September 16, 2013 at 10:03 am

John Niyo

Without Reggie Bush, Lions offense's limitations exposed

Glendale, Ariz. — Reggie Bush went right, then he went left. Then he stumbled and fumbled and left.

And that left the Lions with the same-old-story problem that stumped them all last season: How do we move the football and put points on the scoreboard without a genuine playmaking threat in the backfield?

Or in strict mathematical terms: Two minus one equals … nothing?

The correct answer is one — or won, as it were — but it still escapes this team, apparently. As does much of the goodwill that season-opening win against Minnesota engendered a week ago.

Watching the Lions let another road win slip away late Sunday wasn’t so much a surprise as a disappointment. And while it might’ve been something new for Bush — idled for most of the second half by a knee injury — it’s merely a reminder for the rest of us.

Without him, these Lions probably aren’t going anywhere.

Sunday’s 25-21 loss to the Arizona Cardinals did more than extend Detroit’s 20-year drought in the desert. It also renewed everyone’s doubts about just how much this team has improved from last season, when Calvin Johnson did everything he could and no one else did nearly enough.

Because after a promising and productive start for the offense Sunday — “It seemed like we pretty much took what we wanted,” receiver Nate Burleson said — things ground to a embarrassing halt right about the time Bush became a bystander.

After a smashing debut in the opener, the Lions’ big free-agent addition stood on the sideline with a glum look on his face for most of the second half. And the Lions, not coincidentally, stood still without him, unable to put together much of anything, let alone a scoring drive.

“It’s just tough because he’s one of our big guns,” Burleson said, “and we rely on his playmaking ability.”

If Sunday’s stat sheet was a sign of just how much they rely on Bush, they’d better hope those MRI results today bring some good news.

No excuses

Ninety yards and four first downs. That was the sum total of the Lions’ progress after halftime, minus their featured back. And while the Lions’ defense eventually coughed up the lead, with help from the field-goal unit and a few more ill-timed, forehead-slapping penalties, that was also the reason they headed home with a 1-1 record.

Maybe this wasn’t a game they had to win, but it was a game they had won, if only Matthew Stafford and the offense could have mustered something. Anything, really.

Again, this team generated more penalties (five) than first downs (four) in the second half. And without Bush, the offense converted as many third downs (zero) as it scored points after halftime.

“Obviously, he’s (Bush) a big part of the offense, but that’s no excuse,” Lions coach Jim Schwartz insisted afterward in a surprisingly upbeat postgame media session. “We’ve got to play with other guys that can step up and make plays, and we just didn’t get it done on offense in that second half.”

Bush was injured on a big gain on the Lions’ go-ahead touchdown drive late in the second quarter of what looked to be another productive game for Scott Linehan’s offense. Stafford was 16-of-20 for 210 yards and two touchdowns in the first half. And after hooking up with Johnson on a 72-yard catch-and-run, he went to him again — and again — to grab a 14-10 lead at the break.

Schwartz opted not to go for more just before halftime, but that was more foreshadowing than anything, as it turned out.

Bush’s return to start the second half was short-lived, taking one handoff and then fumbling the next — “It’s 100 percent my fault,” he said of that play — before calling it a day.

Later, he admitted the knee — injured on a blow by the Cardinals’ Tony Jefferson at the end of a 26-yard reception — simply didn’t feel right, adding, “I probably shouldn’t have gone back in.”

Fourth-quarter fade

The Lions probably shouldn’t be in a position where Bush’s absence matters that much, but they are. At least they sure were Sunday, as they managed just 6 yards on six plays on their next two third-quarter possessions.

The fourth quarter wasn’t much better, though David Akers’ second missed field goal — swatted by an unblocked Justin Bethel — spoiled the one drive in which the Lions actually moved the chains.

“When one guy goes down, other guys have to step up and make plays,” said Bush, who sounded optimistic that it’s not a serious injury. “Guys are gonna get injured so we’ve just got to do a better job of adjusting to it.”

They’ll have to do a better job of a lot of things. But again, this team is counting on its offense to score while hoping a disruptive defense will make enough plays to make a difference.

Sunday, the defense did that for three quarters. The Lions also held the Cardinals to 1-for-11 on third-down conversions, even without Nick Fairley (shoulder) in uniform. And they made amends for last week’s nullified interception return with a carbon copy that counted this time: Ndamukong Suh blew up a play, then opted not to add a gratuitous block as DeAndre Levy raced untouched for the score midway through the third quarter.

But then they handed Arizona some 50-plus yards in penalties on a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives. And with the offense handing the ball right back to the Cardinals, well, that was the game.

“We still had a chance to win at the end,” Stafford said. “That’s all you ask for.”

Ask and you shall receive, I guess. But the Lions were 3-9 in games decided by eight points or fewer last season. And Sunday, with Reggie Bush watching from the sideline, they looked a lot more like that team than anything new or improved.

jniyo@detroitnews.com
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The Lions' Reggie Bush heads down field for a gain in the first quarter. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News
Nate Burleson led the Lions in receptions with five for 36 yards. Tyrann ... (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)
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