Detroit Lions’ 2020 grades: Defense, coaching bear brunt of the blame for 5-11 season

Detroit Free Press

Dave Birkett
 
| Detroit Free Press

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So many things went wrong for the Detroit Lions this season, it’s tough to know where to begin.

Their defense was atrocious across the board. Their offense sputtered out of the gate. Their head coach was completely overmatched. And they fired their general manager both for his pick of the coach and the faulty roster he built.

The Lions went 5-11 this season, their third straight year with a losing record, and are about to embark on an offseason of wholesale change. They need a new head coach and GM, eight or so new starters on defense, and depending on Matthew Stafford’s future, maybe a new quarterback, too.

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Change is warranted after another dismal season, though Lions president Rod Wood said he thinks the team is halfway between needing to rebuild and retool.

“I do think, despite the record, we’re not as far away as it might appear,” Wood said.

How it appears is the Lions are nowhere close to being a Super Bowl contender. They lost seven games by double digits, finished in last place in their division and earned several failing marks in my end-of-season grades.

There were some noteworthy performances for sure, and the Lions had two young players named second-team All-Pro. Overall, though, these are some of the worst marks I’ve handed out in my 11 seasons covering the team.

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Quarterback

I gave Stafford a C-plus in my midseason grades, when his enthusiasm for playing either for Patricia or the Lions seemed to be waning. He had eight turnovers in the Lions’ first eight games, including two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns and a fumble in the red zone, and was struggling to push the ball downfield.

Stafford’s play picked up in the second half of the season, and particularly the final five games when Darrell Bevell took over as interim head coach. Playing through rib, ankle and thumb injuries, Stafford rediscovered his deep stroke in seeing a significant rise in his stats. He completed 66.9% of his passes under Bevell for 297.8 yards per game (not including the one series he played against Tampa) and a 106.2 quarterback rating. In the first 11 games of the season, Stafford completed 63.2% of his passes for 261.5 yards per game with a 92.7 rating.

Give Stafford credit for fighting through injury and for some of the late-game heroics he had, including brilliant two-minute and end-of-game drives in the Lions’ come-from-behind win over the Atlanta Falcons. He had too many turnovers, and they too often came at crucial moments, and that must be fixed if he returns in 2021. Backup quarterbacks Chase Daniel and David Blough threw three interceptions in limited action, reinforcing the notion that the Lions have little else at the quarterback position. Grade: B-minus

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Running backs

After a slow start to the season with eight carries for 20 yards in the first three games, D’Andre Swift emerged as the No. 1 running back. He had a breakout 116-yard rushing day against the Jaguars and flashed lead-back potential throughout the year. But Swift also had the highest drop rate (8.8%) among Lions with at least 20 catches, and made two killer mistakes: A dropped touchdown pass in the final seconds of a Week 1 loss to the Bears and a goal line fumble versus the Titans.

Swift, who led the Lions with 10 touchdowns (eight rushing), is clearly ascending as a player, while Adrian Peterson is on the decline. Peterson led the Lions with 604 yards rushing, but was mildly effective with the ball. He had his best games at the beginning and end of the season, going for 93 yards against the Bears and 63 in Week 17 against the Vikings.

Kerryon Johnson, the Lions’ leading rusher the past two seasons, played primarily in a supporting role in 2020. He is an excellent pass protector, but had one game with more than eight carries and was never given a chance to get in rhythm running the ball. Collectively, the Lions running backs lost four fumbles and had five runs of 20-plus yards, tied for second fewest in the league. Grade: C-plus

Wide receivers/tight ends

Marvin Jones gave off a vibe late in the season, in video conferences with reporters and in the Lions’ wired-for-sound video, that he has played his last game for the Lions. If that’s the case, he had a good run, and he ended his Lions career impressively: A team-high 76 catches for 978 yards and nine touchdowns. Jones is not the same deep-play threat he was when he came to Detroit, but he was the Lions’ best receiver this year, and his contributions as a blocker and decoy route runner cannot be overlooked.

