Niyo: Lions at a loss, and coaching is to blame

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Baltimore — Go ahead and do the math if you want. But no matter how you add it up, the Lions still figure to come up short.

They proved that again Sunday, spotting another opponent a big lead before trying to make things interesting, only to make things worse for themselves in a 44-20 loss to the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium.

There aren’t many ways around it now: The Lions’ playoff hopes are officially numbered. But before you bother to calculate the odds, you might want to check the film of this one. Because they effectively counted themselves out, saving us all the trouble.

One play can’t sum it all up. Not the missed tackles and the missed kicks and the bungled play-calling that all led to Matthew Stafford throwing in the towel, literally if not figuratively.

But one play might as well have Sunday as the Lions gave up 37 points to the league’s heretofore 31st-ranked offense, and then added insult to injury when Matthew Stafford’s late interception ended with him heading for X-rays on his bruised and bloodied right hand.

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It was a play early in the fourth quarter, after the Lions, who’d trailed 20-0 at the half, closed to within a touchdown and had the Ravens facing third-and-7 at the Detroit 33. They’d just missed a sack-fumble on the previous play, as Anthony Zettel hit Joe Flacco — a rarity on this day — and the ball came loose. But officials ruled the play dead as an incomplete pass, and while Lions coach Jim Caldwell later said he briefly considered challenging the ruling on the field, the Ravens weren’t going to wait around to find out.

Problem was, the Lions were in the middle of a defensive substitution. So as Flacco took the snap and dropped back to pass he had no trouble finding an open receiver, Chris Moore, who was alone in the middle of the field for a 23-yard gain.

Count ’em

Two plays later, the Ravens scored again to make it 27-13 and begin what would end up a franchise-record 24-point outburst in the fourth quarter. But stop there and hit the rewind button. Did you see what Flacco saw? The Lions had nine players on the field for that third-down play. Nine! One team was out there playing football, and the other was playing baseball.


“It’s hard enough sometimes playing with 11,” linebacker Tahir Whitehead said afterward. “You definitely can’t do it with nine.”

Whitehead was one of the visiting nine on the play, and as he got dressed to head for the bus, he certainly wasn’t interested in throwing anyone under it, coaches or teammates.

“We’re trying to match personnel,” he said. “They just caught us in a bad situation.”

But like many of the Lions’ problems, the blame for this situation they find themselves in rests where it’s most comfortable. Way too comfortable, frankly.

“It’s all coaching,” Jim Caldwell insisted afterward. “It’s all coaching. You’ve never heard me say anything differently. I’ll tell you the exact same thing today, tomorrow. We’ve got to do better.”

Or else what, exactly? Caldwell scoffed at the suggestion he might need to make changes on his staff, or that his players’ struggles with executing the game plan were even trying his patience.

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“No, it’s my fault,” he said. “It’s me, not them. I’ve got to do a better job.”

What if this is as good as it gets, though? The Lions are a .500 team still on the periphery of the NFC playoff picture — they got all the help they needed Sunday, even as they were failing to help themselves — but they’ve looked far more like a pretender than a contender the last month.

Preparation fail

The run game isn't getting fixed, and the pass rush seems beyond repair, too. The protections still require a warning label, and the defensive substitutions apparently have everyone confused. Even the aggressive clock management at the end of the first half backfired Sunday, handing the Ravens an extra field goal.

But for a staff that prides itself on preparation, this is the most damning part. The Lions had four extra days to get ready for this one, coming off a Thanksgiving game at home while the Ravens were on a short week after playing Monday night. Did it look like that to you once the game kicked off Sunday? No? Me neither.

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The Lions have been outscored by a combined 36-3 score in the first quarter over their last four games, trailing by double digits with alarming alacrity in each of them. It’s one thing to do it against the Vikings, who are running away with the NFC North. But it’s another to do it against the Browns and Bears and now the Ravens.

Nevermore? Hardly. The repetition here is mind-numbing, and even the veterans on the team sound like they’re at a loss.

“I mean, if I knew the answer,” safety Glover Quin said of the sluggish starts, “it probably wouldn’t keep happening.”

But it does, and if the Lions couldn’t feel it before, they have no choice now, what with Stafford’s throwing hand wrapped in ice and the injury list growing in horror.

At one point Sunday, the Lions offensive line looked like this, from left to right: Taylor Decker, Corey Robinson, Graham Glasgow, Don Barclay and Brian Mihalik. And it was no happy accident that the game’s final margin was the result of a pick-six thrown by Jake Rudock as he was getting clobbered by a free blitzer.

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By that point, Stafford was already back in the locker room getting X-rays on his hand, which got stepped on by Terrell Suggs. The results were negative, which was a positive, I guess.

But the rest of this result Sunday was anything but, and if it gets worse from here — Lions fans know it can always get worse — it’ll beg some serious questions in the end: Whose fault was this failed season? And what are the consequences?

Caldwell signed a “multi-year” contract extension before the season that the Lions seemed reluctant to announce. Watching the Lions play like this, it’s easy to understand why.