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Niyo: Lions offense harried into submission

John Niyo
The Detroit News
"That’s the problem we’ve had – we haven’t been consistent enough,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.

Glendale, Arizona — The defense can't rest. Because the offense is still slumbering.

And until Joe Lombardi finds a way to do for the latter what Teryl Austin has done for the former, the Lions are only half the team they could be, or need to be.

Some bogus calls from Jerome Boger's officiating crew had the Lions — and their fans — understandably frustrated after Sunday's 14-6 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. But pinning the blame anywhere other than this team's one-sided ineptitude right now simply sounds offensive.

Detroit was held without a touchdown for the first time since the final road game of their 2-14 season in 2009, when Drew Stanton's first career NFL start went about as miserably you'd expect in a 20-6 loss at San Francisco.

Sunday, though, it was Stanton's turn to exceed expectations, lining up in the victory formation and taking a knee — after a career-best 306-yard passing day — as the Cardinals improved to 9-1 for the first time since 1948.

And while the Lions were quick to follow their head coach's lead in the postgame locker room, insisting this loss was just one game (correct) and hardly a season-wrecker (probably not), the nagging concerns about their offense are now a full-blown problem.

They've scored just one first-half touchdown in their last four games, a mystifying drought that can't merely be explained away by injuries anymore. They've been a factor, sure. But there's no excuse for this team — and this offense — to be averaging 18.8 points per game three months into the season.

Not when so much of this past offseason was centered on retooling it, arming Matthew Stafford with better weapons and harnessing his readily-apparent talent.

Pocket squeezed

The Lions averaged 5.2 yards per carry Sunday, and Jim Caldwell tried to find the "silver lining" in that. But Stafford averaged just 4.8 yards per pass attempt, was pressured too often and was sacked four times. And the receiving tandem of Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, blanketed by arguably the NFL's best secondary unit, was limited to 100 yards combined. Tate, in fact, was targeted just twice all game.

"Am I surprised a little bit that No. 81 didn't get off a little more?" said Cardinals linebacker Larry Foote, one of Johnson's former teammates in Detroit. "Yes, I am. But (All-Pro cornerback) Patrick Peterson, that's why he makes the big bucks."

Well, the Lions are a pretty well-paid bunch on offense, too. And as Johnson said, "When our defense is able to hold them to 14, we have to be able to put up some points and win those games."

Stafford surely shoulders some of the blame here, and the offensive line's uneven play continue to be an issue. But Lombardi has to take some heat, because the stutter-step routine from his offense right now is maddening to watch.

A missed throw here, a whiffed block there — rookie Eric Ebron probably will cringe once or twice in today's film review — and curious calls scattered throughout. Where's the aggressiveness? Where's the tempo they promised? Where's the screen game that we expected to see from Lombardi? Heck, where's the passing with all those big receiving targets in the red zone? (Not they got there more than once Sunday.)

"That's the problem we've had – we haven't been consistent enough," Caldwell said. "But it's not like we're throwing our hands up and saying, 'This is total frustration.'"

Maybe not, but the fans undoubtedly were, as drives continually stalled due to a variety of missed assignments and misguided calls and a mess of penalties. (The Lions committed 12 in the game, nine of them enforced.)

"Definitely self-inflicted," said Joique Bell, whose 14-carry, 85-yard rushing effort was one of the few bright spots Sunday.

Perhaps not coincidentally, Bell was on the sideline — shaking off a leg injury — for one of the Lions' most confounding plays Sunday. After another questionable spot — and there were a glaring few Sunday — left Detroit facing third-and-inches near midfield, Stafford took a shotgun snap and made an inside handoff to Theo Riddick, who was stopped for no gain.

Asked if he's concerned the play-calling has become too predictable, Caldwell shook his head and said, "I don't feel that way." Asked if the line deserved the blame for the short-yardage stumbles, guard Rob Sims said, "You can put on us if you want."

"But we can't call out one group," Bell insisted. "We're a team. We play as a team, fight as a team, win as a team, lose as a team."

Sunday, though, it was pretty evident where this game was lost. Yes, the refs stunk.

But, as Stafford said, "When you score six points, you're not going to win a whole lot of games."

Or a division title, for that matter.

Big decisions

Officials' calls and penalties played a big role in the Lions' loss. They were flagged nine times, with another three that were declined. Here are five big calls that factored into the 14-6 loss to the Cardinals:

Second quarter

■ At the Cardinals' 37, guard Rob Sims had a 15-yard facemask penalty, pushing the Lions back and they punted three plays later.

■ Just before halftime, Eric Ebron looked to have a first down on third-and-4. But the official spot (and review) put it a yard short. The Lions had to settle for a 28-yard field goal.

Fourth quarter

■ Early in the fourth quarter, Arizona punted and tried to down it at the 1, but Jeremy Ross returned it 49 yards into Cardinals territory. A review determined that the ball had been downed, and it was placed back at the Lions' 1.

■ Trying to pin Arizona back on a punt late in the game, Julian Stanford was called for taunting, giving the Cardinals 15 yards and the ball at their 41.

■ On third-and-11 with 2:32 left, Larry Fitzgerald caught a pass that looked to be short of the first-down marker. But the Lions didn't review the spot, essentially ending the game.