The numbers were far from earth shattering on either side of the ball for the Lions, but for the first time since their drubbing of the Giants in Week 1, Detroit showed potent balance; suffocating defense complimented by fluid offensive production. In the last two weeks against Carolina and Green Bay, the Lions were able to rely on the defense to keep the game relatively manageable. But yesterday, we saw how good Detroit can be (on the road no less) when QB Matthew Stafford stays on his feet and makes smart decisions with the football.
Admittedly the prevalent expectation against the Jets was a slow, defensive struggle. Both teams entered the game ranked as the number one and two defenses in the league. Both teams also came in with quarterbacks who have been vastly inconsistent this season while the Jets’ receivers and Lions’ running backs have verged on awful thus far. Yet all in all, the Lions looked extremely competent and maintained their stronghold of the NFC North with thanks to the Green Bay Packers as well.
360 total yards is certainly short of what the Lions’ offense is capable of, but it was a good way to rise from the dead of the last two weeks. Detroit possessed the ball for 12 drives, ran 65 plays and also went 6 for 15 on third down; nothing overwhelmingly worth writing home about. But, the most significant statistic for Detroit yesterday came in the turnover box: 0. No fumbles or interceptions gave Detroit’s offense a significant advantage against the Jets’ 1st ranked rush defense and 9th ranked pass defense. That, and going 24 of 34 for 293 yards with two touchdowns for a 116.4 QB rating, is the sort of victory Stafford is capable of leading, proving once again to me that this year’s Lions can be a significant force in the NFC.
No doubt that Detroit’s defense once again anchored the team, but substantial credit is owed to Stafford for keeping the ball in Detroit’s hands. The Lions maintained possession for 34 minutes and 53 seconds, a nearly 10 minute advantage over New York. What’s more, Stafford kept the ball, played well, and moved the chains without any real running game (again) and with hardly any WR Calvin Johnson. Johnson, who suffered an ankle injury last week, hobbled through parts of the game but ultimately had to leave the game with just two catches for insignificant yardage.
“He had a couple of catches, but he obviously wasn’t himself out there,” said Stafford. “The other guys stepped up big.”
Thankfully other guys did step up, because once again RBs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell plagued Detroit’s offense in 1st and 2nd down situations. Bush finished with 12 carries for just 46 yards and bust just one time for 16 yards. Bell was slightly better (8 carries for just 32 yards) but his impact was overshadowed by Stafford’s own one yard touchdown in the fourth quarter. Another game and another poor rushing performance is anything but surprising, but Stafford’s acknowledgement of players emerging outside of Johnson is an important observation.
Headlining the list of offensive impact in Johnson’s absence yesterday was WR Golden Tate. Tate has certainly been a good addition this year and has also been the best number two receiver for Detroit since Johnson arrived in 2007. But yesterday specifically Tate was at his finest with easily his best game of the year; 8 receptions for 116 yards including a decisive 35 yard scamper in the first quarter. With Johnson’s early exit, WR and return ace Jeremy Ross found his way into the offense and snagged two balls, one for a 59 yard touchdown midway through the second quarter. And while he only had three catches, rookie TE Eric Ebron showed brilliant potential as a red zone weapon with his own 16 yard touchdown just before halftime. Other minor but relevant contributions included TE Brandon Pettigrew’s two snags for 19 yards and even WR Ryan Broyles earned a spot on the stat sheet with a 21 yard spurt; his first active roster action of the season.
