ATLANTA — Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett breaks down the Detroit Lions’ 20-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons, and looks at players who helped and hurt their stock Sunday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium:
LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin: Reeves-Maybin has been the Lions’ best linebacker since replacing Jamie Collins as starter in late September. He had a team-high eight tackles Sunday and forced a fumble with just over 2 minutes to play to give the Lions the ball back in Atlanta territory with a chance to win the game. A free agent after the season, Reeves-Maybin likely has earned not just a contract for 2022, but a chance to be a full-time starter on defense.
WR Amon-Ra St. Brown: St. Brown has been a regular on this list in recent weeks, but his performances continue to draw rave reviews from coaches and teammates. He caught nine passes for 91 yards Sunday, scored his third touchdown in four games, and ran a beautiful goal line route that would have resulted in another touchdown with a better pass from Tim Boyle. The Lions have found creative ways to use St. Brown in the running game as well. It’s time to start thinking of him as more than a slot receiver.
Fake punts: The Lions ran and converted their third fake punt of the season Sunday, with Jack Fox throwing a 21-yard pass to gunner KhaDarel Hodge on fourth-and-6. Fox, a high school quarterback, is 2-for-2 on the season, also completing a pass to cornerback Bobby Price against the Los Angeles Rams, and personal protector C.J. Moore ran for a first down on another fake punt in LA. The Lions have shown enough willingness to try trick plays that they should not catch teams off guard, yet they still do.
Lions tight ends: The Lions’ run of bad luck at tight end started in the spring, when they signed Josh Hill only to have him retire two months later. Since then, they lost T.J. Hockenson to season-ending thumb surgery and cut Darren Fells per his desire, and on Sunday they lost Shane Zylstra and fullback/tight end Jason Cabinda to knee injuries. Brock Wright had three catches for 4 yards.
Lions’ ability to cover tight ends: Kyle Pitts is a rare bird, so maybe this is a little unfair. But the Lions had no answer for him on Sunday. The rookie fourth overall pick caught all six passes thrown his way for 102 yards and was Atlanta’s only real offensive weapon most of the day. It wasn’t just Pitts, though. Hayden Hurst beat Charles Harris for a touchdown, and the Lions have struggled to stop tight ends in recent weeks. Reeves-Maybin’s play aside, they need better play from their back seven against big receivers.
RB Jermar Jefferson: Jefferson is odd-man out of a Lions running back rotation that continues to churn out yards (130 on 33 carries Sunday). Jamaal Williams and Craig Reynolds split time against the Falcons, and Godwin Igwebuike played as the third-down back. D’Andre Swift’s shoulder injury has lingered longer than anyone expected, and Reynolds has benefitted most from Swift’s absence. The Lions should feel pretty comfortable with the group they have going into the offseason, and Jefferson will have to make big strides in Year 2 to take someone’s job.