Football is back! And with a great week! We had 10 games decided by one touchdown or less, three safeties in the first half of the 1 p.m. games, a seven-touchdown performance, a six-turnover da … OK, maybe it wasn’t all great. But there were performances up and down the spectrum in Week 1, good and bad, fast and slow, expected and surprising.
It’s those surprising performances that are so exciting. In a vacuum, Week 1 probably isn’t much more extraordinary or unlikely to produce unexpected results than any other week. And it’s important to keep that in mind when thinking about Week 1; remember that just a year ago, the stars of Week 1 were Mark Sanchez (who went 19-of-27 for 266 yards with three touchdowns and an INT against the Bills) and Kevin Ogletree (who had eight catches for 114 yards and two touchdowns against the Giants). There’s a reason Football Outsiders calls this “National Jump to Conclusions Week.” That being said, every fan wants to have hope that something unexpectedly fantastic is about to happen, and a great out-of-nowhere performance in Week 1 can be the first step on the path to a big (full) season.
So, let’s sift our way through those surprises, starting with the least surprising “surprise” of Week 1 and ending with the truly shocking bits …
David Wilson fumbles twice against the Cowboys and gets benched.
Sigh. More on this later.
The Chiefs defense shuts out the Jaguars.
Yes, the Jaguars picked up a safety on a blocked punt, but I’m not holding that against the Kansas City defense. The Chiefs held the Jaguars to just 178 yards of offense, limiting a returning Maurice Jones-Drew to 3.0 yards per carry, in their 28-2 win on the road. They beat up poor Blaine Gabbert, who was sacked six times and intercepted twice, with one of those returned by Tamba Hali for a touchdown.
On one hand, I know what you’re saying: Yes, it’s the Jaguars. It’s not a very good offense. I understand. Keep in mind that nobody shut out the Jacksonville offense last year, and that was without MJD. Jacksonville scored nearly 16 points per game, and that still sucks, but it sucked even more against the Chiefs. A shutout against an NFL team is always good, regardless of who it comes against.
The Chiefs got big games from young players who need to step up in 2013, too. Nose tackle Dontari Poe, reportedly a terror at camp in his second season, had 1.5 sacks and four tackles within two yards of the line of scrimmage. More notably, outside linebacker Justin Houston, already a budding star, sacked Gabbert three times.
Those three sacks are a good hint into how the new coaching staff will move Houston around this year, and how he’ll be a terror in any spot. His first sack was the easiest one he’ll have all year, on a play when some sort of offensive miscommunication between Gabbert and his linemen left Houston totally unblocked. The second was more interesting; the Chiefs put Hali and Houston on the same side, with Houston in the B-gap, between the left guard and left tackle. There, he beat left guard Will Rackley to Gabbert, although Gabbert really should have gotten the ball out earlier. Then, on the third sack, Houston lined up on the right side and just beat Luke Joeckel one-on-one around the edge for an easy takedown of Gabbert, who was in the shotgun and seemed to be pondering time and space.
The Chiefs won’t hold next week’s opponent to a shutout, but they should be able to give the Dallas offensive line some trouble, especially if they move Houston around to attack some of the weaker parts of that five-man front. In any case: Kansas City has already made it halfway to its 2012 win total. That’s cause for minor celebration.
Colin Kaepernick throws for 412 yards and three touchdowns against the Packers.
“If intimidation is your game plan, I hope you have a better one.” Kaepernick could have added “SUP, SON” to his already incredible quote, but he did that with his work on the field against the Packers on Sunday. After tearing Green Bay to shreds with his legs in the playoffs last year, setting a quarterback rushing record in the process, Kaepernick responded to some pregame taunting and a dirty hit from Clay Matthews1 with the best passing game of his career, going 27-of-39 for 412 yards with three touchdowns and no picks against a Packers team that couldn’t hold up in coverage.
If a late hit is ever going to draw a suspension, doesn’t that hit have to be it? Kaepernick was already out of bounds when Matthews launched himself at full speed into a flying tackle around his neck. If Kaepernick had been injured on the play, I would guess that Matthews would be suspended for a game, just because it was such a dirty hit.
It’s fair to say that most didn’t think the 49ers would attack the Packers through the air. Last year, as I mentioned, San Francisco had dominated Green Bay on the ground. It matches its biggest strength against Green Bay’s biggest weakness. Throwing the ball so many times pits its biggest weakness at the moment — receiver — against Green Bay’s defensive strength, its deep, talented secondary.2
Which was admittedly missing two key contributors in Morgan Burnett and Casey Hayward.
And yet Green Bay shut down the San Francisco running game, which ran for just 90 yards on 34 carries (2.6 yards per attempt) on Sunday. The 49ers threw early and often, and Kaepernick’s favorite target was the newly acquired Anquan Boldin, who produced the second 200-yard game of his career while catching 13 of the 17 passes thrown in his direction.3 The 49ers also got 98 yards and two scores out of tight end Vernon Davis, who moved around the formation and actually spent some time as a wide receiver, as was rumored coming out of camp.
Last year, it took Boldin four weeks to get to 200 yards.
His first touchdown came basically out of the slot receiver’s spot, as he ran a simple corner/flat route combination with a wide receiver for a touchdown. Watch Sam Shields, the cornerback, get stuck between a rock and a hard place on that play. He has to challenge the wideout running the flat route toward the sticks to prevent the sure first down, but by not getting a deep enough drop, he opens up a throwing lane for Kaepernick, who can just loft the pass up to an open Davis for an easy score.
It’s not surprising Kaepernick had that big of a game, since he’s an impeccably accurate passer who can take advantage of any team that’s overcommitting on the run, which I suspect the Packers were doing. What is more surprising is how little read-option we saw from the 49ers, who only really ran the package that stomped Green Bay last January for a handful of plays Sunday. Then again, is it really that shocking that the 49ers would be one step ahead of the Packers? Remember: Last year, the 49ers stopped running the read-option for the final two games of the regular season before re-unveiling it against a hapless Packers squad in the divisional round shellacking. Green Bay promptly sent its coaches to Texas A&M to study the read-option this offseason, at which point the 49ers stopped running it against them. They’re the Roddy Piper of this matchup: Just when you think you have the answers, Jim Harbaugh changes the questions. So don’t be surprised if the 49ers reintroduce a heavy dose of the read-option as warranted in the coming weeks.
Terrelle Pryor nearly beats the Colts.
I wanted to add ” … on his own” to the end of that header, but he got a tiny bit of help. In his second pro start, Pryor had a surprisingly effective game, running for 112 yards on 13 carries while going 19-of-29 for 217 yards with a touchdown and two picks. When the dust cleared Sunday, Pryor was the league leader in rushing yardage, joining New England’s Shane Vereen (101 yards) as the only players in the league to run for more than 100 yards in Week 1. If you started both those guys in your fantasy lineup, you’re in too tough of a fantasy league and you’re too tough for that fantasy league.
In fact, had the Raiders just been a little more aggressive, they might have won. Despite being a massive underdog on the road, Oakland was quite content to pass on opportunities to go for it on fourth-and-2 and fourth-and-1 right around midfield in the first half; it also kicked a field goal on fourth-and-1 from the 20-yard line in the third quarter, and checked down on an abbreviated drive before the two-minute warning of the first half before settling for a 48-yard kick from Sebastian Janikowski, who missed. I’m not going to pretend the Oakland offense is great, but as a 10-point underdog, you have to try to pursue David strategies to give yourself a better chance of winning, even at the risk of losing more handily. In fact, that’s the reason the Raiders are better off with Pryor under center than Matt Flynn this season: Pryor is a high-variance candidate, a player who will either push the team toward an unlikely level of contention or produce a season so bad that the Raiders will be assured a shot at Jadeveon Clowney or Teddy Bridgewater. With Flynn, they’re just guaranteed mediocrity.
Here’s where I’m hesitant to draw a strong conclusion from this game. It’s entirely possible that the Raiders are, as we all expected, a bad football team. That would seem to infer that the Colts — who won by a narrow margin at home after picking Pryor off in the red zone — are also not a very good football team. On the other hand, it’s possible the Colts are a playoff-caliber team and the Raiders are a better team than we expected, thanks to a disciplined veteran defense that limited big plays for Indy while Pryor created big plays on offense. Let’s check back in a few weeks on that one.
The Bucs blow it against the Jets.
As Geno Smith was about to run out of bounds at the end of Sunday’s game in the Meadowlands, the Jets were about to face a 62-yard field goal attempt in one of the toughest stadiums in America to kick a long field goal.4 Their kicker, Nick Folk, has never hit from anywhere longer than 56. Kickers have hit from 62 yards or deeper just twice in 19 attempts since 2000. Their win expectancy was probably somewhere — if I’m being generous — in the 15 percent range. Enter Lavonte David. The excellent Buccaneers outside linebacker buzzed Smith as he ran out of bounds, enough to knock him over and produce a personal foul penalty for a late hit, one that improved the Jets’ chances of winning to a far more reasonable 63.5 percent, given the success rate on field goals from 47 yards out. That win expectancy swing will make for one of the worst plays of the year.
Probably not as tough as it would be during a windy day in December, of course.
Did David deserve the penalty? Honestly, yes and no. I’ve seen screencaps that make it look like a late hit and other screencaps that make it seem like Smith was in bounds when David contacted him. It’s hard to imagine that the flag wasn’t slightly influenced by the Jets bench, which was up in arms immediately after the Smith hit, directly in front of the official who threw the flag. With that being said, David had to realize the game situation and consider where he was on the field. The play was so close to the sideline that David must have known he ran the risk of incurring a late-hit penalty, even though it might not have been the correct call. Under those circumstances, David probably needed to be more conservative with his hit. It’s easy to say outside the heat of a game, but this is a league in which avoiding hits on quarterbacks as they “give themselves up,” especially on the sideline, is a prevailing rule. Players have had to teach themselves to avoid this late hit for a while now. It just so turned out that David’s late hit turned a win into a loss.
In any case, if I were the Buccaneers, I would be more worried about the first 59 minutes of this game than what happened in the final minute. Although they got a very good game from their defense before that final drive, their offense only managed to score 17 points across 12 possessions. The Jets have an underrated defense, but it was a very disappointing offensive showing. Josh Freeman was jumpy and inaccurate, going just 15-of-31 for 210 yards, with most of those yards coming on a catch-and-run from Vincent Jackson that set Tampa up for its seemingly game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter. Even more distressingly, Doug Martin was bottled up, as the second-year back carried the ball 24 times for just 65 yards. It’s not exactly embarrassing to lose a road game by a point — the Bucs were 3.5-point favorites on their travels, not 10-point favorites like the Patriots — but this was a disappointing showing in a winnable game.
The Saints defense shows up against the Falcons.
Last year, the Saints defense held just two teams — the Buccaneers and Eagles — under 17 points. The Falcons offense never failed to score more than 17 points, only hitting 17 in a Week 17 loss to the Buccaneers. On Sunday, the Saints somehow managed to hold the Falcons to a mere 17 points, finishing them off with a goal-to-go stop from the 7-yard line. I’ll stop typing the number 17 now.
How did the Saints pull that off? Well, for one, the Falcons were functionally without Roddy White. Before kickoff, it was revealed that White’s ankle sprain was in fact, despite the denials from head coach Mike Smith, a high ankle sprain. That would normally keep a player out for four to six weeks at the minimum, but the Falcons kept White’s status quiet to force the Saints to prepare for him. They pushed White into the lineup on Sunday after three weeks out, likely under the effects of some heavy pain medication, but White was barely on the field and mostly a decoy when he was around, catching two passes for 19 yards. New Orleans has already lost three defensive starters for the season, so it aided them to see Atlanta down White and right tackle Mike Johnson.
The Saints otherwise succeeded by cutting out the big plays and getting off the field on third down. Atlanta had two 50-yard plays, one on a Harry Douglas pitch-and-catch and another on a Steven Jackson run.5 For last year’s Saints, two 50-yard plays would have been a cause for celebration. Otherwise, the Saints didn’t allow a single play over 25 yards, forcing Atlanta to dink-and-dunk its way down the field. They held Jackson to 27 yards on his other 10 carries and only allowed Atlanta to pick up two of the 11 third and fourth downs it faced. If they can keep the big plays (relatively) out and the third-down conversions low, New Orleans might have a defense that can keep them in games in 2013.
