One play from 37-35 loss to Vikings sums up Detroit Lions’ atrocious defense

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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It’s never about one play. Not in a game and not in a season.

But when the story of the most decrepit defense in Detroit Lions history is told, one play from Sunday’s season-ending 37-35 loss to the Minnesota Vikings will explain a lot.

The Lions led the Vikings by two points with 11 seconds left in the first half when Kirk Cousins threw a long pass to Chad Beebe down the home sideline.

Beebe caught the ball between two defenders and was immediately sandwiched by hits from Justin Coleman and Darryl Roberts.

If the Lions tackled Beebe in-bounds, they would have went to the locker room with a first-half lead. The Vikings were out of timeouts and did not have enough time left to spike the ball or run their field goal unit on for a kick.

But Coleman bounced off Beebe and hit Roberts, and Beebe stayed on his feet and scampered past an unsuspecting third Lions defensive back, Duron Harmon, for the go-ahead touchdown.

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The Vikings went to the locker room leading, 21-16, and the Lions played catch-up most of the rest of the game.

“I don’t know if I want to put it all encapsulating in one play, but definitely, that was not a good play on our part,” interim Lions coach Darrell Bevell said. “We talk about fundamentals all the time, and that’s a fundamental play in terms of being in the right defense. But then you have to make that play. You can’t let that guy get out like that. You’ve got to be able to make a tackle, you can’t go for those kill shots or whatever, or think that somebody else is going to make the play. You’ve got to wrap him up and get him to the ground.”

The Lions did far too little wrapping up and even less taking to the ground, both Sunday and throughout the year.

They closed the season with their fourth straight loss, and in the process set franchise records for most points and yards allowed in a season.

The Lions entered Sunday having allowed 6,208 yards and 482 points, just shy of the all-time marks set by the winless 2008 team (6,470 yards, 517 points).

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The Vikings finished with 508 yards of offense and became the sixth team to top 35 points against the Lions this season. With the NFL moving to a 17-game schedule in 2021, the Lions set new-highs of 6,716 yards and 519 points allowed that may never be broken.

“Definitely, I don’t want to be remembered (for that),” Lions safety Tracy Walker said. “Honestly, I’m going to forget about this year, to be honest with you. I’m going to move on from this year and get better from it. That’s bottom line.”

The Lions, who clinched a top-seven draft pick with the loss and finished in last place in the NFC North for the third straight year, opened Sunday’s game by forcing punts on three straight possessions before falling into a familiar rut of problems.

Missed tackles keyed several big Vikings gains, the Lions were called for a handful of untimely penalties – including a questionable roughing-the-passer penalty on Walker after his fourth-and-goal sack appeared to get the Lions off the field on one Minnesota touchdown drive – and their secondary had no answer for a Minnesota passing game that moved the ball at will.

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Kirk Cousins completed 28 of 40 passes for 405 yards and three first-half touchdowns. Alexander Mattison scored on a 28-yard pass on fourth-and-2 late in the first quarter, when Walker missed an open-field tackle after Jahlani Tavai got beat in coverage, and Cousins threw TD passes of 4 yards to Ameer Abdullah and 40 yards to Beebe before the break.

“We talk almost every week about how one play can be the difference, and that was a great example of one play at the end of the half,” Cousins said. “You have no timeouts, they know it, they are likely going to play the sideline, take away, the ball is likely going to be thrown away, and now you’re kicking a 57-yard field goal. And suddenly Chad Beebe makes a tremendous play and is in the end zone. Certainly not what I expected, but I am glad that I threw it, and then just a great job by him.”

The Lions (5-11) took a brief lead on the opening possession of the second half, when Matthew Stafford, playing through ankle, rib and thumb injuries, threw a 26-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones.

But Mattison followed with a 2-yard touchdown run, and after a Stafford interception led to a Dan Bailey field goal that extended the Vikings’ lead to 31-23, the Lions failed on two straight potential tying two-point conversions.

Adrian Peterson’s 2-yard touchdown run cut the Lions’ deficit to 31-29 with 3:02 left in the third quarter, but the Vikings answered on a 1-yard sneak by Cousins that came two plays after Walker’s questionable penalty.

Walker sacked Cousins on fourth-and-goal from the 1, but was called for a personal foul for using his full body weight to tackle the quarterback.

“Terrible call,” Peterson said. “It’s probably one of the worst calls I’ve ever seen.”

The Lions had a chance to tie on the ensuing possession, but Stafford threw incomplete to Quintez Cephus on a two-point try after D’Andre Swift’s 2-yard touchdown run, and the Vikings ran the final 4:26 off the clock after converting a fourth-and-1 with a 16-yard toss to Mattison.

Mattison, playing in place of Dalvin Cook, who missed the game after the death of his father, had 95 yards rushing on 21 carries, and rookie Justin Jefferson had nine catches for 133 yards for the Vikings (7-9).

Stafford finished 20 of 31 passing for 293 yards and three touchdowns with one interception in what could be his final game as a Lion. The 12-year veteran has two seasons left on his contract, but has not said whether he wants to return to Detroit to take part in another rebuild.

Marvin Jones, who will be a free agent in March, had eight catches for 180 yards in perhaps his final game as a Lion.

“I’m actually proud of what we just displayed on the field,” Bevell said. “We were shorthanded in a lot of ways and the guys that went in there in the game, they gave everything they had for the game, for their teammates. So I think that’s what I’m feeling right now, just proud of what those guys did. … I know it wasn’t good enough. We did not win the game, which is always the goal, but some of the short-handedness and guys just continuing to step up and continuing to fight, that really meant a lot to me.”

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

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