Four Downs: Lions not Swift enough mixing up run-game play calling

Detroit News

Pittsburgh — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 16-16 tie with the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday.

First down

Prior to Sunday, D’Andre Swift had never carried the ball more than 16 times in his brief professional career. And even during his 43-game stretch at the University of Georgia, he only topped 20 carries three times. He’s simply never been treated like a workhorse, but against the Steelers, the Lions leaned harder on him than ever before, handing it to him 33 times.

Understand, everyone has wanted to see what Swift was capable of doing with more touches, and the final stat line was impressive, but it was clear he was hitting something of a wall down the stretch.

As the Steelers sold out to stop Detroit’s ground game, Swift had two no-gain runs, as well as losses of 4 and 5 yards in the fourth quarter.

With Jamaal Williams sidelined with a thigh injury, it’s understandable why the team would want to lean on one of their only dynamic playmakers, but it’s at least a little troubling coach Dan Campbell didn’t find more reps for backup Godwin Igwebuike.

Yes, he’s still inexperienced after making the switch from safety this offseason, but he’s unquestionably had a hot hand recently. Against Philadelphia a couple weeks back, he turned six touches into 58 yards, and he popped off back-to-back gains of 14 and 42 on Sunday, with the latter going for a touchdown.

Yet after that score early in the third quarter, Igwebuike didn’t touch the ball again on offense. In fact, he finished with just four offensive snaps. It’s confounding to see that underutilization, in spite of the production, contrasted against the overreliance on Swift.

Campbell didn’t really have a good answer for why when asked after the contest.

“It’s hard to take Swifty out if he’s ready to go,” Campbell said. “That’s all. But certainly we trust these guys. We wouldn’t have put Godwin in had we not. Swift had some good runs and did some good things, so really, if you’re asking, yeah, it probably would’ve been good to get Godwin a couple more carries, you know? It would have been good.”

Despite being ruled out, Williams traveled with the team and did some sprints and cuts before the game, suggesting he’s close to returning. Once he does, Igwebuike’s opportunities figure to evaporate, but it was the Lions who missed an opportunity to maximize his contributions in this game.

More: Wojo: Lions find a way to run, but not a way to win

Second down

Speaking of an overreliance on Swift, what was with Campbell’s third-down play calling? After the game, we were repeatedly told the forecast heavily factored into the game plan, but even before Jared Goff strained his oblique muscle attempting a deep throw late in the first quarter, and before the rain started to come down, the Lions had no interest in putting the ball in the air in obvious passing situations on third down.

Whether it was reverence for Pittsburgh’s defense, or a lack of faith in Goff’s ability to work the ball beyond the sticks, the Lions ran on third-and-12 and third-and-4 before the injury and on third-and-3 and third-and-goal from the 8-yard line later in the first half. They converted just one of those four plays, and the only time Goff threw on third down the first two quarters, he completed a pass to Amon-Ra St. Brown short of the line to gain.

In his postgame comments, Goff referenced the game plan calling for runs, even in situations where the team typically wouldn’t. Sorry, that’s a ridiculous strategy. Yes, Swift has danced his way to some third-and-long conversions on draw plays this season, but that’s not a high-percentage play.

To me, this was a further indictment of Goff. Actions speak louder than words and the team isn’t showing the same confidence with their play-calling as their public proclamations about the quarterback’s abilities.

Third down

Before the game, I was watching kicker Ryan Santoso intently. Promoted off the practice squad this week to replace injured starter Austin Seibert, there was reason to believe Santoso could have a critical role in a matchup between the two low-scoring teams.

In warmups, I watched him easily drill a 54-yard field goal, before switching directions and banging 49- and 51-yard efforts off each upright. Distance and trajectory weren’t an issue, but it was still dry without much wind.

As the rain picked up, Santoso faltered. He sent a PAT wide right in the third quarter before his brutal 48-yard attempt in overtime, which would have given the Lions the win, came out low and fell well short.

I’ve watched the replay of the botched kick a dozen times and it’s difficult to see what went wrong. The snap and hold were excellent, and Santoso appears to strike the ball at the right spot. Some grass kicked up at contact, so if anything, he caught it fat, hindering his follow through.

The rain didn’t stop Pittsburgh’s Chris Boswell from hitting a 51-yarder in second half, but there’s a confidence that comes with having experience in the conditions, particularly the less-than-stellar turf at Heinz Field. You would hope Santoso, who played collegiately in the Big Ten, would have been similarly prepared, but the moment was too big and he was too inexperienced, having not attempted a field goal longer than 35 yards as a professional.

It’s easy to be empathetic in the difficult situation, but with Seibert out for at least two more games, and another outdoor contest (Cleveland) on deck, the Lions will have to think long and hard about making a short-term change at kicker.

More: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Backs, O-line offer ray of sunshine on soggy day

Fourth down 

It was admittedly disappointing to see Josh Reynolds not get the green light for this game. Yes, he only had two practices after being claimed off waivers, but couldn’t the Lions have found a handful of plays to run for him?

Take, for example, the deep shot to Kalif Raymond where Goff was injured. Credit to the receiver for doing his job and getting excellent separation, but once the ball was badly underthrown, Raymond doesn’t have the size or skill set to win a contested catch.

The 6-foot-3 Reynolds, running the same route, might have had a chance after the play devolved into a jump-ball situation. He’s certainly done it before during his career.

Admittedly, it’s possible Reynolds was scratched knowing the outside receivers weren’t going to be heavily involved in the game plan, and an extra offensive lineman would be needed as insurance for the returning Taylor Decker. So we’re left to wait another week to see if Reynolds can slightly alter the fortunes of Detroit’s dismal passing attack.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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