By JT Bowen
With their season arguably on the line, the Lions achieved what few predicted Sunday: went into the desert and stole a win from an undefeated Cardinals team, temporarily quelling the flameout.
Dropping to 0-3 against a talented Arizona squad with the Saints up next seemed like a death sentence, as well as a forgone conclusion. After two divisional losses, the morale for a team that drew hype as a sleeper team in the preseason appeared all but gone. And while Detroit’s performance on Sunday was flawed, and the team is still, by all accounts, not very good, the season has been salvaged for now.
As is typical of a Lions game, there were ups and downs aplenty on both sides of the ball, but despite the errors, Detroit was able to execute down the stretch and seal a much-needed win. Perhaps the greatest catalyst for the Lions’ improbable victory was the turnover margin, which Detroit won 3-0, and nearly 4-0 if Duron Harmon had picked a second ball off in the 4th.
All three of the turnovers were interceptions, and all of them were by offseason acquisitions. Certainly, some of the blame can be attached to a questionable Kyler Murray performance front to back, but Jeff Okudah and Jamie Collins’ picks were encouraging, demonstrating a ball-hawking ability both have been touted for.
Maybe I’m underselling the overall performance of the defense to slow down a red-hot Arizona offense, spearheaded by a dark horse-MVP candidate in Murray and arguably the league’s top wideout in DeAndre Hopkins. Though it was markedly better than Week 1 and 2’s showings, which shows improvement, a few standout performances for guys like Tracy Walker, Jamie Collins, and Duron Harmon buoyed the unit. Jeff Okudah’s pick was nice, and he had a great tackle for loss on D-Hop early on, he struggled mightily against Hopkins the whole game (which is to be expected, in fairness). Amani Oruwariye was average and Darryl Roberts woes against the speedy Andy Isabella indicated the hope of a quick return for Justin Coleman and Desmond Trufant. And aside from Romeo Okwara’s great game, the defensive line was marginally better against the run but, just like the linebacking corps, struggled to generate consistent pressure.
But what it really boils down to is the 4th quarter defense, which was a major struggle particularly in Week 1 against Chicago. Both Arizona drives in the quarter came up empty, making it easy on the offense to come back at their own pace and not manically trying to dial up a last-minute touchdown drive. Overall, while the defense benefitted from a shaky quarterbacking performance and displayed lingering errors, they clutched up when they needed to and ultimately played a major part in the win.
As for the offense, the same general sentiment holds: errors afoot, but the job got done. Matthew Stafford probably had his sharpest performance of the season, which isn’t saying a lot but still encouraging. He was far from perfect, struggling to convert in the red zone and missing on some critical throws, but he led a great final drive to put Detroit into field goal range and involved everyone in the offense. Still some room for improvement, but the arrow’s pointing up. Kenny Golladay’s return was pretty much as advertised -- he hauled in a stellar catch for a touchdown and was the leading receiver despite not being 100%. Hopefully, this is a sign of what’s to come, as it’s difficult to argue his return to the lineup was not instrumental to the outcome. Marv played well, Hock was solid, and Jesse James still, contrary to popular belief, plays for the Lions. While it was a bit disappointing to see DeAndre Swift and Kerryon barely touching the field, the reliance on Adrian Peterson, regardless of how effective, resulting in a win. The running back roulette, especially with Bo Scarbrough eligible to return from IR now, is still unpredictable, though it looks like AP has locked down the job for now.
Undoubtedly, the worst positional performance belongs to the offensive line. Somehow, even though the (literally) big-name offseason signing, Hal Vaitai, finally saw the field, the line looked markedly worse than in both Weeks 1 and 2. And the root of the problem seemed to be Vaitai. He ceded multiple sacks, looked confused playing at guard instead of his natural tackle position, and nearly wrecked the game with a costly holding penalty that offset a Marvin Hall touchdown on the final drive. Individually, Taylor Decker, who had one of the worst left tackle games I’ve ever seen against Chandler Jones last year, played really well aside from a false start, Frank Ragnow remains awesome, and Jonah Jackson, despite moving from right to left guard, looks like the team’s best rookie by a mile. Some of it can be attributed to Adrian Peterson’s dwindling explosiveness and speed, but they struggled to pave holes in the run game, especially in the second half.
The best phase of the game and the team, totally inarguably, remains special teams. Brayden Coombs looks like a slam-dunk hire as the new ST coordinator and it’s showing. Matt Prater has clearly shaken off any early-season rust, nailing all four field goals as well as the game-winner. Jamal Agnew had a nice punt return. And the team’s MVP, by many accounts, had maybe his best game -- Jack Fox, Fantastic Mr. Fox, looks like and statistically is the best punter in the NFL, summed up by an incredible punt to pin the Cardinals at their own 2-yard line in the 4th quarter. I was upset when the Lions let Sam Martin walk this offseason, but the coaching staff has unearthed a gem in Jack Fox, and it’s paying off.
As for coaching, it’s also mainly positive. The Lions fought and came out on top of a gritty, back-and-forth game, which is clearly how the Patricia regime aims to win. Unlike Week 1, where they rolled over and died in the fourth offensively, or last season’s Week 1, where the conservative play call was the cause of their demise, the Lions seemed to embrace the ‘Dagger Time’ mantra they created this offseason. Putting Matt Prater into a more manageable field goal range by passing on the last drive instead of running out the clock with Adrian Peterson for a 50+ yard attempt was indicative of a conscious decision to keep their foot on the gas, and the ability to get things done in all three phases showed.
Does this win mean the Lions are fixed and going 14-2? Probably not. Does Matt Patricia remain a mediocre-at-best head coach? Definitely. And can the Lions grind out another win against a struggling-but-talented New Orleans squad next week? We’ll see. But for now, a cataclysmic collapse has been avoided, and the Lions notched an immensely important win at an opportune time.