Niyo: Lions reading from the wrong script in today’s high-scoring NFL

Detroit News

John Niyo
 
| The Detroit News

The Lions have rarely, if ever, been trendsetters.

But as what is shaping up to be another losing season reaches the quarter-pole here in Detroit, they’ve fallen behind the rest of the league in a way that’s both alarming and, at times, inexplicable.

Points are no longer at a premium in the NFL in 2020. Teams are giving away touchdowns the way gas stations offer up free car washes.

Yet in a dreary 1-3 start before their bye week, the Lions are one of only a handful teams that have yet to score 30 points in a game this season, joining the likes of the hapless Jets and Giants, the also-winless Texans and the aptlynamed Washington Football Team.

That’s not exactly the kind of company you want to keep if you’re a head coach looking to keep your job, obviously. It’s the sort of production the Lions were not expecting to get, either, from an offense pegged by some to be one of the league’s better units coming into this pandemic-altered season. And it’s certainly not the kind of firepower they need to cover up the defensive deficiencies that continue to be the hallmark of Matt Patricia’s ill-fated tenure as the Lions’ head coach.

The script seems entertaining enough in the opening scenes written by offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, but the plot is all too predictable from there. The Lions grab an early lead, quickly squander it, and then find themselves trying to play catch-up with one arm tied behind their back, thanks to a defense that struggles to get out of its own way, let alone get off the field.

Meanwhile, the other arm — the one belonging to Matthew Stafford — isn’t performing the way it did a year ago in a half-season cameo before the entire set came crashing down.

Reversal of misfortune

And you could almost see the frustration boiling over Sunday as the Lions went from a 14-0 lead to a 35-14 deficit in near record-setting fashion. (According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Saints are only the fourth team in NFL history to hold a halftime lead of 14 points or more after also trailing by at least 14 in the first two quarters of a game.)

“It’s very frustrating,” left tackle Taylor Decker said. “We start fast, we show that we can get up on teams and score points on teams and stop teams. But at the end of the day, it’s a 60-minute game. So, I mean, yeah, it is frustrating. There’s no other way to say it.”

But it does beg the question about whether there’s another way to play it, perhaps by resisting Patricia’s urge to control the game and the clock, force-feeding carries to a run game that’s nowhere near as effective or dangerous as the head coach wants it to be.

The second half felt like a case study in that stubborn, stupefying failure Sunday.

Trailing 35-14 after the Saints marched 75 yards in 10 plays for a fifth straight touchdown on the opening possession of the third quarter, the Lions began their first drive of the second half with a handoff to Adrian Peterson, whose off-tackle run went for no gain. The Lions did manage to put together a touchdown drive from there, one that Stafford capped with a 1-yard toss to T.J. Hockenson. But the lack of urgency they showed while trailing by three scores was a bit of foreshadowing, perhaps.

The Lions’ next possession began at their own 2-yard line, took nearly 4 minutes off the clock and ended with a punt from their own 23.  And Detroit’s only other drive in the second half required 12 plays to cover a short field — they took over at the Saints’ 43 — bleeding another 4½ minutes in the process as they finally made it a one-score game.

Give them credit for not folding, I guess. But how many times did the Lions’ offense go no-huddle Sunday? Twice? Three times?

Likewise, though, how many times has Stafford connected on deep balls this season? Not many, unlike the first half of 2019 as Bevell reintroduced the downfield, play-action passing game to the Lions’ offense and had things humming for a while.

Those big plays have mostly been missing in the first month of this season. The Lions connected on just two pass plays of 20 or more yards Sunday. And while some of that’s due to opposing defenses adjusting, Stafford, who is averaging 7.4 yards per attempt this season — down from a career-best 8.6 a year ago — is shouldering some of the blame himself.

“I think defenses are doing a nice job of trying to play us top-down,” he said Sunday, “but at the same time, there’s chances. I’ve got to do a better job of giving those guys better balls and better opportunities.”

Stafford missed on one late where he overthrew Marvin Jones on a post route — it actually fell incomplete behind a wide-open Marvin Hall in the end zone. Earlier, tight end Jesse James bailed him out on a throwaway heave that was nearly intercepted in the first half. And three plays later, Stafford, who finished the game 17-of-31 for 206 yards and three touchdowns, did get picked, giving away points with an underthrown toss to Hockenson in the end zone.

“That’s a seven-point play, really,” said Saints coach Sean Payton, whose team was playing without its top two cornerbacks Sunday, both sidelined by injuries.

Defense shredded

And, really, that’s a big part of the problem here. The Lions have a defense that’s playing like one of the NFL’s worst this season, so Stafford and the offense find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. They can’t win if they can’t score and then score some more. A lot more, as it turns out.

“Every time we get it, I want to go score,” Stafford said, when asked if feeling that pressure point was part of the problem right now. “We weren’t able to do that as many times as we needed to today. … And there’s times, if you’re seeing frustration, it’s probably from myself.”

Through the first few weeks, scoring was up 16 percent over a year ago across the league, as NFL teams racked up an all-time record 273 touchdowns and combined for an average of 51.0 points per game — the most since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970. In Week 3 alone, there were four teams that scored 30 or more points and still lost.

Some of that surely can be blamed on the lack of preseason games, or the virtual offseason that left everyone scrambling, and especially defensive coaches. Another explanation is the officials cutting back on calling holding penalties this season, a league-encouraged shift that’s undoubtedly making it easier to keep drives alive. 

But whatever the causes, the effects are obvious. In the five early games on Sunday’s NFL schedule, the winning team scored more than 30 in every one. The Lions scored 29. They lost. Again. 

jniyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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