Four Downs: Time to let Lions’ Matthew Stafford cook; no wrong answer in tanking talk

Detroit News

Justin Rogers
 
| The Detroit News

Chicago — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 34-30 win over the Chicago Bears

First down

In Seattle, “Let Russ Cook,” has become a popular catch phase that encapsulated fan frustration with the limitations the Seahawks coaching staff had seemingly put on quarterback Russell Wilson. 

But if the world was allowed to hijack Detroit vs. Everybody, we’re free to borrow this west coast sentiment and apply it to Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who hasn’t looked himself much of the 2020 season. 

The deep ball, which defined Stafford’s red-hot start to the 2019 campaign — before a back injury prematurely ended it — hasn’t been there this year. Coming into this weekend’s contest, he was averaging just 3.5 deep shots a game. 

Whenever he was asked, Stafford diplomatically explained it away as the team taking what the defense was giving him, but when your quarterback has a gun like Stafford’s, sometimes you need to unholster it and impose your will. 

Interim head coach Darrell Bevell did just that against the Bears as Stafford uncorked nine balls that traveled 20 or more yards down the field, resulting in eight gains of 20 or more yards by the offense. 

“That was really vintage Matthew Stafford right there,” Bevell said after the game. “We kind of let him play today and he just responded in a big way.”

Stafford finished with 402 yards passing. It’s the 10th time he’s hit the 400-yard mark in his career, but just the first time this season.

For the first time in a while, the Lions were fun and explosive on offense, even though they were missing some of their best offensive pieces due to injury. In 43 games with Matt Patricia as coach, the Lions scored 34 points once. It took Bevell one game to match it. 

Here’s to the coaching staff allowing Stafford to keep cooking these last four weeks. 

Second down

We don’t typically allow injuries to be an excuse in the NFL. They’re part of the game and we expect good teams to be able to overcome them. That attitude has given rise to the popular “next man up” that is echoed throughout every locker room, at every level. 

But, for a minute, let’s appreciate the situation the Lions were dealing with to beat the Bears. 

Detroit was without top receiver Kenny Golladay, who has missed four straight with a hip injury. Rookie running back D’Andre Swift, who has emerged as the team’s most dynamic offensive weapon, got out of concussion protocol just in time to be knocked out of this one with an unrelated illness. And before the first half of Sunday’s game was complete, the team found itself leaning on its third-string right tackle after Tyrell Crosby went down with an ankle injury. 

Defensively, it was arguably more dire. Big-ticket edge defender Trey Flowers remains on injured reserve with an arm injury, where he was recently joined by nose tackle Danny Shelton and cornerback Desmond Truant. And while they’re not on injured reserve, cornerback Jeff Okudah and defensive tackle Da’Shawn Hand both were ruled out for this one late last week.

That’s eight projected starters, including the team’s top two draft picks from this rookie class. It’s no wonder the defense struggled against the Bears, and, quite frankly, it’s stunning the offense didn’t do the same. 

Let’s give some credit to the coaching staff for holding this thing together with duct tape and rubber cement. 

Third down

Of all the depth pieces the Lions had to lean on in this contest, none was more impressive than Matt Nelson. 

For the second time this season, the converted defensive lineman and third-string offensive tackle was pressed into major minutes due to injuries ahead of him on the depth chart. But unlike the last time, against a talented-deficient Jacksonville Jaguars, Nelson was tasked with blocking a quality defensive line led by one of the best pass-rushers of this era, Khalil Mack. 

I’m not going to tell you that the performance should kick start a Pro Bowl campaign for Nelson, or even that he merits stronger consideration for the starting job when the roster is at full strength, but to come in and play 49 snaps, including 35 in pass protection, and not allow Stafford to get hit once, it at least deserves some recognition. 

Fourth down

There’s a debate between Lions fans following the firing of Matt Patricia, and it’s one that’s all too familiar in this town. Even though the Lions are just a game out of the NFC playoff picture, there’s a healthy percentage who would prefer the team tank, lose out and secure the best possible draft positioning for the next general manager. 

The other side wants to see where Bevell can take this thing. And despite a brutal closing stretch that begins with a home tilt against the Green Bay Packers next Sunday, those fans are genuinely curious whether the sudden culture shift is enough to result in a late-season run. 

What I want to remind you is there’s nothing wrong with either attitude. There’s no right way to be a fan and it’s best not to judge others for how they want to invest their energy into this team. Those rooting for the tank are clearly seeing things through a wider lens, while the win-now crowd revels in the immediate gratification each victory provides. But both sides ultimately want a successful team to cheer on Sundays.  

The reality is the Lions probably won’t make a run in 2020. The win over Chicago was fun, but the roster is too depleted and the upcoming competition is too stiff. Still, let’s waste little energy bickering over something so trivial after a year that’s driven so many of our spirits into the ground well outside the confines of football. 

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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