Minneapolis — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 19-17 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
There’s an interesting dichotomy to Lions coach Dan Campbell I’ve been struggling to figure out. On offense, he’s wildly aggressive, at times more so than he probably should be. The fourth-down decisions in Chicago are a prime example of that.
That said, Campbell’s aggression paid off in a big way against the Vikings when he opted to go for two and the win after D’Andre Swift’s touchdown run in the final minute of the game. That’s a gutsy call, against an imposing defensive front with a variety of blitz looks, yet his players rewarded his faith with a conversion to go up one.
But Campbell doesn’t show similar aggression with his defense in those same “gotta have it” situations. I can’t be alone in thinking that’s a confusing contrast.
For the second time in three weeks, in nearly identical losses, the Lions leaned on a classic prevent-style defensive look, rushing three and dropping eight into coverage as they attempted to desperately cling to a lead in the final seconds. And both times, the strategy failed.
During his press conference after the game, I asked Campbell, why doesn’t his aggression carry over to his end-of-game defensive strategy. The question genuinely seemed to catch him off-guard.
“Yeah, I don’t know,” he said after a pause. “That’s a good question, it really is. That’s a good question. There again, I just think, you have to make a decision on what you think’s best, your guys versus their guys, versus pressure, versus coverage, versus who needs help.”
He went on to provide a detailed schematic answer, explaining protections and the risks of not getting home when rushing more than three in those situations. That perspective added insight, but the answer to the question was the first part of the quote, Campbell is scheming around what he knows about his team.
And what he knows, and we know, is the secondary is young, inexperienced and still a ways away from figuring it out. This game was unquestionably a better performance from the group, but Campbell’s aggression on offense is rooted in his faith in that’s unit’s ability to execute a single play. On the other hand, the lack of aggression on defense is a reflection that same trust hasn’t been earned from the defensive backfield.
That’s why Campbell and coordinator Aaron Glenn rush three. By dropping an extra defender, they’re trying to cover up a weakness they’re working weekly to solve through development. Even still, the end-game strategy hasn’t been enough to get the stop.
A second viewing of the game did offer some promising developments from that secondary. First and foremost, safety Tracy Walker had his best game of the season and arguably one of his best in a Lions uniform.
This offseason, Walker was the poster child for the changing culture within the organization. Defeated and downtrodden by the way he was utilized by the previous regime, it was like talking to a different person during the summer, one revitalized and optimistic about their future.
That attitude has translated to the field as Walker already had been one of the more consistently reliable players on defense. Pro Football Focus had him graded as the 12th-best at his position, heading into Sunday’s game.
Against Minnesota, Walker consistently flew to the ball, making plays all over the field. He finished with a season-high nine tackles, including seven solo stops. What isn’t reflected in the box score was how hard some of those hits were, which helped set an often-absent physical tone for the entire unit.
Additionally, Walker made one of the game’s biggest plays in coverage, reaching around a receiver to deflect a pass that was ultimately intercepted by teammate Alex Anzalone, ending a Vikings scoring threat deep in Lions territory.
The Lions face an interesting decision with Walker, who is a pending free agent at season’s end. His play this year is closer to his 2018 and 2019 performances, when he looked to be a foundational piece, before dropping off a cliff in a new role a year ago. With so few quality pieces in the back end, locking him up wouldn’t be the worst move.
In addition to Walker, it was another solid performance for rookie nickel AJ Parker. Yeah, he had an ugly missed tackle when he bounced off Vikings running back Alexander Mattison when trying to run through him instead of wrapping him up, but it was an isolated error for the hard-charging slot cornerback, who also set a season-high in tackles with seven, many of which came doing the dirty work in run support.
Jerry Jacobs also showed some promise in his first start. He was culpable for some of the coverage issues on Minnesota’s game-winning drive, but overall, there’s plenty of positive film to build off of for the undrafted rookie.
After tinkering with the rotation through the first quarter of the season, this felt like the game where offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn and running backs coach Duce Staley found the best rhythm to the running back rotation.
Jamaal Williams got the start, but D’Andre Swift found himself in the game on the second and third snaps. The two switched off regularly, at least until late in the game, when the Lions were once again in frantic comeback mode and forced to lean more heavily on Swift.
He ended up dominating the final snap count, playing 50 reps compared to Williams’ 22, but both found adequate touches and did well to maximize their opportunities. Between his 11 carries and six targets in the passing game, Swift was the focus of more than a quarter of Detroit’s offensive snaps. Williams, meanwhile, got the ball 68% of the plays he was on the field.
The final result was 169 yards from scrimmage, 4.5 yards per carry and a rushing touchdown. That’s backfield production you can win with.
After another heart-breaking loss, the Lions are forced to pick up the pieces and move forward, knowing they have 12 more games this season. Outside the building, the doom-and-gloomers on the far end of the spectrum are whispering about the possibility of an 0-17 campaign, but that’s highly unlikely, even with the mounting injuries and difficult remaining slate of opponents.
So where does the first win come? Well, next week against Cincinnati isn’t out of the question. The Bengals are much improved this year, but that’s another young team just figuring out how to win, so they’re still susceptible to an upset.
A road game against the Los Angeles Rams, and some guy named Matthew Stafford, is an even bigger stretch.
No, if you ask me, a home tilt against the Eagles on Halloween seems like the prime spot for the Lions to stop the bleeding. Sure, Philadelphia has a couple of wins under their belt, including an impressive one over Carolina on Sunday, but they’re still an inconsistent team with no offensive identity.
If the Lions can avoid the turnovers that have cost them three of the past four weeks, I think that’s the one. Feel free to mark the prediction in your diaries.