November 11, 2012 at 1:00 am

Chris McCosky

Chris McCosky's Four Downs: As usual, Lions misfire from the start

Lions coach Jim Schwartz, here walking the field in the second quarter, has seen his team continue to sputter at the start of games. (Daniel Mears/Detroit News)

First down

We've seen this too many times this season. The Lions' offense stumbles and bumbles out of the gate, can't get anything going, and then, as if a switch is thrown, scores three touchdowns on drives of less than three minutes.

Why does it have to be like that?

"Teams always switch up what they do," receiver Calvin Johnson said. "They may do one thing for a few weeks but by the time they play us, they play something totally different. We have to adjust quicker."

On this day, it was more about what Lions didn't do than what the Vikings were doing to them. The Lions started the game with the three-tackle package, clearly with the intent of throwing out of it more often than they had previously.

But if you are throwing out of a three-tackle formation, you are taking a receiver out of the mix. So many times in the first half, particularly on third-down plays, quarterback Matthew Stafford had no open receivers to throw to.

He was sacked twice because of it. His interception, by linebacker Chad Greenway, was a hurried, sidearm throw. Often the Lions receivers appeared to be running wrong routes because two of them would be bunched up, easily covered by one defender.

"They are physical down the field," Stafford said. "Antoine Winfield does a great job in the slot trying to re-route guys, and their pass rush was good."

Coach Jim Schwartz said the onus was on the receivers to work harder to get open and not be so easily re-routed.

"They weren't bunched by design," he said. "We were getting jammed out of our routes and it made it hard to get open. They were playing more man coverage underneath and we couldn't get open. We made some adjustments and starting getting something going in the second half."

But, as the Lions are finding out loss after loss, one productive half of football isn't going to beat good football teams.

Second down

The worst and most damaging series of the game for the Lions came early in the fourth quarter following a rare three-and-out by the Vikings. They were down by seven and had the ball at their own 48.

Granted, a holding call on left tackle Jeff Backus on first down put them in a hole. But the next two plays were botched passes to running back Mikel Leshoure.

Leshoure dropped the first down pass, which would have gained at least 10 yards and put the Lions back into a manageable down and distance. The second down play was a screen that never materialized because Leshoure didn't get clear of the linemen.

Here's the question. Why was Leshoure in the game for those plays? The Lions have had success using Joique Bell in similar late-game situations because of his ability to both get open in the passing game and get extra yards after the catch.

In the game, Leshoure had one catch for five yards. Bell had seven catches for 44 yards.

That was a mistake by the Lions' offensive coaches there.

Third down

The Lions will probably be auditioning punters this week.

Nick Harris isn't getting the kind of distance on his punts the Lions need to create some positive field position. He averaged 38 yards on six punts Sunday, with an average net of 37 yards. He came into the game ranked 30th in punting average and 29th in net.

"We lost the field position battle, too," Stafford said.

The Vikings punter, Chris Kluwe, averaged 48.6 yards. His net was just 35 yards, but that was due to a 31-yard punt return by Stefan Logan.

The Lions started 11 of 13 drives at or inside the 20. They started inside the 10 twice. The Vikings started inside their 20 once, after a kickoff. They started drives beyond their 40 three times.

Fourth down

Schwartz was in no mood to discuss his strategy after the loss, but his decision to pooch kick in the third quarter after the Lions had scored to cut the lead to 16-10 was curious.

The Lions kick coverage was excellent in the first half, but Marcus Sherels ran the second half kickoff 41 yards. Maybe that spooked Schwartz.

But after Brandon Pettigrew's 16-yard touchdown catch, Jason Hanson popped a kick into the second row of the Vikings return setup. Defensive tackle Christian Ballard caught the ball and actually fumbled it.

The bouncing ball hit linebacker Ashlee Palmer in the chest, but he couldn't secure it. Ballard wound up recovering it at the Vikings' 38.

Had the Lions recovered, the decision to pooch it would be applauded. But the Vikings took the ball right down the field and scored, building a 24-10 lead.

All things considered, the risk-reward ratio wasn't in the Lions' favor with a pooch kick.

Chris.mccosky@detnews.com

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