Four Downs: Lions can’t win if they stray from their gambling ways

Detroit News

Cleveland — Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 13-10 loss to the Cleveland Browns on Sunday.

First down

We all understand the situation here. This Lions team is outmanned, often by a significant margin. Yes, this final score was close, but if the opponent executes better — I’m looking at you, Baker Mayfield — the Browns likely walk away with a comfortable, double-digit victory.

That’s one of the most frustrating aspects of watching the Lions this season. Even when their opponent is tripping all over themselves with execution errors and penalties, which we saw each of the past two weeks, the Lions prove they’re capable of making even more blunders.

Let’s face it: This team is both most entertaining and at its best when throwing caution into the wind. How fun was the matchup against the Los Angeles Rams last month, when the Lions successfully faked two punts and caught the Rams with a surprise onside kick? They led that one through three quarters, and were in the red zone with a chance to retake the lead inside five minutes remaining before the walls came crumbling down due to a turnover.

And even when it wasn’t big-ticket trick plays, aggressiveness was Detroit’s budding calling card earlier in the season, with coach Dan Campbell’s consistent willingness to go for it on fourth down.

Imagine if the Lions showed the same willingness to empty the bag against a vulnerable opponent, such as the Steelers without their starting quarterback, or the Browns with their signal-caller hobbled and struggling.

Two weeks of rainy weather became a convenient excuse for the Lions to play an ultra conservative brand of football. I’ll contend they should have found a way to use the conditions to their advantage. A soggy field is equally slick for defenders, making them prone to errors when scrambling to respond to a surprise.

As for the aggressiveness on fourth down, the Lions abandoned that against the Browns, twice kicking on fourth-and-1 after being stuffed on third-and-short each time. It’s a losing strategy for a team that seemingly can’t win without rolling the dice.

If the Lions don’t want to finish the season winless, they need to return to those early-season roots.

More: Wojo: Lions still winless, and playing it safe isn’t smart

Second down

Speaking of the decision to kick twice when facing fourth-and-1, this was the first week where it felt like Frank Ragnow’s absence was a major hindrance.

Evan Brown deserves all the praise in the world for the way he’s stepped in and performed in place of Detroit’s Pro Bowl center, who was lost for the season to a toe injury. Brown has been steady, both as a run blocker and pass protector, all but negating what could have been a huge drop-off at one of the most critical positions on the field.

But what sets Ragnow apart from Brown, and many of other centers around the league, is the ability to get movement in those gotta-have-it, short-yardage situations. Ragnow possesses a rare combination of strength and leverage that allows him to regularly reset the line of scrimmage, even when the opponent knows what’s coming.

On Detroit’s first failed third down, leading to a punt on fourth-and-1, fullback Jason Cabinda was stood up at the line while trying to plow through the A gap between Brown and backup right guard Tommy Kraemer. It’s no wonder Campbell wasn’t eager to try it a second time.

On the other third down, prior to settling for Aldrick Rosas’s 43-yard field goal, that lack of confidence in trying a short-yardage run up the middle showed up when the Lions asked D’Andre Swift to get the edge. Again, the run went nowhere.

Ragnow potentially changes how that looks. Without him, the Lions shouldn’t abandon the idea of going for it on fourth-and-short, but they might need to open the playbook a bit to incorporate some passing options, such as rub routes on the outside or play-action looks to the back in the flat.

Third down

The best way to describe Detroit’s defensive performance in Cleveland would be scrappy. But mirage might also be an appropriate choice.

That might feel overly critical after the Lions shut the Browns out in the second half and limited them to just 13 points on the afternoon, but if we’re realistic, the defense benefited from a steady stream of self-inflicted wounds.

Most of those were bad throws from Mayfield, who was erratic throughout the contest when passing beyond 10 yards. The most egregious of those throws resulted in an interception, despite his target running wide open.

And the penalties were another factor. The Browns were flagged for six on offense, including four holding infractions and an illegal block in the back, which negated a long first down run.

Despite the success with the scoreboard, Detroit was plagued by some recurring issues. They missed 11 tackles, committed too many penalties and receivers were running far more open than Mayfield’s 176 passing yards would suggest.

This is the sixth time in 10 games the Lions have missed 10 tackles, according to Pro Football Focus. They missed a season-high 18 against the Chicago Bears earlier in the season. Cleaning up this fundamental issue could be a key factor in flipping the outcome on Thursday.

Fourth down

With seven games to go, the Lions now hold a 1.5-game lead in the race for the No. 1 pick. That buffer is thanks to the Houston Texans shockingly upending the Tennessee Titans on the road.

The Texans joined the Jaguars and Jets in the two-win club, meaning the Lions would have to win at least two of their games down the stretch to lose what now looks to be a stranglehold on the top selection.

Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux remains the consensus choice at that spot — and he’s a player who could certainly help Detroit’s largely ineffective pass rush — but expect an offseason full of debate around the top quarterback prospects, namely Ole Miss’ Matt Corral.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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