Detroit Lions grades: Passing game non-existent, and it’s now hurting the play calling

Detroit Free Press

CLEVELAND — Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett grades the Detroit Lions in their 13-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns at FirstEnergy Stadium.

Quarterback

Dan Campbell said Tim Boyle was “solid” in his first career start, but Campbell’s conservative play calling showed a lack of trust in his quarterback. Boyle finished 15 of 23 passing for 77 yards with two interceptions. His first pick came on a miscommunication with D’Andre Swift, when Swift turned inside on an option route and Boyle was expecting the Lions running back to run a stop route, and his second came when he overthrew Josh Reynolds in double coverage. Boyle was off the mark on several other throws, including a screen pass to Jason Cabinda in the second quarter, and he was lucky another pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage as it looked like it might be headed for an interception. The Lions offense operated smoothly, and Boyle drew three offsides penalties on the Browns with his cadence. But its hard to win in the NFL with such a limited passing game. Grade: D-minus

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Running backs

D’Andre Swift is a dynamo. He had his second straight 130-yard rushing day and scored the Lions’ only touchdown on a nifty 57-yard run, when he made a nice cutback on John Johnson and changed directions again to pull away from Grant Delpit. Swift finished with 14 carries, and probably should have had twice that on a day when the Lions struggled mightily on offense. Swift was partially responsible for Boyle’s first pick, and Jamaal Williams was mostly a nonfactor in his return from a thigh injury, gaining 11 yards on seven carries. Grade: B

Receivers/tight ends

It is difficult to judge the Lions receivers when their game plan rarely calls for passes downfield. Amon-Ra St. Brown was the only receiver to catch a pass Sunday, and his four grabs went for a total 18 yards. Reynolds could have done more to help Boyle on his second interception. He also had one catch punched out by Greedy Williams and was called for a questionable offensive pass interference penalty. T.J. Hockenson whiffed on a block against Anthony Walker when Swift was stopped for 1 yard on a draw on the Lions’ first series, but he did catch six passes for 51 yards. Grade: D-minus

Offensive line

Boyle rarely held the ball long enough for the Browns to muster much of a pass rush, but the Lions still did a solid job in pass protection, especially given the moving parts they had up front because of injuries By my count, Taylor Decker allowed just one pressure to Myles Garrett, the best pass rusher in the NFL. Jonah Jackson had the costly play of the game, when he was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for insulting Jadeveon Clowney’s mother at the end of the third quarter. The penalty knocked the Lions back 15 yards at a crucial time in the game. Jackson also got beat off the line of scrimmage by Malik McDowell when Williams was stopped for no gain on a run on the opening series, and the line got zero push on Jason Cabinda’s third-and-1 fullback dive in the second quarter. Decker, Jackson and Evan Brown were wrecking balls on Cabinda’s 20-yard run, and Penei Sewell took out two defenders with separate blocks on Swift’s 19-yard run in the third quarter. Grade: B-minus

Defensive line

Austin Bryant split a sack with safety Will Harris late in the third quarter, the Lions’ first sack since their Oct. 24 game loss to the Los Angeles Rams. For the most part, though, the Lions’ pass rush was non-existent again. Bryant played well as a backside run defender and just missed another sack when he nipped Baker Mayfield by the ankles late in the third quarter. The Lions did a fair job bottling up Nick Chubb through three quarters, but they could not get off the field when it mattered most. Michael Brockers ran by Jarvis Landry in the backfield on Landry’s direct-snap touchdown run, and D’Ernest Johnson broke an Alim McNeill tackle in the backfield on his 13-yard gain. Grade: B-minus

JEFF SEDIEL: Dan Campbell went conservative this time. But the result was the same: A loss

Linebackers

Alex Anzalone had another rough game. He missed a tackle on the Browns’ second play, when two Lions failed to get Chubb down at the line of scrimmage. He was late reacting on a 12-yard draw to Chubb in the first half. He showed poor eye discipline on Landry’s TD run, when he was caught drifting to the right as Landry ran up the middle of the field. And he got put on his back by Wyatt Teller on Chubb’s 6-yard run just before halftime. Anzalone did force an incompletion with good coverage on a pass to tight end Austin Hooper, and Jalen Reeves-Maybin (five tackles) forced Mayfield to evacuate the pocket and throw a third-and-8 pass away with a blitz on the Browns’ opening series. Grade: D-plus

Defensive backs

Safeties Tracy Walker (nine tackles) and Will Harris combined for 17 tackles, with Harris playing an expanded role as nickel cornerback in some run-down packages. Harris did bite on a run fake to Chubb on Mayfield’s only touchdown pass of the game just before halftime, and Walker was called for a defensive holding penalty that gave the Browns a first down. Amani Oruwariye had his team-leading fourth interception, but had a rough drive just before halftime. He gave up a 17-yard pass to Rashad Higgins on third-and-13, was called for illegal hands to the face on a fourth-and-2 incompletion and had a pass interference penalty on third-and-5 from the 14. A.J. Parker also drew a pass interference penalty, while Jerry Jacobs had one pass breakup and was solid overall in coverage as Mayfield threw for just 176 yards. Grade: C

Special teams

The Lions are fortunate to have good special teams units, and they kept the game close in part because their kicking game helped keep them in manageable field position most of the day. Bobby Price made a nice tackle on Jack Fox’s first punt of the game, and KhaDarel Hodge made a great effort play to keep the ball out of end zone on a punt to start second half, though Price stepped on the goal line as he downed the ball, causing a touchback. Fox did have two touchbacks, which will hurt his net average, but Aldrick Rosas made his only field goal try of 43 yards, Levi Onwuzurike blocked an extra point and Kalif Raymond had a 17-yard punt return. Grade: A-minus

Coaching

Campbell was far too conservative for my liking with both his play calling and decision making, though I understand his reasoning with a young quarterback, against a good pass rush, on a day his defense was playing well. I did not like the third-and-1 dive to Cabinda in the first half on what seemed like an ideal time to throw deep and, if the pass did not connect, go for it on fourth down. Campbell played with fire by taking a timeout on third-and-6 with 37 seconds left in the first half. And most importantly, he should have gone for a fourth-and-1 at the Browns’ 25-yard line when he settled for a field goal with 9:07 left. Give the Lions credit for a solid defensive effort against a team with superior talent, but in a lost season it would have been nice to see more of what Boyle can do. Grade: D-minus

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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