EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Maybe, it’s nothing more than confidence.
Maybe, that’s why the Detroit Lions are suddenly winning.
It can’t just be that. That’s too simple.
Maybe, the Lions have found a lesson hidden in all those early-season losses, as if pain is the secret ingredient to winning — which is hard to believe. If that were the case, after a half-century of losing, the Lions would be amazing by now.
Maybe, it’s simply effort.
“These guys are playing their asses off and they’re starting to figure out a way to win, they all are,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said after the Lions beat the New York Giants, 31-18. “It’s a credit to these guys and the coaches.”
But the Lions have always played hard under Campbell. So it’s got to be something else. Something that explains this wonderful conundrum: How did the Lions go from five-straight losses to a three-game winning streak — the team’s first in five years? How did it go from laughingstock to Giant beaters?
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Maybe, it all started to change at a players-only team meeting.
“A couple weeks back,” Alim McNeill said.
It happened at the Lions practice facility — the same week that defensive backs coach Aubrey Pleasant got fired.
“We kind of checked each other personally,” McNeill said. “We were just like, there’s no way we’re the worst defense in the league. There’s no way. I mean all the talent and all the guys we had here so we just kind of checked each other personally. …
“I’m not saying that switched everything but it just cleared up a lot of things for us, you know, communication wise, maybe some people weren’t seeing eye to eye. But you know, ever since then we’ve been able to build a great chemistry with each other.”
Normally, I don’t believe the whole team meeting thing. Like it creates a magical spell.
But you can’t argue that something significant has changed.
Now, instead of making a critical mistake on defense, the Lions are playing together. That is how they shut down Saquon Barkley on Sunday afternoon. Barkley came into this game as the NFC’s leading rusher. He was accounting for 36.5% of the Giants’ yards from scrimmage. But the Lions held him to just 22 yards on 15 carries. That takes chemistry and communication and gap responsibility and no missed tackles and no boneheaded mistakes — all the things that were clearly missing a month ago.
If one guy makes a mistake, leaving a gap open, Barkley would have busted a long run. If one guy doesn’t trust a teammate, trying to do too much, everything falls apart.
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Which is how they lost five straight.
But not on Sunday. Suddenly, they were making plays.
Which brings us to Aidan Hutchinson.
Playmakers are making plays
This game flipped midway through the second quarter.
On a cold, blustery afternoon, the scoreboard seemed frozen: Giants 6, Lions 3.
Then, the Lions got creative.
Hutchinson lined up like he was going to rush. He took two steps forward and suddenly switched direction, going into a backpedal, dropping into a zone like a linebacker. He went up and intercepted a pass, completely changing this game.
It was a fantastic, surprising defensive call.
And a tremendous athletic play.
“Didn’t see him there,” Giants quarterback Daniel Jones said. “Got to see it, bad decision there. Good play by him, can’t afford to do that.”
Normally, Jones doesn’t do that. He had gone six straight games without an interception, a stretch of 153 consecutive passes.
But Hutchinson, this massive man, went all invisible and snagged the ball right out of the air.
“He wants to be a difference-maker,” Campbell said of Hutchinson, last week. “Like, he views himself as somebody like, ‘I can change the game. Like I can do that.’ And so I think when you get in those critical moments, those high-pressure situations, he’s somebody that thrives in that, like he enjoys that. He doesn’t go the other way and get real tight and tense. He wants to go make a play.”
And that’s what he did; and then he did it again, falling on a fumble.
And if this is game day, it’s another day Kerby Joseph has another pick.
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“He’s a ball guy, he’s got instincts,” Campbell said.
Everything seems to be clicking for the Lions.
They are getting a pass rush — the Lions had 10 quarterback hits on Sunday.
They are getting turnovers.
And they are playing together.
No secret. That’s how you win.
A creative offense
So the defense is playing better, making plays and creating turnovers.
And the offense is perfectly aligned with that mindset and approach.
“The way the game went was kind of exactly how we wanted it to go,” said Jared Goff, who didn’t turn the ball over. “For us offensively it was just, taking care of the ball, let our defense play their plan, we’re going to stop the run and hopefully they’d make mistakes, and they did.”
But there is something else.
Lions offensive coordinator Ben Johnson was a wizard Sunday.
In a tough, grind-it-out game, the Lions actually flashed creativity and pulled out some cool plays. Some worked. Some didn’t. But you had to like the creativity.
The Lions countered the Giants’ aggressive defense, showing a run one way and having Goff roll out the other way, hitting a tight end on the cross.
Then, they had Lions tackle Penei Sewell line up like a slot receiver, bunched to the left. He was flagged for a block in the back, so it didn’t technically work, but it was still a cool call.
In the second quarter, Johnson had Goff fake a run to the left and then rolled to the right, which totally messed with the secondary. He threw back to the left, to a wide-open Amon-Ra St. Brown for 32 yards.
“We’re a team that no one really wants to play right now,” Goff said. “We’re kind of in a little bit of a groove and it’s a good feeling.”
Yep, that sounds like confidence is growing.
So as everybody tries to figure out what has changed, it’s pretty simple.
When you stop the other team from running and create turnovers, and when everything is aligned both offensively and defensively, it gives you a chance to win.
“There’s no secret,” Campbell said. “You eliminate the mistakes or reduce your own mentals and you get takeaways on the other side, hold on to the football and good things usually can happen for you.”
Good things are happening.
Contact Jeff Seidel: email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @seideljeff.
To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/sports/jeff-seidel.