Four Downs: Looking deeper into Campbell’s fourth-down conversion decisions

Detroit News

Atlanta — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 20-16 loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

First down

During the second half of the game, a colleague pointed out the Lions were on the cusp of setting the NFL record for fourth-down attempts in a single season. And by the end of the contest, the Lions had attempted their 36th fourth down, surpassing the 2020 Philadelphia Eagles.

Let’s be clear, there are a lot of factors at play with this record, some good, some bad. Starting with the positive, it’s analytically driven behavior we’ve seen across the league the past few years and coach Dan Campbell has proven he’s not averse to playing the odds. In a profession where old-school mentalities can often reign over logic, Campbell’s continued willingness to embrace the evolution of the game should be praised.

On the flip side, bad teams go for it more frequently on fourth down out of necessity because they’re often trailing late in games. The five teams that have attempted the most fourth downs this season have a combine record of 22-52-1.

Regardless, as the Lions eye better days in the future, let’s hope Campbell continues to be aggressive with his fourth-down play-calling, while simultaneously finding ways to elevate the team’s 50% conversion rate, which is slightly below average.

Math and record books aside, Campbell made a seemingly curious decision to not go for it on fourth down in the closing minutes of the game, when his team faced fourth-and-5 from Atlanta’s 8-yard line after a run play was stuffed for a 3-yard loss one snap earlier.

The down-and-distance obviously weren’t ideal, but situationally, after Detroit’s defense had failed to get a stop the previous four possessions, settling for a field goal to cut the deficit to four late in the fourth quarter didn’t make much sense.

Campbell explained his logic after the game, stating he knew he had all three timeouts remaining and anticipated the Falcons would play it safe while nursing their lead. Those instincts proved correct as the Falcons went run, run, screen pass and would have been forced to punt even if Jalen Reeves-Maybin hadn’t forced a fumble the Lions recovered.

The counter point is Campbell was setting his offense up to need to drive 70-80 yards with a little more than two minutes remaining, with no timeouts. And while the Lions moved the ball well through much of the game, those drives were methodical and rarely explosive. It would have been putting a lot of an inexperienced backup quarterback to execute in that situation.

Campbell’s willingness to trust his gut as much as analytics is part of his charm. But, as this game shows, it can be far from ideal. That’s not to say math and probability should dictate all situations  — because they don’t account for things like weather, game flow or injury situations — but in this case, Campbell probably made the wrong call, even though it initially worked out with the defense’s help.

Second down

It could have been easily argued the Lions had depth issues at tight end even before T.J. Hockenson suffered a season-ending hand injury, but the final two games of this campaign are setting up to be difficult to maneuver.

It’s easy to forget how difficult the transition from the college to pro game can be for a tight end. The position is required to know a large chunk of the offensive play book, responsible for learning run blocking, route running and pass protections. Outside of quarterback, there’s not a more difficult adjustment, offensively.

Add that to the physical transition, learning to do all those assignments against significantly bigger and faster defenders, and it’s easy to understand why it’s commonplace for rookie tight end to struggle.

Following Hockenson’s injury, the Lions came into Sunday’s game with only two undrafted rookies making up the depth chart, complemented by fullback Jason Cabinda. By the end of the day, two of those three were sidelined by knee injuries, which could keep them out the remainder of the season.

That leaves just Brock Wright.

To be clear, the Lions like him plenty. The seemingly block-first tight end is more athletic and a better receiver than he got to show at Notre Dame. But that doesn’t change the fact that his developmental curve is steep. In an ideal situation, he’d still be on the practice squad, or maybe the third option, seeing just a handful of snaps each week, similar to the way the franchise used fourth-round draft pick Michael Roberts a few years back.

Instead, Wright is now the guy, playing more than 70% of the offensive snaps the past two weeks. And if Cabinda or Shane Zylstra’s knee injuries keep them out of the lineup as it appears they might, the next man up is another undrafted rookie, Nick Eubanks.

This playing time for Wright will unquestionably accelerate his development going into next season. It will also give the team’s decision-makers a better chance to evaluate him as a long-term piece. It’s clear the tight end is a valuable component to Detroit’s offensive scheme and this will confirm whether it’s worthwhile considering a veteran upgrade to partner with Hockenson for the 2022 season.

Third down

Admittedly, others have been saying before this, but after running back D’Andre Swift returned to practice this week and wasn’t able to get medically cleared for this contest, it’s time to shut down the dynamic dual-threat for the season.

This isn’t a vote for tanking. By all means, Lions, try to win your two remaining games. But shoulder injuries can easily develop into long-term issues if a player is not careful. Obviously, the team should weigh the necessity of surgical options, but there’s no reason to expose Swift to unnecessary damage, particularly given running backs see a sharper production decline than most positions.

Swift remains under contract for two more seasons beyond this one, when the rebuild should be progressing toward playoff contention. His availability then far supersedes his availability now.

Fourth down

A second watch of the game provided a greater appreciation for Detroit’s game plan, particularly on the offensive side of the ball.

The Lions were in an unenviable situation, unexpectedly losing starting quarterback Jared Goff to COVID early in the week. And without the security blankets of Hockenson and Swift, the coaching staff had to find a way to protect inexperienced backup Tim Boyle.

Knowing the importance of the run game, while also understanding the Falcons would key in on that from the start, the Lions smartly opened up with four consecutive pass plays. This kept the opposition off balance, and the quick throws allowed Boyle to establish a rhythm and some confidence right out the gate.

The quick-passing game was critical to keeping Boyle on schedule throughout the afternoon. On average, he was able to get rid of the ball in under 2.5 seconds. Only two starting quarterbacks — Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger — are operating on that kind of timing over the full course of the season. That plan limited Boyle to facing pressure on just seven of his 34 drop backs. Impressively, when he threw from a clean pocket, he completed 22 of his 27 throws.

Obviously, things got clunky in the red zone. Boyle’s inexperience showed up throughout the matchup with his ball placement, which is also indicative of his underdeveloped chemistry with his receivers. His completion percentage wouldn’t have been nearly as good had his targets not bailed him out with several challenging grabs on poorly placed throws, whether low, high or behind them.

Those accuracy issues become magnified in the red zone and Boyle wasn’t able to get it done on any of Detroit’s four trips, which ended up being the difference.

The game plan was there to make the most with the players available, but that still requires those players to execute. The Lions did that outside the 20-yard line, largely controlling the flow of the game and dominating time of possession. Unfortunately for Boyle, he wasn’t able to execute in the game’s critical situations, causing the Lions to fall short.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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