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

Detroit News

Cleveland — In case you hadn’t noticed, the Lions are stuck. Stuck between regimes, stuck between quarterbacks, stuck between a rock and last place.

We get that. But they don’t get to accept it. They don’t get to play as if they’re a normal team in normal conditions. When they play it safe, they’re sorry. When they try to play it smart, they end up dumbing it down. On a wet, sloppy Sunday with backup quarterback Tim Boyle, the Lions again did almost enough to win, but didn’t aggressively reach for it.

The Browns had lost four of five and were practically begging to be beaten. Baker Mayfield was flinging wildly one play, hobbling the next. The crowd occasionally booed. In the end, it was still enough for Cleveland (6-5) to prevail 13-10, sending the Lions’ winless streak to 14 games. One week after a tie in Pittsburgh saved them from complete ignominy, they fell to 0-9-1 and reminded everyone they’re still bad enough to complete an O-fer season.

Dan Campbell is stuck too, between taking risks and taking the safe path, between being passive and aggressive, or even passive-aggressive. Again, we get it. The Lions are thoroughly outmanned, although certainly not outworked. They play hard with the pieces at their disposal.

More: Justin Rogers’ Lions grades: Few chances taken, no reward reaped

But when Campbell settled for a 43-yard field goal by another replacement kicker, Aldrick Rosas, on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter, it was way too passive. When he punted on fourth-and-9 from Detroit’s 41 with 2:36 left, down 13-10, the book might’ve said it was smart, but it felt like surrender.

The Lions’ defense cranked up the aggressiveness a bit, blitzing Mayfield and intercepting him twice. The offense was, uh, — checking thesaurus — awful. Campbell said he was trying to protect Boyle from the Browns’ league-leading sack attack, led by Myles Garrett, and that part worked. Boyle wasn’t sacked but threw for only 77 yards, completing 15 of 23 with two interceptions.

“Look, I get it,” Campbell said. “I’m sure there are a lot of people that question it and think I was too conservative, maybe I ought to throw it a lot more. … We’re trying to win games — 14-13, 16-13, no — but we’ll do whatever it takes to win a game. I just felt like the right thing to do was try to run it a bit and take a little stress off of Tim. I mean, it’s no secret we need to be better in the pass game.”

They need to be better in the mind game too, as they committed a string of critical penalties, three times giving the Browns first downs after seemingly stopping them on third-and-long. The worst of all was an unsportsmanlike call on guard Jonah Jackson as the third quarter ended. Jackson said he took full responsibility for “trash-talking in the heat of the game” at the Browns’ Jadeveon Clowney, and the 15-yard penalty killed the Lions’ drive practically before it began.

Everywhere the Lions reach, they come up with nothing. Receiver Josh Reynolds was newly activated and targeted three times, with no receptions. He also committed a foolish offensive pass interference, blocking while the ball was in the air, negating a catch by Amon-Ra St. Brown to the Browns’ 7. The Lions never got that close again.

Boyle was the latest to be stuck in a tough spot, in his first career start in place of injured Jared Goff. On a short week, he’s likely to start again Thanksgiving Day against the Bears. Boyle, who had thrown four passes in his entire four-year NFL career, was extremely shaky at first, then OK at the end, as the Lions rallied from a 13-0 deficit. With many teams, OK might work. With the Lions, it gets you beat, even on a day when the other team is nearly as inept.

Boyle was grateful for the chance but blamed himself for not doing more. Honorable stance, but this wasn’t about him.

“I haven’t played football in 10-11 weeks,” said Boyle, who suffered a broken thumb in the preseason. “Not an excuse at all, but the fact that I started and I have these reps in the pocket with the incredible pass rush they have, it was a great learning experience. It’s something I’ll remember forever, but a loss doesn’t feel good.”

It can’t feel good going into a game knowing you’re always short-handed. The Lions have no passing game, no play-making receivers and an injury-riddled offensive line. For the second straight game, their quarterback ended regulation with fewer than 100 yards passing, which is both amazing and ridiculous.

Almost as amazing, D’Andre Swift exceeded 100 yards rushing for the second straight game, tallying 136 and a 57-yard touchdown. He’s the Lions’ sole dynamic offensive weapon, as defenses focus more on tight end T.J. Hockenson. And yet in the first half, Swift had only four carries, and finished with 14.

“That’s not up to me,” Swift said. “I can’t do anything but do my job when I’m called on.”

He wasn’t complaining, and to Campbell’s credit, the team isn’t fracturing or finger-pointing. Swift simply sees what everyone sees. Without any deep threats, the Lions struggle to find chances for him. Defenses bunch the line, and I think they’ve caught on to that tricky third-and-14 draw play with Swift.

The Lions can’t sustain drives long enough to use their best running back to sustain drives. It’s the circular riddle when a team can’t pass in a passing league. That’s why Campbell, who took over play-calling last week, has to gamble more, even at the risk of gambling too much.

The Lions didn’t take a single snap in the red zone all day, and other than Swift’s 57-yard burst, their only prime chance at a touchdown came with 9:07 left, fourth-and-1 at Cleveland’s 25. Swift had just been stuffed for 3 yards on back-to-back runs. The Lions have been poor on fourth downs but this was a day when one play was going to win it or lose it. One field goal was only going to keep it close.

Campbell is almost out of options on offense, but maybe it’s time to take field goals out of the equation.

“We talked about (going for it), but I told myself the night before to be smart, hang in there,” Campbell said. “If we play this game the right way, like last week, we’re going to have an opportunity to get it back. I was close, but then I chose to kick a field goal. I felt good about our defense.”

Aaron Glenn’s defense at least attacked a bit and recorded its first sack in three games. The tradeoff to blitzing was they couldn’t hold off the Browns’ bruising Nick Chubb, who rushed for 130 yards. After the Lions punted with 2:36 left, Chubb killed the clock with four straight-ahead runs. In the end, the Browns won by riding their best player, who had just returned from COVID.  The Lions’ best player, Swift, was just as good but with far fewer opportunities.

With the Lions, the line between passive and aggressive is ever-changing. We get it. But the league’s other three massive rebuilders — Jaguars, Texans, Jets — have found ways to win at least two games. The Lions have a way, lurking somewhere on their roster, to win at least one. Are they still pushing? Sure. Sorry if they’ve heard it before, but they need to push harder to find it.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: bobwojnowski

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