesterday, playing without star running back Christian McCaffrey and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Brady did what coaches always talk about being the key to success; he put his players in the best position to success.

With quarterback P.J. Walker, making his first professional start, Brady started him off with quick, short throws to calm the nerves and keep Walker from unnecessarily scrambling. That confidence built throughout the game into deep shots and a handful of trick plays, which kept the Lions off-balance.

Detroit, meanwhile, actually ran a read-option with quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was nursing a thumb injury. In what world does that play call make sense?

This isn’t an endorsement of Brady, who is 31 and short on experience. There’s more research to be done on that front and there are plenty of other candidates who merit attention, but if we’re strictly talking about trends, the Lions should intend on taking a hard look at the up-and-comer.

Second down

Speaking of trick plays, the Lions tried to run one of their own in the third quarter, and it proved to be one of the game’s pivotal points.

Down 14-0 and desperate to keep things close, coordinator Darrell Bevell dialed up a shot play that saw Stafford toss the ball to running back Kerryon Johnson, who threw it back to Stafford, setting up a 51-yard touchdown bomb to Marvin Jones.

It was a well-designed play and equally well-executed, with left tackle Taylor Decker able to block out the only pass-rushing threat. But the score was wiped out by a penalty for illegal formation.

And while people will be quick to dump on the coaches for the error, this is one where the fundamental breakdown falls squarely on the shoulders of the players, or, more specially, Jones.

Football is full of nuanced rules that gives the game structure. That includes where and how players line up. Within that subset of rules, if a tight end next to the offensive tackle is on the line of scrimmage before the snap, any receiver outside of him on the formation must be a step back off the line. If the receiver is on the line this is called covering the tight end.

There’s simply no excuse for Jones to make this error. He’s been in this league a decade and knows exactly where he should line up in these situations. Maybe he got caught over-thinking, based on the uniqueness of the play call and knowing the ball was coming to him, but if you don’t line up correctly, nothing else matters.

Nothing went right for the Lions on Sunday, but there was still a flicker of hope when Jones came up with the catch in the end zone. That flag took what little wind was left in the team’s sails, not just for this game, but for the season.

Third down

Earlier last week, we covered the unique opportunity for Lions fans to get a look at a pair of players the team passed on in the two most recent drafts — defensive end Brian Burns and defensive tackle Derrick Brown — along with an opportunity to compare and contrast them with T.J. Hockenson and Jeff Okudah, Detroit’s selections those years.

Obviously one game means little in the grand scheme of things, but the point goes to the Panthers this week.

Okudah had a rough day, particularly in coverage, where he gave up six catches on six targets, including a 52-yard reception to D.J. Moore where the young corner was soundly beaten on a go route. Brown didn’t have a performance to write home about, but he was solid, and when the Panthers were able to ratchet up the pressure in the second half, he played a role, hitting Stafford twice.

As for the Burns/Hockenson comparison, that contrast stood out a bit more. Sure, the Lions tight end finished with a team-high 68 yards receiving, but most of that came on two catches in the second half, when the Lions were already down two scores.

Early in the game, a pair of third-down targets to Hockenson resulted in incompletions and killed drives. On the first, he couldn’t get enough separation and with the second, he dropped the throw.

Burns, meanwhile, was a nightmare. He finished the game with two sacks and two additional QB hits. For comparison, the Lions defense combined for one sack and one QB hit in the loss.

Fourth down

Burns’ sacks came at the expense of Decker and were the first the blindside blocker has allowed this year. It was an impressive run for the veteran offensive lineman, who has had a stellar campaign after signing a massive contract extension just before the start of the season.

And while one game doesn’t diminish the overall success, it does significantly cool last week’s talk about a potential Pro Bowl selection. The same goes for center Frank Ragnow, who has been nothing but solid this season, but got hit with a holding penalty on a third-down play and later screwed up a snap that resulted in a turnover.

About the only Lions player who has a realistic shot at the Pro Bowl is Jack Fox, who had another good day, repeatedly pinning Carolina deep in their own territory.

Unfortunately, his pursuit of the league’s single-season record for net punting took a hit — assuming you care about such things — because the Lions kept putting him in situations where he could only boot the ball between 35-40 yards to avoid touchbacks.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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