Detroit Lions grades: Tim Boyle better this time, save for 2 critical mistakes, in loss to Falcons

Detroit Free Press

ATLANTA – Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett grades the Detroit Lions in their 20-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.

Quarterback

Tim Boyle played much better and looked much more comfortable Sunday than he did in his first career start last month against the Cleveland Browns. Boyle completed six straight passes to start the game and finished a respectable 24-for-34 for 187 yards, but he made two critical red zone mistakes. On the Lions’ first drive, Boyle overthrew an open Amon-Ra St. Brown on a double move near the goal line that would have went for a touchdown. Boyle also misread a man-zone play on the Lions’ final drive, when he threw an interception into triple coverage working the zone side while two receivers had single coverage on the opposite side of the field. Boyle looked like a capable NFL backup, but he also squandered an opportunity to win the game. Grade: C-minus

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Running backs

Jamaal Williams (19 carries, 77 yards) had a nice day in his return from a two-week COVID-related absence. Williams had a big 2-yard run to convert a fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter, when he bounced off an A.J. Terrell tackle near the line of scrimmage to get past the sticks. But with a long rush of 14 yards, the Lions missed D’Andre Swift’s big-play capability. Craig Reynolds was more effective as a receiver (three catches, 22 yards) than a rusher (11 carries, 29 yards). He broke two tackles on a shallow crossing route that he turned into a 14-yard catch and showed good hands to haul in a third-and-5 pass from Boyle that was thrown at his back hip. Collectively, Williams and Reynolds kept the Lions ahead of the chains most of the game and were a big reason the Lions dominated time of possession. Grade: B

Receivers/tight ends

Amon-Ra St. Brown is getting better by the week. The rookie had nine catches for 91 yards Sunday, his fourth straight game with eight or more receptions. He followed a great block by Kalif Raymond into the end zone on his 20-yard touchdown catch, and he delivered several key blocks of his own in the run game. Raymond (three catches, 12 yards) was the only other receiver with more than two catches on what was a modest day for the pass game. The Lions have reached a critical mass at tight end after losing Shane Zylstra to a serious knee injury. Brock Wright, their lone remaining healthy tight end, made a nice pulling block on Foyesade Oluokun to help spring Williams for his game-long 14-yard run, but he missed a block on a bubble screen to St. Brown on the opening drive and both he and Zylstra were called for false start penalties. Grade: B-minus

Offensive line

The Lions were not as dominant up front as they were in last week’s win over the Arizona Cardinals, but the unit was a huge part of the Lions’ 16-minute time-of-possession advantage. The line did not allow a sack on 34 pass attempts, and the Falcons registered just two quarterback hits. Taylor Decker and Jonah Jackson had false start penalties, the latter coming before a crucial fourth-and-1 play. Halapoulivaati Vaitai had a key block on St. Brown’s 12-yard counter, and he and Wright teamed up to open the hole Williams busted through on a 10-yard run in the third quarter, but he missed a pulling block when Reynolds was thrown for a 2-yard loss on the Lions’ lone touchdown drive. Grade: B

Defensive line

The Lions had three sacks on the game’s opening drive, but few impact plays otherwise. Alim McNeill beat Matt Hennessy with a nice pass rush move for his second sack of the season, while Austin Bryant was basically left unblocked on his sack, which came courtesy of a well-schemed blitz. John Penisini and Charles Harris led the push when Matt Ryan was stopped for no gain on a third-and-1 sneak, and Bryant tossed aside a Kyle Pitts block to stop Cordarrelle Patterson for a short gain early in the third quarter. Harris got beat on a touchdown catch by Hayden Hurst, which is a play he won’t often win, but he did drew a holding penalty on Jake Matthews. The Falcons struggled to run the ball (18 carries, 47 yards), though their game-long 9-yard run game when Michael Brockers and Levi Onwuzurike got pushed around in the third quarter. Grade: C

Linebackers

Jalen Reeves-Maybin had another strong game with eight tackles and a pass breakup, and he forced a fumble with just over two minutes to play that gave the Lions a chance at the upset. Reeves-Maybin had a nice two-play sequence late in the first half, when he made a run stop on Mike Davis, then got his hands up to deflect a pass at the line. He also beat Chris Lindstrom with a run blitz on a second-and-3 play, when Nick Williams was credited with the tackle for loss. Derrick Barnes’ first career sack on the opening drive was largely the product of good coverage by the secondary, and Anthony Pittman teamed with Reeves-Maybin to break up a third quarter pass to Olamide Zaccheaus. Pitts (six catches, 102 yards) gave everyone on the Lions defense trouble in coverage. Grade: B-minus

Defensive backs

The Lions didn’t give up many big plays Sunday — Atlanta had four gains of longer than 15 yards — but they made things too easy on Ryan, who completed 18 of 24 passes with two throwaways. Pitts had three of Atlanta’s four gains of at least 15 yards. Ifeatu Melifonwu, starting in place of the injured Amani Oruwariye, got beat for a 35-yard catch by Pitts but had an otherwise solid day in coverage. Will Harris, in his second start at corner, could not disengage from a Pitts block quick enough on Patterson’s touchdown run and got beat on an outside move by Russell Gage when the Falcons converted a second-and-10 on the final play of the third quarter. Tracy Walker (three tackles) had a quiet day and overran Zaccheaus when the Falcons receiver turned a short curl into a 17-yard gain one play after St. Brown’s touchdown. Grade: C

Special teams

The Lions pulled off their third fake punt of the season when Jack Fox completed a 21-yard pass to KhaDarel Hodge on fourth-and-6 after Jackson’s false start. Riley Patterson made three more field goals to stay perfect on the season, and Raymond gained 19 yards behind good blocking on his only punt return. On the downside, Hodge missed a tackle late in the first quarter to give the Falcons a short field on their first touchdown drive, Cordarrelle Patterson averaged 26.3 yards on his three kick returns and the Lions were called for one special teams penalty. Grade: B-minus

Coaching

Dan Campbell showed some of the guts that have defined his coaching tenure so far, dialing up that fake punt and converting three of four fourth downs. But Campbell got oddly conservative at a crucial time Sunday, settling for a field goal on fourth-and-5 from the Atlanta 8 with just under three minutes to play. The call worked because Reeves-Maybin forced a fumble on the next series, but the Lions had allowed points on four straight Atlanta offensive possessions and needed a touchdown to tie the game. That was a mistake. On the bright side, the Lions continue to show more creativity on offense with Campbell calling plays and Ben Johnson helping coordinate the passing game, and the team showed fight in tough circumstances, on the road, the day after Christmas, without its starting quarterback. Grade: C

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

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