May 30, 2024

Lions need more from Jared Goff, Aidan Hutchinson and their other best players

ALLEN PARK, Mich. — Perhaps lost amid the fact the Detroit Lions aren’t playing their best football in December is that the Lions’ best players aren’t playing their best football in December.

Coach Dan Campbell made sure to mention that during his Monday afternoon news conference. But not for reasons you might think.


“Here is the most encouraging thing about what happened yesterday,” Campbell said Monday, the day after his team fell to 9-4 in a 28-13 loss to the Chicago Bears. “Some of our best players on the team did not play well and that’s encouraging going into this one because those are prideful guys, and those are our dudes. And believe me, those guys are going to come back — no different than us as coaches. We’re going to be at our best. I just know what kind of locker room we’ve got, what kind of players, and we will respond. We will respond.”

That right there is both a not-so-subtle challenge and a vote of confidence from Campbell. And he’s not wrong. The Lions need their best players to play well because the roster isn’t strong enough to overcome prolonged stretches of below-average play from their stars. And yet, many of their best have struggled at the same time.

And while Campbell didn’t mention anyone by name, we have a few guesses, based on the eye test and underlying numbers.


The Lions are regressing, and running out of time to turn things around

QB Jared Goff
The Lions will go as far as their offense will take them in the postseason. As the quarterback, all eyes will be on Goff. How he performs in the postseason is crucial. But his current stretch leaves you wanting more.

Goff isn’t playing like the QB who propelled the offense forward in 2022 and early in 2023. The first six games of the season, Goff had just three turnovers. Taking care of the football and distributing it to the playmakers around him is Goff’s job in this offense. He’s the point guard, essentially. But Goff isn’t seeing the court right now.

He has eight turnovers in the last four games alone. Not all of them have been egregious, or even entirely his fault, but they were wasted possessions all the same. Against the Bears in November, Goff threw three interceptions and had a few more turnover-worthy plays that didn’t count as turnovers. Against Green Bay, he fumbled three times. And against the Bears again on Sunday, he threw two more interceptions and was part of a bobbled exchange leading to a turnover. When the turnovers pile up, Goff looks far from comfortable. It has a snowball effect on the rest of the offense.


Goff’s overall play has regressed. His EPA per dropback of minus-0.03 ranks 20th in the league since Week 7. He’s thrown 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions since then, compared to 11 touchdowns and three interceptions the first six weeks. Overall, the Lions’ offense hasn’t been what it was early in the season. It needs its QB to return to form.

The offensive line
If you’re looking for a reason for Goff’s struggles, start here. Detroit has the second-highest-paid offensive line in the NFL. It hasn’t played like it of late.

That’s an issue, because much of Goff’s success is directly tied to the performance of the offensive line in pass protection. He’s a different quarterback when pressured — plain and simple. Per Pro Football Focus, Goff’s turnover-worthy play rate under pressure of 5.9 percent is tied for the eighth-highest. When facing pressure, Goff has thrown four touchdowns and eight interceptions — second-most in the NFL. His passer rating under pressure is 58.8 — 27th out of 39 qualified QBs.

When kept clean, Goff’s turnover-worthy throw rate of 0.9 percent is the second-best mark among qualified quarterbacks. His passer rating of 111.3 when kept clean ranks third in the league. He’s thrown 17 of his 21 touchdowns and just two of his 10 interceptions when kept clean. Night and day.

The first six games of the season, Detroit’s offensive line allowed pressure just 32.6 percent of the time — eighth-best in the NFL. Since then, it’s hovering around 21st in the league at 37.6 percent. Health is a factor, as it always is. Jonah Jackson has been in and out of the lineup. Frank Ragnow missed Sunday’s game with a knee injury. The shuffling has been enough to limit the ceiling of the group, leading to some struggles by inserted pieces and, quite frankly, even some starters like Taylor Decker and Penei Sewell.


That said, the offensive line is still the strength of this team. If it gets right, the rest of the offense should, too.

The Saints did a good job containing Amon-Ra St. Brown in Week 13. (Stephen Lew / USA Today)
WR Amon-Ra St. Brown
It has been a quiet few games for St. Brown, after a torrid stretch. It’s hard to fault him for a down game or two given his remarkable consistency, but based on where the Lions are right now, they can’t afford for their star players to play below their standard. Best believe St. Brown was one of those “prideful guys” to whom Campbell alluded.

St. Brown has been targeted 15 times the last two games. He has five receptions for 70 yards to show for it. Against the New Orleans Saints, he received increased attention and coverage. That allowed the Lions to feed Sam LaPorta, who was excellent in that game. But you can’t expect nine-catch, 140-yard outings from a rookie tight end week in and week out. St. Brown admitted last week that he was frustrated with the increased attention in New Orleans.

Against the Bears, St. Brown couldn’t get much going, either, despite more volume. He caught just three of his nine targets for 21 yards and was also credited with two drops, per PFF. That doubled his total for the season. Goff’s passer rating when targeting St. Brown was 45.1. That’s the second-lowest passer rating when targeted of St. Brown’s career.

Getting Goff and St. Brown back on the same page will help. It’s almost shocking when they aren’t in sync, given their chemistry. But their relationship is built on timing, and when the timing isn’t there, you see the effect it has elsewhere.

St. Brown hates losing, hates drops and hates letting his team down. He’s likely due for a bounce-back effort.

Edge Aidan Hutchinson
No one would like to forget Sunday’s loss more than Hutchinson. You could argue it was his worst game at this level, because his play negatively impacted the game in more ways than one. Visibly upset in the locker room, Hutchinson looked more frustrated by his performance than ever before in his young NFL career. Let’s talk about it.

Hutchinson’s first mistake came in the third quarter, in a game tied at 13. The Lions thought they had a sack-fumble of Justin Fields on a third-and-13, or perhaps an intentional grounding. Neither was called. Instead, fourth-and-13.

The Bears’ offense stayed on the field with no intention of ever snapping the ball, hoping to draw the Lions offside. Hutchinson fell for it.


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