Three-and-out: Clock-management questions arise from Lions’ late-game strategy

Detroit News

Allen Park — Here are three observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ overtime loss to the Seattle Seahawks.

Selective aggression

I’ve never hidden my affinity for how aggressively Lions coach Dan Campbell approaches games. Rarely will I question the decision to go for it on fourth down, because I fully believe the analytics support those calls. Additionally, his methodology for special teams has paid off time and time again with the fake punts and onside kicks.

But, if there’s an area of inconsistency with Campbell’s coaching, it’s how well he and his staff manage the clock. The way the team handled the end of the fourth quarter was inexplicably counter to the attacking mentality displayed throughout the other 58 minutes of regulation play.

Down three, the Lions took over with 1:44 remaining and had all three timeouts. If you believe in the concept of momentum, they had it all, having just driven the length of the field for a touchdown before coming up with a critical defensive stop that had Ford Field rocking. The only thing left to do was go for the jugular, and the way the drive started — with a 12-yard pass to Josh Reynolds across the middle — suggested that was the plan.

But the following sequence showed a baffling lack of urgency in the game’s most crucial sequence for the Lions. Reynolds was tackled with 1:40 remaining, but the Lions didn’t run their next snap for 35 seconds. That’s fine; it was a good time to burn some of the remaining clock, but after a successful Kalif Raymond end-around, they waited again, not snapping until there were 32 seconds remaining.

After the game, Campbell said they didn’t want to risk giving the ball back to Seattle to counter a potential score, but by wasting so much time, the offense was put behind schedule. And a rare missed throw from Jared Goff in the contest on second down only compounded the issue. Left with a third-and-7 from the 24-yard line with 23 seconds left, the Lions had three options run routes well short of the sticks, with Goff quickly firing to one of them, Jahmyr Gibbs, leaving the Lions to settle for a tying field goal.

We all know what happened in overtime. Detroit lost the toss and never got the ball again. And when Goff said after the game they deserved to lose, he might have been talking about the two turnovers resulting in 14 Seattle points in the second half, but it’s difficult to ignore taking the foot off the gas in the closing minutes.

Detroit should have called a timeout after Raymond’s end-around. With 58 seconds and 27 yards to go, you’re still in good shape to keep the playbook open and not leave too much time for Seattle, assuming you still end up forced to settle for a field goal. Plus, if you’re comfortable trusting your defense in overtime, you should similarly be able to trust them with 20-30 seconds remaining.

There are no definitively correct philosophical approaches to winning in football, but there is value in remaining consistent. Campbell rarely hesitates to hit the gas, but he chose to pump the brakes here and it cost his team.

No excuses

On the flip side, Campbell deserves credit for never taking an easy excuse. The officiating on Sunday played too big of a role in an otherwise exciting game. That’s not to say it adversely affected the Lions more than the Seahawks. In fact, Seattle probably got the worst of it, drawing twice as many flags, including multiple in the red zone and one that negated a third-down conversion late in the game that might have allowed them to run out the clock for a win in regulation.

But, it’s the flags that weren’t thrown that had Lions fans up in arms. On fourth-and-2 at the end of the third quarter, Reynolds got tangled with Seahawks cornerback Devon Witherspoon. The two went to the ground and the pass fell incomplete, resulting in a turnover on downs.

Campbell was told the play was incidental contact and Reynolds refused to bite when asked about the contact, saying he needed to do better maintaining his balance after the corner got hold of his foot.

That turnover on downs resulted in the Seahawks grabbing the lead. Still, the Lions were obviously able to overcome the deficit. But there was no recovering from the game’s final play, a winning touchdown toss from Geno Smith to Tyler Lockett.

On the play, Aidan Hutchinson was bearing down on Smith, but slowed by backup offensive tackle Jake Curhan, who had an arm hooked around the edge rusher’s chest as he passed. Fans wanted a hold, and Hutchinson did his part, selling the restrictive grasp, but the penalty never came. Campbell was asked about it and immediately dismissed the sentiment of the question.

“Look, every crew is different and that crew called it the way they call it,” Campbell said. “We knew that was a crew that normally calls a lot of penalties, and hey, that’s up to them. To me, it should have never come down to that, so I’m not using that. I’m not using any of them.”

And that’s the right answer. It was known this crew calls a lot of penalties, and they lived up to that reputation, sometimes to the Lions’ detriment and sometimes in their favor. Officiating will never be perfect, and their mistakes are more glaring because we get to see 10 replay angles in slow motion while they’re left to judge things in real time. That means every game will have questionable calls. But good teams don’t need to make excuses. The Lions still had every opportunity to win the game and didn’t. That’s on them, not the officiating.

Lineup challenge looms

Running back David Montgomery was having a solid game before exiting because of a thigh injury late in the third quarter. He didn’t return, and if what he said in passing in the locker room bears out, he might be down for a couple of weeks. That would be a devastating blow to an offense that really started to settle into a groove against Seattle.

The Lions signed Montgomery, in part, because of his lengthy track record of durability. And you can be sure that if there’s any chance he can play next week against Atlanta, he’ll will himself out there. But if he’s sidelined, his contributions will be tough to replace.

Montgomery showed his value in this game through his ability to maximize his yardage, particularly after contact. And his reliability between the tackles only strengthens Detroit’s play-action passing attack, a critical component to Goff’s weekly success.

Obviously, the Lions have a first-round pick in Gibbs ready to step into a bigger role, but it’s hardly a one-to-one replacement. His frame prohibits the Lions from overusing him between the tackles. Similarly, he’s quickly developing into an important component of the passing game, which often requires him to line up outside of the backfield.

That means the Lions will likely need to turn to Craig Reynolds, or potentially even work in Zonovan Knight off the practice squad. But those options won’t be able to replace the three-down consistency Montgomery brings to the table as a runner, receiving option and pass protector, which will likely limit the overall efficiency of the offense the next two or three games, against better-than-expected Atlanta and Green Bay teams.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter/X: @Justin_Rogers

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