Debating the pros, cons of Detroit Lions’ late deep pass on third-and-1 vs. Bills

On the Detroit Lions’ final offensive drive of their 28-25 loss to the Buffalo Bills, offensive coordinator Ben Johnson dialed up a deep shot on third-and-1 from the Bills’ 33-yard line with 32 seconds left. Lions quarterback Jared Goff found DJ Chark in one-on-one coverage, but Chark couldn’t find the ball and it fell incomplete. The Lions would kick the 51-yard field goal to tie the game at 25, but they left 23 critical seconds on the clock, which Bills quarterback Josh Allen used to quickly get Buffalo in field position to win the game.

After the game, plenty of fans voiced their frustration for the risky play call that killed Detroit’s drive and left too much time on the clock.

There is plenty of legitimacy to those concerns. In general, it’s a low-percentage play when Detroit could have run the ball or tried a short pass to pick up the first down and keep the drive alive, bleed more clock, and still potentially score a touchdown. I don’t deny any of that.

However, I think there are plenty of reasons to defend the play, too. Let me break down a few.

The design of the play worked

Detroit had been lulling the Bills to sleep with a lot of runs and short passes on the drive. So in a third-and-1, naturally Buffalo was playing the short field. They even had nine defenders at the line of scrimmage. Chark beat his man and was pretty damn open:

Or if you prefer dots…

Whether it was a miscommunication—Goff threw this ball outside, turning Chark around—or the Lions receiver just losing the ball in the air, it fell incomplete. Goff said after the game he wishes he had thrown a better ball.

If this ball is complete, the Lions take a four-point lead (assuming the extra point was good) with 28 seconds left—something even Allen may not be capable of digging his team out of. If that ball is complete, the Lions not only successfully score a touchdown to go ahead, but they successfully bleed 2:10 seconds off the clock. In short, they do everything they want on the drive. That’s an execution problem, not a coaching problem.

Counterpoint: The Lions aren’t capable of executing this play

The Lions have taken deep shots on third-and-short before, and just about every time they’ve attempted it, Goff has failed to connect with his receiver. Whether it’s a miscommunication or a poor throw is kind of irrelevant, they have shown several times they cannot connect on this play, so this shouldn’t be their go-to play at the most pivotal moment.

A run or “easy” pass likely plays for a tie

If the Lions convert on third down with a “safe” play, they likely have to burn their second-to-last timeout, leaving them with 30-ish seconds and one timeout from the 30-yard line or so. Sure, you have a little bit of time to still score, but not much. Given how slow the Lions had been moving the ball, it was unlikely they’d find the end zone in time.

In essence, this was their one shot to win the game in regulation—and it was damn close to working.

Counterpoints: At the very least, a conversion will run out the rest of the clock and play to overtime. At the most, a conversion still gives you an opportunity to take another shot or two. A deep shot basically limits you to one play to win it in regulation. And if you don’t make it, it’s not like a 51-yard field goal from Michael Badgley is a sure thing. The guy missed from 29 yards out a quarter earlier.

There are no easy answers on a drive like this

After the game, I thought Lions coach Dan Campbell put the conundrum his team was in nicely.

“I am trying to preserve just enough time for us to get a touchdown, but yet not leave them enough time after a touchdown,” Campbell said. “That was the fear.”

In the end, the Lions didn’t do either of those things, so it’s easy to point at what they did as the wrong choice.

But that is far easier said than done. The Lions could have shown more urgency earlier in the drive, giving themselves a little more flexibility on that third-and-1 call so they didn’t have to go all-or-nothing. But if you go a little too quick, you risk giving the Bills even more time, making Allen’s life far easier.

Detroit could’ve played it safe on third-and-1, but there’s a damn good chance they would’ve never gotten as good of a shot at the end zone as the look they got on the pass they dialed up. The Lions were aggressive, they caught the Bills cheating, and we’d be celebrating a brilliant, bold call if Goff had connected with Chark.

It’s easy to Monday (Friday?) Morning Quarterback a play like this when it doesn’t work and the margin of victory is this slim. This is also not the only time Campbell and company have come under fire for what is perceived to have been poor management at the end of a game.

To that I say, welcome to competitive football. I know it’s been a while, but when your team is competitive and going toe-to-toe with a true contender, there are going to be some late-game decisions that change the course of the game. Every team has them and every fan base will complain about the one that “loses” the game. There is no perfect coach out there who always makes the right decisions—and the only thing that truly determines a “right” or “wrong” call is whether it works. In this case, it didn’t work due to execution.

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