This team is a roller coaster.
The Detroit Lions were spinning their tires for most of the game, but a surprisingly effective defense kept it close. With the Minnesota Vikings trying to bleed the clock, a crucial fumble gave the Lions’ life. A touchdown and two-point conversion gave them the lead, but the Lions were once again o the wrong side of a long-range game-winning field goal. The Lions fall to 0-5.
Let’s take a look at what can we take away from this loss to the Vikings?
Playing it safe didn’t work
Remember last week where people were grilling coach Dan Campbell for passing up field goals in order to go for it? Today’s game was the opposite, and the results weren’t great.
The Lions passed up a fourth-and-2 in Vikings territory for a 52-yard field goal. It was actually favored by analytics, but with just 45 seconds left in the first half, going for it would have been a reasonable aggressive move. Late in the fourth quarter, the Lions passed on a fourth-and-4 at the Minnesota 42 for a punt despite trailing 13-6. This move was not favored by the robots. In a close affair, an extra touchdown or two could have been the difference.
The Lions nearly won the game, and again, the factor at play was aggressiveness. They kicked off instead of attempting an onside kick, trusting their defense instead of chance. The Vikings absolutely botched their drive, but even if Alexander Mattison didn’t fumble, the Lions still had the stop. Following the score, the Lions went for two points to take the lead and were a missed field goal away from winning.
I don’t know if some of the conservative calls were a reaction to the previous weeks, but I hope Campbell maintains his aggressiveness. The offense is going to fail at times—they are below average, after all—but the risk puts them in a better position to win. I mentioned last week that the aggressive calls were hurting them, but that’s on the execution, not the decision-making.
Alim McNeill is turning into a legit nose tackle
Looking at the stats, the Lions gave up 113 rushing yards to Alexander Mattison. That’s normally an indictment against the defensive tackles, but Alim McNeill had a solid outing. McNeill held his own as a run defender, but his best asset today was pass rushing. On multiple plays against the Vikings, McNeill got up close and personal with Kirk Cousins. Center Garrett Bradbury was getting a workout against McNeill and it led to several check-downs or scrambles.
McNeill will never be a double-digit sack artist, nor will he tally up tons of tackles. What he does well is create havoc for other players to take advantage of. If he can continue this play, he will be an excellent cornerstone of the defense.
T.J. Hockenson is missing
Hockenson exploded out of the gate with an eight-catch, 97-yard, and one touchdown performance in Week 1 against the 49ers, and the chemistry between him and Goff looked legitimate. Hockenson has been quiet since then, and he had just two catches for 22 yards today. Over the past three games, he has just 74 yards.
There are many factors at play. Defenses could be keying in on him due to a lack of reliable receivers. Goff’s confidence to throw downfield could be lacking. Hockenson might not be 100 percent healthy. Either way, the Lions need to get him involved somehow. It’s not as easy as just throwing him the ball, but perhaps Anthony Lynn can alter the scheme to get him into advantageous situations.
Tracy Walker has quietly had a great season
A lot of blame has been put on the safeties this season, but Tracy Walker has flown under the radar. While Will Harris has struggled, Walker is playing very well under Aaron Glenn. He played a key role in forcing this Alex Anzalone interception (although the Lions failed to score any points, that’s another story):
Pending today’s game, Walker has the second-highest PFF grade behind only Julian Okwara, but Okwara has only played limited snaps. With Romeo Okwara out for the season, it seems like Walker is the best player on defense. And with free agency incoming for him, that could result in a lot of money.
The Trinity Benson trade hasn’t yielded any rewards
Coming into the season, we knew the wide receiver group was a major weakness. The early stretch of the season hasn’t been kind to that group either. Tyrell Williams is already on the Injured Reserve with a concussion, while Quintez Cephus left today’s game and did not return. The Lions need help on the outside, and nobody is really stepping up.
The Lions made a cutdown day trade to acquire Trinity Benson from the Denver Broncos, but the early returns are minimal. Benson has just 6 catches and 55 receiving yards through five games. Brad Holmes raved about Benson, citing his explosiveness and route-running as exciting aspects of his game. The Lions liked him enough to give up a fifth- and seventh-round pick for Benson and a sixth-round pick.
While expectations should be tempered for the former undrafted player only a month into his Lions tenure, he’s looked like a WR5 at best. He played 49 snaps in Week 1, but that’s fallen to around 20 in subsequent weeks. There’s nothing guaranteed about late-round picks, but with the Lions lacking depth at nearly every position, every pick could be valuable. Benson is playing like an undrafted free agent, which isn’t worth trading a draft pick for. It isn’t unexpected, but it is disappointing. You have to wonder if the Lions could have had him for free off of waivers—even if they didn’t, he seems very replaceable right now.
Williams will be eligible to return from the Injured Reserve next week, so there is an upgrade waiting in the wings. Benson has thus far failed to take advantage of a prime opportunity, and unless progress is made, he might not get another one.