IF OFFENSE IS ENGINE, LIONS ARE SPUTTERING

Jon Kitna already had dressed, but he was still sweating, the beads dripping down his forehead. It wasn’t that hot in the locker room, but Kitna was steaming – inside and out.

“That’s not a better football team than us!” he barked after Sunday’s 16-10 defeat by the Giants. “We gave them the football game today!”

How did you do that?

“We had mental errors. The ball was flying all over the place. … We beat ourselves. … This isn’t high school football. You are making a playoff run!”

Really? They could have fooled us.

Kitna had every reason to be upset Sunday – at his team and at himself. So did receivers Calvin Johnson, who didn’t see enough of the football; Shaun McDonald, who couldn’t hold onto it, and Roy Williams, who couldn’t find it; and running back Kevin Jones, who couldn’t advance it.

Together – with the offensive line – they make up what’s supposed to be the engine of this franchise: the offense. They represent the big money. The big plans. The high draft picks. And the resident genius, Mike Martz. It’s his baby. His machine. It’s supposed to be unstoppable, remember?

So why, with less than five minutes to go, did the Lions have NO touchdowns in this crucial game? Why did every third down seem like the Berlin Wall? Why did the running game have all the power of a dying flashlight?

Why, in the most important game of the year so far, did the thing the Lions are supposed to do best desert them like a prison snitch?

Yes, size does matter

“We haven’t done our job in two weeks now, maybe three,” Williams said. “This should be a high-scoring offense. There’s no way we shouldn’t average 28 points a game. That’s a touchdown a quarter. How can this offense not just take off?”

Good question. Unfortunately, he was part of the answer. On Sunday, he admitted he blew a route on a fourth-quarter play that should have been a touchdown. The New York defense blitzed, let him shoot behind it, and “I was supposed to run straight. I took the post. I just got excited … that ball would have fell in my stomach.”

Instead, it flew beyond him and he flailed at it madly, like a man trying to catch a dollar in the wind. “That cost us the ballgame,” he said. “That’s why we lost.”

Very noble. But not true. There were plenty of other reasons. McDonald flubbed a last-minute pass that went through his hands and into the mitts of the Giants’ Sam Madison, effectively ending the game. A few minutes earlier, Kitna heaved an end-zone prayer to McDonald that might have been a touchdown but was wrestled away by James Butler for a pick. And though Kitna maintained that was a great defensive play, Butler is 6-feet-3 and McDonald is 5-feet-10. Those plays work better when the personal stats are reversed – as in 6-5 Calvin Johnson against 5-8 Kevin Dockery, which resulted in the Lions’ only touchdown.

Unfortunately, Johnson wasn’t out there on that play.

Or enough of the others.

“He’s not in on certain packages, that’s the only thing I know,” said Williams, who seemed just as perplexed as fans as to why the No. 2 pick in the draft comes in and out like a pizza delivery guy. “When he’s out there, he makes the best of it.”

It’s about points, not yards

Look. It’s too late for patience or niceties. The Lions are in danger of blowing this season; a 6-2 record fell to 6-4 against two teams the Lions, at full potential, could have beaten. Instead of holding an almost certain wild-card slot, they are just inches ahead of a pack of teams, have Green Bay in three days, and have a harder schedule than most.

Though the tackling, special teams and quarterback pressure also were weak Sunday, the offense remains the elephant in the room. It can rack up yards but not enough points. It can show flashes, but it can’t sustain. There are too many three-and-outs. Martz and Rod Marinelli must take responsibility for things like: 1) One third-down conversion all game. 2) One rushing first down all game. 3) A fourth-and-one try that went nowhere (and was saved by a Lions penalty). 4) No completions to Johnson until the third quarter. 5) An offensive line so porous (three more sacks) that it should wear “Look Out, Jon!” on the back of its jerseys.

Kitna is right. This isn’t high school. It’s money time. And if the Lions want us to believe, they have to deliver. In the meantime, you have frustrated receivers, a stiff-lipped coach and a hot-and-bothered quarterback.

In clothing, when things get steamed, they straighten out. Let’s hope it works that way with football.

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