Four Downs: Lions’ Jared Goff finally lets it fly; Penei Sewell holds own in loaded class

Detroit News

Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 29-27 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.

First down

In the first half of the game, quarterback Jared Goff was borderline unrecognizable. Sure, he’s had a handful of good moments in a Lions uniform, but we haven’t seen the veteran quarterback this consistently aggressive with his downfield decisions.

From the press box, I had a bird’s-eye view of the first throw to T.J. Hockenson, and the moment Goff let it go, I thought it was going to be intercepted. Instead, it was a perfect ball that dropped between the underneath linebacker and the split safety, into the hands of the intended target.

Two plays later, Goff found Hockenson in the end zone. It’s unclear whether Hockenson was the second read on the play or Goff merely was looking off star safety Harrison Smith, but again, the throw was aggressively fit into a tight window between two quality defenders.

And later in that second quarter, Goff didn’t hesitate to challenge the safety once again on a seam shot to Brock Wright for a 23-yard touchdown out of play-action, despite there being almost no margin of error to connect on the throw.

It was a pleasant sequence because one of the most frustrating things about Goff is his unwillingness to trust his own ability. Obviously, there are some limitations to his game, but that doesn’t fully explain his typical unwillingness to test his targets in contested situations. This was a welcome and needed change that helped the Lions get over the hump.

All offseason, Goff has scoffed at our questions about downfield shots, but they persisted for a reason. After the game, I asked him if it’s possible, six years in, for a performance like this to be confidence-building.

“Sure, yeah, no doubt,” Goff said. “I don’t know if it matters how far you are in, when you win a game and you’re able to play the way that we did in the first half and then finish the game the way we did, that will build confidence for anyone, myself included and our whole offense.”

So while Goff’s gun-slinging mentality was holstered in the second half, there’s at least a little hope those flashes of success on Sunday can be building blocks to better quarterback play through the remainder of this season and however long he’s under center for the franchise.

Second down

I’ve been thinking a lot about the fourth-and-one play late in the fourth quarter. Going for it still feels like a bad decision, and the play call was obviously not great, but I can’t help but believe the Lions lose the game if the result was anything other than what it was.

First, let’s talk about the decision. I know the analytics actually point toward going for it being the right move, but while clinging to a narrow lead that deep in your own territory, I can’t get behind it.

As for the play call, the Lions would have been better running it up the gut. They had been getting good push up front most of the day and Jamaal Williams almost never loses yardage. The play-action pass to the flat is actually an effective play design, but would have made far more sense if D’Andre Swift was the back, not Williams.

I did like the secondary option built into the play design, a crossing pattern to Josh Reynolds that was open behind the second level, but Goff was under duress immediately after faking the handoff, and by the time he avoided the first rusher the receiver was no longer open, leading to the sack and turnover on downs.

The sack gave the Vikings the ball at the 19, and although they took six plays to get into the end zone, it could have been worse had they taken over at the 28 on an incompletion, giving them more space to kill the clock before kicking a go-ahead field goal or scoring a touchdown.

Similarly, had the Lions converted on fourth-and-one, what’s to say the drive doesn’t stall out a few plays later? The offense wasn’t moving particularly well at that stage of the game. The Lions defense was arguably struggling even more. If the two-minute drill had been reversed, it’s tough seeing the unit coming up with the stop, based strictly on the game’s flow.

Third down

For the fourth straight week, Penei Sewell has been among Detroit’s top-three graded offensive players by Pro Football Focus, coinciding with his switch to right tackle. And, for what it’s worth, he was also the team’s top-graded player in both Week 6 and Week 7.

He’s been the team’s most impactful first-round rookie since Taylor Decker in 2016 and nothing short of a home run for general manager Brad Holmes.

But have you looked at this rookie class recently? It would have been tough for Holmes to misfire given the impact this group of prospects has had during their debut campaigns.

Kyle Pitts, selected No. 4 by Atlanta, is currently third in receiving yards at his position and on pace for the second-most by a rookie tight end in NFL history. No. 5 pick Ja’Marr Chase ranks fifth in receiving yardage (958) and fourth in receiving touchdowns (eight), while Jaylen Waddle, the next player off board, is tied for second in the NFL with 86 catches for 849 yards and four scores.

A few picks behind Sewell, Dallas Cowboys linebacker Micah Parsons is having one of the best defensive debuts in recent memory with 72 tackles, 10 sacks and 25 quarterback hits in his first 12 games. Meanwhile, cornerback Patrick Surtain II is only allowing 53.3% of throws his way to be completed, while snagging three interceptions.

And Rashawn Slater, the other top offensive tackle prospect, has allowed fewer sacks and pressures and committed fewer penalties than Sewell while playing left tackle for the Chargers. Plus, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention quarterback Mac Jones, who is completing better than 70% of his passes and has the Patriots atop the AFC.

I’m not sure how to quantify it, but this feels like the best crop of first-round talent in quite some time. If a couple of those QBs at the top of the round end up developing as expected, this class could be viewed as historic.

Fourth down

This victory was unique in regards to how many streaks it busted.

Let’s start with the obvious. It was Detroit’s first win since Dec. 6, 2020. The team went a day short of a full calendar year without tasting victory. Additionally, it was the team’s first win against the Vikings in four seasons, snapping an eight-game skid.

On a more personal level, this was the first game Goff won at quarterback without Sean McVay as his head coach. As rookie playing for Jeff Fisher, Goff went 0-7 as a starter, and was 0-9-1 this season prior to Sunday. That’s a full NFL season without a victory for a quarterback who made two Pro Bowls and played in the Super Bowl under McVay.

Additionally, this is the first game the Lions have won since the season finale of the 2010 season where Matthew Stafford didn’t start at quarterback. The former Lions QB started every game from 2011-18, before a back injury sidelined him midway through the 2019 campaign. The Lions went 0-8 to close out that season, before Stafford returned to play all 16 games again in 2020.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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