This is where Falcons fans go on Facebook and post how happy they are to be with their new running back and how they thought they were in love with their old running back, but it was really just immaturity. OK, maybe Falcons fans weren’t in love with Michael Turner at the end.
I’ve believed that Cook could be a difference-maker in the league for a long time now, but that? Cook had an enormous day against the Cardinals, catching seven passes for 141 yards with two touchdowns. He would have had a third receiving touchdown if it weren’t for a brilliant play from rookie Tyrann Mathieu,6 who chased down a sprinting Cook and stripped him of the ball before he entered the end zone. Cook was thrown the ball 10 times on Sunday, which only happened once during his final season with the Titans in 2012. The Rams signed him to be a top receiver this offseason, and after Week 1, he sure looks like one.
Who, to be fair, I suggested in April would not be a difference-maker at defensive back in the league. Saving a touchdown is a pretty big difference.
Cook’s big plays saw him travel around the field and pick on a variety of defensive backs. On the first, a 47-yard reception that produced the aforementioned fumble, the Rams were able to isolate Cook from the traditional tight end spot one-on-one against inside linebacker Karlos Dansby; the play design occupied the safeties and prevented Dansby from getting help, and Sam Bradford hit Cook in stride for a long gain and near-touchdown up the seam. Cook’s 13-yard touchdown before halftime would also come as a conventional tight end, on an out pattern against safety Yeremiah Bell.
Later, though, he would move around. A 36-yard gain just before the end of the third quarter saw Cook split out wide before running a deep crossing pattern, with Bradford eventually finding him on the opposite side of the field. And then, with 1:19 left, Cook lined up in the slot and ran a deep out against an overmatched Jerraud Powers for 25 yards, the biggest play on the drive that set St. Louis up for its game-winning field goal. Cook won’t go for 141 yards and two touchdowns every week, but in terms of targets, output, and talent, he’s St. Louis’s no. 1 receiver right now.
Carolina’s defense holds Seattle to 12 points.
The Panthers defense was impressive at times last year and then again during the preseason, with Luke Kuechly noticeably featuring as a superstar-caliber player. Against the Seahawks, he wasn’t the only one. Carolina’s front seven overwhelmed Seattle, shutting down its running game while forcing Russell Wilson to fight for every throwing lane and scrambling opportunity imaginable. Given the quality of the opposition, it might have been the best defensive performance by any front seven all day.
It’s hard to remember Marshawn Lynch looking this bad during his recent run as one of the league’s most productive running backs, but there he was on Sunday, running for a mere 43 yards on 17 carries. He had two games roughly like this last year, running for 41 yards on 15 carries against the Pats and 46 yards on 19 carries against the Dolphins, but Lynch otherwise produced no fewer than 85 rushing yards in any of his other 14 games. They didn’t offer much soup to Wilson, either, as his five carries produced just seven yards. Carolina’s run defense was a respectable 11th in DVOA a year ago, but this could be the sign of an improved unit. Remember that the Buccaneers’ dominant run defense of a year ago announced itself in Week 1 by holding the Panthers to 10 yards on 13 carries. Not proof, but something to watch for going forward.
Unfortunately for the Panthers, when Wilson did wriggle himself open and find time to throw, he was very effective. Wilson went 25-of-33 for 320 yards with a touchdown, and that included a dropped touchdown by Stephen Williams on the play before that touchdown pass, which instead went to Jermaine Kearse. The Carolina secondary just can’t hold up in coverage, and if teams can keep the front seven off their quarterback, Carolina will struggle to make plays in the defensive backfield. Holding the front seven off, though, is easier said than done.
If they could throw the ball, why did Seattle only manage to score 12 points? Long fields and extenuating circumstances. The Seahawks had five drives of 45 yards or more, but one ended in a red zone fumble, two resulted in field goals, one produced the passing touchdown (with a failed two-point conversion), and the fifth ran out the game over the final five minutes.
