Four Downs: James Houston hype, Lions’ clock management and Ford Field’s atmosphere

Detroit News

Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 28-25 loss to the Buffalo Bills.

First down

Call it a gut feeling, but a week ago, I started talking to people about James Houston, the Lions’ sixth-round pick who had spent the duration of his rookie season on the practice squad. Once training camp wraps, the media doesn’t get to see practice, outside brief 15-minute windows of individual drills. That means we have to rely on what coaches, players and teammates are willing to share to get any updates on developmental progress.

Last Friday, I asked linebacker coach Kelvin Sheppard what he was seeing from Houston on the practice field. Within that answer, it became clear the player was working less with Sheppard’s group and more with the defensive linemen, mirroring his usage after transferring to Jackson State for the 2021 season, where he racked up 16.5 sacks as a senior.

Sheppard directed us to ask starting offensive tackles Penei Sewell and Taylor Decker about how Houston was looking in practice, so that’s what I did.

“Man, he gives us great looks,” Sewell said. “The way he has speed off the edge, he has that twitch that you see in some of these guys that star in this league. It’s like a game every time I get reps against him. His coaches do him a great job of getting him right, but man, he’s got it. He’s going to be a great player if he keeps getting after it.”

Decker, the veteran of his room, was also quick to praise Houston’s abilities and approach. The blindside blocker said the rookie is observant, asking smart questions about Decker’s blocking techniques to better understand how to develop counter responses.

Physically, Decker said Houston can be a lot to handle and it’s not unusual to lose some reps against the rookie.

“Everything he does is smooth,” Decker said. “It’s not like he’s going into his rush with one move in mind. Me, as an offensive tackle, I try to dictate what they do by how I set. I want to do what I want to do, and a lot of times that will eliminate some of their rushes. I think he does a really good job, maybe because he has a plan in mind, but he can react to different sets and stuff like that.

“He’s a very smooth mover and he can just bend the edge really well,” Decker said. “I think that guy has a future, for sure. There have been a couple times in practice where he’ll hit me with a move and it’s like, oh, it’s just practice. No, it’s a legit move and he got me.”

I also touched based with defensive captain and leader Alex Anzalone, who confirmed Houston wasn’t spending a whole lot of time with the linebackers during the season. But Houston’s pass-rush ability has certainly been catching the attention of his defensive teammates.

“What’s the line from that Liam Neeson movie (“Taken”)” Anzalone asked. “‘What I do have are a very particular set of skills.’ Yeah, that’s him.”

I finally got around to talking to Houston on Tuesday. When asked about Decker’s comments, and whether he was truly cerebral enough to have a detailed pre-snap plan each play, the rookie laughed it off, noting he still largely leans on his instincts and is working hard to develop that type of mental approach.

And sensing a potential debut in the coming weeks, I asked what it would mean to him.

“I can’t wait until I step on that field,” Houston said. “I’m going to give it everything I got. I feel like I’ve almost red-shirted, it’s been like a whole college season, so I’m ready to go out there and play.”

Little did anyone outside the building realize Houston’s debut would come two days later.

And what a debut it was. He only logged 15 total snaps against the Bills, with 10 coming on special teams, but he had a monumental impact. As a blocker on a punt return he recovered a fumble that was knocked from the grasp of Kalif Raymond. And on defense, the team unleashed those natural pass-rush skills where he got home for two third-down sacks of elusive quarterback Josh Allen, beating a double-team on both occasions.

He’s presently slated to go back to the practice squad after being temporarily elevated for the contest, but given what he showcased in limited opportunities Thursday, the Lions will have a tough time keeping him there. Don’t be surprised if he gets added to the active roster early next week.

Second down

In a close loss, it’s always easy to find things to nitpick. And, once again, Lions coach Dan Campbell’s clock management is under the microscope.

So how fair is the criticism? With a little more time to digest the decisions, let’s dissect them, starting with the end of the first half.

The Lions took possession with 7:55 in the second quarter and went on a 15-play march, eating more than six minutes of game clock in the process. Early in the possession, the Lions often snapped it with plenty of time on the play clock, but that was understandable, since they likely didn’t anticipate being able to use the full 7:55.

