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New York Giants v Detroit LionsEntering the 2014 season, just about everyone had an opinion on what the Detroit Lions would or wouldn’t do well this year. Although the game wasn’t perfect, I think it’s safe to say that just about everyone walked away from Ford Field, happy with most of the things they saw from the Lions, as they went on to defeat the New York Giants with a final score of 35-14 on the grand stage we call Monday Night Football.

Despite the tough love that I continuously give the Lions, I must say that I too, walked away liking most of the things I saw from the Lions.

Offensively, I was really impressed with quarterback Matthew Stafford. Coming into this season, I wanted to see more poise, better pocket awareness, better footwork and smarter decision-making from him. Even though, this was only the first game of the season, I can honestly say that Stafford showed improvement on all things I mentioned above.

“Obviously, Jim Bob Cooter and Joe Lombardi, those guys get the credit.” said head coach Jim Caldwell. “Matthew did the job, so he gets most of the credit and the other guys certainly do help him on a daily basis. It’s something they work on consistently. He’s got a natural feel for the pocket. He certainly slid away from pressure and got himself in position where he can make some throws for us outside of the pocket. Matthew’s got talent, obviously, as we all know, inside of the pocket and outside of the pocket. I think that’s what makes him dangerous. He can run the ball a little bit. That touchdown run was pretty good. He bounced off a few people, but it still counts.”

When it came to showing poise, good footwork and pocket awareness, I like coach Caldwell, also thought that Stafford was great. Unlike in the past, Stafford looked like the game had slowed down for him, meaning that he didn’t look rushed. When in the pocket, he showed good footwork and pocket awareness, which allowed him to get the ball out quickly and accurately. Though the offensive line did a good job of protecting Stafford the entire game, I thought Stafford did a great job of scrambling when he needed to. To be honest, Stafford did some of his best work, when he scrambling. When pressured, I thought he did a good job of evading pressure but most importantly, I thought he did a good job of looking down field and re-collecting himself which included him setting his feet and throwing an accurate pass, unlike in the past where he would rush, not set his feet and throw a side-arm pass. Plus, it was really impressive that scrambled for a five yard touchdown, showing that he has the skills to make plays with his feet if necessary, despite what people say.

As I mentioned earlier, the main thing I liked about Stafford was the fact that he played efficient and smart football. When it came to being efficient, he completed 22 of his 32 passes which equals out to a 68 percent completion rate which is good considering his past numbers. Then if that’s not enough, Stafford also threw for 346 yard, while connecting with wide receiver Calvin Johnson for two touchdowns. If you ask me, I think the most important stat on Stafford’s stat sheet has to be the fact that he didn’t have any turnovers, which will not only be key to Stafford’s success this season but to the team’s success this year as well.

“I think [Matthew Stafford] was about 65-percent completion percentage.” Coach Caldwell said. “That’s kind of what we like to see. Anything over 62-percent, you’re moving in the right direction. Some games it may be different. It may be 58-percent and he throws five touchdown passes, but we’d like to be able to keep it up over 62. It’s kind of our goal.”

Again, I’m not saying that Stafford played perfect, because he didn’t but the Stafford, I saw today, was the Stafford that I want to see for the rest of the season. The Stafford, I saw tonight look like the next quarterback to watch in the NFL. Like I said before, he was poised, he was efficient, he was smart and he was versatile in everything he did tonight and that’s what this Lions team needs from him on a daily basis.

“I’m just trying to be as smart as I possibly can.” Stafford said. “I knew if we just played smart, still aggressive without question by making some big plays by throwing the ball down the field…that was going to be a recipe for success.”

The same thing goes for the Lions receiving core. I know looking at the stats, you may think that this was the Calvin “Megatron” Johnson show and to be honest, you would be right. Johnson was great, not only did he pull in 7 receptions for 164 yards but he also caught two touchdowns, which allowed him to tie the Lions franchise mark for consecutive game receptions, which was first set by Herman Moore.