The Bills nearly beat the Patriots.
It always seems like Buffalo plays New England tough, especially at home, but this was a Bills team without the two best players in its secondary, Stephon Gilmore and Jairus Byrd, and with a rookie quarterback — EJ Manuel — returning from August knee surgery to start his first NFL game. As I mentioned earlier, the Bills were 10-point underdogs at home. So how did they nearly pull off a massive upset?
Their old favorite tricks, that’s how. For one, they created takeaways. The Patriots turned the ball over three times, and those were three big plays. One was a Stevan Ridley fumble just outside the red zone, a play that shockingly got New England’s starting running back benched for the remainder of the day. Buffalo intercepted Tom Brady just before halftime to take over on the New England 37-yard line on what became a quick touchdown drive, but most notably, it recovered a botched snap on fourth-and-goal against its own goal line, preventing Brady from scoring while taking over on downs. If only the Patriots had a big, bruising short-yardage quarterback who could have taken a shotgun snap and run the ball in behind the tackles. With an alliterative name. You know, like Jordan Jefferson. Oh, who were you thinking of?
The Bills also kept the Patriots from producing big plays, something that might be more about the New England offense than the Buffalo defense. The Patriots had just one play of 25 yards or more, a 35-yard reception by Julian Edelman. Otherwise, the Patriots were forced to slowly drive the ball down the field with a series of short passes to relatively well-covered receivers. They struggled during the second quarter when Danny Amendola left the game with a groin injury, and then relied upon him heavily upon his return in the second half, with Amendola converting first downs on seven of the eight passes thrown to him on third down. New England faced a whopping 20 third downs amid its 89 plays on the day, converting 11 of them.
Again: This might very well be more about the Patriots’ weaknesses than the Bills’ strengths. We’ll see in the coming weeks, but the Patriots absolutely need to find somebody who can stretch teams downfield. That might end up simply being Rob Gronkowski, but the Patriots would hope for a wideout who can join Gronkowski as part of a collective capable of getting 20 yards downfield.
Tennessee shuts down the Pittsburgh offense for virtually the entire game.
Whoa! If the Titans and their last-place defense from a year ago wanted to make a statement, they came out and did so in Week 1. After going down 2-0 from a bizarre safety on the opening kickoff, Tennessee’s much-maligned defense promptly held Pittsburgh scoreless for the next 58½ minutes, eventually building a 16-2 lead before the Steelers scored a late touchdown. You’ve got my attention, Titans. Unfortunately, the Steelers have my outstanding hype, and there’s no taking that back. This was a downright shocking performance from Pittsburgh at home.
Tennessee accomplished this, in part, with consistent domination of field position. Pittsburgh’s best field position came on the free kick after the safety, which gave it the ball at its own 41-yard line; its ensuing 54-yard drive ended with a fumble on the Tennessee 6-yard line. From there, it was all downhill. Pittsburgh’s nine subsequent drives7 had an average starting field position on the Pittsburgh 16-yard line, while Tennessee’s average starting field position was on its own 40-yard line.
The Steelers had a 10th drive that ended after a kneel-down on the first play.
Sometimes, this reveals a lot of long drives that ended in no-man’s-land, masking a competent offensive performance. Not on Sunday. The Steelers had the aforementioned 54-yard drive after the free kick to start the day and then bookended it with a 75-yarder in what amounted to garbage time to make it a one-score game. They had drives of 33 and 35 yards that produced punts. Their six other drives produced a total of 18 yards and one first down. Total.
They were bizarrely bad on third down, too, going 4-for-13. I say bizarrely because they made a few long ones in the first half; all four of their third-down conversions came in the first 30 minutes, when they had an average of 8.6 yards to go for a first down. In the second half, they had an average of three yards to go on their seven third downs and converted exactly none of them.
