Two things had to happen to the Lions eventually, and perhaps yesterday was the inevitable moment of faith for Detroit.
No one could really expect the Lions to sustain their near month long string of comeback victories; certainly their proclivity to win far-but-not-gone games in the final transpiring seconds had to give out at some point. At the same time, it’s hard to say that everyone could’ve expected the Lions to actually win in Phoenix (despite my own pre-game confidence). From an unorthodox Jeremy Ross punt return late in the game that was called back to letting Arizona WR Larry Fitzgerald make his second catch of the game the most important, bad luck and bad execution killed Detroit. Ultimately, it was a different battle but the same result against the Cardinals; this time, an important 14-6 loss in the desert.
The Lions have naturally had their own share of issues this season, but yesterday was the worst time possible for them to exhibit their most fallible qualities. Detroit traveled to Arizona one game behind the Cardinals for the first seed in the NFC. In fact, with a victory Detroit would’ve been tied with only New England for the best record in the NFL and enjoyed a head-to-head advantage over Arizona for the rest of the season. That, and the Lions would’ve held off the red-hot Packers (with whom they still have a head-to-head advantage over) for at least another week. Add in the absence of Arizona QB Carson Palmer and subsequently Drew Stanton’s own erratic tendencies during the game, and the Lions really did have an amazing chance to distinguish themselves from the rest of the best.
Alas, it was eventually going to happen; the Lions couldn’t win with a lethargic offense. All laud once again to the defense, which didn’t let Arizona score for the final three quarters and modestly limited the Cardinals to 352 yards. But on the road against good teams in the NFL, no one can win with just 11 first downs, only 164 net pass yards, and nine penalties. The problem? That’s exactly what Detroit did, and with just six games to go the key to finishing the season strong will be urgency .
What We Learned: Offense
More than anything, we learned that Matthew Stafford has a regression gene against Arizona. His numbers have had bright spots (against the Cardinals in 2013, Stafford went 24 of 36 for 278 yards with two touchdowns and no picks for a 108 QB rating), but the last few years Detroit has ultimately struggled immensely against the Cardinals. With yesterday’s loss, the Lions completed their third consecutive loss to Arizona on the road, losing last year 25-21 and the year before 38-10.
Truth be told, Stafford was fundamentally bad yesterday. At 18 of 30, Stafford not only completed just 60% of his passes, but along the way set new floors for performances this year. Stafford finished the game with 183 yards, no touchdowns, one interception, four sacks (whereas Drew Stanton wasn’t sacked once) and consequently a 63.6 QB rating. 183 yards marks his worst performance of the season on that front, which is still unique considering against Buffalo he threw for nearly 50 more yards with the same amount of attempts. Less telling but still significant is Stafford’s inaccuracy, which wasn’t his worst but puts in perspective the sort of year he’s had. Through ten games, yesterday was only Stafford’s 5th most inaccurate game; not the worst possible game he could’ve played. However, 60% as his median performance with other games of 58.1%, 57.6%, 56.3% and 51.1% is extremely disconcerting. Yes, the running game compensated more than ever yesterday, but if we learned anything new about Matthew Stafford, it’s that his Arizona gene truly emphasizes either a fundamental drop-off in his career or hopefully just growing pains in a new system.
Within the running game, the Lions showed exceptional improvement. Detroit finished with 19 rushes for 98 yards and a 5.2 yard per carry average; all refreshing and convincing numbers. As expected, the effort was led by Joique Bell, who despite a slow season rushed 14 times for 85 yards averaging over 6 yards a pop. The Lions aren’t there yet on the ground, but a near 100 yard performance is fantastic news for the offense that has needed balance more than anything for years.
