Wojo: Undisciplined Lions blow game to Cowboys

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
The Lions could do little to stop Cowboys running back Ezekiel Elliott on Sunday.

Arlington, Texas — So many big plays, so many bad plays, so many wasted plays. The Lions put themselves in position for a stirring victory and then took themselves right out, again and again, gaffe after gaffe.

They stopped the Cowboys on third down, but whoops, someone lined up offside. They took the lead on another perfect strike from Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate, but whoops, the defense gave it right back in the final two minutes.

The record will show the Cowboys were a desperate home team with a dominant back in Ezekiel Elliott, and he made the play of the game on a 34-yard catch over linebacker Jarrad Davis. Brett Maher then booted the winning 38-yard field goal at the final gun and the Cowboys edged the Lions, 26-24, on Sunday.

The larger picture is, the Lions had to be especially creative to blow this. Wasted? A big effort from Stafford (24-for-30, 307 yards) and his acrobatic pass-catching trio of Tate, Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones. Squandered? The buzz from last week’s resounding victory over the Patriots, as the Lions fell to 1-3 with inexcusable lapses in discipline. Burned? A defense that still can’t stop the run, no matter who’s running it.

No surprise here, but Matt Patricia has a long way to go to stamp out the Lions’ self-injuring tendencies. Elliott and Dak Prescott beat the Lions, but boy, they got a lot of help from a reliable source — the Lions themselves. On one key penalty, linebacker Eli Harold simply lined up offside, negating Dallas’ incompletion on third down. Given another shot, Elliott rumbled 35 yards to the Lions’ 7, setting up a field goal for a 23-17 lead.

“It was just careless by me,” Harold said. “I just gotta be more aware in that situation, just lock in, be smarter. It sucks, bro, it sucks.”

'We killed ourselves'

Harold is new to the Lions, but as we saw, not immune to their maddening foibles. A couple lockers away, another defensive player expressed similar sentiments. A few lockers farther down, so did another. Given a chance to put away a game that Stafford appeared to pull out, the defense gave up one more big play, one too many.

“They pounced on all our penalties, scored when they needed to score,” defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. “This game was more about us, it was us that put this game where it was. I take my hat off to the Dallas Cowboys, they did their job. But we killed ourselves.”

The Lions finished with eight penalties — including three defensive holdings on one third-quarter drive — while the Cowboys had two. With a disparity like that in a place like this, where the Lions felt they’d been jobbed before, it generated a few veiled gripes from players.

More: Justin Rogers' Lions grades: Offense sparkles, defense falters

More: Lions' Jarrad Davis frustrated hard work not yet paying off

It had to be an enormously frustrating day for them, as Elliott ran for 152 yards and added another 88 on receptions. Prescott didn’t do much until the end, and then made lucky plays and clutch plays. Stafford’s 38-yard touchdown strike to Tate with 2:17 left put the Lions on top 24-23, but with their defensive deficiencies, it’s unsafe to declare anything safe.

Undisciplined mistakes were a problem, obviously. But the game was won on a basic route by Elliott, who beat Davis down the right sideline and caught the pass at the 25. From there, the Cowboys bled the clock and kicked the winner.

Afterward, Davis was disconsolate, a towel draped over his head. Dropping into coverage has been his weakness, and the Cowboys exploited it. Davis took responsibility, although it was a pinpoint throw by Prescott and a great catch by Elliott.

“I just gotta get in position to make a better play on the ball,” Davis said. “Not really a whole lot I can say. To get that close and have it ripped away like that, it sucks.”

More control

This was a crusher, and you could see it etched in Patricia’s pained expression. He lamented the penalties, and as he often says, “It starts with me.” Yep, it does. But there also were some fluky twists, even by Lions standards.

Late in the first half, Romeo Okwara was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty when he clobbered Prescott, although it was unclear whether the quarterback had been ruled down yet. It was somewhat beside the point, as Darius Slay also was called for illegal contact. On the next play, Prescott dumped a pass to Elliott, who rumbled 38 yards for the touchdown and a 13-10 lead.

On the Cowboys’ final drive, Lions rookie Da’Shawn Hand rushed hard and knocked the ball out of Prescott’s hand. But the quarterback scooped it up and saved the play (and perhaps the game) by throwing the ball away.

The Lions also lost right guard T.J. Lang early to a concussion, but the offensive line held up adequately. The problem was, the newfound running game was lost again, and after Kerryon Johnson ran 32 yards on the first play, he finished with only 55 on nine carries. He needs a larger role, otherwise the offense is reduced to a high-wire unbalanced act too reliant on Stafford, who got off to another slow start.

Tate was brilliant, with eight catches for 132 yards, although his high-stepping and showboating isn’t a great look, even if it is an amusing look. Patricia spoke to him on the sideline about it, and Tate admitted it was “selfish on my part” and he needed to show more discipline.

That should be tattooed into the Lions’ overall mindset. They don’t have many play-makers on defense, but they certainly can play more disciplined. The formula really hasn’t changed over the years — giving plays away is exactly how you give games away.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski