Detroit Lions: Takeaways from the 27-24 Loss to the Cincinnati Bengals
With the win, the Bengals improve to 5-2 and remain in first place in the AFC North. All of their division rivals are playing in late games.
The Lions fall to 4-3 with the loss. As Chicago lost 45-41 to Washington, Detroit remains tied with the Chicago Bears for the NFC North lead. The Lions do hold the head-to-head tiebreaker with Chicago.
Next up for the Lions are the Dallas Cowboys. The Cowboys thumped the Philadelphia Eagles, 17-3, to improve to 4-3. They will be the third consecutive first-place opponent the Lions have faced, after the Cincinnati Browns and Bengals.
This game was close, as widely expected. It's a hard loss, but not one totally devoid of positives.
Here are my initial takeaways from the game.
All stats are from ESPN, unless indicated otherwise.
Cincinnati's Offensive Line Defeated Detroit's Vaunted Defensive Line
It was an incredibly frustrating day for the Detroit front four. The Cincinnati offensive line definitively outplayed what is supposed to be the great strength of the Lions.
Ndamukong Suh recorded a late sack, but that was the only time the Lions got to Andy Dalton. Quite often, Dalton had ample time to scan the field and room to step up and throw from a clean spot.
There was a lot of holding and hands to the face action going on, but that went both ways; the officials let the big boys play, by and large. That Detroit could not generate any pressure in a game where rule enforcement was not at a premium is a shocking defeat.
The defensive line, notably Suh and Nick Fairley, have to play significantly better next week against Dallas. Tony Romo can make throws which Andy Dalton cannot, and the Lions' back seven cannot survive without a lot more help from the boys up front.
It Was Not Matt Stafford's Best Day
His numbers aren't terrible. Stafford finished 28-of-51 for 357 yards and three touchdowns. But in this case, the big numbers lie a little.
Stafford's ball placement was not sharp in this game. He missed some open targets, including Ryan Broyles for what should have been a touchdown.
Stafford was under more pressure, but that was not always to blame. Some of his misses were high, some were low and a couple were really lacking touch.
He did have a hot streak in the first 20 minutes of the second half, but it was not enough. Stafford must be sharper with his throws and better with his decisions against Dallas.
Calvin Johnson Is Back!
Yeah, he caught that.
Calvin Johnson turned in an outstanding performance, hauling in nine passes for 155 yards and a pair of touchdowns. The second touchdown came on the play pictured above, hanging on after out-leaping triple coverage for a 50-yard reception.
Johnson has been gimpy lately with a knee injury. After missing the Green Bay game, Megatron was clearly limited in last week's 31-17 win over Cleveland. He caught just three passes and was seldom used as anything more than a safety valve.
Against Cincinnati, Johnson announced he is back at full speed. He was outstanding, making a couple of difficult catches aside from the touchdowns. His burst off the line and separation looked as dynamic as ever.
Even in the loss, Johnson's resurgence must be taken as a huge positive going forward.
A Real Bad Day for the Lions Linebackers
All season long, we've been trumpeting the great play of DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch. In fact, last week I stated that Levy deserves the Most Improved Player award.
This week, however, was a decidedly different story.
Today is unquestionably the worst the Detroit LBs have played all year. The Bengals TEs deserve some credit. #CINvsDET— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) October 20, 2013
Cincinnati certainly deserves credit. Their tight ends played very well as receivers, continually torching Levy, but especially Tulloch, all over the field.
This was the first game all year where the opponent successfully deployed two tight ends who can both present threats down the field. Detroit badly struggled at covering it. They must clean that up if they hope to remain the first-place Detroit Lions. Other teams will notice and adjust accordingly.
The Cornerback Situation Just Got Muddier
This was a very strange game for the Detroit cornerbacks.
Rashean Mathis started out very strong, breaking up two passes and providing blanket coverage on Cincinnati's first couple of drives. On the CBS broadcast, Rich Gannon even declared that the Bengals should probably start throwing away from him.
Marvin Lewis apparently heard him, and they immediately started picking on Chris Houston again. They had already torched Houston for the first touchdown, an 82-yard strike where A.J. Green's double move left the Lions' corner hopelessly behind.
Houston played so poorly, he was benched for rookie Darius Slay. The second-round pick played OK, better than Houston did at minimum. He surrendered some completions, but at least showed ball recognition and quick reaction skills.
Mathis couldn't sustain his solid play, however, and after he was completely lost on the Tyler Eifert touchdown grab, he was benched.
By the way, Houston's back at LCB. Slay's at RCB.— Carlos Monarrez (@cmonarrez) October 20, 2013
Houston came back in, but at that point, the Lions coaches were just shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. He acknowledged as much after the game:
Give Chris Houston credit, he faced reporters and said the loss was all on him— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) October 20, 2013
The lack of pressure up front definitely hindered their effort, but Houston and Mathis have to consistently perform better than they did against Cincinnati. It doesn't get easier next week with Dez Bryant and the Cowboys.
The Third-Down Offense Remains Fantastic
Detroit converted 13 third-down opportunities in 19 attempts. This comes on the heels of an 8-of-14 performance in Cleveland last week. They now have 28 third-down conversions in the last three weeks.
For as much as Matt Stafford struggled on the day, he was money in the bank on third downs. On one first-quarter drive, Stafford went 4-of-4 on third down and kept the chains moving for almost eight minutes. Those are the kind of drives that defensive coaches cannot stand to surrender.
Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan tends to get more aggressive and creative on third downs. Perhaps, he can dial up some of that magic on first and second downs to ease up the heavy reliance on converting third downs.
Detroit Avoided the Mental Errors
Sure, Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah cost himself yet another strip-sack by being blatantly offside. And Andy Dalton did catch the Lions on an early hard count.
But for the most part, Detroit played a heady football game. There were no personal fouls on Detroit in this game and just four penalties for 30 yards overall.
The Lions even baited Jermaine Gresham into an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty, courtesy of Willie Young. In spite of several serious battles in the trenches, including a vicious and clearly illegal block against Suh on the Eifert touchdown, the normally hot-headed Lions kept their cool.
Detroit also avoided turnovers. In fact, there was not a single turnover in the entire game. This is the second time in three weeks Detroit has played a game with no turnovers, as the Green Bay game was also devoid of takeaways.
For as many times as the Lions have been burned by their own bad behavior and undisciplined play, it was nice to see the mistakes kept to a minimum. That is a good sign heading into the Cowboys game.
LaAdrian Waddle Should Take Over for Corey Hilliard
Injuries to starting tackles Riley Reiff and Corey Hilliard forced undrafted rookie LaAdrian Waddle into the lineup.
At first, he slid into left tackle as Reiff worked out a tight hamstring. Waddle acquitted himself right off the bat:
@JeffRisdon He just handled Michael Johnson fine on back-to-back plays.— Zach Kruse (@zachkruse2) October 20, 2013
I also noted Waddle making a nice edge seal block to help spring Reggie Bush.
Later in the game, right tackle Corey Hilliard went down with an injury. Reiff returned to left tackle and Waddle transitioned to the right side.
I watched him with intent, and I thought Waddle looked very good there as well. I believe he will be charged with just one quarterback pressure.
The Lions offensive line played well as a whole, and Waddle has shown real promise in every chance he's been given. With Hilliard once again guilty of allowing a blocked field goal and consistently the weak link in pass protection, it's time to see if Waddle is the long-term solution.
I would like to see Waddle get the nod at right tackle against Dallas over Hilliard and Jason Fox. Between Fox's injury issues and Hilliard's ineffectiveness, the time is right for a change. It's time to cut the string and see what the rookie can do.