The Good, Bad, and Ugly of Week One
By Ty Finch
The Detroit Lions won a thriller of a game this past Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, 39-35. The Lions started out hot, jumping out to an absurdly easy 21-3 lead late in the second half. In typical Lions fashion, however, they let the opposition back into the game. Giving up chunks of yards, and not using timeouts properly were main factors.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes, let us first make something clear; Andrew Luck is a great quarterback. This is not a bold statement, even though it may seem like it recently. Matthew Stafford is, shockingly to anyone who doesn’t follow the Lions, also a great quarterback. While the Lion’s defense fell asleep in the second half, it goes to show that great quarterbacks change games. This is not to absolve the defense for giving up massive plays in that wild second half. Only to point out that going up against a top quarterback in the NFL is tough to deal with, no matter his surroundings.
Enough about Andrew Luck though. Let us take a look at the good, bad, and ugly of last Sunday’s game. Dive on in.
The Offensive Line
The most worrying section of this Detroit Lions team going into the season was their offensive line. Last year was an abomination in terms of pass protection and opening up running lanes. During the preseason it looked like the same as it ever was. Against the Colts on Sunday, however, they looked like a completely new unit. Taylor Decker played admirably in his first start. Tomlinson, outside of one putrid second half series, held up fine. Swanson played his best game of his career, Warford looked like his rookie year self again, and Reiff did fine manning the right side. There were a few miscommunications here or there, and the running game was predicated on breaking a tackle or making someone miss rather than gaping holes, but if the line can hold up as well as they did on Sunday, this team can put up some serious points.
The Running Backs
Where did this come from, Theo Riddick?
The consensus opinion from the football cognoscenti was that Ameer Abdullah was the sole running back on the Lions who could actually run the ball. Theo Riddick must have been fed up with this offseason narrative. Riddick did his usual pass catching role (5 catches on 5 targets for 63 yards and a touchdown) but also came through running the ball. Riddick had a 6.4 yards per carry average on the day, more than twice his career average of 2.9 before Sunday.
Abdullah was also key to this game, contributing 120 total yards on the day, including one scoring drive late in the 3rd quarter where he had all but eight yards of offense. The running backs were a worry coming into this 2016, and one game does not a season make, (especially against the Colts’ front) but the running game was abominable last season. As long as this team can be right around average running the ball, the offense could flourish.
Kyle Van Noy in coverage?
Your eyes did not deceive you in the 3rd quarter; Kyle Van Noy was covering T.Y Hilton, one of the most explosive receivers in the game, on first down. And shockingly, he had a pass breakup during that play. The rest of the game, Van Noy was inconsequential or not on the field, but this one play showed more than anything else he has done yet in this league, for better or worse.
There is no need to break down Stafford’s performance. Take a look at his stat line.
31-39, 340 yards, 3 TDs, 0 INTs, for a passer rating of 128.6. Lethal.
It is never a sexy pick to praise a punter in any game. Usually, he receives little to no credit for helping win in the NFL. No so for Sam Martin on Sunday. The newly re-signed Lion had, literally, the best game for a punter in team history.
If anyone was still skeptical about this young man, bury those thoughts. Martin is one of the best punters in the league. With Johnson Bademosi and Don Carey on the outside as gunners, the Lions could very well have one of the best special teams units in the NFL this year. Sam Martin is a luxury, and if ever there was a doubt as to his extension, remember Ryan Donahue. Or, you know, don’t remember him, because you will need copious amounts of alcohol to block out his 38-yard line drive punts.
Bonus: DeAndre Levy is back
Levy did not have a stellar first game back, but it was obvious that this defense was sorely missing the 29 year old last year. If Levy can shake off the rust soon, the defense could see a resurgent season.
The Pass Defense
When the opposing quarterback throws for 385 yards and four touchdowns with no interceptions, it seems easy to call out the pass defense. Even though Luck is a very good quarterback, and people seem to have forgotten that, this defense continuously gave up crucial plays.
Darius Slay had an unfortunate slip on a big play early in the 2nd half, but otherwise was solid all day. Nevin Lawson was fine, and played much better than the last preseason game he was in. The culprits were anyone who was tasked to man the middle of the field. Something called Jack Doyle scored twice in the redzone, both being relatively easy catches. The linebackers and safeties never seemed to be on the same page throughout the game, giving up chunk plays where coverage’s were blown. While this problem was not the crux of the defensive issues, it is a massive issue going forwards.
Laken Tomlinson’s drive
At one point in the 2nd half, Laken Tomlinson decided that blocking other people was too difficult, and gave up. With 8:35 left in the 3rd quarter, Tomlinson blew a block on a run, resulting in a four yard loss. The next play, Riddick ran for a five yard gain. The play after that, Tomlinson whiffed on another block, resulting in the lone sack on Matthew Stafford for an eight yard loss. Outside of this cringe-inducing drive, Tomlinson was generally good for the rest of the game. With Joe Dahl looming, and Tomlinson not being a Bob Quinn pick, his time in Detroit could be up sooner than originally thought, or hoped, if he continues his uneven play.
Screens on 3rd and long
Let’s first give credit to Jim Bob Cooter and the Lions offense for executing the game plan. The Lions scored the most points out of any team in the NFL in week one, and after the horror show known as the Joe Lombardi offense, scoring 39 points against any defense is a feat to behold.
However, not every play call is above reproach. Cooter, more than once, called for a bubble or funnel screen on 3rd and long. Once in awhile, these calls can catch a defense off guard. But when your offense has been marching down the field for the majority of game, calling these extremely safe plays to minimize risk is infuriating. This has been a problem with Cooter stemming from last year. The Lions have receivers that can run a multitude of routes on the route tree, and hoping for a defensive gaff or missed tackles to convert a 3rd down and long is naïve at best.
Jim Caldwell’s late game clock management
If the Colts called their 2nd timeout later into the clock, and taken the extra 20 on the next play, they could have realistically held the ball to the last tick of the clock.
This has been the subject of ire from many Lions fans throughout the duration of Caldwell’s tenure. Late in the game on Sunday, his clock management “skills” reared its ugly head yet again.
Put aside any bias for a moment. I will do the same. What scenario would you rather have, down by a point needing one last drive to win the game: 37 seconds and three timeouts, or nearly 1:10 and one timeout?
For Jim Caldwell, the former is his first option, and the one chosen on Sunday to try win the game. By now, if you have read opinions surrounding this, including Caldwell’s comments after the game, you have probably already made up your mind on whether or not you believe it was the right choice. I will not be trying to persuade anyone either way on this, but let us look at the situation at hand.
The Colts called their second timeout with 1:15 left in the game. This was the first massive mistake from the opposition. The Lions let eight seconds run off the clock from the moment T.Y Hilton went to ground to the time the Colts called their timeout. Jim Caldwell was letting time run down. He was not going to call a timeout. The Colts decided to give Caldwell a break and called one themselves, because, in Chuck Pagano’s words, they needed different personnel “or something.”
The Colts’ second mistake also aided the Lions. After a six yard gain for Donte Moncrief, the booth upstairs stopped the clock for a replay. After upholding the play, the clock was destined to start on the referee’s signal. When the ball was spotted and ready for play, Andrew Luck decided to snap it immediately, when he could have bled at least 20 more seconds off the clock. The next play resulted in a touchdown. If the Colts called their 2nd timeout later, and taken the extra 20 on the next play, the game ends. (Drive charts from Pro Football Reference)
Jim Caldwell explained that he wanted to have three timeouts and 30 seconds left. What he failed to mention was, that if the Colts had played the clock correctly, the Lions could have been stuck with three timeouts and nearly no time left. Make no mistake, if the Colts played out the last two minutes correctly, the Lions would have had to take all three timeouts (which they were not doing) or been saddled with a loss.
The counter argument, it seems, was that it worked out anyway. Why question a move or two when the game ended up to the good guys? Well, the ends do not always justify the means. Had the Colts played their cards right, the Lions would have lost the game. Caldwell deserves no praise, and his late game management has always been a massive problem. The Lions hired Randy Edsall this offseason to help improve these late game gaffs. He is 0-1.
The Lions are 1-0 to begin the season though, and that is what matters. The next game up is against the Tennessee Titans at home. The Titans lost to the Minnesota Vikings Sunday, and the Lions look to continue their NFC North losing streak.