Game Grades: Lions look good, but can improve

Detroit's 27-20 win over Tampa Bay featured areas of excellence, but left room for improvement. Lions insider Mike Mady provides his analysis and game grades following the season opening win.

The Detroit Lions took the first step towards living up to their preseason expectations by leaving Raymond James Stadium with a 27-20 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday. 
The game featured areas of excellence as well as areas of opportunity for the Lions, so let’s take a moment to examine each component of the team (offense, defense, special teams and coaching).
The Lions offensive unit was productive while compiling 431 yards, 25 first downs and 27 points.  Matthew Stafford passed the ball effectively and efficiently, racking up 305 yards through the air with a completion percentage of 72 percent.  The team also scored all three of their touchdowns on passing plays.  The offensive line didn’t allow a sack and did a good job of protecting Stafford.  
The running game wasn’t as prolific but proved to be serviceable.  The team registered 126 yards on the ground, although 20 came on a reverse to Nate Burleson.  The team only averaged 3.6 yards per carry but, if the passing attack remains to be the foundation of offense, that should be good enough.
Still, with all the success, the Lions have much to work on.
The running game – though respectable – sputtered when most needed.  After the Lions made the score 27-13 in the third quarter, they began running the ball with more frequency in an attempt to run out the clock.  Unfortunately, they averaged only 2.6 yards per carry on 12 rushes and mustered only two first downs after scoring their last touchdown.    
Jahvid Best earned just 72 yards on 21 carries as Detroit's never established itself against the Buccaneers (Brad Barr/US Presswire Photo)
Another issue was the ineffectiveness on third downs.  The Lions converted only two of 11 third downs, a number that will certainly need to improve if they hope to continue to enjoy success on offense.  
Lastly, the Lions need to avoid self-inflicted wounds.  Stafford – though he had a terrific outing – missed a wide-open Calvin Johnson in the end zone on one attempt and on the next play Brandon Pettigrew dropped a sure-touchdown pass– forcing the Lions to settle for a field goal.  In the first quarter, a poor throw from Stafford was tipped by Will Heller and ended up intercepted and returned for a touchdown. 
Grade: B-
The defensive unit had an impressive outing.  They allowed only 315 yards and only 56 on the ground.  More importantly, they only allowed one offensive touchdown and only 13 points.
As expected, the Lions put a good amount of pressure on quarterback Josh Freeman.  The pass rush was sustained by the front four and was aided by some successful blitzing.  The cornerbacks -- namely Chris Houston -- did a good job when left in man-to-man coverage.
A key point of the game was the opening drive of the third quarter.  The Buccaneers were down by a touchdown and started the drive with a nine-yard run by Earnest Graham.  If the Buccaneers had picked up the first down, it could have led to momentum potentially a tie game.  Instead, Detroit's defense allowed no yards on the next two plays (both runs up the middle) and forced the punt.    
The unit's biggest problem was getting off the field late in the game.
The defense cannot allow so many third down conversions.  They allowed the Buccaneers to convert six third downs, five coming in the fourth quarter.  
Grade: A-
Allowing a 78-yard return on the only kickoff return in the game is something that needs to be addressed.  
The coverage units did a good job limiting punt returns and the punting average of 48.2 is solid.  However, with an opportunity to potentially pin Tampa deep in their own territory late in the fourth quarter, the coverage unit failed to down a punt inside the 10-yard line and allowed it to bounce into the end zone for a touchback.  
Jason Hanson was two for two on field goals, both of which were in his ‘automatic’ range. 
Stefan Logan was essentially taken out of the return game with no opportunities to return a kickoff.  He averaged a respectable average of six yards per punt return.
Grade: C+
This is where it gets interesting.  The Lions won the game and for the most part, called a very solid game on both offense and defense.  Still, there were a couple of issues.
First, the Lions need to play to their strengths on offense.  A great example of this was the gutsy call to keep the offense on the field for fourth-and-two on the Tampa Bay 36.  The Lions lined up in the shotgun, sent Johnson deep and gave Stafford the opportunity to choose a deep route (if available) or a higher-percentage underneath route.  Stafford chose wisely and hit Johnson with a great pass for a 36-yard touchdown.  
The Lions know they are built to pass and that’s why they elected to put the ball in the air on that play.  
Now fast forward to the third quarter.  The Lions have scored and pushed their lead to 14 points.  They got the ball back on offense with just under five minutes left in the third quarter.  Then they started running the ball.
The Lions ran the ball 12 times compared to four passes from that point on.  They averaged only 2.6 yards per run on those drives and essentially gave the Buccaneers a chance to get back in the game.
I know conventional wisdom suggests running the ball heavily when you’re leading late in a game, kill the clock and leave with a victory.  However, the Lions are not built for that and must stick to their strength; passing the ball. 
Also, the penalties have to fall on the shoulders of the coaching staff as well.  The Lions surrendered 86 yards on eight penalties – none worse than the personal foul on Gosder Cherilus late in the fourth quarter.  This is something that the coaching staff will address but until the problem is fixed, they should be the ones held accountable.  
Grade: C-

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