Detroit News sportswriters Bob Wojnowski and Josh Katzenstein say the Lions could face big trouble if offense doesn't improve.
Minneapolis — With the Lions, it’s never too early to sniff a crisis. So here it comes after another painfully wasted effort, after watching Matthew Stafford running frantically and looking harried, and others looking lost.
The Lions’ offense is a mash-mash of unclear intentions right now, unable to consistently run, block, or throw the ball deeper than 10 yards. Everyone knew this opening stretch would be a brutal test and the Lions have failed so far, now 0-2 after Sunday’s 26-16 loss to the Vikings.
You don’t want to overreact, but something is amiss. It’s not because the Lions dropped two road games, but because they looked so confused doing it. And now there are questions about Stafford’s health, after another afternoon of getting clobbered. He said his right arm, injured last week, was OK, although it didn’t always look that way. He had X-rays to his chest and ribs and gingerly stepped to the podium after the game, his bloodied left arm obscured by a long sleeve.
It’s an ugly look for the offense, which featured three turnovers and an inability to sustain much. Stafford deserves his share of blame, especially for a horrific interception to Vikings end Justin Trattou. But this looks more like a systemic problem, from the offensive line to coordinator Joe Lombardi to the skill players.
How bad was the Lions’ running game? Stafford was the leading rusher with 20 yards.
How bad was the offensive line? Stafford was the leading rusher with 20 yards.
How bad was Stafford? Actually, I think he was battered into bad, hit again and again, forced to throw 53 times, completing 32.
“Any time you have a game like this, when you fall behind early to a good team and you’re not successful running the ball, you’re gonna have to throw quite a bit,” Stafford said. “And that doesn’t put anybody in a good position. But it’s what you have to do to try to win the game.”
Offensive line shaky, and still not healthy
We’ve seen this before, and that’s the troubling part. No, the season isn’t lost, but it will be if the offense isn’t fixed because the defense is far from dominating. It got pushed around again, as Adrian Peterson marked his home return after a year’s absence by plowing for 134 yards.
When the Lions are forced to rely on Stafford winging it, some good things can happen, but too many bad things can happen. The offensive line allowed one sack, officially, but Stafford was beaten down to the point of concern.
“A lot of times you don’t see the shots he takes because you’re running routes, but you can tell something happened when you come back to the huddle,” Calvin Johnson said. “Or you see it on the big board and you wonder how he comes back. We know the guy’s tough, though. We just hurt ourselves in a lot of ways, with miscues and turnovers.”
This is what the Lions’ offensive strategy appeared to be against the Chargers and Vikings — picking options of last resort. Lombardi got defensive last week when asked about the under-use of Johnson, but whatever synergy he’s seeking isn’t there.
If only it were a simple as throwing to Johnson — although it’s still a good place to start. He was much more involved, targeted 17 times and finishing with 10 catches. But those went for a mere 83 yards, and Stafford’s longest completion to anybody was 19 yards.
The Lions are hampered by a shaky offensive line that’s still not healthy. Larry Warford returned but tackle LaAdrian Waddle was held out again and Cornelius Lucas struggled in his place. And first-round pick Laken Tomlinson apparently isn’t ready for full-time duty.
Too many things are unsettled. Rookie Ameer Abdullah has shown flashes, but the game plan strangely splits his attempts almost equally with Joique Bell. And it’s fair to question whether Stafford’s ailments prevent him from throwing deep. He possesses one of the strongest arms in the NFL and virtually never gets a chance to show it. Stafford said the deep game was hindered by the Vikings’ defense, not the ache in either arm.
“If he was limited by his right arm, we wouldn’t have played him,” Jim Caldwell said. “Obviously, getting hit as many times as he got hit, that took a toll on him. But he hung in there.”
More no-huddle would help offense
The ribs could be the issue now with Stafford fleeing the pocket so often. At times he fled prematurely, and his frustration mounted. When he was shoved out of bounds by the Vikings’ Anthony Barr, which drew a penalty, Stafford leaped up and shouted angrily at him.
Adjustments must be made, not that the Lions are eagerly accepting suggestions. The no-huddle attack produced a quick 73-yard touchdown drive late in the first half that cut the deficit to 17-10, and it’s worth revisiting.
But the miscues kept coming, and they ranged from the absurd to the painfully redundant. Lance Moore lost a fumble. Theo Riddick lost a fumble. On a goal-line stand, Jason Jones lined up barely in the neutral zone, and the offside penalty nullified the Lions’ recovery of a Peterson fumble.
It always circles back to the quarterback, and that’s not something the Lions — or any NFL team — can change. What they can control is how they use Stafford, and that means hiding his weaknesses and utilizing his strengths. It also means keeping him mostly in one piece.
“It’s tough to take multiple hits, and it’s gonna be hard to keep (Stafford) on the field if we don’t fix that,” receiver Golden Tate said. “You gotta be able to run the ball if you want to be good. And we gotta get open quicker and keep the ball in our hands. We’ve got too much talent not to figure it out.”
And little time to do it. Denver is next, followed by a trip to Seattle. If they don’t figure it out quickly, more pain awaits.