Pssst. Here’s a badly kept secret: the Detroit Lions have offensive issues.
That may sound strange after the crazy close of Sunday’s game against Carolina, which saw two Lions touchdowns in less than three minutes. But that was backyard ball against a 17-point deficit, and in the end, it was still a loss, a frantic 27-24 case of too little, too late.
Mostly too little.
Before things went hog wild at the end, Sunday was a Lions game that resembled the Lions’ previous games, and the offensive lags were too familiar.
They start with the line, extend to the running game, and continue through receivers who either can’t get separation or drop the ball, making life difficult for the quarterback, Matthew Stafford, who is running for his life like the coyote in the Road Runner cartoons.
In Sunday’s loss, the Lions scored one touchdown in the first 54 minutes, aided by a series of Carolina penalties that all but pushed them into the end zone.
Last week they scored one touchdown total in a win over Minnesota, a victory clearly owed to the defense.
The week before, in the heartbreaker to Atlanta, the Lions offense scored just one touchdown as well, needing five field goals by Matt Prater just to stay close.
And only once in the last three games have they scored an offensive touchdown in the first half.
This team may be 3-2, but it feels like it’s running on one engine, the ever-surprising defense, as the offense pulls the motor cord in a desperate attempt to make some noise.
“Right now, we’re not that good at offense,” said Eric Ebron. And you’re probably rolling your eyes when you read that, saying, “Really, Eric? And why would that be? Perhaps because certain receivers, like a tight end who wears number 85, CAN’T HOLD ONTO THE BALL?”
Lions’ issues aren’t isolated
Well, it’s true, Ebron had several plays that he’s expected to make and did not. The first came at the end of the Lions opening drive, when, on third down from the Carolina 12, Stafford whipped him a pass that should have been a touchdown.
In and out of his hands.
Detroit settled for a field goal.
Another came on the first drive of the fourth quarter, another big pass over the middle that Ebron couldn’t pull in. By that point, the drought was so maddening, that Ebron was booed louder than all the referees combined. You’d have thought Brett Favre and Ndamukong Suh had just flipped the Ford Field crowd the bird.
“The crowd doesn’t affect me,” Ebron said. That’s good. But neither, it seems, does the need to make a play when it matters.
That’s not good.
And he’s not the only one.
The Lions cannot run. Not when it matters. Don’t be fooled by the occasional burst by Ameer Abdullah. Too many times, when they need short yards, they get shorter ones. Sunday, for example, on fourth-and-1 near midfield, they gave the ball to Zach Zenner and, as Jim Caldwell, put it, “We couldn’t get an inch.”
That’s not good. When you are one dimensional, teams can key on the other dimension. And that would be the passing game and its architect, Stafford, who, after a total pummeling Sunday, was seen limping away as if a board were strapped to his leg.
“I’ll be all right,” he said, which is what he always says.
But let me put this simply: The Lions are gonna lose him if they keep this up. He was sacked six times Sunday and six times the Sunday before, and this is despite him being more mobile than he’s ever been.
The protection is not protecting. Not the linemen. Not the tight ends. Not the running backs who are supposed to stay back and block. Defenders are going past them as if they are late for a bus, and it changes the way Stafford can throw or see or make a decision.
Stafford, naturally, refused to point fingers. “We just got to do a better job of executing first, second, and third downs,” he said. “Stay on the field a little bit longer on some of those drives and get some points earlier in the game.”
Jim Caldwell said this about the offense: “There’s no question about it, we have a long way to go. The key is to keep getting better as you go.”
Yes. And keeping your most valuable player alive.
Let’s not forget that.
Ebb and flow? Time will tell
Now you can kick and scream or you can stay calm, which is Caldwell’s chosen path. He sees the big picture. He accepts what he calls “the ebb and flows” of the game, which he said explained how the Lions, down 17 points in the fourth quarter and having punted or fumbled away every second-half possession, were suddenly, on their two final drives, able to march 69 yards and 53 yards for touchdowns.
Maybe its ebb and flow. Maybe it’s concentration. Maybe it’s going almost totally to the passing game, which is more the Lions strength.
Maybe it’s avoiding Ebron. He wasn’t targeted once during those scoring drives. Another tight end, Darren Fells, caught both scores.
Whatever it is, we should acknowledge the Lions can do it. It is what makes watching them interesting, all the way to the end. They clearly don’t give up until it’s over. But they don’t seem truly serious until then either.
Meanwhile, we must pay tribute to this defense. Although it ultimately gave up a third-and-9 to Cam Newton and company that put the game out of reach, there were many times it stifled the creative Carolina offense, especially the run. The Panthers, with Jonathan Stewart and Christian McCaffrey, had a total of 28 yards on the ground. That’s impressive.
Unfortunately, one receiver, Ed Dickson, had more yards than both teams’ combined rushing attacks times two.Dickson caught all five passes thrown to him, including two huge gainers. The smaller Lions defensive backs could not stop the Panthers’ oversized pass catchers when it counted. It was like watching Mutt trying to cover Jeff.
But despite those defensive surrenders, the ultimate frustration was with Detroit’s running and passing. The Lions need to get creative with their play calling. The good news is the next game is against New Orleans, which can act like the Lourdes for ailing offenses. The bad news is it’s on the road. Ebb and flow? Or something to worry about? Time will tell. They keep you watching, that’s for sure.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.