The Tate and Running Game Questions
With Johnson’s injury hanging in the balances, a few questions remain pertinent to the Lions. The first is Tate’s viability as a number one receiver. Some have written saying that Tate’s performance yesterday validates him as potent temporary replacement for Johnson in the one slot. The issue I have with that is that although Tate played remarkably well yesterday (and registered number one statistics), his skill set in the Lions’ offense isn’t most conducive for that title. Last year Tate was the number one threat in Seattle and thrived off of Russell Wilson’s accuracy. He finished with 64 receptions for 898 yards and 5 touchdowns and ultimately went on to win the Super Bowl on the other side of a dominant Seahawk defense. Tate is 5’10 (although he does run a 4.42) but fit perfectly into Seattle’s short-pass, run-first offense. He is quick and plays well underneath, which made him a shifty target for Russell Wilson, who threw just 252 and 257 passes in his first two seasons in the NFL. Detroit is far from Seattle’s system; the notions of run-first or a game manager QB are farces to the Lions. Matthew Stafford’s last three full seasons have featured campaigns of 663, 727, and 634 pass attempts for 5,038, 4,967, and 4,650 yards respectively. Wilson threw for 3,357 last year, which his currently his own personal record. The issue with endorsing Tate as a dynamic number on receiver is that it’s first premature and second, never in Stafford’s tenure have the Lions been able to get by with its lead receiver barely snagging 70 balls for under 900 yards. For Detroit to be successful –and for Matthew Stafford to be elite- the Lions need a receiver who can be what Brandon Marshall is to Chicago or what Jordy Nelson is to Green Bay. Tate is undoubtedly good, but is neither of those with none of their stats.
The Tate question is so much more relevant with consideration to Detroit’s next opponent along with the absences of Johnson and TE Joe Fauria. This leads to the second major offensive question, which is the sustainability of the Lions’ awful running game. Detroit will play the Buffalo Bills this week, who are 5th in the NFL against the run. As already expected, the Lions will likely struggle to create even an honest rushing attack as Bush is averaging 3.8 yards a carry this year while Bell is worse with 3.2. The Lions will be forced to throw the ball, in typical Detroit fashion. With no running game and key offensive injuries, we will see precisely if Tate can actually lead a quiet receiving core and if the Lions are built to be effective offensively with just Tate and no ground attack. In the past, the Lions have been able to survive with no running game by virtue of Johnson, but now the odds are more against Detroit with jus Tate. For a team that’s next best weapons are Ebron, Pettigrew, Ross, and Broyes –all of whom have been quiet this year- these questions will be brightly in the limelight.
Praise Again to Levy and His Defense
Of course, it seems that as long as Detroit has LB DeAndre Levy’s presence they will always have a chance to compensate for the offense. Levy is modestly making a case for defensive player of the year this season, ranked 5th in the NFL with 38 tackles along with 6 tackles for loss, three passes deflected and another interception. In true form, Levy looked like an ace yesterday with 11 tackles and another for a loss against the Jets. The ascension of Levy this season has been a major blessing for the Lions, and has taken pressure off the front four. The all around balance on defense allowed Detroit to swarm Jets QB Geno Smith all day, limiting him to just 17 of 33 for only 209 yards and ultimately a 68.9 QB rating. With a healthy Levy (and even without IR listed LB Stephen Tulloch), Detroit’s defense currently looks the most in-tact it’s been in ages.
The efforts of Levy come with some help, however. Detroit’s defensive line played absolutely spectacular yesterday. DE Ziggy Ansah has come along nicely this season and yesterday posted 5 tackles and another one for a loss. DT Nick Fairley has seemingly overcome his weight criticisms from the offseason and registered a sack yesterday while DT C.J. Mosely also created significant pressure in the pocket. On the whole, Detroit’s stout defense generated two sacks, four negative yardage tackles, and four more QB hits yesterday despite a very quiet day from DT Ndamukong Suh. Even new MLB Tamir Whitehead looked perfectly poised yesterday, as he garnered 12 tackles along the way in his first full start replacing Tulloch. Conceding 84 yards to Jets RB Chris Ivory isn’t the worst thing in the world, meaning that for now Detroit’s defense is living up to its strength: taking time away from quarterbacks and limiting the run game. Also worth adding is the excellence exhibited by P Sam Martin, who often gave the defense extremely favorable situations; he finished with 6 punts averaging 51 yards for 306 yards, landing two inside the 20.
The Lions played well yesterday without Calvin Johnson for most of the game. Time will now tell if that sort of performance was simply a fluke or if Detroit can realistically expect to dominate offensively without Megatron or any run attack. For now, Detroit can celebrate an important victory and prepare for another key inter conference game with Buffalo.