Wojo: Lions’ quest for legitimacy is a charade again

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

Detroit — The Lions can stop playing pretend now. They can’t run the ball, can’t slug in the trenches with good teams, can’t sustain anything. Win a game, lose a game. Gain a yard, lose a yard. They can pretend to contend all they wish, but this one was graphically revealing.

A two-game winning streak stirred possibilities, and then reality slugged them in the mouth. The Colts came to town with an elite defense, a savvy quarterback and real playoff hopes. The Lions came in with their standard combination — no margins for error and slim margins for success.

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This is what you get in the third season under Matt Patricia, and it’s stupefying. Every time they toy with the concept of legitimacy, they get toyed with and learn how far away they truly are. Indianapolis dominated early, weathered the Lions’ predictable passing flurry, then finished off a 41-21 pounding at Ford Field Sunday.

It could’ve been the Lions’ first three-game winning streak under Patricia, with another soft stretch of the schedule upcoming. Instead, they’re 3-4 and no longer in position to fool themselves, or anyone else. Their defensive revitalization lasted all of two games against weak opponents. They can’t sustain a running game, they can’t sustain blocks to protect Matthew Stafford, they almost literally can’t beat anybody of note.

This was the litmus test because the Colts were 4-2 and sound in all areas, spectacular in few. They could lean on their stellar offensive line, on aging but accurate quarterback Philip Rivers, on a solid batch of receivers and runners, and on a stout defense ranked second in the NFL.

More: Lions lose WR Kenny Golladay to hip injury, status unclear

The Lions? The only thing they’ve relied on is Stafford, and against an opponent like this, Stafford is unreliable, left bare without a running game. Then he starts making mistakes of aggression, and when that happens, it’s over.

The Lions had cut their deficit to 20-14 when Stafford was sacked and gave up the team’s first fumble of the season. The Colts immediately scored, and on the next possession, Stafford threw a 29-yard pick-six to Kenny Moore to make it 35-14.

Digging a hole

“If I play like that, it’s gonna be tough for us to win,” Stafford said. “I’m sure a lot of guys in our locker room are looking at themselves and saying if they play like that, it’s gonna be tough for us to win. You want to put it on somebody, put it on me.”

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Too much is put on Stafford, who isn’t accurate enough or sharp enough in his decision-making to carry it. And it could get much worse if Kenny Golladay’s hip injury, which sidelined him in the second half, is at all serious. It could be horrible timing for the Lions’ top receiver, who isn’t signed beyond this season and it’s unclear why.

The Lions try mightily to build a running game because that’s the undervalued base of a good team, and they fail mightily. For all the snazzy offensive stats in the NFL, if you don’t have one of the top half-dozen quarterbacks, you’d better find another way.  

The Lions always seem halfway to finding a way in five seasons under GM Bob Quinn. They’ve added offensive linemen but haven’t developed continuity. They’ve added running backs but haven’t found one to ride. Against the Colts, Adrian Peterson and D’Andre Swift combined for 8 yards on 11 carries. Indianapolis rushed for 119, and in a remarkable first half, held the ball for 22 of 30 minutes, and ran 42 plays to the Lions’ 23.

That’s called sustainability. And at some point, you wonder why the Lions insist on banging their heads with a running game that isn’t working. On four of their first five possessions, they ran on first down. This is where the pretend part comes in. If you don’t admit your weaknesses, you’re doomed to repeat them. If you don’t lean on your strength — throwing the ball — you’re wasting time.

“Obviously they have a very good run defense, they do a phenomenal job,” Patricia said of the Colts. “That gave us some issues up front. We gotta handle that, do a better job of it. We gotta run the ball.”

They can run a bit against lesser teams such as Jacksonville and Atlanta, whom they beat the past two games. It’s funny the way that works in the NFL. It’s tougher to handle tougher teams unless you’re really good at several things.

Harried into misfires

Sometimes Stafford is really good, as he was on the winning drive against the Falcons last week. Sometimes he’s under such duress (the Colts sacked him five times), the pressure to make a play produces ugly mistakes. And the Lions generally make their share of ugly mistakes.

A huge one came in the second quarter, with the game tied 7-7. Danny Shelton sacked Rivers on third-and-4 from the Lions’ 34 but kept driving him to the ground after the whistle. It wasn’t a horribly egregious play, just unnecessary. When a brief scuffle ensued, the ref decided it was a perfect time to finally throw the flag on Shelton.

The Lions weren’t happy, and it was odd timing. But it gets filed with a lot of their problems, under the heading “self-inflicted.” It seemed the Lions were in third-and-long the entire first half, and when they finally uncorked their passing game in the third quarter, Stafford moved them sharply, capped by a 9-yarder to Kerryon Johnson to make it 20-14. Stafford completed 24 of 42 passes for 336 yards, too many of them empty yards.

“They have a top-five defense, and we know what kind of offense we have,” said receiver Marvin Jones, who caught two touchdown passes. “As you see, we can move up and down the field really with anybody, we just have to do it consistently. When you look at the drives that were clicking, it’s like clockwork, it’s easy. We just have to be who we know we are. We can score points at will, we just have to have that mentality.”

It’s not just about a mentality, it’s about manpower. The Lions have improved modestly in the trenches but are still overpowered by powerful offensive and defensive lines. That makes it difficult to sustain anything. In the first quarter, Miles Killebrew busted in and executed the Lions’ first blocked punt since 2007, and just like that, it was 7-0. Of course, it was 41-14 the rest of the way.

The Lions haven’t won a home game in more than a year and have beaten only one winning team in that stretch, Arizona this season. Every time there’s a hump to clear, they hit it hard. This is who they are, and based on all available evidence, it’s who they’ll continue to be.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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