2023 NFL season, Week 1: What We Learned from Lions knocking off Chiefs in Kickoff Game
The Detroit Lions are for real -- at least one week into the 2023 NFL season, anyway -- as they defeated the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs to kick off the year.
Early fake punt sets the tone for the Lions. You just knew the Lions were prepared to throw the kitchen sink at the defending champs, and it didn’t take long for that. Faking a punt inside your own 20-yard line in the first quarter? No team even tried that in the entire 2022 NFL season, according to NFL Research. Head coach Dan Campbell wasn’t scared to pull the trigger from his own 17, though, and his boldness was rewarded. The Lions strung together an eight-minute, 14-play, 91-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead and stun Arrowhead Stadium into early silence. The Lions now have an identity: They are unafraid to take an early risk, and part of that faith might be rooted in an improved Lions defense. Going for it late on fourth down was an obvious call, even if it didn’t work. And once again, Campbell’s defense had his back, stopping Patrick Mahomes late. This Detroit team can now carry itself with a chip on its shoulder following its biggest victory in recent memory -- and it’s only Week 1. This team suddenly is must-see TV until further notice.
Kadarius Toney, Skyy Moore fall flat with Travis Kelce out. The Chiefs knew they’d be shorthanded without Travis Kelce (knee), and early on their approach was clear: This would be a committee affair. Patrick Mahomes’ first seven passes went to seven different receivers, but the hope was that eventually Kadarius Toney or Skyy Moore could help offset the void with some big plays. Instead, each had nights to forget. Moore had zero catches on three targets, including a few balls that went off his hands in the final minutes, Toney had one catch for 1 yard on five targets, looking progressively more spooked with each mistake he made. First was a very catchable drop that led to a game-changing Brian Branch pick-six (and not turning around to tackle him). Then came a third-down drop and a loss on a run play. And finally, a drop with just over two minutes to go -- even if the throw wasn’t perfect. Had Toney caught it, he had daylight. Instead, the Chiefs turned it over and never got the ball back. That’s not the way either receiver wanted to start this season.
The Chiefs’ defense makes a statement without Chris Jones. Yes, the Chiefs’ defense suffered through two tough, long drives -- one early, one late -- that hurt their chances of winning. But all things considered, the way this group played without All-Pro defensive lineman Chris Jones, who is holding out in hope of a new contract, was pretty admirable. George Karlaftis, Michael Danna and Felix Anudike-Uzomah supplied some pressure up front, and the front seven did a good job closing down run lanes until late, when some defenders appeared gassed. The same was true with the coverage on the back end, as Trent McDuffie had a big night, before Jared Goff connected on a few big passes late. With the Chiefs losing, perhaps Jones has a better argument that he needs to be paid now. But the defenders who were out there held this Lions offense in check for most of the night and were responsible for only allowing 14 points.
Lions rookies looked pro-ready right away. If you’re general manager Brad Holmes, you have to be pretty pleased with the draft class the team put together this year. Some criticized the team’s approach by taking Jahmyr Gibbs and Jack Campbell, two lower-priority-position players, in Round 1, but both played prominent roles in the Lions’ 21-20 victory -- as did second-rounders Sam LaPorta and Brian Branch. Branch made the big play of the game with his 50-yard INT TD, but savvy Lions fans have known all about him since the preseason. And Branch’s INT probably never happens if Campbell doesn't make a heck of a pass deflection two plays earlier, stopping a would-be first down. LaPorta had five catches and threw a key block on David Montgomery’s game-winning TD run in the fourth quarter. And Gibbs had a few flashes early, with a 17-yard run and a 10-yard catch and run, and his 18-yard run late in the fourth quarter, breaking two Chiefs tackles, was a killer. Four picks, four instant contributors. Now that’s draft impact.
Aidan Hutchinson dominated, young Lions defense showed toughness. The Lions spent all offseason looking for ways to improve their defense. The early results are highly encouraging. Even with a few hiccups along the way, which is to be expected against a Mahomes-led team, the Lions’ defense matched the Chiefs’ defense with effort, intensity and execution -- with Aidan Hutchinson leading the way. Hutchinson battled to the hilt with Chiefs right tackle Jawaan Taylor, who was lining up in his stance about as deep as you’re allowed to in this league. He also gave the business to right guard Trey Smith on a few pass plays when Hutchinson kicked inside, blowing past him multiple times with speed and power. He was a thorn in Mahomes’ side all night long. Even with a few coverage mishaps, the Lions still tipped five Mahomes passes and forced 18 incompletions. Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn turned in a masterful evening, forgoing his high-pressure style for a zone-heavy scheme on this night. And outside of the Chiefs’ brief flurry before the half in a 92-yard drive, the Lions did a tremendous job. That’s what makes this team dangerous now.
Next Gen stat of the game: The Lions’ Brian Branch reached a top speed of 20.74 mph on his game-tying 50-yard interception return in the third quarter. Only three NFL defenders reached faster speeds on defensive scoring plays in all of the 2022 season.
NFL Research: Patrick Mahomes’ interception was his first ever in a Week 1 game.