While I won’t take anything away from Johnson’s performance, let me add that while Johnson was impressive, so was the rest of the Lions receiving core. It may have not shown on the stat sheet, but Stafford did a real good job of spreading the ball around and what I love most is the fact that each player, including Johnson, did a great job of creating after the catch. Wide receiver Golden Tate may have not had any touchdowns in this game but he did catch-all six passes thrown his way for 93 yards, which not only helped the Lions to move the chains but also helped them to get in the red-zone. Besides Tate, running back Reggie Bush also caught all six passes thrown his way, doing a great of creating the catch for 49 yards and although tight end Joseph Fauria only pulled in one catch, he did make the catch something special as he turned a five yard catch into a 26-yard gain, one again putting the Lions in scoring position.

Man, Golden’s going to pull some coverages.” said Johnson during the post game presser. “Man we got so many weapons on offense, you know. We got guys out there that can pull certain coverages each play. Reggie (Bush) gets double covered sometimes, I’ll get it, Golden (Tate) might get it, Joe (Fauria) might get it. You never know, so it’s always going to be somebody that’ll have a chance to make a play.  “

Even though I said it earlier, the main thing I like about this passing game, is the fact Stafford made use of his different weapons and the fact that the receiving core, has the ability to create after the catch, increasing the scoring opportunities for the Lions. In the past the Stafford was only able to rely on Johnson. Although, he did rely on Johnson a lot in this game, unlike in the past, Stafford did spread the ball and not just rely on Johnson, which will be key for the Lions this season, as they continue to build this power house type offense.

Which leads me to the Lions running game. Now I know that the Lions didn’t have the best night on the run, seeing that they only rushed for 76 yards. However, what the stats don’t show you is that by running the ball continuously all night, the Lions stay offensively balance allowing them to keep the Giants defense on their toes all night.

Even though, I have said it many times before, I will say again that the Lions must run the ball well and consistently this year for them to have continuous success offensively. Now, when I say “run the ball well”, understand that “well” doesn’t always mean 150 plus rushing yards, sometimes “well” will mean 70 yards rushing. It’s all based on their opponent and what their particular opponent’s defense brings to the table on game day. However, it doesn’t change the fact that by running the ball consistently, the Lions remain balance. That’s something that former head coach Jim Schwarts never seem to understand, as where Jim Caldwell does seem to get it. Think about it, despite the rough moments the Lions had in the running game on Monday night, the Lions never strayed from it, they continuously stuck with the run and as the game went on, we saw an improvement in the rushing numbers as running back Joique Bell went on to score a rushing touchdown that not only increased the Lions lead but it also sealed the Lions victory over the Giants.

Again, I know that the rushing numbers weren’t big or grand but the most important impact that the running game had is the fact that it kept the Giants defensive line on their toes. Did the Giants stop the Lions run game at times? Yes they did, but because the Lions ran the ball consistently, it became harder for the Giants to contain the Lions offense because they couldn’t ignore the Lions in the backfield with Bush and Bell and they couldn’t ignore the Lions arsenal through the air with Stafford, Johnson, Tate, etc.  Once again, allowing the Lions to keep the Giants on their toes defensively, because of the balance that they brought offensively.

If you think I am exaggerating look at from the flip side. Not only did the Lions defense do a great job of containing the Giants running game all game, as the Giants only rushed for 53 yards the entire game but they also did a good job of making the Giants one-dimensional. While you may look at that and say no big deal, keep in mind that because the Lions were able to contain the run consistently and make the Giants one-dimensional, the Lions defense was able to focus solely on the Giants passing game. Since, Giants quarterback Eli Manning had one of his worst game of his career, as he threw two interceptions in this game and only completed 50 percent of his passes. I think it’s safe to say that the Lions plan worked.

Keep in mind that it wasn’t just about making the Giants one-dimensional that led to the success of the Lion defense. When it came to secondary and the play of the linebackers, I thought a lot of the players stepped up and performed well. Safety Glover Quin and linebacker DeAndre Levy, both had picks in this game, which led to Lions scoring points offensively. Linebacker Stephen Tullock was a tackling machine, racking up six tackles and I thought linebacker Tahir Whitehead started where he left off in preseason, as he made plays on special teams with great open field tackling and a blocked punt.

Despite some late injuries to the secondary with Quin and Bill Bentley, I thought Darius Slay, Isa Adbdul-Quddus, Jerome Couplin, Nevin Lawson, Rashean Mathis all did a good job of picking up the slack and playing well. Then if that’s not enough, the defensive line had a strong showing, as they continuously pressured Manning in the pocket, sacking him three times in the pocket, as they made his life miserable all game long.

