Allen Park — Obviously, it wasn’t biggest play in the game — because it’s difficult to top a game-winning touchdown reception as time expires — but without Godwin Igwebuike’s quick thinking and quicker feet, it’s likely the Detroit Lions are still winless.
The Lions hadn’t converted a third down all day when the offense took the field for a two-minute drill down four to the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday. So with 1:14 remaining, and no timeouts, the offense was in a tough spot facing third-and-10 from their own 36-yard line.
On the play, Igwebuike lined up in the backfield, to the left of quarterback Jared Goff in shotgun. The running back ran a short route across the middle of the field, catching the ball well short of the sticks. At that moment, he had an immediate decision: Charge forward for as much yardage as he could while allowing the clock to keep running, or make a bold race to the sideline to preserve precious seconds.
With almost no hesitation, Igwebuike chose the latter option, juking two would-be tacklers to get out of bounds. It was a remarkably heady and athletic play for a guy who had played just 20 offensive snaps coming into the day after converting from safety during the offseason.
“It might have been a little risky,” Igwebuike said. “I saw him coming for my legs. I figured if it’s me one-on-one with a corner, and I have the angle, put a little sauce on him, I pick myself. I would say I’ve got some strong legs on me. I seen him go low, kind of picked my feet up a little bit. (Running backs coach) Duce (Staley) talks about picking up your feet and that thankfully worked.”
The third-down conversion gave the Lions fresh life, a first down near midfield. Nine plays and a little more than a minute later, Goff hit Amon-Ra St. Brown for the game-winning score.
Interestingly, Igwebuike had been preparing for his moment for more than a week. He had been told he was going in for a late-game drive on Thanksgiving, but the moment never came after the Chicago Bears killed the final 8:30 off the clock prior to their game-winning field goal.
Knowing he would stay in the mix as the pass-catching back with D’Andre Swift out with a shoulder injury this week, Igwebuike spent extra time after practice working on two-minute play calls with backup quarterback Tim Boyle.
“Even in my room at the hotel (on Saturday), just swiping through the plays, like, all right, let me make sure I know exactly what I’m supposed to do. For it to come down to a two-minute and to see that fruit pay off, like I talked about with just being prepared for whatever comes, it’s really cool. Just hats off to (the coaches). It means the world that they can trust me in that way and that my teammates can trust me.”
No regret on fourth-down calls
Lions coach Dan Campbell has faced some criticism for his aggressive play-calling on Sunday, including going for it on fourth-and-1 from the team’s own 28-yard line late in the fourth quarter.
Detroit ran a play-action pass that Minnesota covered well, resulting in a sack and fumble, which the Vikings recovered at the 19. But that’s not the play call Campbell regrets.
No, he’s more troubled by the run call he made a snap earlier, when Jamaal Williams went up the gut on third-and-two and was stopped after a 1-yard gain.
“That’s the one I regret because I wish that I had given a better play to Jamaal Williams there and we wouldn’t even have been sitting in a fourth-and-one,” Campbell said. “So, as far as the fourth-and-one, did I love it? No, however, we can be so much better on how we should have done that play, just the little details to it. We would have outflanked the defense.”
The Lions also failed to convert a fourth-down try in the first half when the Vikings stuffed Goff’s quarterback sneak inches short of the line to gain. On that one, Campbell thought he had the element of surprise on his side.
“We haven’t run a quarterback sneak all season, so it’s like, hey, we think it’s going to be there,” he explained. “If you feel like you’ve got a gap, maybe we take one, and it didn’t work out.
“…We take it and we did,” Campbell said. “You live and die by gambling sometimes.”
The Lions haven’t had much luck at kicker this season. The team cut their first three options this offseason after practice and preseason struggles, and the guy they did settle on, Austin Seibert, missed two weeks due to COVID before suffering a season-ending hip injury last month.
After initially trying to replace Seibert with Ryan Santoso, the Lions appear to have found a reliable option for the remainder of the year in rookie Riley Patterson.
Signed off the New England Patriots practice squad, Patterson made his debut on Thanksgiving and attempted his first career field goal against Minnesota, making all three attempts, including a critical 49-yarder in the fourth quarter.
“I didn’t dream about being on a practice squad,” Patterson said. “Any chance I get to be on a team is a blessing, so I’m thankful for every part of this journey I’m on and just looking forward to what’s next now.”
In New England, Patterson received valuable tutelage from coach Bill Belichick, who puts a premium on special teams, and veteran kicker Nick Folk, who Belichick lavished with praise last week.
“He’s helpful, and very, very knowledgeable. I’ve learned a lot from Nick Folk. I’ll say that. I’ve learned a lot,” Belichick said. “He’s really taught me a lot of little things that, honestly, I hadn’t really thought that much about, and once he pointed them out, I was kind of disappointed in myself that I didn’t put a little more importance on it earlier. Yeah. He’s really good.”
Patterson said one of the biggest things he learned from Belichick and Folk was how to reduce the impact wind has on his kicking.
“They both talked to me at length, just how to kick in wind, how to strike the ball cleanly,” Patterson said. “The most important thing is getting it through the uprights as quickly as possible, so that the wind is not going to affect it as much.”
Wind hasn’t been a factor Patterson’s first two games since he’s been kicking indoors at Ford Field, but could come into play this week as the Lions travel to Denver to battle the Broncos.
Brown lands on COVID list
Lions center Evan Brown landed on the COVID-19 list Monday, putting his status in doubt for Sunday’s game in Denver.
Brown moved into the starting lineup after Frank Ragnow suffered a season-ending toe injury in Week 4. Despite not previously starting a game after going undrafted out of SMU in 2018, Brown has thrived in his opportunity.
“Listen, Evan’s been solid,” Campbell said last month. “I mean, he’s stepped in and he’s a sharp guy. He’s smart and he’s really been… I don’t want to say you take for granted, but you kind of don’t think a lot about it and that’s a good thing. He’s in there and we know he’s going to set the table up and he’ll mix it up. He’s got good leverage and power. I’m glad we’ve got him.”
If he’s vaccinated, Brown will need to test negative on consecutive days, up to and including game day, to get cleared. If he’s unvaccinated, he’ll need to sit out a minimum of 10 days.
If Brown can’t go Sunday, the Lions would likely turn to Ryan McCollum. He was signed by the Lions off the Houston Texans practice squad in October to provide depth after Ragnow’s injury.