Niyo: Affix a toe tag on Lions’ season after another lifeless loss

Detroit News

John Niyo
 
| The Detroit News

Minneapolis — Stop the count!

It’s over now. And all that’s left is for someone to throw in a towel after the standing eight-count, now that the Lions have reached the midway point of this season with head coach Matt Patricia clearly on the ropes.

Whether the votes are there or not, only owner Sheila Ford Hamp can say for sure. But any realistic hope of a “meaningful” second half of this season in Detroit ended early in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 34-20 loss to the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Already trailing 27-10 in a game the Lions desperately needed to win, Matthew Stafford was sacked by a pair of Vikings defenders, then escorted off the field to be evaluated for a concussion. His backup, Chase Daniel, who’d spent the week running the first-team offense in practice while Stafford sat quarantined due to COVID-19 protocols, came into the game as Stafford entered the evaluation tent on the visitors’ sideline.

When Stafford finally exited, he headed to the locker room, his afternoon effectively over. A brief moment later, the game was, too. And maybe the season as well, though none of the Lions are ready to admit that with eight games left to play, obviously.

“I mean, it’s still all in front of us,” cornerback Desmond Trufant said. “Obviously, we’re not where we wanna be, but we still can get there. We still can finish this thing right.”

Can they, though? It’s hard to imagine this ending on a positive note, with anything that’ll resemble the sort of “major improvement” ownership said was needed before the season.

Same ol’ same ol’

Mostly because we keep seeing the same issues cropping up again and again, with an offense that struggles to turn drives into points and a defense that keeps driving home a point that’s even more troubling: Patricia’s area of expertise is also his team’s most glaring deficiency.

Sunday’s loss provided another painful example, as the Vikings made quick work of the visiting Lions, jumping out to a two-score lead early and never really looking back.

But if Stafford had looked back as he headed up the tunnel, he might’ve seen it all come crashing down. Because after the Lions had settled for a field goal to cut the lead to 14, the Vikings quickly added insult to injury.

On Minnesota’s first play from scrimmage on the ensuing possession, Dalvin Cook took an inside handoff from Kirk Cousins in the Vikings’ backfield, followed a lead blocker through the line and shed one feeble attempt at a tackle before bolting 70 yards for a back-breaking touchdown.

If it seemed too easy, it was, because a quick glance at the replay showed the Lions only had 10 defenders on the field on that play. That’s the third time in the last two games we’ve seen that — it happened twice in last week’s loss to the Colts in Detroit — and Patricia again blamed it on a sideline communication error, though he declined to go into specifics after the loss.

 “I mean, it’s just something we can’t do,” Trufant added. “There’s really no explanation. When you do something like that, you give them an opportunity. And they took advantage.”

Of course, it’s not as if the Lions fared much better with a full complement of players on the field Sunday. The Vikings — a team that was winless at home this season and carried a 2-5 record overall — racked up a whopping 275 yards on the ground in this one. They finished with 487 yards of total offense, averaging 8.9 yards per play.

And for most of the game, it was as if the two teams were playing at different speeds on the turntable. In the first half alone, the Lions held a 2-to-1 advantage in time of possession, yet the Vikings were doubling them up on the scoreboard, 20-10. The reason: Minnesota was averaging an obscene 11 yards per play, while Detroit was plodding along at 5.5 yards per snap.

Stafford actually completed 16 consecutive passes before halftime after a deep shot to Marvin Hall was broken up on the first play from scrimmage. But with the Vikings sitting back in Cover-2 for much of the afternoon, the Lions — playing without No. 1 receiver Kenny Golladay — were left to methodically march downfield. Or try to, at least.

“Anytime we went play-action, they were turning and running,” Stafford said of the Vikings back seven, “so I was just trying to take what they were giving me.”

But while the Vikings’ defense bent, it was the Lions that broke. Matt Prater missed a 46-yard field goal at the end of a 12-play drive in the first quarter. Then the Lions settled for Prater’s chip shot on the next possession after a 15-play drive stalled when Adrian Peterson lost 4 yards on third-and-goal from the 1. (That Halapoulivaati Vaitai signing isn’t looking too good, is it?)

Stafford was his own worst enemy in the third quarter, throwing a pair of interceptions in the red zone as things unraveled, which is another thing we’ve seen too often this fall.

“Bad decisions,” he said after the game, having cleared concussion protocol and getting ready to head back to Detroit for another day or two — or more, he’s not sure — of living in a hotel away from his family.

As for the Lions, they’re heading back to the drawing board, searching for answers that simply aren’t there.

Getting gashed

Since the back-to-back road wins over Jacksonville and Atlanta — the latter gift-wrapped by the Falcons in the final minutes — the Lions have allowed 75 points in consecutive losses to the Colts and Vikings.

And even if you’re the glass-half-full type, you’d have to admit Sunday’s loss looks more like what you expect to see from here on out, that favorable schedule notwithstanding. With defensive end Trey Flowers on injured reserve for at least a couple more weeks and safety Tracy Walker sidelined by a foot injury, the defense was a sieve Sunday.

It’s also a bit irrelevant what the Lions do against the likes of Washington and Houston in the next few weeks. Because what Sunday again proved is how far the Lions have fallen behind the teams that matter the most — the ones in their own neighborhood.

That’s now nine consecutive divisional losses for the Lions, a skid that dates back to the 2018 regular-season finale and a forgettable win over DeShone Kizer and the Packers. In 2½ seasons in Detroit, Patricia is now 0-5 against Mike Zimmer and the Vikings and a pathetic 2-13 overall against NFC North opponents. Three division games remain on the schedule, so the Lions could theoretically finish 3-3 this season.

But it’s probably worth noting that Patricia’s predecessor, Jim Caldwell, went 16-8 against divisional foes in his four years as the Lions’ head coach. He never finished worse than .500.

The Lions would be lucky to be that good this year. And if that’s not a sign of regression, I’m not sure what tabulation you’d have to use to make a different call.

jniyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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