November 18, 2013 at 1:00 am

Bob Wojnowski

Lions' aggressiveness is admirable in spirit but self-destructive in application

Pittsburgh Being aggressive is one thing, a good thing, something the Lions need to do. But for aggressive teams to win, they have to do it when it matters, and where it matters. Jim Schwartz took the wrong gamble at the wrong time, and paid for it.

The Lions blew this game, and not just because they blew a fake field goal in the fourth quarter. Schwartz angrily defended the trick play, and thats fine. The Steelers followed with a crunching 97-yard touchdown march, so this isnt just about one play. Its about a bold mind-set, and how the Lions need to show it in more ways than faking a kick.

They squandered the lead shortly after the play failed, so we can easily connect the dots in their 37-27 loss to the Steelers. This is about bigger dots, about the Lions occasionally mysterious shell. They can look wildly aggressive for a half, or a quarter, and then inexplicably meek.

An unorthodox risk wouldnt be necessary if the Lions had squeezed harder with the game in their hands. They wiped out a 14-0 deficit with a stirring 27-point second quarter, in which Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson were shredding more pages in the record book. And then it all stopped and never restarted, and Schwartz was left to explain why he tried to kick-start it with a bad call.

It had nothing to do with mind-set, Schwartz said, his voice rising. It had to do with trying to make the plays to win the game. We didnt make it. But look, yall can say whatever you want about me, but dont say Im scared. Because we aint. This teams gonna be aggressive, were gonna play our very best. We didnt play well enough to win this game, but its not because were passive or anything.

They werent passive on that play, but they were ridiculously passive at the start and in the fourth quarter. If the trick works, the Lions (6-4) are clever and ruthless and continuing to evolve as a playoff contender. Instead, they gave the Steelers (4-6) fresh life, and Ben Roethlisberger used it for a desperately needed victory.

Coming up empty

Here was the situation: Leading 27-23, the Lions faced fourth-and-5 at the Steelers 10 with 12:56 left in the fourth quarter. David Akers trotted on for an apparent short field goal. But Schwartz called for the fake, and punter-holder Sam Martin who can change the call but saw an opening took the snap and ran over the right side. He was hit 2 yards short of the first down, so it didnt matter he fumbled it away at the 3.

Players adamantly defended the strategy even in the wet field conditions for the same reason Schwartz did.

Its an aggressive call, said Reggie Bush, who was benched late after losing a fumble. If we score a touchdown, then obviously its the greatest call of the day. If you dont execute it, then everybodys going to point fingers at us.

And if Bush doesnt lose that fumble in the second quarter, maybe the Lions dont need deception. If the offense could roll in the first half 327 yards passing by Stafford and 179 yards receiving by Johnson how could it generate virtually nothing after that? The Steelers didnt change much defensively but the Lions 27-20 lead never grew, and Stafford was three-for-16 for 35 yards in the second half. Johnson had zero catches as the Lions reverted to how they started the game, when they looked lost and listless.

And what happened to the defense, especially the sometimes-menacing front four? It sure didnt look audacious as the Steelers marched 97 yards for the go-ahead score. It didnt look remotely nasty as Roethlisberger threw 45 passes and was sacked only once. Coming into the game, hed been sacked 35 times, second-most in the league.

Bad timing

Players talked about Roethlisbergers quick release, but remember, this was a battered team the Lions were favored to beat. And every time the Steelers had to make a play in the fourth quarter, they made it. On third-and-9 from their own 4, Roethlisberger completed a 16-yarder to Antonio Brown. On fourth-and-2 from the Lions 36, he converted a 3-yard toss to LeVeon Bell.

We came out flat, started to play well, then we sort of put it in cruise control, linebacker DeAndre Levy said. I think weve just got to decide who we want to be. Weve got to decide if we want to be good, want to be average, be good sometimes or be good all the time.

Its impossible to be good all the time in the NFL unless youre elite. The Lions arent there, so lets not waste time with a heavy dissertation on the state of the franchise. The Lions can be good, but theyre so weak in the secondary, they cant let up, and they must get more disruptive play from Ndamukong Suh (zero tackles), Nick Fairley and others.

Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham doesnt like to blitz because of the secondary, but sorry, when Roethlisberger is picking you apart, you gotta find a way to hit him. And that brings us back to the aggressiveness issue, and the timing. Schwartz noted a field goal only wouldve supplied a seven-point lead. OK, but converting the fake didnt guarantee a touchdown either.

I usually appreciate when coaches go for it on short fourth downs, as Schwartz did earlier, and failed. So I understand his point, and his players do too. But the other point is, if thats who you supposedly are, a fearless band of aggressors, there are much better ways to show it.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com
Twitter.com/bobwojnowski

Holder Sam Martin is crunched by the Steelers as the Lions failed on a fake field-goal attempt in the fourth quarter Sunday. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News