Stafford, Tate Key in Gutsy Lions 24-23 Win

It was hardly pretty, but the Detroit Lions somehow found a way to stunningly defeat the New Orleans Saints 24-23 yesterday. By narrowly outracing Drew Brees and company with a pair of late touchdowns and a key interception, Detroit still maintains its control of the NFC North at 5-2 as it prepares to travel to London to play Atlanta later this week.

And while it was not pretty, it also isn’t completely clear who deserves the most credit for the victory. There was offensive ingenuity, defensive playmaking, positive special teams, and even a key penalty on New Orleans S Rafael Brown on a late 4th and 5th added an element of fortuitous bounce to Detroit’s win. QB Matthew Stafford and WR Golden Tate both get high marks for their impacts on the game and of course LB DeAndre Levy continued his defensive-player-of-the-year caliber season. But the bottom line is that the Lions were down 23-10 with just over three and a half minutes. Via a 73 yard touchdown pass from Stafford to Tate on a short hitch route, the Lions cut the lead to six with three and a half to go. And later with 90 seconds left in the game, Stafford found WR Corey Fuller for a jumping 5 yard snag in the back of the end zone to seal the game. Despite no Calvin Johnson. Despite a still weak running game. Despite an offensive line that has been shaky and a quarterback that has been relatively innocuous. And despite even a thirteen point deficit; yes despite all of these factors the Lions simply got it done yesterday in dramatic fashion.

Thanking the Offense

It would be heresy to look past this game without giving the offense at least some ovation. Offensive execution has clearly been inconsistent this year for Detroit, and admittedly most of my own criticisms have been overtly aimed at Stafford along the way. Don’t be deceived, Stafford finished going 27 of 40 for 299 yards with two touchdowns, but those final stats were largely built up in the fourth quarter. With a win, it’s easy to forget that Stafford did just enough to compensate for two earlier interceptions that nearly cost the game. Still, I cannot deny that what Stafford did yesterday was remarkable and even implausible. And yet although it was implausible, with Matthew Stafford we always knew it was still possible. For any Lions fan, the one certainty that exists about Stafford is his uncertainty; no matter how bad he plays during the game he always possesses a penchant to stir a comeback. In yesterday’s case, it was no different; Detroit lives and dies by the decisions of Stafford, and against the Saints the Lions escaped with their lives.

So yes, I give major praise for Stafford’s leadership and the late clutch touchdowns. The offense is owed some recognition for the win yesterday, but it’s also worth noting that aside from winning the game, the offense also made vast aggregate improvements against the Saints. Detroit generated 344 yards yesterday, which is the most since their September 28th outing with the Jets. Along the way, the Lions picked up 21 first downs which is tied for their most this season and even Stafford’s 285 net yards is his second best performance this year in that category. But most importantly, the Lions entered the game just 2 of their last 25 on third downs, yet managed to go 7 of 15 against the Saints. For all of these reasons, the offense deserves not just mine but everyone’s respect.

The Ascension of Golden Tate

Of course, the fact remains that on the whole the offense has been shaky. Much of that inconsistency has to do with the absence of Calvin Johnson and a bad ground attack. But despite these factors, against New Orleans we saw once again why Golden Tate has been so essential to the offense’s lifeblood. With 10 catches and 154 yards, Tate made new career highs on both of those fronts and dismissed my leeriness about his ability to be a true number one receiver in this offense. All season Tate has been excellent and now has 48 receptions for 648 yards, averaging 13.5 yards a catch and 94 a game. In leaps and bounds Tate has become integral to this offense, and his late 73 yard touchdown yesterday is exactly what ignited Detroit’s comeback. Talking about the 73 yard touchdown, Stafford lauded Tate’s ability. He called the play “as good of a play as I’ve seen in a long time…give him a chance on a ball, he came back and caught it and he did the rest.”

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It’s not hard to imagine, but the Lions likely would not be 5-2 right now without Tate. Certainly Calvin Johnson is the most talented receiver in the NFL and his injury does slow down the offense, but without Tate it’s hard to imagine any verve left in the tank for Detroit. RB Joique Bell was modest yesterday with 18 carries for 48 yards and both TEs Brandon Pettigrew and Eric Ebron have been underwhelming this whole season. Granted late game hero WR Corey Fuller has had some moments this year, but clearly Tate has been the centerpiece to any of the offense’s success in recent weeks. The result is that without Tate there would be no victory against New Orleans, and likely not five so far this year.

The Part Everyone Expects

So far this season the Lions’ defense has conceded 3, 7, 14, 17, and now 23 points against New Orleans in its victories. Stats aside, Detroit’s defense inherently should get as much credit as the offense for yesterday’s win simply by virtue of S Glover Quin’s late interception to set up the Fuller touchdown and CB Darius Slay’s deflected pass on the Saints’ final 4th down play with 21 seconds to go. Against a Canton bound quarterback who threw for 342 yards, the defense made the stops it absolutely had to and fended off any final answer from the Saints.

But beyond the two key fourth quarter plays, it’s actually a little difficult to fully analyze the Lions’ defense against the Saints. Detroit conceded 25 first downs- its most of the season. They also gave up 408 yards to the Saints which is the most this season in that department by 72 yards. And although the front seven once again embarrassed the opponent’s run attack, Detroit’s secondary was actually torched for this first time this season, even having previously played Cam Newton and Aaron Rodgers. In all the Saints ran the same number of plays as Detroit, had the ball for less time, and still out yarded the Lions. The game wasn’t exactly a shootout, and the Saints are probably not the most talented team the Lions have faced, so the defense’s performance may be slightly disconcerting. But even with shaky moments, the Lions squeaked out the win and it is with thanks to the key stops on New Orleans late in the game.

It’s impossible to expect Detroit’s defense to be perfect, and while New Orleans fared better against the Lions than most offenses, the fundamentals still seem to be intact. Detroit made the Saints go just 3 for 12 on third downs, only gave up 3.5 yards per rush, and only allowed the Saints a 33% red zone efficiency rate. The Lions only sacked Drew Brees once, but hit him six times, deflected another six of his passes, and finished the game with six tackles for loss. LB DeAndre Levy was spectacular again with 11 tackles while S James Ihedigo also shined with 8 tackles, a sack, and two other tackles for loss. Undoubtedly the Lions had to work harder than normal against the likes of Brees, and even though they didn’t necessarily dominate to their normal degree, Detroit played fairly sound defense and made stops at key junctures in the game.

Going Forward

The Lions showed extreme guts against the Saints and although they weren’t perfect on either side of the ball, they proved that they still have a knack for fighting adversity. 5-2 is a great start to a season full of intrigue, and as all eyes continue to be on the health of Calvin Johnson, so too our attention turn to the Lions’ first ever foray to Europe. With a fragile lead on the division, Coach Jim Caldwell’s following words on his team’s character will surely be relevant as the Lions try to finish the first half of the season in style:

“I think you learn a little bit about your team as you go, I really do. This is the first one that we’ve had like this one, you know, to have to really come from behind and get it done with some big plays. You had a sense of it and you can see, when you’re dealing with men that have character and have talent you’ll get performances like that.”

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