LIONS ARE EXPOSEDLOSS TO BUCS REVEALS ALL THEIR SHORTCOMINGS

TAMPA, FLA. — From one side came a defensive lineman weighing 285 pounds and breathing fire. From another side came a defensive tackle, weighing 303 pounds and named Warren Sapp. There was no escape. No safety route. It was like being trampled by buffalo, and all Gus Frerotte could do was try to wrangle his arm free and heave the ball away, like a man heaving the treasure as he goes off the cliff.

The ball hit the grass, near the feet of two Lions receivers. They dropped their heads. 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 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 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, let’s be honest: The running game 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 chained refrigerators. No offense to Greg Hill, but he is no offense. He keeps asking for the ball, but 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. And nearly half of that came from fullback Cory Schlesinger. Without the slightest 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 tremendous games, and some terrific moments. But there’s an air of danger about him. He seems to be teetering on the edge of a big mistake too often. 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 great. But remember, he’s supposed to be the backup to Charlie Batch. Somewhere along the line, someone miscalculated the extent of Batch’s injured thumb. It’s a one-week thing that has turned into a five-week thing and, who knows, maybe an entire season thing. I’ll give the medical staff the benefit of the doubt, but it sure seems strange to me that with all those doctors around, no one can figure out a thumb.

Meanwhile, Gus, and his shortcomings, are the Lions’ only choice. And if the Lions are counting on Frerotte to take them to the Super Bowl, they’ll have to do something about . . .

TIME ISN’T ON THEIR SIDE

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 does little protecting of the quarterback. Most of Sunday’s game, Frerotte was harassed and rushed. And Hill’s paltry yards are largely due to his lack of options.

On Sunday, the Bucs were able to get in the Lions’ backfield far too often. Granted, they are one of the best in the NFL at doing that. But if the Lions want to compete for an NFC title, they have to consider themselves in the same league, right?

Without adequate protection, the Lions will not be able to take advantage of their best offensive weapon: three quality receivers, Crowell, Herman Moore and Johnnie Morton. Moore, especially, 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 the unload the ball, Moore ceases to be much of a concern to opposing teams.

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

AND THEIR OTHER PROBLEMS

But, OK. So far, this harsh light has been focused solely on the offensive shortcomings. That is just part of the picture.

The fact is, the defensive secondary of this team doesn’t scare anybody. The Lions gave up nearly 300 yards to a rookie quarterback named Shaun King. Much of that came on dump passes to Warrick Dunn, in which the tiny speedster went right through the Lions, who acted as if “screen” was not a word that 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 this year. His most reliable play is pass interference. He suffered another one late in the game Sunday that set up Tampa’s winning touchdown. And the other defensive backs, while sometimes solid, don’t make enough big plays, like keeping potential interceptions in their grasp.

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

The defensive line. I know at times these guys have been terrific. But too often, they rush 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.

No running game, a weak offensive line, and shaky moments with the defensive 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.

Be happy about that. But the Cinderella part of the year is over. These things are real. They were apparent on Sunday. And while the Lions needn’t be at all concerned that I see them, they might worry that their upcoming opponents do.

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. “”

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