The good, the bad, the unknown of Detroit Lions’ 1-1 start

Detroit Free Press

Two games in is far too early to make any judgment on what the Detroit Lions will be this season. The time to delve into that topic is during their Week 6 bye. But after splitting their first two games, losing a shootout to the Philadelphia Eagles and surviving a comeback attempt from the Washington Commanders, I’m leaning toward thinking the Lions are slightly better than we thought.

If we’re being honest, both the Eagles and Commanders games followed a similar script: The team that won got up big early, only to see the loser rally and make it a game in the second half.

That happens in the NFL. Players’ and coaches’ instinct is to take their foot off the gas, and teams are too talented to be held down long.

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But bad teams don’t usually build 22-0 halftime leads, as the Lions did Sunday, and teams that score as much as the Lions have the first two weeks — 71 points, tied with the Kansas City Chiefs for most in the NFL entering the Monday night games — tend to stick around in the playoff race.

Here are nine more thoughts on the Lions’ 1-1 start:

Piling up the points

The 71 points the Lions have scored in two weeks is nothing to sniff at.

The Lions have scored 35 or more points in three straight games dating back to last season and are off to their best start offensively since 2011, when they racked up 75 points in season-opening wins over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (27-20) and Chiefs (48-3).

That year, the Lions opened with five straight wins before an injury to Jahvid Best changed the dynamic of their offense. They still managed four 40-point games that season (and three more with at least 34 points), but they were too one-dimensional to contend in a division that featured the best team in football (the Green Bay Packers).

I see some similarities with the way 2011 Lions team and this year’s crew are built. Both featured young playmakers on offense (Calvin Johnson and Best then, Amon-Ra St. Brown and D’Andre Swift now) and young, high-motor pass rushers on defense (Ndamukong Suh and Aidan Hutchinson). If Swift can stay healthy, no sure thing since he already is playing through a sprained ankle, the Lions have the weapons to hang with just about anyone on their schedule.

Who’s got next?

Speaking of the schedule, again it’s too early to make rash judgments on how good or bad most teams will be, but the Lions have a very manageable slate of games in the month ahead that could help build interest and momentum for the stretch run.

The Minnesota Vikings, who the Lions visit next Sunday, looked formidable in Week 1 and visit the Eagles on Monday night. But after the Lions get the Vikings on a short week for the home team, they have perhaps-more-winnable-than-thought games against the Seattle Seahawks, New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys on the docket.

The Seahawks and Patriots are two of the most offensively challenged teams in the NFL, with no quarterback in Seattle and no offensive coordinator in New England, and the Cowboys might still be without Dak Prescott as he recovers from a broken thumb.

Combined, those three teams have scored 71 points so far this season, the same as the Lions.

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Bonus Patriots thought: Anyone else find it rich that Patriots receiver Kendrick Bourne found himself in Matt Patricia’s doghouse for reportedly being late to meetings? This is the same Patricia who was purposely late to meetings as Lions coach in his misguided attempt to command the attention of his players.

Potholes ahead?

The teams on the Lions’ schedule that perhaps will be better than thought: The Vikings, who have the NFL’s best receiver in Justin Jefferson; the Miami Dolphins, who have what looks like a dynamic offense; and the Jacksonville Jaguars, where Trevor Lawrence seems poised for a nice second season.

Oh, and the Buffalo Bills look like the best team in the NFL, which we already knew, but they may be even better than thought.

The Bills are the only team on the Lions’ schedule clearly better than the Eagles, though the Packers, Vikings and even the Dolphins might be on a similar level. If you’re trying to count wins, the Lions have a lot more games left against teams that look like Washington than look like Philadelphia.

On second(ary) thought

The Lions’ biggest cause for concern after two weeks is, no surprise, their secondary. And Amani Oruwariye’s back injury is a huge worry heading into the Vikings game.

Oruwariye and Jeff Okudah, who has been solid through two weeks, give the Lions a serviceable cornerback duo, but the drop-off is steep when Will Harris plays extended snaps on the outside. The Eagles went right at Harris when he filled in for Okudah for a series in the opener, and the Commanders finally got their passing game going by attacking Harris at the start of the second half Sunday.

Aaron Glenn has done a good job mixing up his blitz packages early in the season as a way to help his secondary, but teams that can protect their quarterback will be able to expose the Lions’ defensive backfield.

There is hope if Okudah keeps developing and with Jerry Jacobs due back next month from a torn ACL, but no lead will ever be safe with the Lions’ secondary.

Help is on the way

One more injury update: Jameson Williams posted video on social media last week of him running and cutting during his rehab from a torn ACL. Williams still is at least a month away from playing, and he has some serious obstacles to overcome as a rookie receiver who needs to find a rhythm with Jared Goff to contribute in a meaningful way this fall.

