It was neither easy nor pretty. It did not answer questions or inspire confidence. It was much, much, much, much more exciting than it needed to be. But the Detroit Lions went into The Linc with their season on the line and came out victors.
The defensive line won this game. PFF credits the Lions with 3 sacks, 10 QB Hits, and 15 QB Hurries.
Kyle Vanden Bosch had his best game in ages. Avril had two sacks, including one in overtime that essentially won the game. Suh and Fairley were stout inside, especially against the run; LeSean McCoy was held to a laughable 1.57 YpC on 14 attempts. Suh and Fairley also each had a batted pass; Suh’s likely preventing a game-winning TD for the Eagles. LoJack got two hits and two hurries in just 18 pass rush attempts.
The return of Louis Delmas had a big impact, though he gave back his interception with an Eagles touchdown off his blown assignment. Despite a mix of solid play and obvious rust in coverage, Delmas made a huge impact in the run game. He had 9 solo tackles (and 4 stops) with just 2 misses.
The Eagles have been a thorn in the Lions' paw as long as I can remember. Until Sunday, the Lions hadn't beaten the Eagles since 1986; I was five years old. Of course, there was the 1995 first-round playoff rout that ended the Lions' incredible seven-game win streak. Those Lions started 2-5, ran to 10-6, then ran a bunch of smack before facing the Eagles in the first round and were down 51-7 by the middle of the third quarter.
Somehow, the 2008 game was even worse: the Eagles beat the Lions 56-21, an even bigger margin of defeat than the 1995 debacling. I have never, ever felt more helpless watching a football game.
The Eagles offensive dominated the Lions front seven in a way I've never seen before or since. Shaun Rogers and Cory Redding were being driven five yards off the ball even when the Eagles were pass protecting. Brian Westbrook ran for 110 yards on just 14 carries (7.86 YpC!). Donovan McNabb completed 21-of-26 for 381 yards (14.65 YpA!!). Worst of all, receiver Kevin Curtis—who averaged 412 yards per season in his 8-year career—racked up 211 yards and 3 touchdowns on 11 catches.
Sunday, the script was flipped: the Lions dominated in the trenches, on both sides of the ball. The result was never going to be similar domination; 2012 Eagles have as much talent as any team in the NFL and the 2007 Lions would go 0-16 the next season. But the opportunities were there for this game to be a much bigger win.
The same excuses were there following the game, but there didn’t seem to be as much passion behind the Eagles defensive line’s claims that they’re not getting sacks because opposing offenses are max protecting and quarterbacks are making quick throws.
The extra blockers and chip blockers were there on occasion, but Matthew Stafford was taking plenty of chances downfield. The line had its chances to pressure the Lions quarterback. It just didn’t get there. It was dominated by Detroit’s unspectacular, yet workmanlike, offensive line. The Lions’ defensive line, meanwhile, manhandled the Eagles’ o-line. You could see how they were physically superior...
...right guard Danny Watkins struggled against Suh and Nick Fairley. Both Lions crushed Vick after Watkins made very poor blocking attempts. In the first quarter, Suh penetrated and knocked the quarterback to the ground. In the third, Vick threw a short slant but was clobbered by Fairley after he released the ball. The Lions rushed only four but Watkins did little to impede the second-year defensive tackle’s path. The second-year guard wasn’t much better as a run blocker. In the fourth quarter, Fairley blew by Watkins and tackled McCoy for a four-yard loss.
So yeah. How about those other opportunities?
This offense is simply not in sync. Defenses are taking away the easy option—Calvin Johnson—and forcing Stafford to beat them with trickier, intermediate stuff. Titus Young hasn’t been reliably getting open—and, as we saw with that dropped bomb, isn’t as reliable as Johnson and Nate Burleson. Brandon Pettigrew, as a surehanded safety valve, has regressed. And even when everything’s working, Stafford has occasionally misfired like he never seemed to last season.
Stafford made some amazing throws on Sunday, but he also missed some easy stuff. That wouldn’t be an issue if it weren’t for the way his targets are failing him. PFF credits him with 42 “aimed” passes (not spikes or throwaways), and just 22 completions (52.4%). Stafford threw for 311 yards (6.91 raw YpA), a touchdown, and one armpunt of an INT—a case of Calvin stumbling trying to get from from airtight double-coverage, but still.
That throw, as I said on Twitter and in the Fireside Chat, is an example of why I've always railed against the "just throw it up to Calvin" offense that so many Lions fans push for: it simply doesn't win football games. It's great for fantasy owners, but it's awful for consistently scoring points against NFL defenses. Throwing a long ball up to a guy with a defender down both the front and rear of his pants is not a strategy, it's a prayer. There's a time for those, and it's not during a hard-fought, close-scored, crucial road game.
These kinds of throws are part of Stafford's football DNA. Check out Trae Thompson's outstanding SB Nation piece on Stafford, "The Making of a Quarterback." He's been beating teams with prayers like that since middle school.
The Lions need Stafford to have that confidence, that swagger. But it's one thing to read a defense, see weakness and know your guy's going to be able to make a play; it's another thing to read a defense, see they're trying to stop your guy at any cost, and lob it up there anyway because they're stopping everything else and you're out of ideas.
This is part of Stafford's maturation, part of his growth process, part of his evolution into a quarterback who can stand atop Mount Quarterbackmore with Brees and Brady and Manning and Elway and Montana and Unitas. He shouldn't have made that throw, and he should have found a way to get it into the end zone when he had three tries from no distance in the fourth quarter.
Flip those two outcomes, and this a somewhat comfortable win instead of another amazing comeback. Flip those two outcomes, and the story is how a bruising defense and punishing Lions running attack (128 yards on 28 carries! 4.23 YpC!) led the Lions to an inexorable, inevitable win borne of pure physical domination.
That's the challenge for Monday Night: eliminate that pick, make that touchdown happen.