There were, of course, the injuries. Part of my hope for Pittsburgh this year revolved around a more stable, effective running game, predicated upon healthier backs and a finally healthy offensive line. That lasted one week. Pittsburgh has already lost two running backs, as Le’Veon Bell is out indefinitely and LaRod Stephens-Howling tore his ACL on Sunday. The more notable injury was up front; Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey reportedly tore his ACL and MCL, injuries that will end his season after one game. (Linebacker Larry Foote also suffered a season-ending torn biceps.) In all, the Pittsburgh running game produced 32 yards on 15 carries. Total. Isaac Redman, presumably the starter going forward, had eight carries for nine yards with a red zone fumble. And he’s the one left standing.
That leads us back to the Titans, who are going to unfairly get painted as the team that happened to be standing in the box when the Steelers decided to implode. Titans fans have every right to be hopeful about their team’s future, but it’s also probably safe to hold off for a few weeks to see what this team can do on D. They’re at Houston next week, but then they get friendly matchups at home against the Chargers and Jets before they face the Seahawks and 49ers in consecutive games. That’s when we’ll find out what the Titans defense really can be.
Thank you for not writing Thank You for Not Coaching.
Not yet! This year, I’m moving TYFNC into its own larger space on Tuesdays, allowing me to focus a little more on the Sunday games for Monday morning. If there’s a game-changing decision like the Ron Rivera call against the Falcons last year, I’ll definitely discuss that in the Monday-morning column, but on a week like this, I’ll save the coaching content for Tuesday. And that leaves two more things to talk about …
Dog-house, in the middle of Jer-sey.
I guess the Giants turning the ball over six times in a devastating loss to the Cowboys was a surprise, in the same sense that, say, a Gmail outage or food poisoning are a surprise. It’s a surprise that you hate and want to see righted as soon as possible, but instead, you’re constantly reminded of how miserable it is, and although you check back every two minutes in the hopes that things have gotten better, even when they do, you’re afraid that they’re just going to get worse again a couple minutes later, which is exactly what happens for the next several hours.8
That this church-fart of a football performance took place during one of the final episodes of Breaking Bad did not make things any easier.
Allow me to play dev … no, angel’s advocate and suggest it wasn’t quite as bad of a loss for the Giants as it might have seemed. Yes, it was terrifying and it leaves the Giants without a running back Tom Coughlin has any faith in whatsoever. There’s a distinct possibility the Giants will end up with Michael Turner or Willis McGahee as their starting running back as soon as next week. That’s … enthralling. But, outside of the jaw-dropping turnovers, it’s actually kind of impressive that the Giants were able to make it a game.
Consider that the Giants turned the ball over on six occasions. Since 1990, teams with six giveaways in a game are 9-111 (.075 winning percentage). In those games, the average margin of defeat is nearly 16 points. Since the Cowboys also turned the ball over once, if I switch it to games in which one team lost the turnover battle by exactly five turnovers, that putrid team is 6-132 (.043 winning percentage!), losing by nearly 18 points per game. The Giants only lost by five! That’s almost like a win!
Maybe not. But they did play pretty well for a team that was otherwise backed up against the wall by all those dumb turnovers. Eli Manning probably isn’t going to throw two interceptions on passes to his running backs each week. And, more notably, the Cowboys recovered all five of the fumbles in this game;9 since fumble recoveries are almost entirely random, it’s a safe bet the Giants will not go 0-for-5 on fumble recoveries again this year. Those plays included the two Wilson fumbles, one of which was inside the Dallas 10-yard line. The other was recovered by the Cowboys and returned for a touchdown. That’s a possible 14-point swing on those two plays alone.
And this fumble total doesn’t include the free ball that was up for grabs on the onside kick at the end of the game, which was recovered on the ground by Dallas’s Sean Lee.
Maybe the Giants will just be sloppy with the football all year. Maybe the Cowboys are going to force six takeaways a game after producing just 16 in 16 games a year ago. This is one I’m going to need more evidence of before I declare it to be much more than a bad game.
The hidden blowout.
To me, the most interesting game of the day occurred in Detroit. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a team play as well as Detroit did on Sunday and come away with as little recognition to show for it. Detroit dominated Minnesota — a playoff team a year ago — at home, and all it has to show for it is an Adrian Peterson highlight-reel run.
