Lions film review: The good, bad and ugly from the offense vs. Steelers

Detroit News

Allen Park — Coming out of Sunday’s 16-16 tie against the Pittsburgh Steelers, there are two main takeaways regarding the Detroit Lions’ offensive performance.

First, the team ran the ball extremely well for stretches, finishing with 229 yards on 39 carries. D’Andre Swift led the way with 130 yards on 33 carries, supplemented by a pair of long scoring runs by backups Jermar Jefferson and Godwin Igwebuike.

On the other hand, Detroit’s passing attack was nearly non-existent through four quarters. Quarterback Jared Goff was held to 54 yards on 22 passing attempting in regulation, before managing to double the output in the 10-minute overtime period.

And while the defense certainly merits some attention after holding the Steelers to nine points the final 65 minutes to preserve the non-loss, we can’t help but remain fixated on the offense, particularly following the unique production discrepancy in coach Dan Campbell’s first game calling plays.

So we’ll start with what went right, almost exclusively focusing on the ground game, before turning our eyes to the passing game’s struggles, which Campbell previously blamed on a combination of the weather, the protection and an oblique injury Goff suffered in the first quarter.

The Lions got off to a tough start in the contest, failing to secure a single first down with three opening-quarter possessions. But the first positive signs for the ground game came on the first snap of the second series, when Jefferson picked up some solid interior blocking on a 9-yard gain.

In the second quarter, it was Jefferson again, maximizing his blocking to net Detroit’s first first down of the afternoon. Then, on the next snap, he broke through for a 28-yard touchdown romp.

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

The carry ended up setting the tone for Detroit’s game plan the rest of the afternoon, utilizing three tight ends, including backup offensive tackle Matt Nelson, all set up off left tackle.

Goff took the handoff under center before giving it to Jefferson, operating as a single back. Following an initial step forward, the rookie sliced left between a hole opened between offensive tackle Taylor Decker and tight end Brock Wright.

Nelson occupied the hole ahead of his back and was able to help Decker seal Steelers defense lineman Cameron Hayward inside, preserving the lane. Jefferson accelerated through the opening and was able to angle just beyond the grasp of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick for the score.

Detroit wouldn’t get the ball back until there was 4:22 remaining in the quarter. At the time, starting running back D’Andre Swift had just 11 yards on five carries, but he caught fire at the end of the half.

Swift opened the series with a 15-yard gain, dragging a pile of defenders the final 7 yards. He found the initial crease after a couple Steelers got tangled inside and went to the ground, while Nelson and T.J. Hockenson provided second-level blocks.

Swift flashed some more power converting a fourth-and-1, breaking a tackle in the backfield after Decker got beat, before running through the arms of two more defenders in the second level for a 10-yard pickup. He then added 21 more yards three plays later when the three tight-end package, along with Decker, walled off the left side on a sweep, with the back hurdling a defender near the sideline for an extra 8 yards.

Swift would keep his momentum going early in the second half, gaining 16 yards on the opening play of the third quarter, again picking up key blocks from Nelson and Wright. Swift also converted a third-and-9 on a draw play after receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown impressively sealed All-Pro edge rusher T.J. Watt on the backside and guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai opened a lane pulling right to left.

That carry led to Igwebuike entering the game, where he ran a counter to the weakside, opposite the three tight ends off left tackle, utilizing a second-level block from guard Jonah Jackson to gain 14 yards.

On the next snap, with the tight end trio shifting to the right side, Igwebuike was able to squeak through a tiny crack after Nelson missed his initial block. Picking up second-level assistance from center Evan Brown and right tackle Penei Sewell before running through an arm tackle attempt by linebacker Devin Bush, Igwebuike got into the end zone from 42 yards out.

Unfortunately for the Lions, Nelson would suffer an ankle injury later in the third quarter. And while they tried to stick with the three-tight-end look with offensive tackle Will Holden serving as the third man, it stopped being effective. With nine more possessions after Nelson’s exit, the Lions gained just 21 yards on their final 15 carries.

As for the passing attack, it was flaccid all afternoon. During those three three-and-out series to open the contest, the Lions attempted three passes, including a pair of ugly designs.

On the first, Goff fired a quick throw to Wright in the flat, ignoring the Steelers had outside leverage on their formation with cornerback Joe Haden, who quickly dropped the big tight end in space for a minimal gain.

The second design was even worse, with Goff throwing a delayed flare to Swift to the same flat. Whether it was the execution or design of the play, St. Brown was asked to block far too long before the throw, resulting in another easy stop for the defense.

The final throw of the opening quarter was a well-designed deep throw that should have netted a touchdown had it not been for Goff’s protection breaking down and the quarterback suffering an injury while making the throw.

Prior to the snap, the Steelers dropped one of their two safeties into the box, and he was held there by a play-action fake. Goff also did an excellent job with his eyes keeping the deep safety’s attention to the left side before uncorking the deep ball to Kalif Raymond down the middle. The receiver had blown past the coverage of Haden with excellent acceleration out of his break.

But Goff wasn’t able to follow through on the throw as Hayward pushed Brown into the pocket, forcing the quarterback to release off his back foot. That resulted in the throw coming up well short of the intended target and allowed Haden to recover to make the breakup.

After suffering an injury on the play, and as the rain picked up, the Lions scrapped longer pass plays from their call sheet, opting for a number of screens and quick throws. Obviously, based on the aforementioned passing numbers, Detroit had minimal success with those play selections.

Some of that was on Goff. For example, he fired low on a quick slant to Raymond. He also missed low on a deep comeback throw to Trinity Benson in overtime.

Other times, there was something wrong with the routes. One of the worst came at the end of the first half, when Hockenson got tangled up with a defender while blocking on a delayed screen. Goff failed to recognize it and attempted to throw the ball to his tight end anyway, nearly leading to an interception in the red zone.

Additionally, during Swift’s productive drive at the end of the half, the back had a big gain in the making, but seemingly gave up on his wheel route prematurely.

And Swift had blocking set up on a screen early in the third quarter, but dropped the throw.

But more often than not, as Campbell noted, the protection wasn’t there for Goff. Even on those two blown plays to Swift, the quarterback had pressure in his face, rushing the passes and potentially disrupting the timing.

Some of the pressure was the result of questionable designs, such as running a play-action boot directly at the ever-dangerous Watt, who feasted on the snaps where the Lions blocked him with anyone other than Sewell.

That showed up on Watt’s sack, when he bullied past Wright on a play-action snap.

Other times, the blockers simply didn’t hold up, such as Jackson not picking up a stunt in the shadow of his own goal line, resulting in a sack that narrowly avoided being ruled a safety.

The only pass play meriting praise coming out of this game, for both its design and execution, was the first snap of overtime. The Lions hid St. Brown by motioning him into the backfield, behind Sewell, suggesting a clear run look. Running a play fake to Swift got the linebackers off balance as the rookie receiver released clean around the edge into a crossing pattern that gained 30 yards.

In all, the emergence of the three-tight-end package, with Nelson, Hockenson and Wright, gives the Lions something to build upon down the stretch, both in the run and play-action game.

That said, the passing game continues to feel beyond repair. Defenses continue to have no reason to believe the Lions can beat them deep, making it more and more difficult to have success with the short-passing game.

Goff might have been less of a problem than anticipated this week, at least based on the box score, but the fact remains he lacks mobility and struggles under duress. With a less-than-stellar supporting cast that only figures to improve slightly with the addition of Josh Reynolds starting this week in Cleveland, there’s little reason for optimism they’ll be able to find success down the stretch.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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