“This was a chance for us on national TV to show the world who we are.” Quinn said after the game. “We’re a new Detroit Lions team and we wanted to come out on defense and make a statement, come out on offense and make a statement, as well as a team. What better way to come out and do it than on Monday Night Football on the season opener? I thought we played a great team game both offensively, defensively and special teams. We got out of it with a win and that’s what we expected. It’s fun when your expectations come to fruition. You go out there and prepare through the week and when the game time comes you play well. It’s a tribute to our preparation, our coaches, our effort throughout the week and just being ready to go.”

Although, I don’t mean to rain on the parade of praise I am giving the Lions, I have to say that the Lions should have really won this game by more points. I know looking at the score you see a double-digit victory, but none of that changes the fact that the Lions had chances to end this game at halftime and didn’t do so and it doesn’t change the fact that the Lions left to many points on the field, despite their good victory.

Now, don’t get wrong, I’m not taking anything away from this victory and trust me when I say that I understand that a win is a win. I’m only saying that this Lion team still could have done things better and while they were able to get a win, they have to understand that every team won’t be the like the Giants, who I do consider to be one of the weaker teams in the NFL right now.

Even though, I said the Lions have some areas to improve on. To be honest, the main two areas that the Lions need to improve on or at least the two areas that stuck out in this game was the costly penalties and the lack of red-zone execution.

Coming into this game, I knew the Lions had issues with shooting themselves in the foot with penalties because they showed it throughout preseason. Nevertheless, their issue with shooting themselves in the foot with penalties, nearly cost the Lions this game. Despite having a good start in the first quarter and offensively dominating in the first half, the Lions only had 14 points to show for it going into halftime.

Why is that?

Mainly because the Lions were not able to establish continuous drives due to costly offensive penalties, whether it be a false start call, a holding call or illegal hands to the face call. Then on the flip side, the defense also had it shares of penalties, which is just about the only reason that the Giants were able to get on the board in this game.

Again, I know it’s early in the season and mistakes are expected, but it doesn’t change the fact that the Lions continue to hurt themselves with penalties. The Lions won this game but they barely did that when you count the eight penalties that they had and the fact that those eight penalties were evenly spread through the offense and defense. Just like I said earlier, you may look at the score and say the Lions pulled out the win, so stop with the complaining but once again you must understand that the Lions can’t afford to lose points or give up points because of unnecessary things like penalties. They must do a better job of staying discipline because the good offensive and defensive drives that were disrupted in this game were mainly because of penalties and you can bet that those continuous penalties will come back to haunt them, if they allow it too.

The same thing goes for the Lions when it comes to their lack of red-zone execution. I know you look at the score and say 35 points is good but to be honest the Lions should have had close to 50 points if not more in this game. The reason that they didn’t, is because they continuously got to the red-zone but could not capitalize. Keep in mind that the Lions lack of red-zone execution wasn’t because the Giants defense stepped up, the lack of execution came because of a lack of execution from the players. Sometimes it was Stafford overthrowing a pass, other times it was a receiver not making a play on the ball or the offensive line not opening up a running lane but regardless of who it was, the lack of execution in the red-zone showed as the Lions ended the game a with a 60 percent red-zone efficiency rating.

Even though it may have worked against the Giants on Monday night, I still stand by what I said above and that is that the Lions can’t afford to lose points because of a lack of execution in the red-zone. They must do a better job of staying discipline because the good drives that were once again disrupted in this game were mainly because of penalties or because the Lions couldn’t capitalize in the red-zone and you can bet that those continuous problems will come back to haunt them, if they allow it too moving forward.

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, I was happy to see the Lions start the season off on the right foot with a great win at home, on the great platform we call Monday Night Football. Although they did show some negatives throughout the game, I am happy to say that they showed more positive and bright spots, which is why I can walk away from Ford Field, saying that the Lions are improving. Now they just have to keep improving as they continuously build a new and better identity under head coach Jim Caldwell.

Written by LBeasley (Lauren Beasley), Sports Editor of Radio One Detroit

For more of L-Beasley’s (Lauren Beasley) sports news and in-depth sports content, click here.

Detroit Lions Start The Season At 1-0, As They Defeat The New York Giants 35-14 was originally published on wchbnewsdetroit.com

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