Whenever an NFL team can’t close out a tight game, two people are put under the microscope: the quarterback and the head coach. The Detroit Lions’ 28-25 loss to the Buffalo Bills on Thanksgiving is a perfect example of that, as one bad pass and a couple of… interesting coaching decisions have dominated the narrative in the hours after the game.
But in our weekly report card, we try to take the entire game into scope, and for Jared Goff and Dan Campbell, there were a lot of very good things both did to keep Detroit in this game, and a handful of bad things that likely contributed to the loss.
Let’s talk about them all in our Week 12 report card and grades.
For most of this game, Jared Goff went toe-to-toe with Josh Allen, and Goff didn’t have the benefit of a very good offensive line or run game. He was decisive in a lot of his reads, accurate on most of his passes, and executed the game plan well. Goff was particularly good on third and fourth down, completing 6-of-9 passes for 39 yards, including two touchdowns, four conversions and one pass that led to a fourth-down conversion on the next play.
Unfortunately, two other third down plays hurt this team considerably. Goff took a sack in the end zone, and while that was mostly on his offensive line, he has to have better awareness and get rid of that ball. Then, of course, was the third-and-1 deep shot in which he had a wide open DJ Chark. I’m still not entirely sure why the two weren’t on the same page, but Goff said he wishes he had thrown a better ball. Simply put, if he connects there, we’re celebrating one of the biggest wins by this team in a long, long time.
Running backs: D+
In a game the Lions could ill-afford to throw away possessions, Jamaal Williams’ fumble turned out to be costly. D’Andre Swift was slightly better in this game, but he also did drop a pass in the red zone (on a ball that was far too late from Goff). Justin Jackson had just 19 yards on five touches.
Like Goff, this unit was put in tough situations by a bad offensive line, but they didn’t do much to help themselves out. The one positive thing I’ll say, though, is this group does a fantastic job in pass protection.
Tight ends: B
As a receiving unit, the tight ends only pitched in three catches for 28 yards—including a nifty 22-yard gain to rooke James Mitchell. But I think you’re really starting to see this group excel both in run blocking and—to a lesser extent—pass blocking. Take, for example, the Lions’ longest run of the day. Big credit goes to Brock Wright for sealing the edge:
Wide receivers: C+
Despite a tough touchdown catch, it’s still disappointing to see the Goff-to-Chark connection continuing to struggle. The duo seemed so in-sync in training camp, but they aren’t even coming close on some of the deep shots Chark was brought in to create. Kalif Raymond had a quiet day (on offense) with just 35 yards.
But Amon-Ra St. Brown continues to be an absolute force. He set a career high on Thursday with 122 receiving yards and added a key touchdown—plus his 7-yard jet sweep converted a fourth down on the game-tying drive.
In the past three weeks now, St. Brown has 26 catches, 317 yards and a touchdown. Safe to say, St. Brown is back.
Offensive line: D
The Lions were missing their top four offensive guards and it showed. Kayode Awosika and Dan Skipper were not up to the task, and it hurt this offense dearly. Detroit averaged just 3.4 yards per carry (their second-lowest of the year), Goff took 10 quarterback hits, and the Bills had seven total tackles for loss.
The tackles are still doing their jobs well, and Matt Nelson returning as the extra offensive lineman was a welcome addition.
Defensive line: C
James Houston had a great debut, tallying two sacks on just five defensive snaps. He also had a key fumble recovery on special teams. Alim McNeill had a pretty solid game to continue the momentum from last week’s breakout performance. Overall, Detroit produced eight quarterback hits of their own and three sacks.
However, there were a handful of bad things, too. Austin Bryant’s roughing the passer turned what would’ve been a third-and-10 and chance to hold the Bills to a game-tying field goal into a first-and-goal that Buffalo eventually scored on to take a three-point lead with 2:44 left.
Detroit was also not that great in staying disciplined in their rush lanes, as Josh Allen finished with 78 rushing yards.
