Bob Wojnowski, John Niyo and Justin Rogers preview the Lions-Steelers game on this week's Lions Lowdown. Detroit News
Allen Park — The bye week in the NFL is a time for self-healing.
But it’s also a time for self-reflection. Or self-scouting, as coaches like to call it.
And as the Lions get ready to jump back into the fray — and into the prime-time spotlight for Sunday night’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Ford Field — they insist they’re ready to do so with a greater sense of self-awareness.
Now they have to prove it, though. Particularly on offense, where thus far the Lions have been a disappointment by just about any measure — statistically, schematically, aesthetically.
“We have the potential to be a whole lot better than we are right now,” offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter acknowledged Thursday. “Yeah, I see us being a much bigger part of our team winning ball games as we move forward.”
They’d better be. Because this team isn’t going anywhere — certainly not the playoffs — if it’s standing still offensively, or moving backward, the way it has far too often this season. The strength of this Lions team was supposed to revolve around Matthew Stafford and a dynamic passing game, aided by a revamped offensive line and a finally-healthy running back tandem.
But while the Lions rank eighth in the NFL in scoring (26.8 ppg), that stat is more than a bit misleading. The offense has only scored 14 of their 19 touchdowns this season. A better measure: Detroit’s offense ranks 20th in points per drive (1.75) and 31st in yards per drive (24.44), according to Football Outsiders. (The Lions’ defense, by contrast, ranks in the top 10 in the league in both those categories.)
Sluggish from get-go
The slow starts are a problem: the Lions' six game-opening drives this season have produced one field goal and two defensive touchdowns. But so are the abrupt endings: More than a quarter of their offensive possessions result in three-and-outs, which ranks 21st in the league.
That’s partly due to the failures on first down — the Lions are 31st in first-down efficiency — and certainly related to their never-ending struggles in the run game. A league-worst 31 percent of Detroit’s rushing attempts have resulted in no gain or lost yardage this season.
And while some of that has to do with personnel — key injuries on the offensive line clearly have kneecapped the Lions — none of it absolves the coaching staff, which used the bye week to find a healthier alternative to that steady diet of stuffed runs and strip sacks.
“It’s good to have time to spend diving deep on what we’ve done this year,” Cooter said. “What we’ve done well, what we need to do better, and hopefully improve those things and maybe throw away some of the stuff we don’t do as well.”
Well, maybe not throw away for good, he added, “but you see certain things that maybe aren’t working great and you push them to the back for a little while. … Sometimes a play is just not very hot, so you shove it away for a couple of weeks and maybe bring it back down the road.”
Cooter wasn’t ready to let us do any trash-picking Thursday, though I’m sure many fans are hoping that short-yardage Zach Zenner run with Nick Bellore as a lead blocker is in there somewhere. Some of the other tendencies need tweaking, too, whether it’s Theo Riddick’s usage — two-back formations with Ameer Abdullah might help there — or the pistol-formation runs that backfired again and again against the Saints in their last outing.
Been there, done that
Of course, the difference between predictable and productive often hinges on protection, and there’s no denying the Lions have struggled mightily in that area. Stafford has been sacked on nearly 10 percent of his dropbacks this season — 17 times in the last three games alone — and his injuries further hampered the play-calling in that last game in New Orleans. It may not get much better this week, as it appears Brian Mihalik may get his first career start at left tackle Sunday, facing a Pittsburgh defense that ranks No. 2 in the NFL in sacks.
“But it’s a team game,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “We need everybody playing well to get that done. So, you certainly cannot just put your finger on one particular issue and say, ‘Hey, this was it.’ In this league, you’ve got to win in spite of what you may consider to be a shortcoming.”
What’s coming next is a five-week stretch that figures to decide the Lions’ fate, though. After facing Pittsburgh, three of the next four games are against NFC North opponents. And if recent history is any guide, the timing is just right for a rebound. The Lions are 3-0 under Caldwell coming off a bye, and last year they won their next four after the break. The year before that, they won their first three after the bye following that disastrous 1-7 start
“It seems like we always trend up in the second half of the season,” Tate said. “And that’s the plan. We want to start playing our best football real soon, and then maintain that, week in and week out. This division is wide-open. That’s what we’re eyeing right now, is to get our division.”
First, though, they needed to look in the mirror. We’ll find out soon — real soon — what they saw, and if they look any different.