ReFo: Lions @ Titans, Week 3

| September 26, 2012

We thought that it’d be hard to top the thrill of Week 2’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers at New York Giants game, but Sunday’s matchup between the Detroit Lions and Tennessee Titans did just that. From the Music City Miracle v2.0, to Nate Washington plucking a touchdown off a defender’s back, to Titus Young’s Hail Mary touchdown, the plays from this game alone are enough to fill an entire season’s highlight reel.

The Lions became the first team in history to come back with two touchdowns in the final 18 seconds, all with a backup quarterback no less. Meanwhile the Titans scored an NFL-record five touchdowns of more than 60 yards, while the fourth quarter alone had 46 points put on the board, more than the totals of 10 other Week 3 games.

After all the dust cleared, we saw the Titans reward their home fans with a win, the first of quarterback Jake Locker’s career. They’ll need an even more complete performance, especially from their running game, if they are going to upset the Houston Texans this week and move back to .500.

As for the Lions, they have yet to build upon last year’s success. This loss was a bit unfortunate, as the Titans scored 21 points on special teams and defense, but it was a loss all the same. After a 5-0 start last season, Detroit now faces the possibility of a 1-3 hole against the surprising Minnesota Vikings this weekend. Before we move on to Week 4, let’s take one last look back at this game for the ages.

Detroit – Three Performances of Note

Big Names Quiet on Lions D-Line

The Lions defensive linemen earned the high praise last season, but they were largely quiet in this game. Defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh had an atypical performance, holding up fine against the run (a theme for Titans opponents) but making little impact rushing the passer. Defensive end Cliff Avril (-3.5) didn’t justify his franchise tag in this contest, recording no QB pressures for the first time in his last 16 games. Backup end Willie Young was a valuable reserve with an +11.7 grade in 2011 and showed signs of a breakout in preseason play, which makes his -5.4 mark over the first three weeks a bit surprising. But none of their struggles compare to the decline of team captain Kyle Vanden Bosch, whose -5.3 grade was the worst of any player in Sunday’s game. His tackle of Chris Johnson for -8 yards at the beginning of overtime was well-played, but he also lost contain on a couple of outside runs and offers practically nothing as a pass rusher any more. No matter how valuable he is as a leader, the Lions may find no choice but to move on.

Backus and Friends Hold Strong

On the other side of the ball, the Lions’ offensive line had a complete and impressive performance against the pass rush of the Titans’ formidable front four. All five Detroit starters had a pass block grade of +1.1 or higher. After totaling 44 QB pressures in its first two games, the Tennessee defense had just seven on Sunday. We highlighted the big matchup between left tackle Jeff Backus and defensive end Kamerion Wimbley in our Three To Focus On preview, and this game was nothing short of a dominant victory for the Lions’ 12-year veteran. Backus surrendered just one QB hurry in 60 passing plays for a +3.6 pass block grade, and Wimbley’s -3.9 pass rush mark was his worst in a game since 2009. Tennessee relies on their defensive linemen to create pressure without much blitzing, and Backus and his teammates completely neutralized them on Sunday.

What Leshoure Brings

The Lions led the NFL in passing attempts in 2011, partly because they have the passing tandem of Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson, but also because injuries and general ineffectiveness made their running game completely unreliable. That may change now that Mikel Leshoure (+2.2) is finally on the field. A torn Achilles tendon robbed the running back of his rookie season and a drug suspension delayed his debut even further, but now that he’s here it appears that the Lions plan to make him a central part of their offense. Leshoure had 26 carries in 60 snaps against the Titans, while former starter Kevin Smith was relegated to zero touches on just five snaps. Leshoure was far from dynamic, as his longest run was a mere 12 yards but he consistently picked up 5- and 6-yard chunks and was only twice tackled for a loss. He had particular success running behind Backus and the left side of the Lions’ line, where he averaged 5.4 yards on seven carries. Having a downhill runner like Leshoure can make life a lot easier for a passing game as dangerous as Detroit’s.

