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

Detroit News

Pittsburgh — Justin Rogers grades the Detroit Lions’ performance in their 16-16 tie with the Steelers.

Quarterback

Toughing it out through injuries is a quick way to endear yourself to a fanbase, but in this instance, discretion might have been the better part of valor. While Jared Goff insisted the oblique muscle strain he suffered in the first quarter didn’t affect him, he clearly was hurting on the sideline and his production through four quarters was brutal, with just 54 yards passing on 22 attempts.

Goff connected with Amon-Ra St. Brown for a 30-yard gain to kickstart overtime, but he also got bailed out by a penalty on a bad throw that was picked off during the extra time. Grade: F

Running backs

In the soggy conditions, Detroit’s backfield trio is the only reason the offense accomplished anything against a consistently stingy Steelers defense. With Jamaal Williams still sidelined, D’Andre Swift carried the ball a career-high 33 times, gaining 130 yards. He was at his best at the end of the first half, moving piles and breaking a tackle on a fourth-down conversion, gaining 62 of those yards on eight totes.

Rookie Jermar Jefferson and converted defensive back Godwin Igwebuike made the most of their touches, as well, each ripping off a long touchdown and gaining a whopping 97 yards on just five carries. Grade: A

Wide receivers/tight ends

It’s tough to penalize Detroit’s receivers too much when the game plan didn’t really incorporate them consistently after the first quarter. St. Brown paced the group with 61 yards, buoyed by that opening grab in overtime, while Kalif Raymond had four catches for 29 yards. To be fair, he was beyond open on an underthrown deep ball that should have been a touchdown.

Shockingly, tight end T.J. Hockenson was held without a catch and got assessed two penalties, including a critical one on third down in overtime that pushed Ryan Santoso’s botched game-winning field goal attempt back several yards.

On the flip side, Hockenson, Brock Wright and offensive tackle Matt Nelson, playing as a tight end in this one, had several key blocks in the ground game. Grade: B-

Offensive line

The Lions went into Pittsburgh and out-physicaled the Steelers up front, regularly resetting the line of scrimmage and opening lanes for the backs to average nearly 6 yards per carry. The pass blocking wasn’t nearly as good, with Goff getting sacked four times, but a lot of that pressure came on play action when the Steelers were selling out to stop Detroit’s effective ground game. Grade: A-

Defensive line

Steelers running back Najee Harris topped 100 yards, but it took him 26 attempts to barely eclipse the mark. That said, he didn’t see a lot of contact behind the line of scrimmage, consistently producing positive gains between the tackles.

More damning was Detroit’s utter lack of pass rush pressure. Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph isn’t particularly mobile, but despite dropping back to throw more than 50 times, he wasn’t hit once by the Lions outside of the occasional scramble. Grade: D+

Linebackers

When Harris made his way into the second level, the Lions accomplished their goal of swarming the hulking ball carrier and limiting the big play. His long run on the day was 12 yards. Additionally, the Steelers didn’t do much damage across the middle with their tight ends, with 11 targets turning into seven receptions that net a modest 44 yards.

Julian Okwara, who typically lines up on the edge for Detroit, found himself in the right position to snag an interception on an errant throw by Rudolph, although the offense wasn’t able to capitalize on the turnover. The downside of his day is he jumped offside twice. Grade: B-

Secondary

It was a rocky start for the secondary when Amani Oruwariye got flagged for a 29-yard pass interference infraction and there was a clear communication breakdown on the Steelers’ first touchdown, resulting in an uncovered receiver. But the group settled down and got their hands on six passes, including two pass breakups each for Oruwariye and rookie Jerry Jacobs.

Jacobs ended up exiting with an injury in the second half and was replaced by Mark Gilbert. The Steelers went after him in overtime, connecting on a long pass, but he responded in a big way by punching the ball free from the receiver, resulting in the Lions recovering the fumble. Grade: B

Special teams

Santoso is going to have trouble sleeping after missing a game-winning field goal, but it’s easy to understand why the 48-yarder came off with a low trajectory and ended well short of the crossbar given the heavy rains and sloppy field conditions. It was his missed extra point in the third quarter that should haunt him more, since it could have been the difference.

Similarly, punter Jack Fox struggled in the rain, with many of his punts coming off his foot as low line drives, leading to the Steelers having some decent return opportunities. Additionally, two of his 10 boots bounced into the end zone, killing his typically stellar net average.

Detroit’s special teams strength on Sunday was its return game. Igwebuike was steady handling kickoffs, while Raymond shined on punt duties, averaging 23.7 yards on three returns. Grade: C

Coaches

As noted, the Lions did a nice job settling down on defense after a bad opening drive, limiting the Steelers to just nine points the final 65 minutes of the game, including overtime. Offensively, the game plan called for a commitment to the run that was executed well, although they could have used an adjustment in the fourth quarter when the Steelers started getting stops.

Also, it’s unclear why Igwebuike didn’t get more opportunities down the stretch, drawing just one carry after his 42-yard touchdown. Everyone knows how good Swift is, but he was likely running on fumes after topping 30 touches. Why not share the load with the hot-handed backup?

Finally, it’s worth questioning the decision to stick with Goff. He was clearly not his best self after suffering the injury, and even though he’s clearly a better option than David Blough when both are healthy, the backup might have been the better choice to polish off this potential victory. Grade: C+

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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