Wojo: After another absurd giveaway, can Lions get it back?

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Allen Park — Their record doesn’t match their mood, and it shouldn’t. The Lions are 0-0-1, but it looks and smells like 0-1.

It stinks and it stings, and they were still feeling the effects a day after blowing an 18-point fourth-quarter lead and settling for a 27-27 overtime tie with the Cardinals. The Lions committed several cardinal sins, including some of the worst.

They took their foot off the gas. Or perhaps they ran out of gas. Either one is unacceptable, and just like that, they jumped from the Arizona heat to the frying pan.

Lions Jamal Agnew, Tracy Walker and Mike Ford leave the field after Sunday's 27-27 tie with the Cardinals.

It’s way too early to call this an actual crisis. If the Lions beat the Chargers in the home opener Sunday, you won’t hear much about tying one on. But for Matt Patricia, it could be a crisis of confidence. The coaching staff didn’t show enough confidence in Matthew Stafford to put the game away, and hammered with the run. The defense appeared to back off, and a rookie head coach and rookie quarterback on one of the worst teams in the league suddenly became unstoppable.

“We definitely didn’t back off from a standpoint of play calls or anything like that, not at all,” Patricia said Monday. “We know how dangerous (Kyler Murray) is. He’s obviously a great player, was a great college player and finished off the game really well. From that standpoint, they made some good adjustments.”

No coach wants to admit he dialed down the aggressiveness with a fourth-quarter lead, but the change was obvious and dramatic. Up until that point, Darrell Bevell was calling an excellent game, with Stafford distributing the ball to eight different pass-catchers. We should be talking today about the brilliant debut of tight end T.J. Hockenson, or the nifty 47-yard touchdown catch by Danny Amendola, or the three-sack performance by linebacker Devon Kennard.

Instead, it’s something else, again. At the moment he fired a 23-yard touchdown pass to Hockenson on the second play of the fourth quarter, Stafford was 20-for-29 for 301 yards. The lead was 24-6 and Murray was 9-for-25 for 70 yards. It was a rout. It was over, except with the Lions, it’s never over.

Unraveling commences

It really is astonishing they didn’t win, unless you saw how it unfolded, and have seen it before. They had five sacks through three quarters and couldn’t get another. Murray was 20-for-29 the rest of the way, exactly matching Stafford’s early numbers. From that point on, Stafford was 7-for-16.

Murray got comfortable throwing to ageless receiver Larry Fitzgerald and the Cardinals pretty much stopped trying to run. That took Lions run-stuffing defensive tackle Damon Harrison out of the game; he played only 27 snaps. It also increased the load for rookie Kevin Strong, who didn’t record a tackle. In his Lions debut, Trey Flowers had only two tackles.

It’s not supposed to work this way, but it did. Because the Cardinals trailed, they took away the Lions’ strength (run stopping) and exposed holes in their pass-rushing and secondary. In just the fourth quarter and overtime, Arizona piled up 287 yards. Harrison said he took the blame, but he was being charitable to teammates who played far more snaps. Before he was taken out, Harrison was effective against the pass, with two deflections.

Cardinals' Chris Jones prevents Lions wide receiver Kenny Golladay from getting the first down at the end of  the fourth quarter.

“Anytime we don’t come out with a win, and we had the type of defensive performance we had, it’s on me,” Harrison said. “I got broad shoulders. I can take the blame. I wasn’t my usual productive self.”

So does this feel like a loss, not a tie?

“That’s exactly what it is, it’s a loss,” he said. “You can’t look at it any other way. We didn’t get a point in the win column, so for us it’s a loss.”

Technically it isn’t, and the Lions showed enough positive signs through three quarters to make you think it’s not a crisis. The problem is, with a daunting five-game stretch ahead, it could turn into one quickly.

The boiling-point moment was the fateful timeout that negated a third-down pass that would have given the Lions a crucial first down with 2:47 left, holding a 24-16 lead. But if you focus too intently on that brutal turn of events, you miss the deeper meaning.

Stafford was furious after Patricia — at the apparent urging of Bevell — called a timeout with one second on the play clock. It’s not unusual for a coach to call a timeout in that situation, but the optics weren’t good, and it should’ve been Stafford’s call. Following the stoppage, he threw an incompletion, then could be seen shouting “Trust me! Trust me!” as he fumed on the sideline.

Fault lines

I don’t think it was a lack of trust in Stafford, and Patricia wanted to make that clear, saying his trust level is “like 1,000 percent.” I think it was a lack of conviction, a moment of panic. Yes, the clock was about to hit zero, but the timeout reflected the Lions’ overly cautious demeanor the entire fourth quarter, perhaps more on offense than defense.

If there’s a lack of trust, it should be toward the offensive line, which collapsed at times. Taylor Decker was especially bad, called for four penalties, and fellow tackle Rick Wagner wasn’t much better. Kerryon Johnson rushed for only 49 yards, and Stafford faced the highest percentage of pressures of any quarterback in the league Sunday, according to Pro Football Focus.

Where the Lions expect to be strong (defensive line) and hope to get stronger (offensive line) is where they let down, and where they have to pick it up immediately. Precisely as if coming off a staggering loss.

“It’s a tricky day because there’s only one goal and that’s to win,” Patricia said. “When you don’t win, everything else really doesn’t feel the same. We have to finish the game better. I think there are a lot of plays in there — starting with myself — where we could have done a better job to help us win the game.”

The season-opener was an eye-opener for the Lions, at first in encouraging ways, then in alarming ways. On the scoreboard, it was a push. In reality, it was more than that, a glimpse at what they could be, and a reminder why they always struggle to get there.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

Chargers at Lions

Kickoff: 1 Sunday, Ford Field

TV/radio: CBS/760

Records: Chargers 1-0, Lions 0-0-1

Line: Chargers by 3½