Four Downs: A feeble offense pays price after Lions don’t do enough to restock receivers

Detroit News

Allen Park — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 34-11 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

First down

ESPN analyst Mike Clay posted a statistic today that is somehow both stunning and not surprising at all, at least once you allow your brain process it: Through six games, the Lions have not taken a single offensive snap while holding a lead.

And while that factoid is the result of a full-team failure, Sunday reminded us the offense is the franchise’s biggest problem. Sunday showcased how startlingly bad the first half production has been, which has resulted in the team trailing by double digits in the second half of each of those six contests.

The Lions were shut out in the first half on Sunday for the third time in four games. The team is now averaging just 5.5 points in the first half, buoyed only by a 17-point explosion in Week 2 against Green Bay.

And here’s the cruel irony: The Lions built their offense around running the ball, wearing down the opposition and controlling the clock. It’s a group that’s supposed to succeed with long, methodical drives and churning out tough, hard-fought wins in the fourth quarter.

But there’s nothing to churn out when you’re down 20 in the final frame other than empty yards and points against soft coverage that’s trying to run out the clock and get home.

Second down

To the surprise of no one who closely followed the offseason construction of this roster, the wide receiver position has been a major issue. Even if the Lions were full-strength, with Tyrell Williams and Quintez Cephus not sidelined by long-term injuries, this would be the worst group in the NFL.

Kalif Raymond has a useable skill set and is a tremendously hard worker, but he’s not a No. 1 receiver. And KhaDarel Hodge, who was filling in for Cephus, who had been filling in for Williams, well, there’s a reason Hodge has primarily been a special teams player much of his career.

Detroit’s best receiver is a physical, chain-moving rookie in the slot, who probably has a ceiling as a No. 3 option in a quality offense. That’s a perfectly fine return for a fourth-round draft pick, but problematic that Amon-Ra St. Brown is needed to be more because of the lack of overall talent in the room.

Which brings us to Trinity Benson. The third-year pro flashed during the preseason, which piqued the Lion’s interest enough to ship a pair of draft picks to the Denver Broncos to acquire him (plus a sixth-rounder coming back).

Benson is a young player, and it was probably foolish to expect that preseason success to immediately port over into the regular season with a new team. But it doesn’t make it any less troubling that he was a healthy scratch six weeks into the season, particularly when you consider Detroit’s situation at the position.

This isn’t writing Benson off. Maybe he figures it out. And even if he doesn’t, the draft equity lost in the trade isn’t all that significant. Those late-round picks are scratch-off lottery tickets, and the Lions just bought one in August as opposed to next April.

But the overall question remains: Why didn’t the Lions do more to address wide receiver ahead of this season, especially when they knew it was going to be a critically important year to evaluate quarterback Jared Goff?

That doesn’t mean they needed to spend lavishly to retain Kenny Golladay or bringing in a cap-space equivalent. But by not giving the position the proper attention in either free agency or the draft, the Lions dug their own grave and Goff and the offense are suffering for it.

Third down

If you’re looking for a silver lining from Sunday’s game, it’s best to shift your eyes to the other side of the ball, where a trio of rookie defenders had quality outings.

Linebacker Derrick Barnes, playing more than 30 snaps for the second consecutive week, unquestionably had his best performance of the season, racking up eight tackles, while making plays both against the run and in coverage. He’s been demonstrating greater confidence coming downhill, attacking his gaps, and didn’t have a glaring missed tackle like he did a week ago in Minnesota.

In coverage, Barnes still is working through some stuff. He got caught out of position on the Bengals’ final touchdown, but he also had a nice breakup at the goal line earlier in the second half that prevented a score.

Cornerback Jerry Jacobs also is showing some promise. Yes, he got beat deep a couple of times by the NFL’s premier long-ball threat this season, rookie Ja’Marr Chase, but Jacob’s physicality at the line of scrimmage is an asset. Plus, he lowered the boom on Joe Mixon in run support, forcing a fumble that the back was fortunate to recover.

Is Jacobs a long-term starter? Way, way too early to say. But it’s feeling more and more like there’s something there, at least as a piece to what Detroit is trying to build.

Finally, defensive tackle Alim McNeill also is taking positive steps by the week. Not only did he deliver as a run-stuffer, as expected based on the scouting report, but he’s starting to show some of that sneaky athleticism that allows him to penetrate into the backfield on passing downs.

Fourth down

With the Jacksonville Jaguars snapping a 20-game losing streak dating to last season, the Lions are now the NFL’s lone winless team. That also means they’re on track to draft No. 1 overall.

It’s admittedly a silly discussion to be having with 10 games to play. After all, the Lions are one win and an unfavorable tie-breaker scenario away from dropping back to sixth in the draft order.

But that’s not going to stop the hypothetical discussions about what Detroit should do with the top pick, if they end up earning it. When you’re 0-6, what else do you expect fans to talk about?

The quarterback discussion is going to be fascinating. Obviously, whatever support Goff may have is going to rapidly dwindle as the offensive woes continue, whether it’s fair to pin them fully on the quarterback or not.

Still, here’s a friendly reminder, it could, almost unbelievably be worse.

As noted, the Lions are averaging 5.5 points in the first half. The only team that’s worse is the New York Jets, who have only mustered 13 first-half points in five games with No. 2 overall pick Zach Wilson under center.

This is what it could look like with a rookie starter in Detroit next season. Despite having the hypothetical security blanket of a good offensive line, tight end and running back tandem, it takes a while more many rookies to get acclimated to the speed of the NFL game.

That’s not to say the Lions shouldn’t go with a QB at the top of the first round if they deem one worthy through the pre-draft process. It’s simply a reminder things could get worse before it gets better. The hope would be they find a guy who looks something closer to Bengals starter Joe Burrow entering his second season.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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