A playoff-caliber team with a high-powered passing attack hosting a team that won two games in 2011? This one had the makings of a blowout. Yet the Rams were able to capitalize on some crucial Detroit turnovers and lead for much of the game. It wasn’t decided until the fourth quarter when the Lions executed the two-minute drill to perfection to take the lead for good.
With a narrow victory over a team they were expected to beat, Detroit has some room to improve if they want to be more than one-and-done in the playoffs this year. Alternatively, St. Louis can take solace in the fact that they kept it close right down to the last few plays. The Rams already look improved from last year, and while they didn’t get the ‘W’, they’re headed in the right direction.
St. Louis – Three Performances of Note
Offensive Line Woes
There were certainly some surprises with the offensive line. Although they both finished in the Bottom 10 of our Pass Blocking Efficiency Signature Stat last year, neither Rodger Saffold nor the newly acquired Wayne Hunter (in limited snaps) gave up any pressure on the day at left tackle. With the good comes the bad though, as newly signed center Scott Wells (+19.6 in 2011) sustained a foot injury and may be done for the season. Rookie Rokevious Watkins filled in at guard after the Rams slid Robert Turner to center for the injured Wells. Watkins performed pretty much as you’d expect a fifth-round pick to perform in his first NFL game, giving up a sack, a hit, and committing a penalty in his limited time on the field. Perhaps more concerning was the neck injury to Saffold in the fourth. St. Louis will likely be looking for some linemen in free agency for depth, especially if Watkins continues at this level of play.
Dynamic Duo in the Secondary
Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan may have been the starting cornerbacks for St. Louis, but it was Finnegan and nickel corner Bradley Fletcher who were the most impressive. Fletcher spent most of his time in coverage on Calvin Johnson, limiting the All-Pro to just two receptions for 12 yards while in his coverage. Finnegan’s game-changing play came with 1:36 remaining in the first half when he undercut a route not in his coverage to take Matthew Stafford’s pass the other way for six. Unfortunately for the young duo, the pair at the back end of the secondary (Quintin Mikell and Craig Dahl) counteracted the good work by the corners, allowing 10 of 10 to be completed for 159 yards in their coverage.
The New Passing Attack
The Rams have been in a clear rebuilding phase for a while now, as evidenced by their revamped receiving core. Slot receiver Danny Amendola is back from an injury that cost him almost all of 2011, and newcomers Steve Smith and Chris Givens figure to get quite a bit of playing time, along with Brandon Gibson. The results were mixed, with Sam Bradford (+2.1 passing) attempting only 25 passes. Givens was thrown to only once (incomplete, though he had gotten behind the coverage and the deep pass was underthrown), and Smith was held to a solitary 16-yard reception. On the other side of the spectrum, Gibson (+2.1 receiving) caught all four balls thrown his way, including a thrilling touchdown grab in traffic with 9:52 left in the game. Amendola (+1.5 receiving) was targeted nine times; more than double that of any other Rams receiver. He ended up with five receptions, all of which came between the numbers. If he can stay healthy, Amendola could very well become Bradford’s top target.
Detroit – Three Performances of Note
To Live and Die through the Air
With Calvin Johnson on the roster and a quarterback who threw for more than 5,000 yards in 2011, it should come as no surprise that the Lions threw the ball early and often. While Stafford’s completion percentage was solid (32-of-48, with one spike and four dropped passes), it was largely overshadowed by his three interceptions. The nature of the interceptions was what was truly worrisome. All three came down to poor decision-making, forcing throws into coverage where defenders could break on the ball. Combine this with a dropped red-zone pick by Bradley Fletcher at the end of the first half that nearly cost the Lions three points and you have an ugly opening half for Stafford.
But despite some bad throws, Stafford made enough plays to keep the Lions from falling too far behind. He orchestrated a surgical fourth-quarter comeback, taking large chunks of yardage from the Rams’ defense. It’s a testament to his fortitude that he was able to drive his team 80 yards in just 1:45 after such a poor first half. If Stafford can cut down on the mental mistakes, the Lions look to have one of the best aerial attacks again in 2012.
The Unheralded Stars of the Offense
With offensive standouts like Johnson and Stafford on the team, it’s easy to forget about the big guys up front as the Lions returned all five starters from 2011. The fact that Stafford never truly got rattled can be largely attributed to his offensive line’s stellar play. Even with the Lions choosing to throw almost three times more often than run, the offensive line gave up only one sack, two hits and 4 hurries on 49 pass-blocking snaps for a combined pass blocking grade of +6.1. Couple this with a +4.2 run blocking grade for the unit, and no penalties, and you have a superb day for an underrated unit. This level of offensive line play is encouraging and will allow the Lions to get the most from their talented skill players throughout the season.
The Point of Attack
Players on the Lions’ defensive line have been known to sell out the run to rush the passer, but for the start of the 2012 season, this appears to be changing. Even with a solid day rushing the passer, the Lions’ front seven really came alive in run defense. Though Suh was still targeted by the Rams with trap and wham blocks, his teammates picked up the slack, and then some. Six players recorded multiple stops, with Stephen Tulloch leading the way with an astounding seven. Steven Jackson was repeatedly held up at the line of scrimmage, and he had to fight for each of the 51 yards rushing he achieved on the day en route to just 2.5 y/c. The commentators repeatedly talked up Detroit as having the best defensive line in the NFL, and more performances like this will only support that notion.
– The NFL may be leaning toward the running back by committee approach, but neither of these teams got the memo; backup halfbacks played a combined 11 snaps for both teams.
– On throws between the numbers, Stafford was 20-of-25 for 283 yards. Outside the numbers, he was 12-of-22 for 72 yards, a touchdown, and all three interceptions.
– Stafford’s only touchdown came when he was under pressure. He threw all three interceptions when not pressured.
PFF Game Ball
Detroit’s offensive line never wavered despite some shaky play around them, with all five members receiving a grade of at least +1.5. The unit as a whole turned in a fine day in all facets of play.