Detroit Lions film review: 5 observations vs. Cardinals
Allen Park — There was nothing appealing about the final score, a dreaded tie, but the 27-27 game between the Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions consisted of nearly 180 snaps between the two offenses and defenses. That means we're left with plenty to evaluate from the season opener.
As is our tradition, putting a bow on the week that was, we've reviewed the film of every play, from both angles, to provide you with these five observations.
The ugly finish
Depending on your perspective, the biggest story coming out of the game was Arizona's 18-point rally in the fourth quarter, or, if you prefer, Detroit's 18-point collapse.
Regardless, the Lions were cruising toward a demolition when rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson hauled in a touchdown early in the fourth frame, making it 24-6.
But things came unglued for the Lions' defense down the stretch. Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray, after laboring through three quarters, put together three straight scoring drives to send the game into overtime.
The question on everyone's mind, did the Lions let up, rest on their lead and set the table for the rally?
Well, not exactly.
First of all, many of the Cardinals' woes in the first three quarters were self-inflicted. The Lions defense was playing fundamentally sound, for sure, aided by a steady defensive line rotation, but Murray missed several open throws and also had three sure completions, including two likely to result in decent gains, batted down at the line of scrimmage.
In the fourth quarter, Murray found a rhythm by making short throws to receivers getting off-man coverage looks. Sure, they were often 4-, 6- or 8-yard gains that were eating up the clock, but those throws provided him with the confidence he didn't have earlier in the game.
The Lions also fell victim to the big play late.
Schematically, it wasn't a terrible idea to put Tracy Walker on Larry Fitzgerald, given the second-year safety's size, length and speed. But Walker's technique was sloppy on the deep ball he gave up on third-and-14, which was arguably the turning point of the contest.
Walker lost the route with a slow flip and turn as Fitzgerald blew by him, while rookie Will Harris, playing as the single-high support, wasn't able to get over in time to provide help.
The Cardinals settled for a field goal on that possession, making it a two-score game, then further cut into the lead, following the same, take-what-they-give-you strategy on their ensuing possession.
Murray completed five straight short throws to receivers seeing off coverage, extended the streak to seven with short tosses to running back David Johnson out of the backfield and Christian Kirk on a crossing pattern, before another big-time throw built on the back of his rhythm-based confidence.
There isn't much to say about the 27-yard touchdown to Johnson. It was a well-placed ball, for sure, but the coverage wasn't bad. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin simply lost his footing. It happens.
The Lions got the ball back with six minutes and change remaining and looked to eat the remaining clock via the ground game. For the most part, the strategy was working. Kerryon Johnson gained nine yards on two carries and the Lions extended the drive on a designed bootleg pass to Johnson on third down. Johnson and C.J. Anderson maintained the momentum with a four straight runs, including gains of nine and seven from Anderson, before the Lions faced third-and-five after draining all of Arizona's timeouts.
We all know what happened with the timeout negating a potential game-sealing reception. Ignore that for a minute and focus on Detroit's play call out of the break. It was nothing short of atrocious.
The Cardinals had been aggressive on some earlier third-down plays, blitzing to try to force Stafford into a bad throw. They went to that well again here, bringing pressure with seven defenders. This could have been an easy conversion, but the Lions inexplicably had four receivers running deep, vertical routes. Pressure arrived quickly and Stafford did the only thing he could, heave it up and hope for a miracle catch from Kenny Golladay.
Why was no one running a route at the sticks? Was there not an adjustment built in for one or multiple receivers in case of a blitz? Whether it was terrible coaching, execution or both, it gave the ball back to Arizona for Murray to lead tying drive.
In our postgame grades, we awarded Stafford a "B," but further review proved we probably didn't give him enough credit for a stellar performance.
Stafford was under pressure early and often, with much of the heat coming from his blindside, but he stayed composed and delivered a number of difficult throws under stress, including two of his touchdowns.
