As much as I know some of you would like to forget about what happened at Ford Field on Sunday, it’s Tuesday, and we’ve got to go over the film from the game. Here are 10 observations from my study of the Detroit Lions’ loss to the Atlanta Falcons.
1. GROUND AND POUND
One of the questions people wanted answered the most coming out of this game was why were the Falcons able to run the ball so effectively? This shouldn’t surprise you, but it wasn’t a single issue.
There were missed tackles, players out of position to defend their gaps and, most concerning, there were plenty of one-on-one battles being lost in the trenches. And that’s completely ignoring the fact that the Falcons have an outstanding line, highly proficient with cut blocks and getting to the second level, and a backfield tandem that will make you pay if you give them any daylight.
Injured Lions starters Tavon Wilson and Jarrad Davis were sorely missed. Davis’ physicality is unmatched at his position group, and Tahir Whitehead is the only one with comparable instincts. Fill-ins Nick Bellore and Jalen Reeves-Maybin were ill-prepared to handle the challenge, especially with four-time Pro Bowl center Alex Mack blasting into the second level like a 300-pound, seek-and-destroy missile.
Surprisingly, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata had a rough go of it against the Falcons offensive line, regularly getting moved out of his gap. Sure, Ngata won a handful of battles, but he definitely lost the war in this one, something you can rarely say.
And on the edge, which the defensive ends surrendered too often, defensive backs Darius Slay and D.J. Hayden both missed tackles, leading to bigger gains.
2. TRY, TRY AGAIN
Detroit’s rushing attack was nowhere near as efficient as their opponent’s, but there are some positives to be taken from this game. After losing a yard on his first carry, Ameer Abdullah gained at least three yards on his next five in the first half. That’s production you can live with, especially when it includes a 10-yard pop on a scoring drive.
Abdullah and the Lions’ line put together another nice stretch in the third quarter, spilling into the fourth, with carries of 11, five, five, six, six and 11 yards.
The final line wasn’t what the Lions would like to see, thanks to some bad breakdowns, but it’s why the team continues to emphasis the ground game. They believe Abdullah has both the ability to get into a groove and hit the occasional home run (see: New York).
One trend that seems to be emerging through the first three games is Detroit’s preference for running to the left, when their more consistent success comes going right. That was magnified against the Falcons because of some of the moving parts the Lions had up front.
3. KERIN’S ROUGH DEBUT
Zac Kerin has only been with the Lions for three weeks, so it should surprise no one the veteran guard struggled in his debut with the team. It started early, with the first two passing snaps resulted in Kerin’s responsibility getting a hit on Stafford, including 280-pound defensive end Adrian Clayborn coming through clean on a stunt. He had an opportunity to crush Matthew Stafford as he released the ball, but thought better of it, given how often those hits result in unnecessary penalties and hefty fines.
Kerin had another rough stretch to start the second half, getting left in the dust by defensive tackle Grady Jarrett, who dropped Abdullah for a loss on the play. Then, on third down, Jarrett got by Kerin again and contributed to a punt-forcing sack.
In total, Kerin allowed pressure on four snaps, plus drew a blatant holding call on the game’s final drive, in the red zone. That could have been costlier had the Falcons not committed a penalty of their own, giving the Lions an automatic first down.
The Lions need Travis Swanson back, and they need him in a hurry.
4. THE MAGIC TOUCH
This wasn’t Matthew Stafford’s best game, but you’d be hard pressed to find a performance where he exhibited better touch on his throws throughout the course of the matchup.
Stafford completed four throws that certainly weren’t his forte in earlier in his career. The first was a floating third-down toss to TJ Jones running an angled route toward the sideline. It hit the receiver in stride and gained 20 yards.
Stafford also floated one to Abdullah, dropping a dime over the back’s shoulder, well over the trailing defender, but in front of the closing safety. Again, the pass hit the receiver in stride.
In the second half, Stafford delivered a teardrop just beyond the outstretched fingers of the defender to Golden Tate running a deep out route. That netted another first down on third down.
Finally, on the game-ending drive, Stafford found Jones once again, on a deep post for a 29-yard gain. It was a perfect anticipatory throw, which saw Stafford release the ball just as Jones made his break, but with the defender still in the window.
I’ve made a commitment to picking Stafford’s best throw each week, but honestly, you can take any of these four.
5. WHERE WAS ZIGGY?
A week after recording three sacks, Ziggy Ansah didn’t show up in the box score. And while that can be deceptive, he barely showed up in my notes. I had to go back and watch a second time to see how the Falcons neutralized him when he was rushing the passer.
