Niyo: Failed fourth down symbolizes Lions' lack of direction

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Oakland, Calif. — The game was on the line, and for the Lions, it was in the only hands you could honestly trust.

Matthew Stafford was scrambling his offense to the line of scrimmage, with time running down and one chance left to save the game  and probably the season as well.

But then the Raiders called a timeout. And then Matt Patricia and his coaching staff seemed to forget who the Lions are. Or more to the point, what they are.

Lions coach Matt Patricia watches from the sideline Sunday against the Raiders.

Facing fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line, with 8 seconds left on the clock and trailing by a touchdown, the Lions made wholesale personnel changes.

That was hardly a surprise. They’d just run a play on third-and-goal from the 14 with an empty backfield, two tight ends and three wide receivers. And had Jon Gruden not opted to stop the clock, Stafford admitted getting to the right play from there wouldn’t have been easy.

“It was gonna be a little bit of gymnastics,” the Lions quarterback said after the 31-24 loss, “but we would’ve gotten it done.”

They didn’t, though. Because with time to think, the Lions’ coaches seemed to overthink this. And as a result, I think it's safe to say any realistic hopes of a playoff push in the second half of the season are a lost cause.

The Lions actually got some help in that regard Sunday. Green Bay, Minnesota and Chicago all lost as the AFC West did a number on what once was viewed as the league's toughest division. Seattle nearly lost to Tampa Bay as well, but the Seahawks pulled out a win in overtime. So the Lions remain essentially three games behind the Vikings for the final wild-card spot.  

Which, quite frankly, is right where they belong.

'A yard away'

Off the field ran the top three receivers  Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola  as the Lions sent in their jumbo goal-line package, with an extra offensive lineman, a fullback and a running back. Never mind that their best tight end, T.J. Hockenson, spent the end of the game in the medical tent after taking a nasty hit earlier on the Lions’ final drive. Or that offensive guard Joe Dahl had just exited with an apparent ankle injury.

The Lions  with one of the league’s most ineffective rushing offenses  were determined to sell a run fake, no matter the consequence.

“They were in goal-line defense, we were in goal-line offense,” Stafford said. “We were a yard away.”

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford (9) threw for 406 yards and three TDs but it wasn't enough on Sunday.

But as close as they seem to be, at times, they’re still far from a reliable football team right now. With a toothless defense and an offense that still goes only as far as Stafford’s right arm can drag it, they let another game slip away, trying to be something they’re not.

And as that fourth-down play failed, with Jesse James struggling to get off his block at the line of scrimmage, and reserve guard Oday Aboushi appearing to miss a block, and then Logan Thomas unable to bring down Stafford’s final throw in the back of the end zone, it was painfully obvious: This team isn’t nearly as close as we -- or they -- thought they were.

"We didn’t convert, we didn’t score, we didn’t win the game," Stafford said, doing his best to shoulder the blame, same as it ever was. "You can look at it all you want from that (play-calling) perspective. Had we scored there, I wouldn’t be fielding these questions. So we’ve just got to execute the play better and score."

They have to, largely because the defense is getting worked over on a weekly basis, and Sunday was no different, as the Raiders  playing their first home game in nearly 50 days  ran for 171 yards, converted 7 of 13 third downs and put up 31 points. That's 180 points allowed in the last six games for a team whose head coach was supposed to be a defensive genius.

Injuries are a problem, but not an excuse. And in the grand scheme of things, it's certainly fair to question the way Patricia and general manager Bob Quinn are going about this.

“We've got all the right pieces, but it just ain’t sticking together,” cornerback Darius Slay said. “I don’t know. We might be putting the pieces of the puzzle in the wrong spot right now.” 

'Hope for the best'

He might be right. Regardless, though, it's putting even more pressure on Stafford to be perfect. He’s having a career year beginning his second decade as an NFL quarterback -- at his current pace, he'd throw for nearly 5,000 yards with 38 TDs and 10 interceptions -- but it’s still not enough.

Stafford finished 26-of-41 for 406 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, yet he was left lamenting a couple of first-half turnovers in Oakland territory -- one on a botched handoff and other on a one-handed circus catch in the end zone by Raiders cornerback Daryl Worley. And, of course, there was the ball he threw to Thomas in the end zone that was broken up by Raiders safety Karl Joseph.

“You need all the points you can get,” Stafford said. “Especially on the road against a team that’s gonna put up a lot of points, you know it.”

And you know what? That’s why that final call was inexcusable, even if -- as Patricia noted -- the Lions had failed to score on third-and-goal late in the third quarter with Golladay, Jones and Amendola in the game.

That last call wasn’t the reason the Lions lost. No, the defense wears this one -- just like the losses to Kansas City and Minnesota and the tie in Arizona -- as a passive-aggressive approach seems to be getting Patricia and coordinator Paul Pasqualoni nowhere.

As linebacker Devon Kennard put it, "We’re not holding up our end of the bargain on defense."

But therein lies the problem here. Knowing your strengths and your weaknesses -- and playing to them -- is the coaches’ job.

And you could almost read the body language of the Lions’ three top receivers as they jogged off the field before Detroit’s final, ill-fated snap. They’d combined for two of the Lions’ three touchdowns, and nearly 300 yards of the offense Sunday. But they would be bystanders on the biggest play of the afternoon, the lone routes run instead by a pair of tight ends who'd combined for 13 catches -- and zero touchdowns -- all season.

“I got all the trust in the coaches and all the faith in those guys that was on the field,” Golladay said. “So at that point, I just sit back and cheer on those guys and hope for the best.”

Fair enough. But at this point, hope is not a strategy that suits the Lions all that well.

Twitter: @JohnNiyo