Best hope for Detroit Lions? As Dan Campbell grows, he gets young roster to do so, too

Detroit Free Press

ATLANTA — Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell is no miracle worker.

But he is growing as a coach.

“I see us improving,” Campbell said after the Atlanta Falcons beat the Lions, 20-16, on Sunday. “You’d look for improvement out of every player in every group and I see it. We’re playing better football right now than we did when we started and that’s what you’re looking for.”

Yes, that’s the one glimmer of hope for this franchise. The team is improving, but so is Campbell.

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Campbell was put in a tough spot when he got this job, taking over a team that was fractured and lacked talent coming out of the Matt Patricia era. As the season has progressed, the roster has been depleted by injuries and COVID-19. But somehow, the Lions continue to show signs of improvement, even as they lose.

Since Campbell took over play-calling duties, the Lions are 2-4-1. But three of those losses are by four points or fewer. The Lions are in these games. They have a chance, even though the two-deep has so many holes it looks like Swiss cheese — and that’s on a roster that didn’t have much talent to begin with.

“Even today we’re improving,” Campbell said. “Look at our third downs offensively. That’s been a struggle and over the last two to three weeks now, our third downs are beginning to climb and we’re staying on the field.”

Part of the reason is because Campbell is getting better at calling plays.

Or maybe, he’s getting better at calling plays that fit the talent he has left.

And his decisions are more sound.

“They’ve been playing good football of late,” Atlanta coach Arthur Smith said of the Lions.

You know what’s amazing about that? They are playing good football even though they are missing so many players. And that’s a sign of good coaching, not just by Campbell but his entire staff.

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The plan almost comes together

Think back to the Lions’ 24-14 loss in Chicago in early October. The Lions reached the red zone on their first three possessions but walked away with zero points. That included a failed fourth-and-goal from the Bears’ 5.

Now, flash forward to Sunday afternoon. Campbell was faced with a critical decision. He went for a 26-yard field goal on fourth-and-5 from the Atlanta 8-yard line with under 3 minutes to play. In essence, he was putting this game on his defense.

“I knew I had three timeouts,” Campbell said. “And I had a feeling that (Smith) was going to be conservative, and we were going to be able to stop the run and get the ball back. So I felt very good about getting the ball back knowing that we would have plenty of time to go down and score.”

That’s the art of coaching. Knowing the right buttons to push. Trusting your gut. Knowing your team and having faith in it.

And he got that stop. Thanks to Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who forced a fumble that teammate Dean Marlowe recovered.

“I was excited because not only now you get the ball in plus territory, but now the clock stopped everything else and so you feel like you control the game now,” Campbell said. “We felt like we had total control of the game and we’re going to go down and score. But now at that point, you got to make sure that you’re burning everything off the clock that you can, they still had timeouts. It was set up. It was set up perfectly for us and once again Reeves freaking comes up with a big one like he’s done all year.”

There is  the chess of football, thinking through everything, milking the clock while trying to score.

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Granted, it didn’t work out because Tim Boyle misread the defense and threw a bad interception.

But it was still encouraging. And the players can sense Campbell’s growth.

“I think he’s putting a lot more confidence in us,” Reeves-Maybin said. “I think he believes in us and the decision to take the field goal and put the defense back out there shows that he’s growing with us and we’re growing with him.”

Learning on the job

Campbell admits that he’s getting better at learning how to call plays, even when players get hurt. Which creates a whole different problem.

“Definitely, I feel like every week I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable,” he said. “Even that little wrinkle today where you lose a couple of guys, you’re out of these personnel groups, to have to adjust and adapt and do it on the run. Man, you memory-bank all this, you learn and grow from it. I do, I feel like I’m getting get a lot more comfortable.”

The most encouraging part of this team is seeing the development of young players.

Like the growth in Amon-Ra St. Brown, who caught nine passes for 91 yards and had two runs for 19 yards — plays that were put in last week.

“He is improving and he’s steady and he’s reliable,” Campbell said. “He’s in a great place. He’s one of those guys that as a play-caller, I trust all the time and I know the quarterbacks do too. But I would say for all those receivers I feel that way. I feel like they’ve really taken strides over the last three or four weeks and everything collectively. But yeah, St. Brown is continuing to grow.”

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The fact that the Lions had a chance to win this game says a lot, considering Jared Goff was on the reserve/COVID list and the Lions had to start Boyle, who was making only his second career start.

Granted, the Falcons aren’t a great team. But they still have a shot at the playoffs, if they win out and get some help.

And the Lions had a shot at the end?

“Ultimately, the guys who will be here next year, they’re going to learn from this and this is a bitter taste in their mouth that I hope they never freaking forget,” Campbell said.

These last few games should give confidence in Campbell. He is growing on the job, making better decisions, calling better plays. Which should translate into wins, if they ever get everybody healthy and get more talent.

At some point, Campbell will have to show he can push the right buttons to convert these close games into wins. But for right now, where this team is, he’s getting better and so are the Lions.

Contact Jeff Seidel: jseidel@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff. To read his recent columns, go to freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.

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