Even in their loss to the Cleveland Browns, the Detroit Lions showed improvement

Detroit Free Press

CLEVELAND – Another loss.

Another anemic showing in the passing game.

Another reason to give up on the Detroit Lions and do something more fruitful, like rake the leaves, get a head start on your taxes or start thawing the turkey.

Because after 10 games and a 0-9-1 record, Lions results seem almost as certain as death, that yearly bill from the Internal Revenue Service or that tryptophan-induced coma we slip into every Thanksgiving.

But let me offer you an alternative. If you don’t mind tedium, watch the Lions’ 13-10 loss Sunday to the Cleveland Browns more closely. Because it’s in the nuance, in the slim margins, in the unquantifiable effort the Lions showed Sunday that you can see an improved team.

Remember it was only three weeks ago when everyone was questioning everything about this team after a 44-6 loss at home to the Philadelphia Eagles.

Since then, the Lions regrouped. They returned from the bye to tie the Steelers in Pittsburgh last week. They had the Browns on the ropes late Sunday, when Aldrick Rosas, their third kicker this season, nailed a 43-yard field goal through the rain and wind that cut Cleveland’s lead to three with 9:07 left.

LIONS GRADES: Passing game non-existent, and it’s now hurting the play calling

If you think the Lions are a hopeless joke, let me tell you something. By the groans and uncomfortable shuffling I witnessed at FirstEnergy Stadium, those 67,431 hearty souls in the stands surely didn’t think the Lions were pushovers.

Even if you can’t see improvement on the scoreboard or in the standings, it’s slowly happening for the Lions midway through their first year of a rebuild.

If you’re tired of the losing and the close-but-no-cigar results, I can’t blame you. But few people expected the Lions to be in the game against the Browns. On a soggy day, with quarterback Tim Boyle making his first NFL start, it was supposed to be a ground-and-pound game with the Lions’ defense cast to play the part of punching bag, ready to absorb Nick Chubb’s barrage of roundhouses and haymakers.

Then something happened. The Lions turned Cleveland into Kinshasa and suddenly they became Muhammad Ali rope-a-doping the Browns’ second-ranked run offense. Yes, Chubb got his yards — 130 to be exact – but he didn’t break a run for longer than 15 yards and he never knocked the Lions off their feet.

That’s why coach Dan Campbell was right to kick off his postgame news conference with effusive praise for the effort.

“I thought our defense played their hearts out today,” he said. “They played lights out and kept us in it. They controlled Chubb just like we said we needed to. They gave us a chance there.”

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

The offense was another story.

Fans were roundly calling for Jared Goff’s benching after nine games of mediocre play and results. They got their wish on Sunday and saw that Boyle — or any roster alternative the Lions have — isn’t the magic elixir that will cure what ails the offense.

Boyle had a lot working against him. He was playing his first game since August after he suffered a broken thumb in the preseason and he had to play in the rain and on the road with a depleted receiving corps against two dire wolves playing defensive end for the Browns. It all added up to 77 yards of passing offense with two interceptions.

The only viable, consistent offensive weapon the Lions have right now is running back D’Andre Swift, who has had at least 130 rushing yards in each of the past two games.

If you think Campbell is being too conservative in his play-calling, just remember this isn’t the “Madden” video game. He has to protect quarterbacks who rarely have an open target while keeping the game close enough to try to scratch out a low-scoring win at the end.

“Look, I get it,” Campbell said of his offense. “I’m sure there are a lot of people that question it and think that I was too conservative. Maybe I ought to throw it a lot more, but I’m just not ready to do that with where we were at here.

“Last week was a certain situation. This week was — I think you have to go where the game takes you. We have plenty of ammo in there but you also have to be careful. You have to be smart. How do you get yourself to have the best chance to win at the end, when you’re in it?”

Campbell admitted he wanted “to take a little stress off of Tim” by emphasizing he run game. But he isn’t blind and he doesn’t expect anyone to ignore what they’re seeing.

“I mean, look,” he said, “it’s no secret that we need to be better in the pass game.”

At this point, there just aren’t many options in the pass game. Amon-Ra St. Brown was the only wide receiver to catch a pass. Josh Reynolds, the latest great new hope in the receiving corps, made his Lions debut. He failed to catch a pass on three targets and he should have played defense on a deep pass in the third quarter that Denzel Ward intercepted.

And yet, the Lions were right there at the end, still in the fight with a chance to win. Maybe Jonah Jackson’s “yo mama” insult in front of the referee’s virgin ears was the difference, but otherwise the Lions played a disciplined game. They had seven penalties, their fewest since Week 5, and haven’t had more than nine in a game all season. The Browns had 10 penalties for the second time in three weeks.

“Man, it’s crazy,” cornerback Amani Oruwariye, who had his fourth interception, said of the team’s mood. “You would think we would be down and out, but we’re not.

“You have a lot of guys in there who are still believing and fighting their tails off. Oh, man, we know we are going to be on the other side of this at some point. We just have to keep doing what we are doing.”

He’s right. Whether or not the Lions win a game isn’t the point. It’s all about how they’re playing the game, growing as a team and what they’re learning about themselves as they do.

Contact Carlos Monarrez at cmonarrez@freepress.com and follow him on Twitter @cmonarrez.

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