Justin Rogers and John Niyo break down the Lions' dismal 24-9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Justin Rogers, The Detroit News
Minneapolis — If the trade didn’t do it, maybe this will.
But either way, we’re about to find out just how tight the bonds are between the Lions. And how much trust there is between the coaches and the players and the front office. Or how much interest there is in pushing forward after all the backsliding we've seen in the last eight days.
The Lions have reached the halfway point in their season, but only an eternal optimist could look at what happened on the field Sunday in a 24-9 loss to the Minnesota Vikings — after what happened earlier in the week at the NFL trade deadline, or against Seattle in their previous outing — and see a glass that’s half full.
No, this one looks broken. Maybe even shattered the way the Vikings smashed a franchise record with 10 sacks of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, effectively burying whatever was left of the Lions’ playoff hopes in the process.
Nine points and 10 sacks allowed? That’s one way sweep a season into the dustbin.
And if you want to blame general manager Bob Quinn for supplying the broom, opting to trade away Golden Tate — the Lions’ leading receiver and Stafford’s well-worn security blanket — for a 2019 draft pick, that’s fine.
I’m not sure Tate would’ve dramatically altered the course of this game, but he sure could’ve helped, as the Vikings used a variety of tricks from Mike Zimmer’s defensive bag and treated Stafford like a rag doll for most of the afternoon.
You have to go back to the 2007 to find last time a Lions quarterback got thumped quite like this, when Jon Kitna took 10 sacks in a 56-21 loss in Philadelphia. Stafford became just the fifth NFL quarterback in the last decade to get sacked that many times in a game, and the Vikings racked up 17 QB hits in all.
'A little bit on everybody'
Asked if he’d ever been a part of something like that, Vikings defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said no, then amended his answer with a laugh.
“Well, in Pee Wee, yeah,” he said. “High school, maybe. But that wasn’t fair. I was the biggest person on the field.”
Sunday, it felt a little like that, at times. The Vikings kept bull-rushing and blitzing their way into the Lions’ backfield, Stafford kept ducking for cover or tucking and running, and by the time the whistle blew, he was picking himself up off the turf. Lather, rinse, and repeat. At one point, late in the first half, the Lions actually had to call a timeout so Stafford could wash all the rubber pellets from the field turf out of his eye.
“You have a day like that, it’s a little bit on everybody,” said Stafford, who finished with under 200 passing yards for just the fifth time since 2015. “Obviously. I’ve got to get the ball out faster, I’ve got to find check-downs a little bit faster to get the ball out.”
And obviously, not every team will make you pay late fees the way the Vikings can, with a ferocious front four and an aggressive, defensive whiz like Zimmer scheming up ways to confuse and confound an opposing quarterback.
But this is two straight games where the Lions have gotten rolled by quality opponents, and the next month includes two games against the division-leading Chicago Bears, along with home games against a 6-2 Carolina team and the once-beaten Los Angeles Rams.
Asked Sunday afternoon if he worried about his team’s ability to carry on, head coach Matt Patricia insisted he’s not.
“No, these are tough guys,” said Patricia, who only missed the playoffs once in his 14 seasons with New England — an 11-5 finish in 2008, while the Lions were busy making history going 0-16. “They’re mentally tough guys. They’re physically tough guys. They go to work every day. We understand that the games aren’t easy. But it doesn’t matter. We’ve got a game coming up this week we’ve gotta get ready for and we’ve gotta go back to work. So that’s our mindset. That’s gotta be our mindset. There’s really no other options. There’s no other choice.”
That’s easy for a head coach to say when he’s in the first year of a five-year contract. And that’s what Patricia has to say right now, quite frankly.
But players always have choices to make, and when the playoffs start to fade from view, GMs aren’t the only ones making business decisions.
So we’ll see what happens next, and how Patricia’s team responds. Practicing outside in a cold rain on a Thursday, a few days before you play an indoor game, is one thing when you’re in the thick of a division race. It’s another when you’re not.
And what these last two weeks have shown us is that this is decidedly not a playoff team, a point driven home in the second quarter.
The Lions began it with a false-start penalty on first-and-goal from the Vikings 4, then backpedaled in the red zone and settled for the first of three short Matt Prater field goals. After the second, Detroit’s defense gave up a 70-yard run to Dalvin Cook — the Lions' league-worst fifth rushing play of 40-plus yards this season.
And just for good measure, they were flagged another holding penalty on the ensuing kickoff return, a problem area all season.
Stafford, meanwhile, was sacked four times in the second quarter alone as every other play turned into a scramble drill. Stafford looked flustered and unsure at times, and frustrated throughout.
And all that finally boiled over in midway through the fourth quarter, shortly after the Lions finally caught a break and made a play. Trailing 17-6, Lions defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson pounced on a fumbled pitch by Cousins. Then, after what looked to be another three-and-out from the offense, a well-executed fake punt gave Detroit a fresh set of downs.
But LeGarrette Blount was stopped for a 4-yard loss on first down, and Stafford was pressured out of the pocket on the next play, scrambling to his right and then blindly firing a lateral to Kerryon Johnson, who promptly fumbled it.
“I was surprised,” said Vikings defensive end Danielle Hunter, who finished with 3.5 sacks on the day. “I was like, ‘Why would you pitch the ball?’”
Stafford didn’t have much of an answer, other than the obvious. Nothing else was working, so why not?
“I just tried to make too much happen,” Stafford said. “Really just gotta slide and play the next play.”
Well, they’re sliding now, without question. And this next play is an important one.