December 3, 2012 at 3:05 pm

John Niyo

Lions' defense drops the ball again

Detroit -- Drayton Florence had it in his hands — an errant pass from Colts rookie Andrew Luck near midfield — and he dropped it. Then he dropped to the ground and did a few push-ups as punishment.

Two plays later, the penalty was more severe, after Florence, the Lions' veteran cornerback, let another Colts rookie, receiver LaVon Brazill, get behind him in the end zone to haul in a 42-yard touchdown. That defensive lapse — "Inexcusable," coach Jim Schwartz fumed in his postgame press conference — allowed the Colts to pull within 33-28 with 2:39 left, and it set the stage for another fourth-quarter collapse Sunday at Ford Field.

The Lions became the first NFL team since the 2000 San Diego Chargers to lose three consecutive games they led with 2 minutes remaining in regulation, according to STATS LLC. They're only the third team in NFL history to lose three straight home games by blowing fourth-quarter leads, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.

A year after setting records for their late-game heroics, the Lions are back to setting records for futility.

So what gives?

"We're not making the plays when they count," Florence said, when asked to sum up the chain of events that led to Sunday's 35-33 loss to Indianapolis. "If I make the interception, the game's probably over. If I don't let the guy get behind me in Cover-4 (defense), the game's probably over. But this league isn't, 'If you do or if you don't.'"

No, there is no "if" allowed in the bottom-line business of the NFL.

"Either you make the play," Florence agreed, "or you don't."

And once again Sunday, the Lions didn't, particularly on defense, which left everyone — the players included — repeating the same questions after Luck flipped a pass to Donnie Avery, who scooted into the end zone as time expired, and helmets and headsets started flying in disgust.

"How?" cornerback Chris Houston asked, shaking his head. "How and why? That's the only two things that were in my mind. How and why that happened? How? I'm still puzzled."

Not so fast

Puzzled is one way to put it, as the Lions tried to piece together another mind-blowing loss Sunday.

And while there was plenty of blame to go around — another third-down run call on a potential clinching drive? — in the end it was the defense that was on the field, unable to stop Luck or fate or destiny or whatever it is the Colts have working for them right now.

Indianapolis, held without a first down on eight possessions in three-plus quarters Sunday, somehow managed to put together eight- and 11-play drives that went 85 and 75 yards, respectively, to win the game in the final 4 minutes.

How? A personal foul, a dropped interception, blown coverages in a patchwork secondary — you name it, they did it.

Why?

"I think we get too relaxed," Houston said. "Guys get too relaxed instead of going out there (and) staying focused."

Too relaxed? Meaning …

"Guys think the game is over," Houston said. "And that's what happened."

I don't know if that's really what happened Sunday, but I do know this: The Lions' defense, for all the good it has done this season — surprisingly so, at times, given some of the personnel issues — hasn't made the kind of game-changing plays it made a year ago. At least not with the same frequency, and certainly not in the clutch, outside of that long-ago overtime win at Philadelphia.

Turnover reversal

The contrasts between 2011 and '12 are easy to draw at this point, with the Lions falling to 4-8 on the season and completely out of the playoff picture.

But here's one that's been largely overlooked: The Lions are one of a half-dozen teams in the NFL without a scoring play from their defense this season. They're one of only four without one from their defense or their special-teams units. And the other three at the bottom of the heap aren't exactly the company you'd like to keep: Jacksonville, Oakland and Philadelphia.

Last year, the Lions were among the best in the league at creating havoc and capitalizing on it, tied with the Bears for the league lead with seven defensive touchdowns. They were ranked in the top five in both fumble recoveries (12) and interceptions (21) in 2011. But for whatever reason, those turnovers — five fumble recoveries and 10 interceptions in 12 games — simply aren't happening.

Sunday, they actually won the turnover battle with the Colts, picking off Luck three times. But they should've had a handful, at least. And even when they did make a play, they still found a way to muck it up.

Take Florence's second-quarter interception that he returned for what initially appeared to be a touchdown. Turns out he stepped out of bounds at the 10-yard line. Oh, and Jacob Lacey got flagged for an illegal block in the back — trailing the play — to push the Lions back to the 20. After a three-and-out from the offense, the Lions had to settle for another Jason Hanson field goal.

And take the final two drives, when the pressure flushed Luck from the pocket but no one in that front four managed to bring him down. Not before he'd run for a first down or found another open receiver.

"It's just frustrating," linebacker DeAndre Levy said. "It's hard to put into words, losing three games like we did — last play, last drive. Having chances and just not executing? It's just draining."

And yet that's exactly why this season has gone down the drain.

john.niyo@detnews.com

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2011

(Team) ... (TDs)
1. Lions ... 7
1. Bears ... 7
3. Bills ... 6
4. Packers ... 5
4. Seahawks ... 5

2012

(Team) ... (TDs)
27. Lions ... 0
27. Raiders ... 0
27. Jaguars ... 0
27. Eagles ... 0
27. Bengals ... 0
27. Bills ... 0

LaVon Brazill pulled the Colts within 33-28 with this touchdown catch with 2:39 to play. / Daniel Mears/Detroit News
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