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But his social media post is another reminder of the Lions’ massive potential on offense. St. Brown and Swift are special players for different reasons, and Williams has explosive potential as a vertical threat in the passing game.

It’s unlikely the Lions will reap all the benefits of what Williams has to offer this season, but they have assembled a group of high-end skill players that by next fall could rival any in the NFL.

Win one for the Skipper

Great scene the Lions shared from their locker room after Sunday’s win of players serenading offensive lineman Dan Skipper with chants of “Skip” after Dan Campbell singled out the journeyman for his play on the offensive line.

Skipper started at left guard in place of the injured Jonah Jackson and helped spark the Lions’ 191-yard rushing day. He had not played guard since his freshman year of college (apart from some preseason snaps “before I got fired,” he said) and he shared some relatable thoughts with reporters when discussing how meaningful it was for him to start in front of his twin 1-year-old sons Sunday.

“It’s my sixth year in the league, and I’ve never made a team,” Skipper said. “It’s tough. You get a win and you’re just never quite good enough. You’re not quite enough. You show up every day and you think you’re doing the right things and just for whatever reason it just doesn’t quite work out.

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“I think I’ve had 20 NFL contracts. They’re not worth the paper they’re written on, right? It’s like, ‘Here we go again.’ Sixth year, I think things look good and it sucks. But went home (after cuts), got to spend a week with the family, which was big. Got back up here, moved, did all that. Just trying to get back to put your best foot ahead every day. It’s not easy. Whether you’ve been fired once or a hundred times, it still sucks. It’s tough. You get fired, but just keep on plugging away.”

‘I trust him’

Campbell said he started Skipper over the Lions’ other options at left guard — Drew Forbes and Kayode Awosika — because “I trust him.” Skipper has been in the program since last season, while Forbes (a September waiver claim from the Browns) and Awosika (just signed off the Eagles practice squad) are newcomers, so that decision makes sense.

But Campbell’s explanation underscores the connection he’s been able to build with players, even those he’s fired, during his 20 months in the organization. While some teams constantly churn the back end of their roster hoping to stumble into success, the Lions made three roster additions during their entire training camp, and one — signing Darrin Paulo — was a player who had been with them previously.

There is little loyalty in the NFL, and the Lions actively pursue roster upgrades (like Nate Sudfeld at backup QB). But players remain invested in the program in part because of the connection they feel to Campbell, and Campbell has earned their trust by rewarding those who work hard and do things right.

“Trust’s a funny thing,” Skipper said. “It takes years to build and seconds to break, so just trying to keep putting my best foot ahead every day. And I think that’s really this roster, that’s all we’re trying to do. We’re all just trying to get better every day, whether you’re a starter or a backup or a fricking fourth tackle, like it doesn’t matter; you’re trying to get better every day and do what’s asked of you and do that to the best of your ability.”

Born to run

NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger did a good job explaining why the Lions have been so effective running the ball in a video breakdown he posted Monday on Twitter. The Lions are the only NFL team with three 50-plus-yard runs through two weeks, and first-year coordinator Ben Johnson’s scheme is a big reason why.

St. Brown’s 58-yard scamper on an end-around Sunday was a play Johnson spent the entire first half setting up. As explained by St. Brown, “that whole first half I was motioning across almost every play. I was running across, running back, running across. I feel like as a defense at some point you kind of just don’t pay mind to it. And this was a play that we had in this week and we knew if we got it, it would hit big.”

Quintez Cephus had a key block to spring St. Brown on the play, and as a unit the Lions receiving corps has played a big hand in their rushing success this year.

St. Brown is not known for his breakaway speed, which is part of the reason he fell to the fourth round of the 2021 draft. He got pulled down at the 17-yard line after his long run, though insisted he would have scored if not for the jumbotron.

“I blame the jumbotron for me getting caught, ’cause it was half a second delay,” St. Brown said. “So I was looking at it, I’m like I’m about to high-step. Before I could even high-step I already got tackled. Jumbotron was a little delayed but it was a great play.”

35-and-up

One more note about the Lions’ potential on offense: No Lions team has scored 35-plus points in consecutive games since the end of the 2011 season, when they beat the San Diego Chargers, 38-10, and lost to the Packers, 45-41, in the Matt Flynn game.

If the Lions reach the 35-point mark again next Sunday, they will join the 1995 team as the only Lions teams to accomplish the feat in three consecutive games in the past 35 years. In 1995, the Lions closed the regular season with 44-0 and 37-10 wins over the Jacksonville Jaguars and Tampa Bay Buccaneers to make the playoffs, then lost to the Eagles, 58-37, in a wild card game.

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

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