The Lions dropped their third straight to fall to 3-4 after failing to convert any of their five red zone trips into a touchdown.
Detroit — This is what the Lions still are, until further notice. They’re Paper Lions, capable of fancy catches and shiny stats, but incapable of making the toughest plays at the toughest times.
They were right there at the Pittsburgh 1 twice in the second half, and they might as well have been at the 50, on the cusp but not really close. The Steelers stuffed them and hung on for a 20-15 victory Sunday night at Ford Field, the type of game Pittsburgh always seems to win — and Detroit always seems to lose.
With four losses in five games, they’re in danger of becoming the pauper Lions (3-4), beaten down physically. Matthew Stafford threw for 423 yards and his receivers made all sorts of scintillating catches, and yet somehow, when the field shrunk, the Lions shrunk with it. They piled up 482 total yards on the NFL’s second-ranked defense and never put the ball in the end zone.
Three times in the second half the Lions had the ball inside the Steelers 6 and incredibly scored a total of three points. Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter kept guessing wrong and Stafford couldn’t make the big play when it was absolutely necessary. In those situations, he has to make the play, because the Lions inexcusably still lack one notable option.
For way too long, they haven’t brought in a power back or developed a bruising offensive line to smash for short yardage, especially at the goal line. Without a dependable running game of any type, the Lions can’t make the slightest timing errors in the red zone, and can’t pretend to be something they’re not.
Caldwell made that mistake on the first fourth-and-1 in the third quarter, when a Matt Prater field goal would’ve given them a 15-13 lead, the sensible call to make. Perhaps it was the bravado of a hotly competitive game, or the frustration of already settling for four Prater field goals, but Caldwell made the wrong call, even after given time to think about it when tackle Rick Wagner left briefly with an injury. On fourth down, the Steelers dropped seven guys into the end zone and Stafford couldn’t find anyone open, finally stumbling down at the 2.
Hitting a wall
“The fact of the matter is, we gotta be able to get it in, one way or another,” Caldwell said. “We tried several different ways and we gotta keep trying. I think we’re capable, we just didn’t do it.”
The Lions tried to do what the Steelers do — pound it in after gaining a first down at the 4. Dwyane Washington has been anointed the power back and gained 3 yards and no yards, and Stafford threw an incompletion on second down before his fateful scramble on fourth down. The Steelers then took over and Ben Roethlisberger promptly hit JuJu Smith-Schuster down the middle for 97 yards and the clinching touchdown.
It was stirring what the Lions did at times against the Steelers’ terrific secondary, with Marvin Jones catching six passes for 128 yards. Golden Tate had seven receptions for 86 yards but lost a crucial fumble at the Steelers’ 24 in the fourth quarter.
“I think we had some good calls, we were close on Dwayne’s runs twice,” Stafford said. “Rarely is it schemed up perfect, guys just gotta go out there and make plays, that’s me included. … If we’d have put it in the end zone, you’d have called this a breakout performance. We got inside the 10 and didn’t put the ball in the end zone for one reason or another, but from the 20 to the 20, we were playing as good a football as we have this year, I think.”
Every time the Lions got near, they botched something. It was a shame, really, because Pittsburgh was ripe to be plucked. Roethlisberger missed some wide-open receivers and Le’Veon Bell was punishing but only rushed for 76 yards. Bell is the type of bell-cow who chews yards when an offense otherwise might sputter. Whether it’s a bell-cow, a workhorse or any other label for a power runner, the Lions don’t have it.
Caldwell got testy when asked why the little-used Washington had assumed that role. Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick are nifty backs but they’re complementary, not battering backs, and they combined for only 48 yards rushing.
The Lions’ personnel pushes Caldwell and Cooter into unconventional positions, amplifying calls that don’t work. Early in the fourth quarter, the Lions again drove for a first down at the Pittsburgh 4, and again tried to hammer it in. After a Stafford incompletion, Washington was stuffed for gains of 2 and 1. This time, Caldwell attempted to correct the earlier mistake and instead doubled down on it. Rather than try for the potential tying touchdown, he sent Prater out for a 19-yard field goal, shaving the Steelers’ lead to 20-15 with 12:54 remaining.
The Lions were two-for-12 on third downs, and with their latest failures, they’re 0-for-6 on fourth downs this season.
“We tried to be aggressive and go after it the first time around,” Caldwell explained. “And the game was a little later the next time, so we kicked it. We had a chance to win it a couple times, we just couldn’t get it done.”
Finally, one more time, the Lions drove to a third-and-5 at the Pittsburgh 6 with 2:06 left. This mistake was on Stafford, who checked into a draw play for Riddick, who was tackled for a 2-yard loss. After the two-minute warning, Stafford was pressured on fourth down and threw short of Eric Ebron.
That was it, three prime chances in a prime-time game for the Lions to prove they could slug with one of the NFL’s best, and in the tightest corners, they swung and missed. There’s nothing wrong with taking the big swing, but when it’s not who you truly are, you can’t forget what you do better.
The Lions’ makeshift line, with Brian Mihalik at left tackle, did a decent job protecting Stafford, who was sacked twice. The receivers got open and ran well after the catch. Even Ebron, the subject of trade rumors, got loose for a 44-yard reception on the final, ill-fated drive.
The Lions have shifty skill-position players, not big, bulky bashers. That’s a flaw that still must be worked around. Until they add those sorely needed elements, they’ll continue to be close, on the edge of something, wondering how they possibly can punch their way in.