It’s closer to the goal line where the conversation gets interesting. After a replay review overruled D’Andre Swift’s touchdown run with 2:17 remaining, giving the Lions first-and-goal from the 2, the offense could have run the clock down to the two-minute warning. Instead, they ran two plays, a pass that went incomplete and a run that was blown up for a 5-yard loss.

That allowed the Bills to conserve their timeouts, and they used one after a Swift run on the other side of the 2-mintue warning. And while the Lions were able to salvage a touchdown on fourth down, the potent Bills offense was left with 1:52 and two timeouts to orchestrate a response.

Had the Lions let the clock run to two minutes ahead of first down and kept it on the ground after the stoppage, at the bare minimum, they force the Bills to use their timeouts. Maybe it doesn’t matter, because that offense is so lethal, but it improves your odds.

Campbell’s view of the situation was far more optimistic than realistic. He wanted to score quickly and envisioned his defense getting a quick stop, putting the Lions in position to score a second time before the end of the half. The problem with this logic is the Bills previous two drives were each 10 plays.

The end of the game was a little less problematic than I originally perceived, at least the early portion of the drive. The Lions had 2:40 remaining, all their timeouts, plus the two-minute warning. They could afford to be methodical and still run the ball while trying to either tie or take the lead down three.

And at the two-minute stoppage, they were still on a good pace as they neared midfield. But after the break, it felt like things quickly shifted to playing for the tie vs. the win, particularly running the play clock down to five seconds before handing it off to Swift on third-and-six.

That put the Lions in a dilemma zone with their third-and-one call, to take the downfield shot or try to convert with a run and use up the clock. I don’t hate the deep shot, but we can also acknowledge that was not playing to quarterback Jared Goff’s skill set. With a different QB, that’s a higher percentage play.

Had they kept the ball on the ground, the biggest risk is losing yardage, which the Lions did plenty in this game with two backup guards. But you also have two timeouts to stop the clock after a conversion, allowing you to use the remaining time instead of leaving Buffalo those 23 seconds they utilized to set up the game-winning kick.

Was Campbell’s decision-making at the end of either half egregious? No, but it could have been better, especially when considering the opponent’s strengths.

Third down

Whether you buy into the idea of moral victories at the professional level or not, we should be able to agree that Detroit’s performance validated this roster is turning a corner and the recent three-game winning streak wasn’t a mirage. Coming off the team’s best game of the season, a 31-18 thumping of the New York Giants on the road, the Lions returned home on a short week and gave a legitimate Super Bowl contender everything they could handle.

Once the sour taste of defeat is washed from their mouths, the Lions, and their fans, should still feel pretty good about the way things are trending.

So let’s recalibrate expectations for the rest of the year. First of all, the team is getting healthier. DJ Chark went from 11 snaps to 52 after returning from an ankle injury. Josh Reynolds barely saw the field, but was at least active after missing three games with a back injury. Every concussion is different, but there’s reasons to believe Jeff Okudah and Jonas Jackson will both be back imminently. And Jameson Williams and Romeo Okwara are practicing and on the cusp of making their season debuts.

Plus, the strength of Detroit’s remaining six opponents isn’t particularly daunting. Four of the six have four or fewer wins. Then there’s a home game against division-leading Minnesota, who Detroit had the ropes in Week 3, but let them off the hook. Finally, there’s a good New York Jets team led by a dominant defense, but they’re also working through some trouble at QB, making them vulnerable.

Honestly, at the bare minimum, the Lions should win three of those games, four is very realistic and, hear me out, five isn’t impossible, assuming the team continues to play the way they did through November.

Fourth down

The Lions believed they had a shot at the second-best home game attendance in Ford Field’s 20-year history, and even though they fell about just short of that mark, it was a remarkable atmosphere for one of the better games in recent years at the stadium.

Three hours before the game, the streets were filled with tailgating fans, and the venues around the stadium were packed and lively. And once the contest kicked off, the energy in the building never waned. That includes a raucous contingent of Buffalo fans, some of the NFL’s best, who probably filled 15-20% of the seats.

At times, it genuinely felt like a playoff game. Not that we’d know, of course, since Ford Field has never held one outside the Super Bowl in 2006. Still, it was a not-needed reminder this fan base is starving for a winner and ready to throw its full support behind one.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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