Tennessee – Three Performances of Note

Verner The Thief

After watching the San Francisco 49ers give the Lions fits in Week 2, it’s clear the Titans defense tried to replicate San Francisco’s success by dropping their linebackers and safeties very deep in coverage and keeping everything in front of them. No player epitomized this more than third-year cornerback Alterraun Verner (+5.3), who held the Lions to a miniscule 4.8-yard average on six receptions. Twice in the second quarter, he stopped a ball carrier on the edge to force a Lions punt and then he outdid his consistency with some fireworks, literally stealing the ball from Brandon Pettigrew for a stunning fumble return touchdown late in the fourth quarter. The next drive, Verner had an interception that would have ended the game if it wasn’t called back on a roughing-the-passer penalty. The Titans rewarded Jason McCourty with a big contract as the heir apparent to the departed Cortland Finnegan, but Verner’s +9.7 grade this season indicates that he is Tennessee’s best DB right now.

Locker’s First Win

It’s fitting that Locker posted the best pass grade of his young career (+2.5) in his first win. As we noted in our Re-Focused review of his Week 2 game against the Chargers, Locker has been plagued by dropped passes and poor throws when under pressure. He still had a low 60.4 passer rating when hurried in this game, but he did a much better job of getting rid of the ball before the pressure could get to him. His receivers still had three drops this game to give them a shameful total of 11 for the season, but they also helped their young QB with some spectacular grabs, most notably the long touchdowns by Washington and Jared Cook. If Locker can trust his receivers, he’ll add a few more wins to his resume before his sophomore season is done.

A Lack of Trust

Speaking of trust, Chris Johnson’s (-2.8) lack of faith in his blockers is justified, disastrous, and painful to watch. Case in point, at the 14:12 mark of the second quarter, left tackle Michael Roos pulled around his tight end and inexplicably ignored DeAndre Levy sprinting in. The Lions linebacker hit Johnson as soon as he got the ball for a 7-yard loss. Later in the game, with 12:29 left in overtime, Johnson had a hole to get positive yardage up the middle, but instead bounced the play across the line and was slung down for an 8-yard loss. Johnson’s best runs came when he freestyled, and his worst runs came when he freestyled. It’s as if he assumes that he’ll get poor blocking on any play, so he doesn’t get positive yardage even when the hole is there. Until the Tennessee running back trusts his line, and until they give him a reason to, Johnson won’t look anything like the player who earned the nickname CJ2K.

Game Notes

-  Despite the loss and an injury, Stafford’s game (+4.4) was worlds better than his first two weeks. He had some great throws into tight coverage, avoided big mistakes, and was 36-for-41 factoring in drops.

-  Despite their ineffectiveness, the Titans relied heavily on their defensive line for their pass rush. They sent a blitzer on only four of Detroit’s 60 passing plays.

-  His Hail Mary catch aside, Titus Young finally showed signs of the impact the Lions expected of  him coming into his second-year. His six receptions on seven targets were more than his previous two games combined.

PFF Game Ball

Alterraun Verner’s tight coverage limited the dangerous Lions passing attack for much of the game, and his fumble return and interception should have clinched the win for Tennessee in the fourth quarter. Although the Titan fans probably don’t mind the more dramatic ending to one of the best games in recent memory.

 

Follow Pete on Twitter @PFF_Pete

  • CeolsigeWK87

    Verner is in just his third year, otherwise good stuff as always.

    • http://twitter.com/PFF_Pete Pete Damilatis

      Nice catch, Ceolsige. That was my mistake. Thanks for reading.

  • Nashville Nick

    It seemed like the O-line had a pretty good game for the Titans. Roos, Harris, and Velasco all graded positively for run blocking this game. So do you put most of the blame on CJ? Obviously the debate down here in Nashville revolves around CJ and the line.

    Looking at CJ over the years, it looks as if he has always been an overrated back. Even in his 2009 campaign. 2009, his best year, saw him as the 5th best HB according to your stats. He was 53rd in 2010 and 65th in 2011. Have you guys mentioned this much? It’s pretty shocking, but probably accurate. CJ had always been a beneficiary of a great offensive line.

    • http://twitter.com/PFF_Pete Pete Damilatis

      It’s never one-sided, Nick, but I would say more of the blame goes to CJ. There were times in this game that defenders flooded the backfield before he even got the handoff, but he’s not the first RB in the world to suffer from poor blocking. What worried me is that he showed a tendency to brace himself as the defense closed in, almost like he’s running scared. I’m afraid that he may have grown accustomed to superior line play early in his career, and now he’s completely lost without it.

      • Nashville Nick

        How about CJ’s ranks in 2010 and 2011? Has PFF talked about this at all?