A shortened version of this article was published by the Detroit Free Press.
The Lions’ offense failed to score a touchdown for the second consecutive contest (spanning 22 possessions) in their 34-9 drubbing at the hands of the white-hot Patriots on Sunday. The offensive performance has everyone wondering how a team that scored 24.7 points per game last season (13th in the NFL) could fall to 17.9 (28th). They were supposed to be better this year. Detroit added offensive weapons in the offseason by signing Golden Tate in free agency and drafting tight end Eric Ebron with the No. 10 pick in the 2014 draft. They brought in former New Orleans quarterback coach Joe Lombardi to run the offense. They were supposed to be a top-ranked unit.
Yet the Lions were poor in every phase on offense in Sunday’s deflating loss. Matthew Stafford completed just 39 % of his passes, the banged-up offensive line was sieve-like for the Pats’ pass rush, the run game was stuffed, and the receiving core dropped three would-be touchdowns.
The offensive line is in shambles after starting left tackle Riley Reiff suffered a knee sprain on the first offensive play and was replaced by undrafted rookie free agent Cornelius Lucas. Reiff missed practice Monday and Tuesday but the team is holding out hope he will suit up on Thanksgiving. If he can’t go, Lucas will likely start at left tackle.
Stafford has already been sacked 33 times this year, second most in the league. He’s been sacked once every 12.6 dropbacks this season compared to once every 27.6 dropbacks in 2013, according to Pro Football Focus.
However, you can’t logically pin Sunday’s inept showing solely on the line or the quarterback. Everyone made mistakes and nobody stood out for the right reasons. Let’s examine some of the missed opportunities and mistakes from multiple positional groupings.
The Lions began their second possession at their own 45 with a great opportunity to add to a 3-0 lead. After a Calvin Johnson drop on first down, they faced third-and-seven from just outside midfield.
There are multiple reasons why this play fails. The right side of the offensive line gets pushed back into Stafford while Lucas over-sets to the outside and is beat inside by Akeem Ayers. He should’ve been playing to the inside because running back Joique Bell was on the outside ready to chip Ayers.
Golden Tate runs a nice route against Darrelle Revis and breaks free towards the sideline. But Stafford either doesn’t see him or doesn’t anticipate the throw. He fails to pull the trigger and is sacked by Ayers to force a three-and-out.
Here is the most excruciating miscue of the game for the offense. In the red zone, the Lions bring in 6-foot-7 tight end Joseph Fauria. As a undrafted rookie last season, the UCLA product hauled in seven touchdowns on just 18 total receptions. On Sunday, he was playing in just his second game since week three after injuring himself at home chasing his dog.
After a one-yard run from Bell and an incompletion on a fade to Johnson, the Lions face third-and-goal from the two-yard line. Lombardi draws up a great man-beater, with the outside receivers (known as No. 1 WRs, closest to the sideline) running a natural pick route for the slot receivers. The inside receivers (No. 2 WRs) fake the quick slant and loop around the No. 1 receivers in hopes of creating traffic to hinder the defensive backs. Pre-snap, Stafford knows he has the look he wants. With Johnson double-teamed over the middle, he’ll go to Fauria who’s in the left slot beside running back Theo Riddick.
Riddick sells his route and avoids a potential interference call by sitting his route directly in the path of the defender as Fauria begins to sweep back outside. This forces Fauria’s man, safety Patrick Chung, to squeeze between the two receivers. Chung actually plays this about as well as possible, but Fauria is still able to gain a step on him because of the rub.
This is a perfectly placed ball from Stafford, who puts it up high where Fauria can use his size advantage to make a play. If he catches this pass, the Lions take a 10-7 lead early in the second quarter. Instead, the ball clanks off Fauria’s hands and falls to the turf, leaving the Lions to settle for a field goal and a 7-6 deficit.
Against great teams like the Patriots, you cannot afford to miss on big plays. In the second quarter, the Lions fake a run right and hit the defense with a reverse to Tate. The o-line does a nice job of sealing off the linebackers. The success of the play then depends on the blocking from Brandon Pettigrew and receiver Jeremy Ross, who pulls across the formation as Tate’s lead blocker.
If Pettigrew and Ross execute their blocks, Tate has one man to beat. He has consistently made the defense look foolish and turned what looked like small gains into game-changing plays. But he wasn’t given the chance here.
Pettigrew does his job but Ross gives little effort. His defender slows Tate, which allows the safety to make the play after just a 13-yard gain.
This was a missed opportunity with the drive stalling at the Pats’ 39-yard line. On the ensuing possession, New England drove for what amounted to be the knockout blow, a 93-yard touchdown drive for a 21-6 lead.
Let’s fast-forward to late in the third quarter with the Lions still stuck on six points and trailing by 21. As the Patriots did for most of the game, they have Revis locked on Tate at the top, while Johnson is at the bottom matched against Brandon Browner with safety help looming. This leaves Ross one-on-one in the slot against Logan Ryan.
Stafford’s first read is Tate, who is blanketed on a comeback route. Ross breaks to the outside before cutting hard inside and gains a step on Ryan. On the backside, Browner falls and Johnson comes wide-open. However, Stafford doesn’t come off of Tate and throws incomplete into coverage, missing out on a chance to hit Ross streaking down the seam or Johnson over the middle. Another missed opportunity for a chunk play.
This is the first play of the next possession and a well-designed play from Lombardi. Ebron, defended by Revis, runs a drag route before turning upfield with the hope that Revis is unable to navigate through traffic. The play-fake to Bell reels in the linebackers and distracts Revis. Calvin Johnson, split wide left, runs across the field in hopes of attracting the attention of the deep safety.
Revis hesitates and is caught in the clutter in the middle of the field.
This frees Ebron who has two or three steps on Revis. With three defenders following Johnson, there is nobody between Ebron and the end zone.
Unfortunately, Stafford’s pass is underthrown and Ebron is forced to slow-down, allowing Revis to make up ground. The ball hits the rookie in the hands but it slips to the ground and a potential 30-yard gain is wiped out.
The Lions were outclassed and outplayed by the Patriots but this could have been a different game if they made a few of these plays. I didn’t even examine the other two dropped touchdowns. Sure, every team has missed opportunities but the Lions repeatedly shot themselves in the foot at every level of the offense. The frustrating part is that they unquestionably have the talent to make these plays. But if they continue to butcher them, they will squander an opportunity to make the playoffs for just the second time since 1999.
Credit to NFL Game Rewind for the game film. All Illustrations and GIFs were created by Marlowe Alter for the purpose of reporting, commenting and critiquing.