Lions Snatch Third Consecutive Comeback, Beat Miami Late

In the words upon words that have been written about the Detroit Lions this season, nothing has been more fitting than the reinstatement of the title “Cardiac Cats” as their unofficial moniker. Truthfully the phrase dates back to the start of the Matthew Stafford era, but for a third straight week the Lions made every single one of their fans have a near heart attack. This time, the victim was the Miami Dolphins, whom with just over two minutes left let Stafford engineer his 15th career comeback and in turn seal a dramatic 20-16 win.

The Lions are currently 7-2 and still safely atop the NFC North. They’re also off to their best start through nine games since 1993 and now enjoy the healthy return of WR Calvin Johnson to the offense. It’s remarkable that a team that has floundered so much on offense and looked inept on special teams is tied with the Patriots and Broncos for the second best record in the entire NFL. That, and despite the fact that yesterday alone the Lions piled on 10 penalties for 98 yards, went only 3 for 12 on third down, and only mustered 63 rushing yards. Yes, the Lions have been far from perfect this year and were definitely fallible yesterday, but somehow someway this team made plays when it needed to and showed its recurring best quality: grit.

Best Lions Teams: 2014

What We Learned: Offense

First and foremost, the return of Megatron was expectantly the biggest blessing of all for Detroit yesterday. In his first substantial action since Week 3, Johnson torched the Dolphins’ secondary for 7 receptions, 113 yards, and a touchdown- tied for the most receptions and the second most yards he’s had in a game all season. In addition, Johnson was targeted 15 times and averaged over 16 yards per reception. If anything, we learned that Megatron is finally healthy again, but we also learned that the offense is also finally back to a fairly healthy state.

The return and health of Johnson meant the world for the Lions’ offense yesterday; with Megatron back Detroit is one of the most dynamic offenses in the league. While Stafford certainly wasn’t flawless, he looked so much more composed with Johnson at his disposal and more importantly was uncannily on fire during his two minute drill. Stafford finished going 25 of 40 for 280 yards with two touchdowns (albeit it should’ve been three if it weren’t for an improbable interception) and an 89.6 QB rating. Again, it wasn’t his best day, but with Johnson back Matthew Stafford looked so much better in the pocket. Stafford was only sacked 3 times for just 19 yards- significant improvement from the bulk of Johnson’s absence. And more importantly, Johnson gave Stafford and the offense dynamic and explosive balance. In very quiet fashion, WR Golden Tate is having a premier, Pro Bowl caliber season. With 11 receptions for 109 yards yesterday, Tate now has 66 receptions for 909 yards with seven games to go. The significance of Calvin Johnson is completely relative; with an active Megatron suddenly Tate is so much more potent. With a healthy and dynamic duo yesterday, Stafford was afforded more time in the pocket to evade pressure and subsequently had so much more control down the field when plays broke down. Add in Tate’s 10 yard catch and go reception in the fourth with 1:13 to go on fourth down, and suddenly it becomes more apparent that when Stafford has Johnson he also has so much more.

The Lions had the ball on eleven drives yesterday and the results were mixed at times. Two touchdowns, two field goals, three punts, the end of a half, an interception, a blocked field goal and turnover on downs offers an eclectic array of outcomes. Nevertheless, with the Stafford-Megatron-Tate trio back in place, we can rest assured that for now the offense can regain its old reputation with high yardage, high score potential.

What We Learned: Defense

Through ten weeks and nine games, the story on defense seems to remain the same. The Lions have dominated defensively all season, ranked 3rd in defensive pass yards with 212 per game and 2nd in defensive rush yards with 71. And despite the Dolphins’ relatively galvanizing offense, once again we learned that Detroit can effectively shut down any offensive attack.

Through four quarters, the Lions only conceded 228 aggregate yards to Miami, 178 through the air and only 50 on the ground. The Dolphins only converted 5 times of 14 on third down and more importantly lost the time of possession battle by over a solid three minutes. QB Ryan Tannehill was pedestrian at best going 27 of 38 for just 207 yards and only a touchdown. RB Damien Williams led the rush attack for Miami yet he only garnered 34 yards on seven carries. And even all-star WR Mike Wallace looked quiet against Detroit, only registering 5 catches for 51 yards. In all, the Dolphins finished with 20 first downs, but struggled mightily through the first half and again in the fourth quarter. By only conceding two drives of over 10 plays to Miami, the Lions in effect made the Dolphins punt four times, turnover twice, and ultimately fail to finish the game deep into the fourth.

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The majority of the honor likely goes once again to LB DeAndre Levy, who has been making an impressive case to be Detroit’s best linebacker in ages. Since taking over the middle spot in LB Stephen Tulloch’s replacement, Levy has been unstoppable. He is a tackling machine, and with 11 yesterday he now brings his total to 86 which is 6th in the NFL and is projected to finish with near 150 tackles on the season. Still, the credit for yesterday’s performance goes far beyond Levy. The fact is that the defensive line has been absolutely stellar all season and was once again in full force against Miami. DE Ziggy Ansah led the way with 6 tackles, two for loss, and an additional pass deflected. DT Ndamukong Suh added to the effort with for 4 tackles, three for loss, and three QB hits as well. Rounding out the list are reserves Darryl Tapp, C.J. Mosley, and LB Ashlee Parker who collectively combined for 6 tackles, a sack, a pass deflected, and two QB hits. In total the Lions sacked Tannehill three times, hit him nine times, deflected him five times and finished with another seven negative yardage tackles. Special recognition is also owed to S James Ihedigbo, who finished with 6 tackles, two deflections, and two tackles for loss. Most importantly, if it were not for Ihedigbo’s genius breakup in the end zone with 4:13 left in the fourth, the Dolphins would have had a seven point lead going into the end. Instead, with a great strip of Miami TE Charles Clay, Miami had to settle for a field goal giving the Lions a smaller deficit to combat. Perhaps just as much as anything, we learned once again how simply and destructively the Lions can dominate an opposing offense and in turn support its own offensive production.

What We Still Want to Know

Time will tell if the Lions can maintain the second best schedule in the NFL. We learned a lot this weekend, notably how complete the team is when it has a more full array of weapons to be compatible with a great defense.  However, the next seven games feature four road games and a litany of tough challenges. Detroit will travel to Arizona and New England the next couple weeks, which will both pose significant challenges for the Lions’ offense. The subsequent four weeks will offer some consolidation, as the Lions will face the Bears twice in addition to the Vikings and Buccaneers. But to close the season out in dramatic NFC North fashion, the Lions will fittingly travel to Lambeau Field to play what is a red hot Packers team.

The primary questions for the Lions will pertain to penalties and health. Although Detroit has shown improvement in recent weeks, the Lions thoroughly regressed on the penalty front against Miami. Double digit fouls for near 100 lost yards will do Detroit only a disservice against teams like Arizona, New England, and Green Bay. The key question will be if Coach Caldwell can trim down mental errors within his team and get more polished play. The other issue is health, specifically on offense. It was great to see Megatron back to give the Lions more dynamic room on offense, but the absences of Eric Ebron, Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria, and up and down presence Reggie Bush are all still relevant. As the Lions move towards the final leg of the regular season, the burning question will be if they can get fully healthy and what that could look like on the field.

The Cardiac Cats are easily a top ten team on paper. With seven games to go and a healing offense, we will all be glued to our televisions as Detroit looks to keep the Packers at bay through the rest of the season.

 

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