BUCCANEERS EXPOSE ALL THE LIONS’ WEAKNESSES

TAMPA, FLA. — From one side came defensive lineman Chidi Ahanotu, breathing fire. From the other side came defensive end Warren Sapp, ready to chew someone’s arm off. There was no escape. No hole to dive into. It was like being trampled by buffalo, and all Gus Frerotte could do on this final fourth down was try to wrangle his hand free and whisk the ball away, like a man heaving the treasure as he goes off the cliff.

Incomplete pass. The Tampa crowd roared.

And that was the end of our kidding ourselves around here.

Vulnerability exposed. If the Lions’ recent winning ways showed all the wonderful things they have — heart, character, flexibility — then Sunday’s 23-16 defeat showed what they lack. It was like being at a costume ball and seeing the mask, cape and clothes torn off them.

First of all, the running game. Let’s be honest. It doesn’t exist. We’ve been justifiably proud of this team’s ability to survive the Barry Sanders abandonment, but the fact is, without him, they can’t move. They’re as fluid as refrigerators. No offense to Greg Hill, but he is no offense. He has basically been reduced to a one-yard-per-carry back. And unless they start giving you 10 downs per possession, that’s not going to cut it.

On Sunday, the Lions had 55 yards rushing. Total. Without the threat of a run attack, the opposing defense can hang back like a wolf outside a chicken coop. Which makes life miserable for . . .

The quarterback. Let’s be honest here as well. Gus Frerotte has had some terrific moments. But there’s an air of danger about him. Too often, he seems to teeter on the edge of a big mistake. On Sunday, he was sacked four times, including a third-quarter safety that could have been — and should have been
— avoided. He overthrew or underthrew some very simple passes.

And when the Lions needed him most to make a miracle, late in the fourth quarter, he floated a pass too high for Germane Crowell, and it was picked off to essentially end the game.

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not knocking Frerotte overall. Overall, he’s been quite admirable. But as a starter, he’s 2-3, and it’s been a month since the Lions scored a second-half offensive touchdown. In the NFL, you need your quarterback to get you points late in the game (think Favre, Elway, Montana). Frerotte’s inability in this area makes the Lions vulnerable to comebacks — and Tampa did it to them Sunday.

I wish I could tell you why Charlie Batch’s thumb continues to be as baffling to the Detroit medical staff as curing the common cold. But if the Lions are counting on Frerotte to take them to the Super Bowl, they’ll have to do something about . . .

Where’s the protection?

The offensive line. Let’s be honest here, too. The real miracle of what the Lions have done this year is that they’ve done it with a front that opens few holes and gives sporadic protection. Most of Sunday’s game, Frerotte was harassed and rushed. And Hill’s paltry yards are partly due to his lack of options.

On Sunday, the Bucs were in the Lions’ backfield far too often. Without adequate offensive line protection, the Lions cannot take advantage of their best weapon: three quality receivers, Crowell, Herman Moore and Johnnie Morton. Moore, healthy, is a valuable resource. But he needs a few seconds to maximize his advantage. If, by the time he’s got an edge on his defender, Frerotte has been forced to unload the ball, Moore ceases to be much concern to opposing teams.

This was proven true Sunday. Moore, who played the whole game, caught only two passes out of Frerotte’s 44 attempts. Remember the days (last year) when Moore would catch 10 a game?

And now for the defense …

But, OK. So far, my harsh light has been focused solely on the offensive shortcomings. That’s not fair.

The fact is, the defensive secondary of this team doesn’t scare anybody. On Sunday, the Lions gave up nearly 300 yards to rookie quarterback Shaun King. Much of that came on dump passes to Warrick Dunn. The tiny speedster blew right through the Lions, who acted as if “screen” never appeared in their playbooks.

I know the secondary is riddled with injuries. But if I were an opposing team, I’d be going right at Bryant Westbrook, who has not been the same player since his hamstrings hamstrung him. His most reliable play now is a pass interference penalty. He suffered another one late in the game Sunday that set up Tampa’s winning touchdown.

Meanwhile, the other defensive backs don’t make enough big plays, like keeping potential interceptions in their grasp. Mark Carrier had one Sunday that went right through him. Opportunity lost.

And, as long as we’re being complete, let’s admit that a secondary is only as good as . . .

The defensive pass rush. I know at times these guys have been terrific. But too often, they send guys who don’t get close enough to the quarterback to make a difference, and that leaves the Lions exposed for dump passes or one-on-one coverage.

So there it is. No running game, a shaky offensive line, and nervous moments with the secondary, the pass rush and the backup quarterback. Considering that, it’s even more impressive that the Lions are 8-5 and in the playoff hunt.

Heart and teamwork can overcome a lot. But the Cinderella part of the year is over. These vulnerabilities are real. And while the Lions needn’t care that I can see them, they might be concerned that their opponents can, too.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Listen to Mitch’s radio show, “Albom in the Afternoon,” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM
(760). Mitch will sign copies of his book, “Tuesday’s with Morrie,” 7:30-8:30 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble in Toledo.

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