That starts with the Lions’ performance against Peterson, who torched them on the opening Minnesota play of the game for a 78-yard touchdown. Not good. Peterson later added a rushing and a receiving touchdown, each from four yards out, to give fantasy owners a mammoth day from the consensus top overall pick. Here’s the thing: It wasn’t all that great of a real-life day. The 78-yard run is obviously valuable, but scoring from four yards out isn’t exactly a feat. And outside of that one lengthy run, the Lions absolutely shut Peterson down; his other 17 carries produced a total of 15 rushing yards. He caught all four of the passes thrown to him, but they only totaled 18 yards. The mortal version of Peterson was a boom-and-bust back, but this is that taken to an extreme. Minnesota only had one rushing first down outside of the two touchdowns, and Peterson had 13 carries for two yards or less, many of which came on first-and-10 or second-and-long.
And that created third-and-longs for Christian Ponder, which created disasters for the Vikings. Well, sorta. The Vikings were able to get away with a bunch because the Lions either shot themselves in the foot or shot their foot off altogether. They dropped at least one possible Ponder pick-six, went offside to nullify a strip-sack of Ponder, and had a pick-six wiped off the board by a Ndamukong Suh low block during the return.
The defense had a lucky day compared with the offense, which was brilliant before encountering an impossible bit of bad luck. On their first drive, the Lions drove the ball 58 yards to the Minnesota 13-yard line, only for a Calvin Johnson slant to be called a half-yard short of a first down. The Lions were then stuffed on second down, dropped a pass on third down, and bungled the ensuing field goal attempt. Then they gave up the Peterson touchdown. With the Vikings possessing all the momentum, the Lions again drove 65 yards down the field with ease, only for a Calvin Johnson touchdown to be nullified by the Calvin Johnson rule,10 leading the Lions to settle for a field goal. The next drive saw Tony Scheffler drop a likely touchdown inside the 5-yard line and a Joique Bell fourth-and-1 conversion overturned by a holding call, leading to another field goal.
Which went mysteriously uncalled on one of Victor Cruz’s touchdowns. My impression is that Cruz’s touchdown wasn’t called off because he established possession outside of the end zone and then broke the plane with the football before losing possession on his way down, while Johnson was establishing possession inside the end zone and never actually did so, but just let Calvin Johnson score.
It kept going. That Ponder pick-six that was called back for a low block? The Lions got the ball and promptly gave it back on a tipped interception. Detroit fumbled a snap on the next drive. Two drives later, Brandon Pettigrew (who held on that Bell fourth-and-1) fumbled the ball after a reception, only for Harrison Smith to fall on it before it trickled out of bounds. Then, when the Lions finally got it to the goal line, Bell dove over the pile at the 2-yard line and had the ball careen backward11 for a fumble that was recovered by the Vikings, only for replay to finally turn a call in Detroit’s favor.
This oblong spheroid bounced backward like it was a Super Ball. Like somebody turned on their Game Genie and enabled “no crossing the goal line.” Just freaky.
The second half wasn’t much better. The Lions had another three touchdowns wiped off the board, with Megatron’s second potential score of the day coming up a toe too far in the back of the end zone, while two Reggie Bush scores ruled as a touchdown on the field were called back because his knee was on the ground. In any case, the Lions came back to score touchdowns on those drives, and they actually forced a strip-sack of Ponder that came through. In all, the Lions celebrated eight touchdowns on Sunday and actually got to keep four of them, including this gorgeous middle screen to Bush for a 77-yard touchdown. The Lions were very aggressive moving Bush around the formation, splitting him out frequently as a receiver and designing plays to take advantage of his unique skill set. He did come out twice with finger and knee complaints, but Bush finished with 191 yards from scrimmage on 25 touches. He outplayed the league MVP on Sunday.
Was some of this sloppy play by the Lions that they need to correct? Sure. The holding penalties and the fumbles aren’t going to fly if the Lions are to compete in 2013. Keep in mind, though, that the Lions had five drives of 50 yards or more, both ran the ball and threw the ball very effectively, and shut down the league’s best player after one play. It was a quietly impressive performance, and one that will sneak under the radar as the Lions travel to Arizona to play the Cardinals in Week 2.