Detroit — It's ugly and getting uglier. The Lions came home hoping to find their offense and stem their slide. Instead, all their ills and spills were on graphic display, and suddenly this is a team flirting with disaster.
If there was a mistake to be made or a flaw to be exposed, the Lions obliged in a 24-12 loss to the Broncos Sunday night. They were in it until midway through the fourth quarter, when the next three series ended like this: Matthew Stafford fumble, inexplicable special-teams blunder, Stafford interception.
The Broncos have a terrific defense but the Lions unleashed a series of gaffes, and by the end, the Ford Field crowd was booing. If it wasn't clear before, it certainly is now — the offense is broken, rendered worse by a woeful offensive line.
"This is a talented offense, and we got enough players to score more than we scored," said Stafford, who was 31-for-45 for 282 yards with two interceptions. "It's been a little bit of everything. I know I can play better. I gotta play better."
It's not all on Stafford, but he was the one again making the big turnovers, while the ageless Peyton Manning made the big plays. The Lions are 0-3 with a trip to Seattle next, but before they can even think of salvaging their season, they have to salvage their quarterback. And their running game. And their confidence.
This will be a major test for Jim Caldwell, who has to look more critically at offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi's play-calling. It makes no sense the Lions insist on trying to hammer the ball with Joique Bell, who goes nowhere. He had 10 carries (two more than Ameer Abdullah) for 6 yards, and has 20 carries for 22 yards in three games.
Stafford had his moments and threw some strikes to Calvin Johnson, who made several spectacular catches. But really, why can't the Lions force-feed even more to Johnson and Golden Tate? If they're not desperate enough to change something now, when will they be?
The Broncos certainly followed that philosophy. They also have a weak offensive line, but Manning took his shots, throwing the ball up to his play-makers and asking them to beat the defense. That's exactly what happened with five seconds left in the first half, when Manning heaved a pass to Demaryius Thomas, who out-jumped Darius Slay for the ball and raced in for a 45-yard touchdown.
Just like that, Denver had a 14-6 halftime lead and noisy Ford Field was deflated. This is a deflation that will take a lot of work to fix. Desperation can't trump discipline, and the Lions don't show nearly enough. They committed nine penalties, including one real doozy. Between the occasional strikes to Johnson (eight catches, 77 yards), their offense again looked tentative, tedious, predictable.
Consider this statement from Broncos cornerback Bradley Roby, who made a diving interception: "We pretty much knew what they were gonna do, and they did it."
He has a point, although Stafford didn't agree on the predictability issue. The Lions' offense is trying to be something it isn't right now, not with a beaten-up offensive line, which lost Larry Warford for part of the game with an ankle injury.
"We wanted to really make certain we ran the ball more than we had previously," Caldwell said. "I just think we gotta be a bit more patient with the running game. It's hard, it's dirty work, it's not gonna be pretty all the time, but usually if you give it enough time, you pop one here and there."
OK, then why isn't Abdullah given more chances to pop one, as he did on a 16-yard touchdown catch-and-run? Stafford made a perfect throw and Abdullah dashed in for the score that made it 14-12.
But then came a crushing turnover by Stafford, hit as he was trying to throw. He again was under constant pressure, sacked four times, but he has to find a way to get rid of the ball. On this one, the ball squirted forward and officials ruled it a fumble rather an incomplete pass. It was a tough call, but the Lions benefitted from several replays reviews earlier.
On the ensuing series, the Broncos' Brandon McManus missed a 53-yard-field goal and the Lions were still in striking distance at 14-12. But there was the flag and this was the call — illegal formation on the defense. That's right, the Lions illegally loaded one side of their field-goal block unit with seven players (Darius Slay slid over late), which resulted in a 5-yard penalty, which led to McManus' 48-yard field goal.
After that, it was more Manning and less Stafford, which isn't a shock. The only shocking thing so far about the Lions' 0-3 start is they still find creative ways to lose, with no obvious end in sight.
Denver's David Bruton Jr. made another great grab for an interception, Manning made another great throw over Slay's head and the familiar script was written with slight revisions.
"You can make all the excuses you want, but the fact of the matter is, we should be playing better and we must," Caldwell said. "And that's my job. I'm not doing a very good job with these guys right now. I'm not getting the message."
The message is, the Lions can't keep waiting for something to happen, for the running game to develop, for Johnson to beat coverage, for DeAndre Levy to return and shore up the defense. This is danger time, one step beyond desperation time, and the Lions need to dig deeper for solutions instead of hammering what hasn't worked.