Here’s the surprising part: The Falcons rarely doubled him, and when they did, it was usually when Ansah lined up across from their backup right tackle. When Ansah matched up against left tackle Jake Matthews, the Lions' defensive end lost every time. Zero quarterback pressure.
The Falcons did cut block Ansah a few times, and his playing time did seem a little more inconsistent, so it’s possible his knee was bothering him. I’m not going to make too much out of a single performance, but there’s no question Ansah was a ghost in this one.
6. SUPER GLOVER
What a remarkable performance from safety Glover Quin, who breathed life into the lifeless Lions late in the second quarter when he darted from his deep safety spot to step in front of a Matt Ryan pass intended for Julio Jones. It was a perfect example of Quin’s preparation and football IQ overlapping in a singular moment.
Quin was all over the field on Sunday, whether it was in pass coverage or making run stops close to the line of scrimmage. He also deserves credit for giving the Lions a chance to steal the game, charging hard to stop Jones one yard short of the sticks on third down, forcing the Falcons to punt it in the closing minutes.
7. NIGHTMARE DAY FOR EBRON
A week ago, Ebron led the Lions with five receptions for 42 yards and touchdown in a victory over the Giants. But he dropped a pair of passes in the second half against the Falcons, on nearly identical out routes on the left side. There wasn’t any issue with separation, he just couldn’t handle the throws in his bread basket.
The Lions continued to look to Ebron down the stretch, and it appeared he had found an opening down the seam, but it didn’t appear like he finished the route where Stafford expected, leading to another ball off the finger tips. And on his last target, in red zone, he ran a slick double move, but never located Stafford’s pass in the air, resulting in an incompletion.
Ebron’s best play, a 15-yard screen out of a play-action bootleg, didn’t stand. It was negated by a holding call against Rick Wagner.
8. EARNING MORE TIME
TJ Jones played 15 snaps, was targeted three times, but ran precise routes and was right where Stafford needed him to be on the two timing throws mentioned above. The third catch came on a scramble drill during the final drive and Jones’ chemistry with his quarterback shined as he came back to the ball as Stafford rolled away from pressure, leading to a 14-yard gain.
Rookie Kenny Golladay is clearly the future for the Lions, but Jones is doing more with his opportunities and deserves a bigger percentage of the timeshare than he’s been getting.
9. TWO MORE DEFENSIVE STANDOUTS
On the whole, it wasn’t a great day for Detroit’s defense, but there were a few notable individual performances worth highlighting. We’ve already talked about Quin, but linebacker Tahir Whitehead and defensive end Anthony Zettel also deserve praise.
Whitehead’s day got off to a rough start, whiffing on a tackle in the backfield and getting beat by Devonta Freeman on a wheel route to convert a third-and-16 on the Falcons’ touchdown drive to open the game. But the veteran linebacker settled down and made a number of nice plays.
On one run he fired into his gap, blew past the fullback and dropped Freeman for a two-yard loss. Later in the first quarter, he shadowed tight end Austin Hooper on a deep route, taking away the throw from Ryan. Whitehead had two other impressive run stops and twice stopped pass plays to the backs for minimal yardage, including a deceptive, delayed shovel pass, which could have gone for a huge gain.
As for Zettel, he was Detroit's best defensive lineman in the game, recording a third-down sack and two additional quarterback hurries despite missing some time after colliding knee-to-knee with a Falcons running back early in the second half. Three weeks into the season, it's looking more and more like Zettel's breakout is legit.
The Lions had three cracks at the end zone in the closing seconds, and after watching the plays a second time, it’s difficult to find fault with the calls.
Yes, they were all taken from the shotgun, but let’s face it, the Lions aren’t a power running team, even more so with the struggles of Kerin at left guard. This was a pass-or-bust scenario with no timeouts and 19 seconds remaining.
On first down, Theo Riddick lined up wide and got decent separation on a slant route, but Stafford, possibly fearing the route getting jumped from a defender in the middle of the field, put the ball too far behind his intended target.
On second down, Golladay was the primary read, but he got too focused on his defender, physically engaging through his break, leading to a breakdown of the route.
And on the final, controversial play, a couple things happened that altered Golden Tate's course slightly. First, Golladay was knocked back off his route by a stiff jam from the Falcons cornerback. This caused Tate, slicing behind the natural pick from Golladay, to not get as deep as he would have liked to on the route.
Secondly, as Stafford admitted in the postgame press conference, the throw was low. There’s usually a benefit to that, keeping it where the defense has no shot to make a play, but the trajectory forced the receiver to the ground and allowed him to be stopped short. The game of inches cliché was in full force on this one.