FOXBORO, Mass. — Minutes into Sunday’s game at Gillette Stadium, the New England Patriots stopped Jared Goff just short of the first-down marker on a third-and-5 scramble. Lions head coach Dan Campbell opted for an aggressive approach, keeping Detroit’s offense on the field on fourth-and-inches.
The ball was at the Lions’ 45-yard line. Going for it in that scenario — especially on the opening drive of the game — was a bold move.
Patriots defensive tackle Davon Godchaux had a different word for it: insulting.
“Very insulting,” to be precise.
Godchaux viewed Campbell’s approach as a slight toward New England’s defensive front, which had struggled to defend the run in previous losses to the Baltimore Ravens and Green Bay Packers. The Lions, who entered the game ranked first in the NFL in yards per carry, believed they could exploit that apparent mismatch.
They were wrong.
Running back Jamaal Williams took an inside handoff from Goff and immediately was met by Godchaux, Christian Barmore and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley. The trio stuffed Williams for no gain, resulting in a turnover on downs.
The early stuff set the tone. Detroit attempted five additional fourth-down conversions and failed on all five, becoming the first team in at least 45 years to go 0-for-6 on fourth down in a game. The Lions, who entered as the NFL’s top-ranked offense by scoring, yardage and DVOA, also went 0-for-2 in the red zone as the Patriots breezed to a 29-0 victory.
“If you go for it on fourth-and-1 on your side of the field, I think that’s a sign of disrespect,” Godchaux said. “… I feel like as a defensive lineman, it’s disrespectful.”
Three drives later — after an acrobatic red-zone interception by rookie Jack Jones, a Detroit punt and a textbook tackle for loss by Adrian Phillips on third down — Campbell went for it again on fourth-and-9 from the Patriots’ 32-yard line, passing up a 50-yard field-goal try that could have cut New England’s lead to 6-3. Matthew Judon shot past highly touted right tackle Penei Sewell, decked Goff and jarred the ball loose, and Kyle Dugger returned it 59 yards for a touchdown.
The Lions took four more fourth-down shots after halftime. Jonathan Jones dropped Amon-Ra St. Brown in the flat on fourth-and-2. Myles Bryant broke up a goal-line pass to St. Brown — Detroit’s No. 1 receiver — on fourth-and-goal. Raekwon McMillan blasted Justin Jackson for a loss of 1 on fourth-and-1. Jack Jones broke up a deep ball into the end zone to Josh Reynolds on fourth-and-4.
Three of those stops came in the fourth quarter, with the Patriots already leading by 25-plus points. Godchaux said those were “huge” because they showed that New England’s defensive intensity never relented.
“Raekwon’s at the end of the game,” he said. “We could have easily got relaxed and been like, ‘Oh, we’re up by four touchdowns. Let’s just give it to them.’ That was huge. That speaks about our defense as a whole, our team as a whole. J-Jones’ one on the out route — huge.”
Nearly every Patriots player who spoke postgame referenced Detroit’s status as the NFL’s No. 1 scoring offense — a point that clearly was driven home by the coaching staff during the week. They seemed especially motivated to perform against a team that had hung 35, 36, 24 and 45 points on its first four opponents.
“Those are huge plays in the game,” safety Devin McCourty said. “Especially those fourth-down stops in the red area, where they could kick a field goal, and you stop them, and our offense comes on and they drive the field, whether it’s a touchdown or a field goal. That kind of kills momentum and morale.
“We made plays when it was time to make plays,” Jonathan Jones added. “The fourth down stops, limiting big plays, making them drive it. They went for it on fourth down quite a few times, but we were able to come up with those stops. And at the end of the day, those are points.”
The Patriots needed those points with an offense operated by rookie Bailey Zappe, who was making the first start of his young NFL career. Zappe performed well in place of injured starter Mac Jones (17 of 21, 188 yards, one touchdown, one interception) but New England repeatedly stalled in and near the red zone, settling for Nick Folk field goals on five of their possessions.
“We have to play great defense,” Godchaux said. “Even when Mac’s in there. We’ve got to play great defense. I’ve always said if the quarterback can get us three touchdowns — 17, 20 points — defense, you’ve got to be able to hold your opponent under that.”
The Patriots easily cleared that bar Sunday, posting their first shutout since Week 11 of last season. They’ll look to maintain that momentum next week against Nick Chubb and the ground-and-pound Cleveland Browns.