Detroit Lions grades vs. Bills: A lot to like, but coaches docked for clock management

Detroit Free Press

Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett grades the Detroit Lions in their 28-25 loss to the Buffalo Bills at Ford Field on Thursday:

Quarterback

Jared Goff played one of his best games of the season Thursday, completing 23 of 37 passes for 240 yards and two touchdowns, but he missed a key fourth-and-1 throw late on a play that was similar to one he failed to make against the Miami Dolphins. Goff laced a touchdown pass to DJ Chark early in the fourth quarter and stood strong in the pocket against regular pressure from the middle of the Bills defensive line. He did not see a wide-open Amon-Ra St. Brown on an incomplete pass in the red zone late in the first half and nearly threw a reckless pick in the fourth quarter after spinning out of a sack. Ultimately, though, quarterbacks are paid to make winning plays at the end of games and Goff failed to do that when given the chance for the second time in a month. Grade: B

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Running backs

The Lions failed to top 100 yards rushing for the second time in three games, but that was little fault of the running backs. Jamaal Williams (66 yards) was his usual workhorse self. He had 18 carries, scored his 13th rushing touchdown of the season and played well despite losing a fumble when he spun into traffic in the first quarter. D’Andre Swift (19 yards, five carries) doesn’t always show the urgency he needs to get up field and he short-armed two passes Thursday that put him at risk of big hits, but he did show a glimpse of power when he lowered his shoulder to try and run through Jordan Poyer on a play near the goal line. Justin Jackson made a nice catch on a 15-yard screen pass that was just outside his body frame, and he broke two tackles on his 11-yard run on an inside handoff on the final play of the third quarter. Grade: B

Receivers/tight ends

The Lions are a different offense when Amon-Ra St. Brown is healthy and playing like he did Thursday. St. Brown had nine catches for 122 yards and a touchdown and was offensive coordinator Ben Johnson’s go-to in every key situation. St. Brown ran a nice route to convert a third-and-8 on the Lions’ first quarter touchdown drive, had a 7-yard gain on a fourth-and-1 jet sweep on the Lions’ final possession and had a key block on Swift’s two-point conversion run. The Lions didn’t have much success getting Chark the ball early, despite their concerted effort, though Chark did make a nice catch in traffic on his fourth-quarter TD. Brock Wright and Kalif Raymond (four catches, 35 yards) had key blocks on St. Brown’s jet sweep, and Wright creased the hole for Williams on his touchdown run. Wright did have one drop and missed a block when Von Miller forced Goff to throw a ball away on the game’s first series. Grade: A-minus

Offensive line

Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell were reliable as usual in edge protection, but the Lions struggled to block Ed Oliver with fill-in guards Dan Skipper and Kayode Awosika. Both guards missed blocks when Williams was thrown for a 3-yard loss in the middle of the second quarter, Skipper was late coming out of his stance when Goff had to throw the ball away on a first-and-goal incompletion at 2, and Oliver pushed Awosika aside on Jackson’s 5-yard loss early in the third quarter then drove Skipper back into Goff’s lap two plays later for a safety. Matt Nelson joined Wright in making the key blocks on Williams’ touchdown run. Grade: C

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Defensive line

James Houston recorded the first two sacks of his career Thursday. He dipped low to get by Spencer Brown for his first sack on a third-and-10 play at the end of the first half, then got a clean-up sack after John Cominsky forced Bills quarterback Josh Allen off his spot on a third-and-7 play in the third quarter. Benito Jones also notched his first sack as a Lion on a clean-up job, though he appeared to get out of his rush lane on Allen’s 21-yard scramble in the second quarter and he missed a tackle on Devin Singletary’s 19-yard run. Alim McNeill had another solid game at defensive tackle. He drew a holding penalty on Rodger Saffold and beat two blockers as he moved down the line for a tackle on a stretch running play in the first quarter. Grade: A-minus

Linebackers

Both the defensive line and linebackers get docked for Buffalo’s 164-yard rushing day, though the Lions seemed to out-physical the Bills most of the day at the point of attack. Malcolm Rodriguez blew up a screen to James Cook on Buffalo’s second drive and forced an errant throw on a blitz that didn’t quite get to Allen in the third quarter. Rodriguez also tipped a pass in the red zone that Alex Anzalone hauled in for his first interception of the season. Anzalone had a team-high nine tackles, including a one-handed tackle on Cook on a dump off in the second quarter and a heads-up stop on a slot handoff to Isaiah McKenzie that looked like it might for go for a big gain. Rodriguez also had a tackle for loss when he read a toss to Cook on the short side of the field and shed a block from David Quessenberry on his way to the ball. Grade: A-minus

Defensive backs

Mike Hughes got beat on Stefon Diggs’ 5-yard touchdown with 2:40 to play, but I thought Hughes had his best game in coverage with the Lions. He finished with five tackles, helped keep Diggs (eight catches, 77 yards on 15 targets) in check most of the game and had a pass breakup on a deep shot to Gabe Davis on the opening drive of the second quarter. Jerry Jacobs was flagged for pass interference and illegal contact, and either he or Will Harris misplayed a 30-yard pass to McKenzie on second-and-21. Harris had his struggles in coverage, including on Diggs’ 36-yard catch on Buffalo’s final drive. But the Lions secondary, playing without Jeff Okudah, forced three Allen throwaways with good coverage on Buffalo’s hurry-up drive at the end of the first half. Grade: B

Special teams

It was a mixed day for the Lions on special teams. Badgley drilled a 51-yard game-tying field goal with 23 seconds left, but also missed a 29-yarder wide left in the third quarter. Kalif Raymond had a key 41-yard punt return in the third quarter, when he sidestepped two tackles after fielding the punt then broke an arm tackle from a third Bills defender as he raced down the sideline. Raymond also fumbled a return that Houston recovered, Jack Fox netted 51.5 yards on his two punts and the Lions’ kick block unit contributed to Tyler Bass’ missed extra point. Grade: B

Coaching

The Lions were in a position to win Thursday’s game but mismanaged the clock on their final drive, when they seemed to be playing for a game-tying field goal instead of a touchdown. Dan Campbell said he did not want to leave Allen too much time by using his timeouts too early, which he did anyway, but that’s a spot where the Lions should have been more aggressive. I did not like the third-and-1 pass to Chark, given what happened in the Miami game. The Lions would have been better off playing for a first down and extending the possession. Campbell made two risky but right decisions to try and convert fourth downs early in the game. The second was especially bold, considering the Lions were deep in their own territory and down a touchdown. Offensive coordinator Ben Johnson called another good game and should polish up his resume for head coaching interviews after the season. And give Aaron Glenn credit for a defensive game plan that kept Buffalo’s high-scoring offense mostly in check. The Lions played most of Thursday like one of the best teams in the NFC, and that’s a feather in the cap of the coaches despite their struggles at the end. Grade: B-minus  

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

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