The first scoring throw wasn't designed to go to Danny Amendola, but Stafford needed just a fraction of a second to realize the window to connect with his original read had closed as he stepped up in the pocket. From there, he was able to quickly diagnose a coverage breakdown on the opposite side of the field, hitting Amendola down the sideline.
And in the fourth quarter, on the aforementioned Hockenson touchdown reception, Stafford felt the pressure closing in early and escaped the pocket rolling to his right. While on the run, he directed his first-year tight end back toward the center of the field and delivered an accurate, cross-body throw while moving away from his target.
Stafford's best throw, in my opinion, came earlier in that scoring drive. The Lions lined up in an I-formation and ran play-action. Despite having just two route options, Detroit's max protection broke down and a defender was quickly barreling down on the quarterback.
With the hit coming, Stafford flicked a sidearm toss 26 yards through the air to Hockenson for a 24-yard gain.
Our biggest criticism of Stafford's performance stands. Even though it might have been tipped at the line (tough to conclude even with all the available video), the throw at the end of the game that was nearly intercepted by Tramaine Brock was ill-advised. Stafford was throwing into an area that could have set up a Hail Mary shot, but the Cardinals had the sideline well defended and the window to Amendola, the intended target, was too tight.
We've already mentioned Hockenson a number of times, but there's more to say about the first-round pick's debut performance. It's regularly mentioned how difficult the NFL adjustment is for tight end prospects, but he made it look easy on Sunday.
As he displayed throughout training camp, the route running and hands are polished. He was unable to handle a fastball thrown behind him early in the game, but was otherwise sure-handed, while running a variety of patterns, showing the spacial awareness to operate against zone coverages and the speed and athleticism to win on crossing routes, plus gain extra yards after the catch.
The blocking is still a work in progress, but there were some building-block plays. His most important block came on the Amendola touchdown. The Lions asked a lot of Hockenson on the play, having him pull across the formation and put a body on Pro Bowl defensive end Chandler Jones. Hockenson had to adjust his path late, but got just enough of Jones to allow Stafford to step up and deliver the scoring strike.
Also making his Lions' debut was linebacker Jahlani Tavai. Playing 63 snaps, he had an up-and-down day, but again, delivering plenty of good plays to build upon.
One of the things that's easy to like about the performance was how well he kept Murray bottled up in the open field. On three occasions, Tavai found himself one-on-one with the faster, quicker Murray in the backfield. Those plays resulted in one sack and two throwaways, preventing the big scramble gains the elusive passer is capable of delivering when he gets the edge.
The sack came on a well-run stunt up the middle, working with fellow linebacker Christian Jones.
The Lions went searching for the missing piece to their starting secondary this offseason and may have found it in Rashaan Melvin.
Despite playing through a knee injury that nagged him throughout the week of practice, and had him come up limping twice in the game, Melvin delivered on exactly what the Lions need from of the outside cornerback spot opposite Slay — solid coverage and the ability to get hands on some passes.
The Cardinals clearly built a game plan around testing Melvin, starting with a deep shot on the first snap of the game. They also ran a handful of empty backfield sets, with four receivers to one side of the field with the sole purpose of going after Melvin, isolated on the opposite side.
In large part, the strategy didn't work. Melvin was targeted more than 10 times, but only gave up four receptions for fewer than 50 yards. He also broke up three passes, including an expertly played slant that he probably should have intercepted.
Melvin was also in noticeably good position in run support on several snaps and ran an effective blitz late in the game, resulting in a no-gain reception.
Not really the weakest link
Entering Sunday's game, Joe Dahl was the unknown on Detroit's offensive line. But on this day, he was the unit's top performer. While the group's entrenched starters floundered, each allowing multiple quarterback pressures, Dahl didn't allow his assignment to beat him once in pass protection.
The run blocking wasn't as impressive, but I had more positive mentions of Dahl in my notes than negative. And of the three times his name was in red, one was a clear communication breakdown, while another looked like a poor play design based on several players' inability to execute.