Four Downs: Lions’ Swift, St. Brown shine, but there are no moral victories in the NFL

Detroit News

Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 38-35 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday at Ford Field.

First down

After opening the game with an impressive nine-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, which included 77 yards on the ground — a couple of false start penalties make that math work — the Lions went into a concerning lull their next four possessions. That included three three-and-outs and a turnover on the second play of the fourth possession.

By the time the Lions got the ball back with 6:26 remaining in the second quarter, quarterback Jared Goff had completed just 3 of 9 passes for 6 yards and the interception, holding a passer rating of 0.0.

A reminder, a QB would have a rating of 39.6 if he simply spiked the ball every snap.

Obviously, the Lions figured some stuff out from that point on, Goff finished with a respectable line and the team posted 35 points — the second-highest output of the Dan Campbell era — superseded only by the 37 from last season’s finale.

“I think we found a little bit of our identity there in the second half of who we wanted to be and what we want to do,” Goff said after the game

That echoes comments made by offensive coordinator Ben Johnson this offseason. What’s interesting, and probably a positive, is the Lions are letting their offensive identity come to them as opposed to forcing something that might not be there. It’s the larger equivalent of using individual players in situations that best match their skill sets. Why try to shoehorn a round peg into the square hole?

The philosophy further demonstrates Johnson’s maturity in his role, despite it being his first year. And with a flexible scheme, built with the pieces from several different systems, the Lions should be able to lean into their strengths, as they learn them, more than other teams.

Now, what exactly were the Lions able to learn about themselves between the first and second halves? Well, first and foremost, D’Andre Swift is going to be a big part of what they do. The dual-threat running back can do damage between the tackles and around the edge of the formation, while offering explosive playmaking in the passing game. The north-south stuff is important because it eventually forces the opposition to commit resources to the box.

But the biggest thing that changed late in the first half was the downfield shots in the passing game. Some of that is built off the play-action created by Swift and Jamaal Williams’ success on the ground, but the Lions did a good job stretching the field both horizontally and vertically through the second half, leading to some much-needed chunk gains that fueled their second-half rally.

Maybe we can distill it down to something as simple as balance or complementary football, but without the willingness to open things up in the passing game, stretching the defense to cover the entire field, the lulls will be more likely.

Second down

In some of the postgame commentary on both the internet and talk radio, there was discussion of this game as a moral victory. Let’s be clear — those don’t really exist at the professional level, where everyone is on equal footing because of the salary cap. There are wins and losses. There are no bonus points for coming close or trying hard.

Regardless of what your expectations were coming into this game, the end result was disappointing. Whether it was the defensive struggles through the first three quarters, the inability to get a stop in the closing minutes, or the aforementioned offensive lull in the first half, Detroit’s performance wasn’t good enough. They don’t need to hear that from me or anyone else, because everyone on the coaching staff and in the locker room already recognizes it.

Despite the absence of a moral victory, it doesn’t mean we can’t acknowledge the progress made in the organization. Remember, this was an opponent that came into your house last year, knocked you down, and when you tried to get back up and bite their kneecaps, they knocked out your teeth and laughed at you. How else can we describe that 44-6 thumping?

And it’s easy to suggest this Eagles roster is better than that one. They added premier talent at multiple spots, most notably wide receiver and in the defensive backfield. So a repeat of last year’s debacle was on the table. And, at times, it looked to be headed that way, particularly after Goff’s pick-six in the second quarter.

But the Lions scratched and clawed their way through the full 60 minutes and were within striking distance in the end. That’s unequivocal progress, year over year.

It’s previously been established this Lions team will always fight. That’s their identity and it’s an admirable base characteristic to possess. But now, there’s better talent to complement that spirit. It didn’t translate to a win this week, and that’s worthy of your disappointment and criticism, but it’s easy to see the wins are coming. This isn’t last year, when many secretly allowed fears of 0-17 to creep into their heads.

What will this look like in the end? Somewhere between six and eight wins still seems about right, but that’s legitimate progress in the second year of a rebuild, with one of the NFL’s youngest rosters. So no, there aren’t moral victories, but Detroit’s improvement is real.

Third down

While there’s no taking away from what receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown accomplished at the end of last season; his surge down the stretch was fueled out of necessity. With T.J. Hockenson sidelined by injury, the team lacked viable weapons in the passing game, leading to a steady volume of targets for the then-rookie.

Following the offseason addition of DJ Chark and the return of Hockenson to the lineup, it was reasonable to ask how the bolstered arsenal would impact St. Brown’s role in the offense. If the opener is any barometer, the answer is not at all.

St. Brown finished with a team-high 12 targets against the Eagles, 50% more than the next-most for the Lions. And he turned those opportunities into eight receptions for 64 catches and a touchdown.

Obviously, he’d like to do a little more damage with that many grabs, and he had a pair of uncharacteristic drops, but with eight catches, he becomes just the fifth player in NFL history to record at least that many receptions in seven straight games, joining a star-studded group that includes Antonio Brown, Travis Kelce, Michael Thomas and Anquan Boldin.

It also marked his fifth consecutive game with a receiving touchdown, leaving him one game short of matching the franchise record.

Sunday confirmed what many of us already expected: St. Brown is a star with staying power. It’s clear Goff and Johnson trust the second-year receiver to the utmost degree and there’s little reason to believe he won’t be Detroit’s most-productive pass catcher most weeks.

Fourth down

There wasn’t much that went right defensively. That’s easy to acknowledge when the unit gives up more than 450 yards and 30 points without producing a traditional turnover. But one thing that stuck out, at least prior to his unnecessary and regrettable ejection, was safety Tracy Walker’s usage.

You might remember that the previous coaching regime tried to convert Walker to a box safety and it resulted in a spectacular failure, both in regards to the on-field results and the damage done to the player’s psyche. Last season was as much about rebuilding Walker’s mentality and confidence as it was putting his skill set to better use.

In 2021, Walker successfully returned to playing primarily as a deep safety, but in Sunday’s opener, the veteran was used in a far more versatile role. Now, we can’t dismiss that this wasn’t game-plan specific, to counter the mobility of Eagles’ dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts, but Walker spent a good chunk of the afternoon closer to the line of scrimmage, either in the box or covering the slot, frequently crashing downhill in run support or as a pass rusher.

And he found some success there, generating a quarterback pressure, a sack and batting down a pass. Clearly, both coaching staffs saw similar abilities, but it probably speaks to the way it was presented to Walker that he was able to go out and confidently produce in these roles under the current regime.

Of course, there’s little point in continuing to compare and contrast Campbell and Matt Patricia’s approaches. It’s far beyond time to move on from that talk. More importantly, it’s going to be worth watching whether Walker’s usage will continue to shift. The Lions re-signed him with intent, but they were seeking more playmaking going forward. This could be the beginning of that evolution.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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