THREE DOWNS TOO MANY FOR THE LIONS TO HANDLE

COREY SCHLESINGER was slumped on his knees, head lowered, hands out, like a man who had thrown himself before his Lord and maker, asking for forgiveness. Forty yards behind him, the San Diego Chargers were celebrating his gift, a fumble that came into the arms of cornerback Darryll Lewis, who ran it in for a clinching touchdown.

It was more than a mistake. It was a trip back in time. In one play, the 1999 Lions were stripped of their new identity as the NFL’s underdog winner, and were redressed as the Franchise That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.

Uh, guys? You’re supposed to move forward, remember?

“What was it like seeing the Chargers run the other way with that fumble?” someone asked fullback Brock Olivo, who completely whiffed on his block, allowing Schlesinger to be hit.

“It was like seeing your house on fire,” he said, “and knowing you left the gas on.”

Oh. So that’s what we smelled.

The boos have resurfaced. The winning record is back to .500. The Lions couldn’t get one measly yard when they needed one — and they don’t even have Barry Sanders to blame.

But worse than that was the return of a Lions trait that we can only hope is temporary — because it is the most maddening of all:

The third-down collapse.

On both sides of the ball.

This is how football works. First down, you establish yourself. Second down, you take chances. Third down is where the winners and losers are decided. And Sunday, the Lions were consistently on the wrong side of the third-down ledger.

Examples? Do we have examples?

Does the Brooklyn Museum have elephant dung?

Plenty of room to throw

Let’s start with the defense. All game long, the Lions did a pretty good job on first and second downs, forcing the Chargers into third-and-long situations. Then, like a father letting his child beat him in a footrace, they lagged back just far enough for the Chargers to keep the ball.

Consider: First quarter. Third-and-7. Chargers’ Erik Kramer completes a pass for eight yards. Terry Fair, the cornerback, then makes the tackle.

Same drive. Third-and-7 again. Kramer throws for nine yards. Then J. B. Brown makes the tackle.

Hey, guys. Ever heard of a pre-emptive strike?

Those conversions led to a Chargers field goal. But wait. It gets worse. On its next possession, San Diego once again has a third-and-7 . And again, the Lions give Kramer enough time to dump a pass to running back Terrell Fletcher for 22 yards.

Same drive, three plays later, third- and- 5, the Lions blitz and get burned by another dump pass to Fletcher, this one good for 24 yards. A few moments later, the Chargers score a touchdown.

On Sunday, the Lions surrendered a third-and-11 and a third-and-19. Hey, fellas. Why put all that effort into first and second down if you’re only going to give it back? True, the Lions’ pass rush — the most effective way to stomp a third down — is battered, with Robert Porcher and now Luther Elliss injured. But the defensive backs often play it safe, keeping completions in front of them, instead of trying aggressively to break them up.

“The thing about giving up all those third downs,” admitted safety Mark Carrier, “is that your defensive linemen are already tired from busting their butts, and then they have to start all over again.”

“Can you see the frustration in their eyes?” he was asked.

“I try not to look.”

Too bad the fans don’t have that option.

No room to run

For they certainly would have used it Sunday, if not on those third-down defensive collapses, then on the short-yardage offensive ones, which were more aggravating than a Kathie Lee Gifford special.

Examples? Do we have examples?

Does Pamela Anderson have bikinis?

How about fourth-and-1, with the score tied in the third quarter? The Lions give the ball to Schlesinger, who gets no hole, no surge, and no yardage. In fact, he loses a few inches.

“Come on, you can fall and get one yard,” said a disgusted Mike Compton, an offensive lineman. “We have to do a better job blocking people.”

Still, that play was a Michelangelo compared to Schlesinger’s next carry. What doesn’t work once, try again. Fourth quarter. Lions trailing, 13-10. Schlesinger takes the handoff, needing only one yard on third down. Olivo, who is supposed to block safety Rodney Harrison, misses him the way a gutter ball misses the pins. Harrison hits Schlesinger, who coughs up the ball as he goes down.

Chargers return it. Touchdown. End of story.

“I have to hold onto the ball better,” mumbled a depressed Schlesinger, as he hurried to leave the Silverdome. “It’s just a completely bleeped-up day.”

Tell us about it. The Lions gave up two fumbles, one interception, and allowed Charlie Batch to be mowed like a putting green. And still, they could have won this game. Should have won it. They were playing at home, coming off a bye week, they held San Diego to a total of 256 yards, they even sacked Kramer, their old teammate, seven times.

But not when it counted.

When it counts is third down. That’s when you must hold. That’s when you must convert. The image of Sunday will be Schlesinger on his knees, facing the direction the Lions wanted to go, while behind him, the Chargers celebrated.

We can only hope the picture turns around.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com Catch
“Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Today’s guest: Charlie Batch.

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