People are noticing that something very good is happening with the Detroit Lions that is not reflected entirely in their won-loss (and tied) record.
That’s what we learned late Sunday evening, after quarterback Matthew Stafford had led the Lions to a 31-26 victory over the New York Giants. Stafford is getting positive reviews nationally for his performance in the Lions’ first seven games.
That’s at the top of the list of the things we learned from Sunday’s game. Among the others are the following: The offensive line played a key role in the trick play that resulted in a fourth-quarter touchdown pass to wide receiver Kenny Golladay; the defense is still having its problems, but it rose up in one area that was a strength last season; and the secondary’s depth was tested to an extreme limit and survived.
We start with a national view of Stafford:
It’s not like he is just being discovered. A player who is drafted first overall, as Stafford was by the Lions in 2009, is in the spotlight from Day One. Add to it his prolific passing numbers – including 5,038 yards passing and 41 TDs in 2011 – his durability and fourth-quarter comebacks that he’s engineered.
And that he has done it mostly with a below average running game has been part of his career narrative. That part has not changed this season.
Stafford threw three TD passes against the Giants to give him 16 for the season in seven games. Russell Wilson, who has played eight games, leads the league with 17 TD passes. Aaron Rodgers and DeShaun Watson both have 16, and both have played eight games.
Studio host Mike Tirico and former NFL quarterback Chris Simms praised Stafford’s play on NBC’s telecast of Sunday night’s Packers-Chiefs game.
“Matthew Stafford is having the best first half of a season in his 11-year career,” said Tirico, who often has been complimentary of Stafford.
Added Simms: “We only talk about Matt Stafford when things are bad. But he’s playing really good football.”
Glitz and grit: The glitz of Golladay’s second TD catch Sunday was the trick that set it up.
What went largely unnoticed was the grit up front from the offensive line that helped sell the play.
First the trick: Stafford pitched the ball to running back J.D. McKissic, who threw a backward pass back to Stafford, who then completed the 41-yard pass play by hitting Golladay in the end zone.
The grit: What happened up front was just as important as the pitch and throw.
On the right side, tackle Rick Wagner and guard Kenny Wiggins both got blocks on Giants’ linemen, pushing them out to the right to sell what appeared to be a run by McKissic after taking the pitch from Stafford. That also brought a safety up into the box, leaving the middle of the field open for Golladay, who was lined up on the right side of the formation.
Center Frank Ragnow also got a good backside block, keeping a lane clean for Stafford to make the throw.
Golladay had two steps on safety Antoine Bethea when he caught the ball at the two-yard line and ran into the end zone.
Offensive linemen usually get noticed when they’re beaten for a sack or get a penalty. They were anonymous on this play – except in the film room, and from teammates and coaches who knew what they did.
Run stoppers: History might be repeating itself in one area for the Lions’ run defense.
It was about this time last season when the Lions went from having one of the league’s worst run defenses to one of the best. They gave up more than 100 yards rushing in six of the first eight games, but tightened up in the second half and allowed only three games of 100 yards or more.
It was six straight of 100 yards or more going into Sunday’s game, and there was a good chance Giants star Saquon Barkley would make it seven. He didn’t. The Giants were held to 80 yards on 24 carries, with Barkley getting just 64 on 19 carries.
Depth test: Backups are on the roster for a reason, and we learned why Sunday. The midweek trade of safety Quandre Diggs and a hamstring injury left cornerback Darius Slay unable to play. Further thinning the ranks, starting safety Tracy Walker went out in the second half and did not return. Starting safety Tavon Wilson also went out briefly.
The reshuffled secondary increased snap counts.
Rookie safety Will Harris played a season-high 61 of 74 snaps, more than double his average of 27 snaps for the first six games. Cornerback Mike Ford played 45 snaps, more than triple his average of 14.6 for the first six games.
Safety C.J. Moore played 23 snaps after playing just five for the season, and special teams ace Miles Killebrew played nine snaps at safety. They were his first defensive snaps since 2017.
What we learned: Don’t make snap judgments on backups until you see them play meaningful snaps.