Kenny Golladay, on the other hand, had the most disappointing season of any Lion, and the rest of the team’s receiving corps was average. Golladay missed 11 games with hip and hamstring injuries. He had dominant moments against Jacksonville and Atlanta, but his frustrations with Patricia and his contract situation were palpable. Danny Amendola (46 catches, 602 yards) made few impact plays in what could be his final NFL season. Marvin Hall was waived because of drop problems and a limited grasp of the playbook. And Jamal Agnew and rookie Quintez Cephus played bit roles.

At tight end, T.J. Hockenson emerged as one of Stafford’s favorite targets in Golladay’s absence. He made the Pro Bowl in his second season and drew praise from coaches for his improved route running. He still had a team-high seven drops, according to Pro Football Reference, and needs to improve as a blocker. He should be a major weapon for the Lions going forward. Jesse James had another quiet season catching the ball, but he was the team’s best blocking tight end. Grade: C-plus

Offensive line

It’s not often if ever that I’ve said this in my 11 seasons covering the team, but the offensive line might have been the Lions’ best position group. The numbers don’t reflect that. The Lions finished 30th in rushing offense (93.7 ypg) and allowed 42 sacks. But Frank Ragnow and Taylor Decker played at a consistently high level, and there were other bright spots across the front.

Ragnow earned second-team All Pro honors. He finished among the top seven centers in both pass block and run block win rate, according to ESPN, and was the Lions’ tone-setter up front. Ragnow did miss two games because of fractured throat cartilage, but played the bulk of one game through the injury and returned in Week 17 when no one would have blamed him for sitting out. Decker was almost as good as Ragnow. He allowed three sacks, according to my game charts, and eight quarterback hits all season, according to Pro Football Focus. Both should be core pieces of the Lions offense for years to come.

Jonah Jackson and Tyrell Crosby were a notch or two below Ragnow and Decker, but both had solid seasons. Jackson won the starting right guard job out of training camp without the benefit of an offseason, then flipped to left guard in Week 3, no easy task for a rookie. He drew five penalties, but only one holding call, and held his own in pass protection. Crosby spent most of the season at right tackle before missing the final four games with an ankle injury. He had some hiccups in pass protection early in the season against the Packers and later against the Panthers, but proved a capable NFL tackle in the most extensive playing time of his career.

Top free agent addition Halapoulivaati Vaitai was a major disappointment, though some struggles can be chalked up to injuries. The Lions did not do him any favors by throwing him in at guard early in the season, after he played tackle almost exclusively in training camp. Joe Dahl’s future is uncertain because of back problems. He made two fill-in starts at center but played sparingly otherwise. Oday Aboushi was modestly better than expectations as the Lions’ fifth starter most of the season. And Matt Nelson showed noticeable growth in his second year as an offensive lineman after playing defensive line in college. Grade: B-minus

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Defensive line

The Lions were subpar defensively early in the season and downright awful by the end of the year, as their struggles permeated all three levels. Up front, there were a few bright spots. Trey Flowers fractured his forearm in early November and missed the final nine games of the season, but was the Lions’ top defensive player when healthy. He forced fumbles with both of his sacks and was a plus run defender on the edge. 

Romeo Okwara had the best season of his career with 10 sacks and three forced fumbles. He is less consistent than Flowers as a run defender, but looks primed to cash in with a big free agent deal this spring. And Everson Griffen had 3.5 sacks – second most on the team, which speaks volumes about the rest of the defense – after his October trade from the Cowboys, but is best suited to be a situational rusher at this point in his career.

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On the interior of the line, the Lions were far less disruptive, which helps explain why they gave up 134.9 yards rushing per game. Danny Shelton had two tackles for loss in 12 games, and Nick Williams had one sack after posting a career-high six a season ago. Da’Shawn Hand was largely a non-factor before injuries once again ended his season. The Lions’ best interior defender was probably rookie nose tackle John Penisini, though he wore down late in the season. Grade: C-minus

Linebackers

The Lions asked a lot of their linebacking corps under Patricia, and the unit’s overall struggles were one of the biggest impediments to success. The group looked slow, lacked difference makers and struggled in pass coverage, and recent high draft picks Jarrad Davis and Jahlani Tavai were non-factors most of the season.

Jamie Collins was the Lions’ best linebacker, but privately coaches were disappointed in his leadership. Collins had a team-high 101 tackles, including six for loss, three forced fumbles and six pass deflections (second most on the team). He made a handful of big plays, like when his pass rush forced a Kyler Murray interception in Week 3, but had just as many missed tackles and coverage busts.

Tavai gave up a team-high-tying five touchdowns in pass coverage, according to Pro Football Reference, and barely made a dent against the run. Davis had some positive moments early in the season, but saw his snaps scaled back in what likely was his final season in Detroit. Reggie Ragland probably was the Lions’ second-best linebacker behind Collins, and Christian Jones turned in another replacement-level season. Grade: F

Defensive backs

The Lions were the only NFL team to give up more than 8 yards per pass play, and they tied for 30th with seven interceptions. It is true good pass defense is a marriage between rush and coverage, but the Lions had some pronounced issues on the back end, even excluding their dismal performance against the Buccaneers.

At cornerback, it was a rough season for rookie Jeff Okudah, who missed seven games with hamstring and groin injuries, the latter of which required surgery. Okudah had an important interception against the Cardinals and was effective in run support, but gave up several big plays and generally struggled in coverage. Amani Oruwariye showed signs of being a solid No. 2 cornerback, but committed a team-high seven penalties and allowed a 99.2 quarterback rating on passes thrown his way. That’s not great, but it was second best among qualifying Lions defensive backs behind safety Jayron Kearse. Desmond Trufant gets an injury related incomplete, and Justin Coleman allowed four TDs in the slot.

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Kearse, surprisingly, might have been the Lions’ best safety, yet when he was waived after breaking team rules late in the season, he went unclaimed. Duron Harmon’s season was a disappointment. He had a team-high two interceptions, but struggled immensely in late-season losses to the Titans, Bucs and Vikings. The Lions mishandled Tracy Walker this season, giving his starting job to Will Harris early in the year as they transitioned him away from his preferred position of free safety in order to get Harmon on the field. Walker gave up five touchdowns and was nowhere near as dependable as he was in 2019. Grade: F

Special teams

The Lions alternated between dominant and confusing on special teams this season. On one hand, punter Jack Fox joined Ragnow as a second-team All-Pro, Jamal Agnew had a kick return touchdown and the Lions blocked three punts. On the other, coordinator Brayden Coombs got fired for a rogue fake punt call, and Matt Prater missed seven field goals and three extra points.

Fox had an impressive season for his first year in the NFL. He set a franchise record with a 44.8-yard net punting average and was NFC Special Teams Player of the Month in September. His success punting was due in part to good coverage units. Agnew played well as a gunner down the stretch, and Tony McRae was solid in that role before tearing his ACL. Okwara, Miles Killebrew and Austin Bryant had blocked punts, and Agnew, after a slow start when teams were kicking away from him, had a big final month as a return man.

Prater, long one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers, had an incredibly odd season. He made six field goals of 50-plus yards, giving him the most long-distance field goals in NFL history, and drilled winners against the Cardinals (on a field goal) and Falcons (on a 48-yard extra point). But he missed three kicks of 40-49 yards, four from plus-50 and struggled with his PATs. The Lions have a tough decision to make about whether to bring him back in 2021. Grade: B-plus

Coaching

Patricia’s two-plus seasons as Lions coach came to a merciful end when he was fired in late November. His overbearing approach wore on players, and when losses mounted early in the season, everyone knew his time was done.

The Lions blew leads of 10-plus points in their first three losses of the year and set franchise records for points and yards allowed. In a league designed for parity, and where most games stay within one score, those struggles were a direct reflection of their head coach.

On the bright side, Patricia and his staff deserve credit for helping the organization navigate a tough year full of COVID-19 restrictions and social unrest. Young players like Swift, Nelson, Okwara and Fox showed growth promise thanks in part to their position coaches. And Bevell had a positive influence on the team, despite a 1-4 record down the stretch, after taking over as interim coach.

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But when you fire a coach with five games to play, another a few weeks later for going rogue on a punt, and lose five coaches for a game after one assistant disregards COVID protocols, there’s only one way to assess the job the staff did as a whole. Grade: F

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

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