Wojo: Lions offense needs to bare its teeth this season
Allen Park — It was only one game, but it felt like two. And already, two new realities are dawning.
The first is the Lions can't count on a dominating defense like they could last season. And they certainly can't with DeAndre Levy injured and You Know Who no longer here.
But that's not the prevailing issue today, as the Lions try to figure out how they blew an 18-point lead against the Chargers, and how they rebound in another tough road contest against the Vikings. The reality is, the Lions need their offense to produce more than ever, to compensate for a lesser defense.
This is the second year under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, and there has to be more. There has to be more-aggressive play calling, and steadier playmaking by Matthew Stafford. There has to be more effort to get the ball to Calvin Johnson, and by "more effort," I mean more than two attempts in the first 58 minutes. There have to be more ways to sustain drives, which brings us to the new twist — rookie runner Ameer Abdullah.
The second-round pick from Nebraska looks special, and the Lions deserve credit for recognizing it. They'll get more credit the more they utilize it. Abdullah's speed and skill should make it easier for Stafford and Lombardi, but they couldn't sustain anything in the opener. When Abdullah touched the ball, something positive usually happened — 50 yards rushing, 44 receiving, 105 on kickoff returns.
The problem was, when the Lions touched the ball, they didn't keep it long enough to get it to Abdullah, or Golden Tate, or Eric Ebron, or anybody. That contributed to the horrific defensive meltdown in the second half. Philip Rivers shredded the Lions, exposing linebackers and the secondary as he fired the ball to Keenan Allen on short crossing patterns. Whatever Rivers and Allen (15 receptions) didn't do to wear the Lions down, the San Diego heat did.
There's no excuse, and when Levy returns from his hip injury, there has to be improvement. Coordinator Teryl Austin has shown an ability to adjust, so while the Lions won't have the No. 2 defense in the league again —and not just because they're Suh-less — they should be much better than this.
But isn't this the season the offense is supposed to meld and lead the way, with Stafford directing a vast array of weapons? It wasn't there Sunday for any reasonable stretch. The Lions expertly moved 80 yards on their first possession, on the way to a 21-3 lead. Three hours later, they drove 83 yards against a prevent defense for the tack-on touchdown in a 33-28 loss.
In between those drives, which totaled 163 yards, the Lions scraped up 139 on eight possessions. The Chargers did what many teams do, bracketing Johnson with two defenders and daring Stafford and Lombardi to find somebody else. When that happens, the offense retreats into a shell, with Stafford so intent on avoiding interceptions, he doesn't force much to Johnson.
He still threw two interceptions, although on one, his arm was clobbered by Melvin Ingram. Stafford completed 19 of 30 passes but converted only three of 10 third downs and almost never threw deep, which is supposed to be his strength. He hurt his right elbow on the Ingram hit and wore an arm sleeve the rest of the game, but said he's fine.
"I started feeling better towards the end of the game, and I'll be good to go," Stafford told Fox 2 Monday. "I'm not too worried about it."
Stafford is the key, as always, and picking the right targets probably isn't as easy as it sounds, although it should be getting easier in his seventh season. So how about this adjustment — give the ball to the rookie. Abdullah scored on a 24-yard run on the opening drive. He raced 36 yards with a short pass on the opening play of the second half. He finished with seven carries, four receptions and three kickoff returns, low volume exacerbated by the Lions' ridiculously puny total of 47 plays.
With Abdullah's talent, the Lions should have another way to shoo some of those defenders from Johnson and Tate.
"From week to week, you may see some guys get the ball a little bit more than others," Jim Caldwell said. "One week, it may be Theo (Riddick)'s day. The next week, it may be Ameer's, it may be Joique (Bell)'s. I think Matthew completed passes to about seven different receivers, which is kind of how it should look."
Time to counter
It would look better if Johnson is catching more than two, and Tate is gaining more than 24 yards receiving. Just as the defense was missing a huge piece, the offense didn't have the normal right side of its line, with Larry Warford and LaAdrian Waddle sidelined, and it was noticeable. Rookie Laken Tomlinson also made his first start, and while Stafford was officially sacked only once, he was hit a lot more than that.
No one should crank up the shrieking after one game, but it's fair to be mildly baffled.
"(The Chargers) definitely were putting a bunch of attention on (Johnson)," Stafford said. "But you gotta know when you have Calvin, they're gonna do everything they can to take him away. At the same time, we gotta find ways to get him the ball because he's a great player."
For a while, it all looked good, and then it turned ugly. Like I said, two games in one, two realities revealed. The Lions at least have shown they can fix one, the defense. As for that offense we've heard (and written) so much about? Need to see a lot more of it.
Lions at Vikings
Kickoff : 1 p.m. Sunday, TCF Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Records : Lions 0-1, Vikings 0-0 (played at 49ers Monday night)
Series : Vikings lead 69-36-2 (Detroit 16, Minnesota 14, Dec. 14, 2014)
Line : Vikings by 3
Did you know? From 1968-74, the Vikings beat the Lions 12 straight times