Four Downs: Offensive ineptitude, errors derail Lions once again

Detroit News

Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions’ 16-14 loss to the Chicago Bears.

First down

It’s 11 weeks into this dismal season and it’s grown tiresome watching this offense. We’re all familiar with the concept of a bend-don’t-break defense, but when the Lions have the ball, they’re essentially embracing that concept for the opposition.

Outside of D’Andre Swift — and we’ll come back to him in a little bit — the Lions lack explosive playmakers. What that means is they have to methodically work their way down the field without a critical error drive-after-drive to points on the board.

Unfortunately, this team is prone to those critical errors. Whether that’s a sack or tackle for loss in the run game, a backbreaking turnover, or in yesterday’s case a waterfall of penalties, coach Dan Campbell has put it out plainly after the season opener and it continues to be just as true today, “We don’t have the luxury of making some of the mistakes we made and being able to win.”

If you’ve been watching closely, you know how bad things have gotten, but let’s put some numbers to it. Since that season-opening loss to the 49ers, when the Lions put up 31 points thanks to some late success against a prevent defense and a recovered onside kick, the team has failed to score 20 points in any of the next 10 games.

They’re averaging 14.1 points during that 10-game stretch and are down to 15.8 points per game on the season. Only the Houston Texans have been less productive, but they have a reasonable excuse for their ineptitude. They started a mid-round rookie quarterback for six games after Tyrod Taylor suffered a severe hamstring strain.

More: Niyo: Time is running out for Dan Campbell, Lions to avoid winless season

One positive coming out of this loss to the Bears is the Lions’ downfield passing game found a glimmer of hope in wide receiver Josh Reynolds. After an ugly debut against Cleveland, the big-bodied receiver had three completions of 15 yards or longer, including a well-executed 39-yard touchdown.

But with continued conservative play calling, which Campbell attributed in part to fear of turnovers, the Lions are likely to continue to struggle to score all the way to a winless finish.

Second down

Injuries are part of the game, but Swift’s sprained shoulder was always an inherent risk of leaning too hard on the running back that hasn’t exactly been the model of durability during his brief career.

Even dating back to college, Swift had only recorded more than 20 carries three times, for good reason, but in the 16-16 tie with Pittsburgh earlier this month, he took the ball 33 times. After the game he acknowledged he was sore, but felt he would be fine.

Then, that next week, he was limited in practice due to a shoulder injury. On Thursday, after a hard tackle near the sideline, he injured that same shoulder, which knocked him from the game and could potentially keep him out of the lineup longer, depending on the severity.

This isn’t a hindsight conversation. In that Pittsburgh game, backup Godwin Igwebuike had a 42-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter and didn’t see the ball again. I questioned Campbell, offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn and running backs coach Duce Staley about that strategic decision after the game and into the next week. The Lions didn’t have to lean on Swift as hard as they did that day. Now, they’re paying the price.

If Swift isn’t medically cleared ahead of Detroit’s next game, a Dec. 5 home tilt with the Minnesota Vikings, the team’s already anemic offense will be down its only dynamic playmaking threat.

Jamaal Williams is unquestionably solid, but he doesn’t have a gain of more than 20 yards this season, and he isn’t anywhere near as explosive in the pass game. Igwebuike and Jermar Jefferson have shown some explosive ability carrying the ball, and should be able to fill that void, but again, the potential of the passing game will suffer.

Third down 

Oh Kayvon, where art thou?

OK, admittedly I’m getting ahead of things by assuming the Lions will use the No. 1 overall pick they’re inching closer to locking up on Oregon edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, but Thursday was another prime example of the ineffectiveness of Detroit’s pass rush.

The Lions were actually decent on third down, limiting the Bears to a 38.5% conversion rate on 14 attempts, but it was no thanks to a pass rush, which rarely got home, whether rushing four (or three on a couple occasions) or sending an extra attacker on the blitz.

Defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn acknowledged last week that football is a one-on-one game and the Lions simply don’t have anyone on either the edges or the interior capable of consistently beating blockers in passing situations.

The Bears are not a good pass-blocking team. In fact, they’ve given up more sacks than anyone this season. Still, immobile veteran quarterback Andy Dalton had enough time to put on a pot of tea and read the newspaper during most of his drop backs on Thanksgiving.

Detroit ended up recording a single sack, an impressive individual effort by rookie Levi Onwuzurike after the coverage took away Dalton’s initial reads, but that will rarely be good enough.

For the season, the Lions 18.1% pressure rate ranks 31st and no team is making less contact with opposing quarterbacks than Detroit’s 16 sacks and 3.5% knockdown rate.

Fourth down

This might surprise some people, but I don’t have a problem with the Lions eating a penalty for taking back-to-back timeouts late in the fourth quarter.

There was clearly chaos on the field, and if both Campbell and Glenn identified a pre-snap flaw the Bears could exploit, taking a 5-yard penalty on third-and-9 was still better than giving up a touchdown in that scenario.

With 1:54 remaining, holding the Bears to a field goal was still preferable than allowing a touchdown, because it would have only required the Lions to net a field goal in response. And given the overall ineffectiveness of the offense, both in this game and throughout the course of the season, successfully driving 45 yards into field-goal range with no timeouts, as opposed to 75 for a touchdown with two timeouts, strikes me as a significantly more feasible scenario.

No, there were two far more concerning problems than the second timeout. First, why was there such discombobulation coming out of the first? These are the moments you prepare your team for, and even though the crowd was raucous in the moment, there is no excuse for that level of disarray, requiring another reset. Campbell and Glenn didn’t have the team ready for the moment and that’s on them.

Secondly, coming out of the second timeout, and the Bears now facing a more manageable third-and-4, I have serious concerns about a play call that had the defensive backs giving 8 yards of cushion and not prepared to drive on the ball for the short pitch-and-catch that ended the game. Additionally, there seemed to be another batch of communication issues between the defensive backs ahead of the snap, again pointing to a lack of preparedness.

The whole sequence was a bad look for the coaching staff this deep into the season.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers

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