The Lions nearly pulled off another comeback, but there is reason for concern after the team fell behind three scores after three quarters.
Detroit — The Lions were primed for a rare quick start, marching on their first possession all the way to the Carolina 12. It was third down and Eric Ebron did what he’s capable of doing, using his size and speed to get open. And then he did what he can’t stop doing, dropping the ball, turning an apparent touchdown into a field goal.
Ebron’s definition of a drop is different than yours or mine, and he said he was “blinded” by the hands of defender Shaq Thompson, who nearly intercepted Matthew Stafford’s pass. OK, at this point, semantics don’t really matter. There was a play to be made and he didn’t make it, and the boos began immediately.
This can’t keep happening, leaving touchdowns on the field, not if Ebron wants to maintain any role in this offense, not if the Lions (3-2) truly want to be division contenders. Carolina rolled to a big lead and held on for a 27-24 victory Sunday at Ford Field, another reminder of the narrow gap in this league.
The Lions needed every shot they took, and twice Ebron dropped the ball or didn’t make a tough play. No, he didn’t lose the game for the Lions, not with the constant pressure on Stafford, who was hobbled after suffering six more sacks. But this is an accumulation of missteps, and with fellow tight end Darren Fells becoming more and more productive, Ebron is running out of time.
At some point soon — like, now — Ebron has to look deeper at whatever is preventing him from becoming a consistent threat, befitting the No. 10 overall pick of the 2014 draft. Concentration? Confidence? Or what about this: The maturity to admit he’s not doing enough to get better, and it’s all on him.
Afterward, he took some blame, but preferred to credit the defense. He was pleasant and accommodating, and if he’s shaken, he didn’t cop to it. He also wisely stopped short of firing back recklessly at those who fire at him.
“They can boo all they want to,” Ebron said. “This is what I get paid to do. This is what I love to do. I’m going to continue to go out there and try to make plays for our offense and just take this one on the chin, and get ready for New Orleans.”
Although he claimed to be unbothered by the negative reaction, Ebron later jumped on Twitter and said a bit more: “Some of you wouldn’t know the half. Boooo me all u want but pay attention to the whole picture. #StayWoke.”
It’s safe to say, frustration is growing and patience is waning, even if the Lions or Ebron won’t publicly admit it. He already played 20 fewer snaps than Fells last week in Minnesota. And while Ebron caught one pass for 6 yards against the Panthers, Fells had two touchdown catches — 4 and 20 yards — as the Lions rallied from a 27-10 deficit.
Would a touchdown on the opening drive have made a significant impact, beyond the obvious difference between an early 3-0 or 7-0 lead? For an offense that has struggled much of the season — 24th in the league in total yards — it certainly would have helped.
Jim Caldwell defended his fourth-year tight end, primarily because he didn’t want to absolve everyone else.
“Let’s face it, he wasn’t our problem, it just doesn’t boil down to one player,” Caldwell said. “We had a number of things go wrong. … I’m not going to just focus in on (Ebron). You guys can write what you want to write. He works at it, and we’ll keep working with him and try to get him better. That’s the key.”
Waited long enough
Ebron always has been the wild card in an offense not loaded with playmakers. The Lions know they can’t keep winning the way they have so far, hunting for turnovers or hoping for comebacks. And they can’t keep waiting for Ebron to fulfill his promise.
He denied his confidence is damaged, but how can it not be? Stafford also refused to pin blame on him. The frustration might not be overtly apparent with the team, but it certainly is apparent with the fans.
Shortly after the end-zone miss, the giant videoboard showed Ebron as part of a pre-recorded quiz game, and the crowd booed all the way through. In the fourth quarter, Ebron dropped another pass over the middle, unable to hang on as safety Mike Adams hit him from behind. Carolina was offsides so it was a free play, and the Lions didn’t cash in. It would’ve been a good catch but not an improbable one, the type of catch he has to make.
“The crowd doesn’t affect me none,” Ebron said. “The only thing that affects me is if there is a situation in which I let my team down. I feel like I should’ve caught that pass over the middle. Yeah, I blame that on me. But then again, Mike Adams has been in this league 14 years. He made a great play to break it up, so I kick myself in the butt for that one.”
And what about the earlier drop in the end zone?
“If you want to call it a drop, that’s cool,” Ebron said. “It hit my right shoulder, but (Thompson) should’ve intercepted that ball. It went right through his hands and blinded me from it, but I should’ve caught it.”
That’s accepting some level of responsibility, which is the only way a player truly improves. Just listen to Fells, 31, a 6-foot-7 veteran who played professional basketball overseas before launching his NFL career. He was brought here primarily for his blocking, but worked his way open for two touchdown receptions Sunday. Afterward, he spent more time lamenting his missed block of Julius Peppers on fourth-and-1 near midfield late in the third quarter, which resulted in a 4-yard loss by Zach Zenner.
You guys see the touchdowns and I see the fourth-and-1 that we missed, and a fumble recovery I should’ve got,” Fells said. “I’m seeing what we need to do to get the W.”
Ebron had nothing but praise for Fells, who might be the starter now, with the Lions desperately in need of blocking. Ebron has to recognize what’s unfolding here, that his job is getting tenuous. Yes, the Lions picked up his fifth-year option, but that’s standard, and not really an indication he’ll stay beyond this season.
The Lions signed Fells in the offseason and drafted Toledo tight end Michael Roberts in the fourth round. There are realities forming and Ebron has to see them. Now we need to see if he’s capable of doing something about it.