Niyo: Lions need to roll the play-calling dice more

John Niyo
The Detroit News
Panthers' Daryle Worley stops LIons' Marvin Jones Jr. from the reception but picks up a interference penalty in the first quarter. The drive was extended and led to a field goal.

Detroit — There's a risk in every decision in the NFL.

But the one the Lions appear to have made with their offense, whether by choice or by necessity, isn’t offering much in the way of rewards right now.

And at the risk of stating the obvious here, something has to change — and soon — or the Lions will have given back all that they gained in the season’s first quarter.

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Sunday’s 27-24 loss at home to the Carolina Panthers included another fourth-quarter comeback, and some dramatic role-playing by Matthew Stafford as he hobbled around on an injured ankle.

But it wasn’t so much the fight that stood out in this one. It was the plight of the Lions’ risk-averse offense, which has devolved into something bordering on dangerous — and not just for their stability in the NFC standings.

Stafford’s health is now a serious question mark after taking a beating for the second consecutive week, sacked a half-dozen times each by the Vikings and Panthers. His offensive line is cracking under pressure, the protections are a mess, at times, and his receivers are struggling to get separation, adding to Stafford’s woes, though he admittedly had his own issues Sunday, even before his game got gimpy.

“We’re just not executing, you know what I mean?” he said, pointing to some his own errant third-down throws, even including the one on the game’s opening drive that had the Ford Field crowd lustily booing Eric Ebron. “Throwing and catching, myself included. I haven’t played as good as I can play. I’ve got to play better. That’s who I’ll look at first.”

Speculate to accumulate

That’s what he must say, as the quarterback and team leader, not to mention the NFL’s highest-paid player. But this has been the lingering question for some time now, despite the Lions’ positive start to the season: Are the Lions really taking enough chances to give themselves the best chance at winning?

Because on days like this, when the Lions’ defense looked more like the unit we saw in 2016, rather than the turnover-producing machine it was in that 3-1 start, it sure doesn’t feel like it.

Sunday marked the 11th consecutive game at Ford Field where the Lions trailed in the fourth quarter, going all the way back to last year’s season opener. That’s not exactly a news flash. But it’s also not real conducive to playing winning football, let alone producing a playoff contender.

And while this one started to feel like it might be a replay of last year’s crazy comeback win at Minnesota late in the fourth quarter, the end result was exactly what the Lions deserved.

They’d challenged Cam Newton to beat them through the air, and he did, much to their chagrin. But the Lions also had decided — again — that as long as they didn’t beat themselves on offense, the Panthers wouldn’t, either.

That they didn’t should call that strategy into question, along with the play-calling of offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, who no doubt had fans groaning with a two-play sequence near midfield late in the third quarter. A rare downfield attempt went for naught on third-and-1, then a telegraphed fourth-down handoff to Zach Zenner went for even less — minus-4 yards, to be exact.

Stafford, for his part, defended his coordinator following Sunday’s game.

Execution is the solution

“No, I don’t think so at all,” he said, when asked if the play-calling should be called into question. “We’re going out there and we’ve got a very dialed-in plan, we know what we want to do each week. It’s on us as players to go out there and execute it.”

He’s right about that last part, of course. But it’s also hard to ignore the fact that the Lions entered Sunday’s game with just seven pass plays of 20-plus yards this season, ranked near the bottom of the NFL statistically. And though they added four more Sunday, only one of those came in the first three quarters — a quick flip to Theo Riddick that he broke for a big gain by juking Carolina’s Luke Kuechly.

Reactions to Detroit Lions vs. Carolina Panthers game

Stafford did take a chance on the Lions’ opening drive, taking advantage of a free play as the Panthers jumped offside and heaving one downfield to Marvin Jones. That play drew a pass interference penalty and put the Lions in terrific position to go up 7-0 with first-and-10 at the Carolina 12. But after a pair of incompletions, Ebron couldn’t hang on to Stafford’s third-down pass in the end zone and the Lions were forced to settle for a short field goal.

From there, the offense struggled to find any traction, outside of a nine-play, 60-yard touchdown drive early in the second quarter that was aided by three more Carolina penalties. Detroit’s six other possessions through the first three quarters produced just one first down, with five three-and-outs and one fumble by Stafford on a sack as the Panthers built a 27-10 lead.

Much of that was blamed on the protection issues, as Carolina blitzed Stafford on half of his 40 dropbacks Sunday, getting pressure on a dozen of them — six of those ending in sacks.

“It’s not just the offensive line,” Caldwell said. “There’s a lot of people involved in protections. And we’ve got to get that straightened out, all of us.”


But if they’re being straight with us, they’ll have to acknowledge this as well: They’re handcuffing themselves with some passive play-calling early in games, and Sunday it certainly cost them.

Sure, Stafford hasn't thrown an interception since that very first pick-six on his first pass in the season opener, a streak of 172 consecutive attempts. But if nothing's risked, what is really gained? Stafford, who clearly misses the deep threat provided by injured rookie Kenny Golladay, only took two shots down the field against the Panthers.

And because of the way this one went, both Caldwell and Cooter know they’ll be targeted now as the Lions prepare for New Orleans and their final game before the bye.

“When you’re not performing well, there’s always going to be some second-guessing," Caldwell said. "And that’s the way it is. You don’t win, you ought to get second-guessed. And we’ve been second-guessed before. But we’ve got a lot more football ahead of us. So we’ll get it straightened away.”