No matter the running game’s potency though, the issue remained the air-attack. Against Arizona’s at the time 30th ranked pass defense, it just made sense that the Lions would explode. With Golden Tate having a Pro Bowl year, Calvin Johnson back and healthy, and even TE Eric Ebron emerging into the fold, Detroit seemed poised for an aerial attack. But despite all of the possibilities, none of the Lions’ receivers made substantial plays. Johnson finished with just 5 catches for 59 yards (and more importantly was targeted 12 times). Tate did offer his usual explosive dynamic with a 30 yard catch and go and a 20.5 yard average, but still only caught two passes and was targeted on just those two occasions. And despite signs of life with 4 catches, Ebron only mustered 22 yards and less than 6 yards per catch on his afternoon. The Cardinals have played with defensive grit all season, but when the 12th statistically best pass attack (and truthfully one of the most talented units) is beaten down by the 30th ranked pass defense, inherent problems loom.
What We Learned: Defense
It’s a little harder to diagnose the Lions’ defensive performance bearing in mind that Detroit P Sam Martin finished the game with just a football field’s worth of yards less than the Cardinals’ offense. Starting with the good, there is no doubt whatsoever that Detroit owns the league’s best run defense. On a day without their normal starting quarterback, Arizona only managed to accumulate 46 yards on 26 carries. Detroit currently sits on top of the NFL’s rush defense rankings, only allowing on average 68.1 yards per game. And even though Arizona’s running game has been slow this year, the Lions forced Arizona to be one dimensional all game. With rumors looming around Ndamukong Suh’s market worth for next season, it’s apparent that for Detroit their front seven is their most invaluable asset.
The aggregate numbers are actually quite decent for Detroit. The Lions only conceded 18 first downs to Arizona, only let them in the red zone twice, picked off Drew Stanton twice, and kept Arizona to under 60 offensive plays. The Cardinals offense wasn’t spectacular by any means, but unfortunately for Detroit, it was good enough to beat them. With only 352 conceded yards, Detroit’s defense has only given up more in a game once this year; against New Orleans a few weeks ago. While Arizona WR John Brown quietly cut through Detroit’s secondary with 5 catches for 69 yards, WR Michael Floyd made two athletic touchdown receptions in the first quarter. For Stanton -who finished 21 of 32 for 306 yards and a 91.4 QB rating- it was easy to keep Detroit’s offense off the field as Arizona went 8 for 14 on third downs. DeAndre Levy finished with another double digit tackle performance and the Lions did deflect 8 passes, but no sacks killed Detroit down the stretch. Even despite six tackles for loss and five QB hits, the Lions’ defense was always close but never good enough to get a lucky quick three and out.
The Cardinals’ offense wasn’t too much to handle for Detroit. Instead, it was just enough to overcome the Lions. The reality is that the Cardinals couldn’t score in the last 45 minutes and only made it inside the twenty twice. Arizona punted one time less than Detroit and also controlled the clock for just a minute and change more. Detroit forced enough turnovers throughout the game to stay competitive, but just couldn’t finish. All of that said, the defining moment for the game defensively will be Larry Fitzgerald’s 11 yard reception in the closing minutes on third down to seal the victory. With only 2 catches for 33 yards, Detroit contained the Cardinals’ all time leading receiver well. The issue, though, was that the Lions came up short when it mattered most; again, close but not enough.
What We Want to Know Still
Initially, my mind defaults to hyper skepticism. In 2007, the Lions started 6-2 just to collapse in the second half of the season. Last season alone needs no introduction or explanation. One loss is not the end of the world nor does it even imply that Detroit will spiral to its own demise. The Lions simply lost a close and sloppy game to a great team. However, the Lions now travel to New England this week with two dates with Chicago and finale in Green Bay to wrap up 2014. Games against Tampa Bay and Minnesota should be cushion for Detroit, but what I want to know more than anything is if the offense can put together consistent performances down the stretch against good teams.
The next several weeks won’t be easy for Detroit, but will speak to their ability to endure. The Lions have one of the most talented rosters in football; the question will be if they can use it properly. It was likely eventual to lose another nail biter, and also probably eventual to lose again in the desert. But for Lions fans, the rest of the season will address the most extramural question facing Detroit: is a late season collapse also simply eventual?