After a quiet month hampered by injury, Malcolm Rodriguez came back and had one of the better games of his rookie season. He blew up a screen, dropped perfectly into coverage, tipping the ball to force a red-zone interception, and added a tackle for loss.
Alex Anzalone got that interception, and while he was understandably dragged on Twitter for whiffing on Josh Allen’s touchdown run, there was really more good than bad from him, too. He finished with a team-high nine tackles.
Jerry Jacobs and Mike Hughes each tallied a pass defensed and fought valiantly when they were simply overmatched. And while Allen only completed 57 percent of his passes, he connected on the big play when they had to.
Detroit’s game plan was to clearly take away Stefon Diggs—often bracketing him with a safety. Through 59 minutes, they had held him to just 41 yards. Problem is—like when Detroit did the same with Justin Jefferson against the Vikings—the other Bills receivers won their one-on-ones. Isaiah McKenzie pulled in 96 yards (second most in his career) and Gabe Davis caught four of his five targets.
The deep shot to Diggs is tough. As much as you’d like to see the Lions be able to stop that play, Kerby Joseph’s closing on the play was nearly perfect: not too early, maybe a tenth of a second late. Sometimes it takes a perfect throw to beat you, and Allen did just that.
Special teams: B
The good: Michael Badgley made a 51-yard field goal, both of Jack Fox’s punts were downed inside the 20-yard line (one inside the 10), Kalif Raymond had a key 41-yard punt return leading to Detroit’s go-ahead score in the fourth quarter.
The bad: Badgley missed a critical 29-yard field goal, Raymond fumbled a punt return.
It was close to a really, really, good day from the special teams unit, but that missed kick looms large.
First off, I don’t want to get it lost how Dan Campbell’s aggressiveness paid off HUGE in this game. The Lions went for it on fourth down four times, and each time it was “strongly” backed up by analytics—with win percentage gains of 5.8, 5.3, 3.8 and 16.3 according to Ben Baldwin’s model. The Lions and offensive coordinator Ben Johnson also deserve a lot of credit for dialing up successful plays in each of those critical moments.
In fact, the Lions have been much better on critical downs over the past two weeks:
On third downs:
- Week 1-10: 42-of-105 (40%)
- Week 11-12: 12-of-28 (43%)
On fourth downs:
- Weeks 1-11: 10-of-23 (43.5%)
- Weeks 11-12: 3-of-3 (100%) The Lions also converted a fourth down via penalty
However, there were some serious clock management issues at the end of both halves that needs addressing. While the final drive has drawn most the criticism, it was really Detroit’s first half management that was the more egregious error.
Here the Lions had just completed a first-down pass to give the team a second-and-3 from the Bills’ 9-yard line. The clock was running, and you can see from the screenshot that the play clock would have allowed them to run this all the way to the two-minute warning. Detroit had all three of their timeouts, so they had plenty of time to work with having to only gain 9 yards for the score.
Instead, the Lions ran… FOUR MORE PLAYS before the two minute warning. The very next play they snapped the ball with 31 SECONDS LEFT ON THE PLAY CLOCK ON A RUNNING CLOCK.
Tony Romo ripped them on the broadcast, and deservedly so. Detroit ended up only forcing the Bills to call one timeout, leaving Buffalo with two timeouts and 1:52 to score before the half—and they did.
I’ve already exhausted my breath on the end-of-game scenario, but I will bring up two more things the Lions probably should have at least considered. For one, here’s what the analytics said about going for it on fourth-and-1 instead of kicking a 51-yard field goal:
The scales are slightly tipped towards going for it, but what I find interesting is that the success rate in going for it is actually higher than the success rate of an average 51-yard kick. And considering Badgley had already missed a 29-yarder, and he is just 5-of-12 career from 50+ yards, it’s worth considering if the Lions made the right decision here, even though he made the kick. A conversion on the ground gets your kicker closer and almost ensures the Bills won’t have time for a rebuttal.
The other thing Detroit should have considered was ensuring a return on the ensuing kickoff to run more time off the clock. There’s obviously a risk of a big return there, though, so that’s a tough trade off.