BALTIMORE — There are off days, there are bad days and then there’s whatever that was from the Detroit Lions.
“They kicked our ass,” Lions coach Dan Campbell said after his team’s 38-6 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. “It’s a credit to them.”
A fairly accurate depiction of events from Campbell, but one that wasn’t expected coming into this contest. The Lions (5-2) were riding high off a four-game winning streak. They’d won all four by double digits, taking care of business. The Lions had a chance to get off to their best start since 1956 with a win Sunday. Take down the Ravens on the road and every sports talk show would have been calling Detroit a Super Bowl contender come Monday morning. It would’ve left little room on the bandwagon.
After this game, though, there might be more space.
Lions fans hoped their team had graduated from the school of hard knocks. That they took their lumps and were no longer prone to blowouts like this. You can’t win ’em all, but you can compete. The Lions have done that in most of their games since the start of last season, even when they were still learning how to win. And with the heightened expectations of a team that was tied for the best record in the NFL, it’s completely fair to want more than the Lions showed versus the Ravens.
They’ve earned the right to be criticized like a contender. Efforts like the one we saw Sunday are fair game.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) October 22, 2023
This one, by and large, was over before it started. Baltimore won the toss and elected to receive — a surprise decision to some, but one that ultimately set the tone for how this game would go. A seven-play, 75-yard scoring drive, highlighted by a 46-yard completion and a QB keeper that fooled the entire defense, gave the Ravens a 7-0 lead.
It was all they needed the way their defense played. But they got so much more.
The Lions, in the Campbell-Aaron Glenn era, have not handled mobile quarterbacks particularly well. Their pass rush is good, not great, and certainly not elite. You make do with what you have, but it shows in games like this, against quarterbacks like that. Lamar Jackson is the sport’s premier dual-threat quarterback. He’s able to escape pressure and create when things break down around him. Because of this threat, the Lions — who ranked 10th in the league in zone coverage rate entering Week 7, per TruMedia — opted to play more man coverage than they have this year. It led to some issues, as you could probably deduce from your couch.
Jackson shredded this defense. He was 21-of-27 for 357 yards and three touchdowns through the air, and added 36 yards and another touchdown on the ground. His passer rating was 155.8. The Lions failed to record a sack and registered only one QB hit. The Ravens recorded 503 yards of offense, 9.1 yards per play and were 5-of-6 in the red zone.
Pop quiz: What happens when you play undisciplined man defense, against one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in football, with a pass rush that fails to generate consistent pressure?
Answer: You get sliced and diced to the tune of 38 points allowed on the road.
“We knew we were going to need to challenge (in) coverage,” Campbell said. “Played man and we just — the combination of not getting very much pressure and then having to cover a long time, we didn’t handle it well.”
“It’s hard to execute against a team like that,” linebacker Alex Anzalone said. “(When) you have a player like that, it makes it really hard. That’s what happens when you don’t execute, you’re not on top of all your P’s and Q’s, is they put up 500 yards and that many points.”
Everything coming up @Ravens today 🐦
— NFL (@NFL) October 22, 2023
The Lions had been playing complementary football of late. There was more of that on Sunday, just not the type of complementary football you wanted to see. Down 7-0 to start the game, the Lions’ offense took the field. What ensued was, uh, odd. They started linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez at fullback. Quarterback Jared Goff was sacked for a 12-yard loss on third down, then fumbled. Penei Sewell recovered it with one hand and advanced the ball 9 yards — still short of the marker.
It was Detroit’s third-longest play of the first half, if that tells you what kind of day this was for the offense.
That 7-0 deficit stretched to 14-0, then 21-0, then 28-0 at the half, then 35-0. The Lions had possession nine times in this game. They punted four times, turned the ball over on downs twice and another via an interception, then ran out the clock to end the game. A fourth-quarter Jahmyr Gibbs touchdown — the first of his career — prevented a shutout and provided a bit of a bright spot, but the damage was already done. The Ravens added a field goal for good measure. Not that they needed it.
Goff was sacked five times and fumbled twice (the Lions, somehow, recovered both). They had few answers for Baltimore’s pass rush, which was tied for the league lead in sacks and only added to that total Sunday. Trailing early, the Lions abandoned the run in the first half and tried to air it out to move the chains, doing so with little success. Goff was uncharacteristically inaccurate, looking out of sync throughout the day and failing to convert when it mattered. This was a struggle from start to finish.
“We didn’t do much to help ourselves out in those first few drives,” Goff said. “We couldn’t get a first down. … We were putting pressure on our defense. It was no fun. Hats off to them. They really got after us today, and we’ve got to respond right away.”
NFL Week 7 takeaways: Ravens look like real contenders; Chiefs’ D swarms Chargers
No player wants to be in this position, left head-scratching after an out-of-character effort, but it helps that the Lions have been here before, as contenders, in their own ways. Goff brought up a game from 2018. Quarterbacking the Rams at the time, Los Angeles headed to Chicago to take on the Bears. It wasn’t a blowout — a 15-6 loss — but it sure felt like one to Goff after the Rams’ offense failed to get it going, much like the Lions’ offense on Sunday. It left a sour taste in the mouths of many. The Rams would go on to win four of their next five contests, before a loss in the Super Bowl.
Anzalone recalled giving up 48 points to the Buccaneers in Week 1 of the 2018 season, when he was with the Saints. Ryan Fitzpatrick carved them up for 417 yards and four touchdowns. New Orleans regrouped and went on to win 10 in a row. Anzalone’s Saints lost to Goff’s Rams in the NFC Championship Game that season.
And even this group, to some extent, has gotten up when smacked around. Sunday’s loss to the Ravens was somewhat reminiscent of what happened on Christmas Eve last year, when the Lions lost a crucial game to the Panthers on the road. Their playoff hopes diminished that day. The Lions could’ve let it carry over into the next week against the Bears, and the week after against the Packers. Instead, they won both — setting the tone for this season as the NFC North favorites.
“I mean, think about it,” Anzalone said. “The past few years, we’ve dealt with so much. I don’t know what the outside noise is saying, obviously, but I know that we never buy the hype, we never buy the low. We know who we are.”
Ultimately, we’re still learning who these Lions are. Each week provides a new piece of the puzzle. It’s why they play 17 games and not six. This team’s next chance to show who it is will come in front of a national audience on “Monday Night Football,” when the Lions take on the Las Vegas Raiders (3-4).
If this is the team they say they are, expect better days.
(Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)
“The Football 100,” the definitive ranking of the NFL’s best 100 players of all time, goes on sale this fall. Order it here.