Four Downs: Measuring-stick game awaits unbeaten Lions

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 27-24 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles

First down

It hasn’t been pretty, but the Lions are undefeated three weeks into the season. The record isn’t without a blemish, given the tie with the Cardinals in the season opener, but when we looked over the schedule to start the season, there was this collective understanding if the team was .500 though the first quarter, they’d be in good shape.

A'Shawn Robinson (left),  Damon Harrison Sr. and the Lions are unbeaten heading into a showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs.

Well, you can check that one off the list.

The Lions have unquestionably caught some breaks through the first three weeks, from injuries to officiating errors to execution blunders, but good teams capitalize on the opportunities they’re gifted. You can only knock down the pins set up before you, and the Lions have done that.

Now we’re quickly going to figure out how good this team, and this coaching staff, is with the upcoming matchup against Kansas City. Make no mistake about it, this game will serve as a measuring stick. If Detroit can pull off a victory, or even if they lose a tight one against the offensive juggernaut led by reigning MVP Patrick Mahomes, we will be able to say convincingly this Lions team is a playoff contender.

For the coaching staff, the defensive game plan will be one to watch. Even without elite deep threat Tyreek Hill, the Chiefs are still lighting up scoreboards, putting up nearly 34 points per game. Mahomes also has picked up where he left off a year ago, throwing for 200 yards more than any other quarterback, with a league-high 10 touchdowns complemented by zero interceptions.

It’s worth noting, the New England Patriots held the Chiefs scoreless in the first half of a playoff matchup last year. It will be interesting to see what Lions coach Matt Patricia can glean and apply from the film of that game, given the schematic overlap between the two defenses.

More: Lions' next opponent: Patrick Mahomes, Chiefs fend off Ravens

Second down

One of the unique aspects of Detroit’s offense through three weeks has been the versatility of the passing attack. The team has had four different 100-yard receivers in those games. No one else in the NFL can claim that. In fact, only Kansas City has had three different receivers hit that mark.

This shows how difficult it can be to game plan for the Lions. While you can make a convincing argument that Kenny Golladay is the team’s No. 1 receiver, they aren’t reliant on him having a big game to put up points and come out with a win. He had a rough outing in the victory over Philadelphia, catching just two of his eight targets for 17 yards.

Third down

One of those four players to hit 100 yards in a game this season is rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson. No one is going to forget his impressive debut, when he caught six passes for 131 yards against the Cardinals in Week 1.

In the weeks since, he’s been unable to build on that success. Hockenson has mustered just eight yards on seven targets, including one catch for one yard against the Eagles. He also hasn't found the end zone since hauling in a score on a broken play against the Cardinals.

But it isn't due to a lack of effort. The Lions clearly see value in his skill set near the goal line, and quarterback Matthew Stafford looked the rookie’s way three times against the Eagles, only to see a drop, a pass breakup and a catch negated because Hockenson stepped out of bounds prior to coming back into the field of play to make the grab.

It won’t be long before this connection is paying bigger dividends again. Right now, it's a clear case of a rookie, even one as talented as Hockenson, needing to sand and polish the rough corners of his game.

Fourth down

Patricia is a stickler for fundamentals. Even during his disappointing first season as coach, the improvement in Detroit’s fundamentals shined through in two areas in particular, penalties and tackling.

In 2018, the Lions committed 94 infractions, the fourth-fewest in the NFL. And according to Pro Football Focus, the defense missed just 74 tackles, a nearly 40 percent decrease from the previous season.

While Patricia has made a point that September football is often ugly and filled with mistakes, the regression in both areas has been striking.

After drawing nine flags against the Eagles, including a handful that extended drives on third down, the Lions rank 29th in the NFL with 26 penalties. As for the missed tackles, the Lions already have failed to wrap up a ball carrier 25 times, putting them on pace for 133. That would be the defense's worst season in the department since 2014.

No player has been reflective of sloppy technique with their tackling more than than veteran safety Quandre Diggs. He missed three tackles against the Eagles, the second time he’s missed three in a game this season.

The hard-hitting safety has leaned heavily on his ability to deliver the big hit, but ball carriers have been shrugging him off this year, resulting in some bigger than necessary gains. That includes a short completion to Eagles receiver Nelson Agholor that turned into a 20-yard touchdown reception against the Eagles.

The Lions will need to be much better with their fundamentals and discipline if they hope to hang with the Chiefs on Sunday.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers