Monday breakdown: Lions’ ‘O’ still sputters in Year 2

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

It took just one week for the Lions to debunk the story line coaches and players constantly perpetuated the past nine months.

If the Lions were going to be more comfortable in Year 2 under offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi, then any team that’s been playing for its play-caller for three or more years must be draped in velvet and sleep only on Tempur-Pedic mattresses.

That logic would imply that all rookie quarterbacks will struggle, and every team with a new coach or coordinator gets a free pass for any struggles, which obviously isn’t the case. The Lions need look no further than last year’s defensive performance under Teryl Austin to quash the idea. The Cowboys offense did pretty well last year in the first season under Scott Linehan, too.

The truth is, plenty of teams fail to improve in the second year of the scheme because more time working with poorly thought-out concepts will typically produce the same results. The Lions’ coaching staff has tried to change Matthew Stafford into a player who manages the game instead of someone who uses his immense arm talent to create incredible plays.

Really, this idea that time leads to improvement extends beyond the Lions’ offensive system. Each year, coaches boast about how this will finally be the season Stafford becomes a top-tier quarterback, yet that thought process ignores the fact quarterbacks who are already better than him will improve, too.

When things were problematic in 2014, players talked about the complexity of the offense, and Lombardi admitted this year that he could’ve made things easier for the players. Clearly, he hasn’t simplified things enough because the Lions didn’t give their best players enough chances to thrive Sunday.

Here are a few of the many illogical offensive things that happened in Sunday’s devastating 33-28 loss to the San Diego Chargers:

* The Lions had just 40 plays and 219 yards before their desperation scoring drive at the end of the game.

* Calvin Johnson had just four targets and two catches for 39 yards.

* Johnson sat three of the Lions’ 47 plays, and Golden Tate missed five. Chargers star Keenan Allen, meanwhile, played all 79 of their plays.

* The team ran the ball just 16 times despite leading 21-3 at one point and keeping an advantage into the fourth quarter.

* Theo Riddick played just one snap before the crunch-time scoring drive.

As was the case last year, Lombardi and coach Jim Caldwell seem to not know how to put their top offensive playmakers in position to make plays. If the Lions trust Riddick with the game on the line, why didn’t he have chances to utilize his stellar receiving skills earlier?

Somehow, the explanations for some of these problems were worse than what actually happened.

“You may find some games he may get 10 balls, some games he may get three balls or two,” Caldwell said. “Just kind of how it happens with the offensive football.”

That’s only how it happens when scoring the most possible points is not the goal of the offense. The only reason Johnson should have two or three catches is because Ameer Abdullah runs for 80-yard touchdowns on the first play of each drive. If Johnson or Tate are in a rhythm, the ball should go to them until the defense proves it can stop him, which is what San Diego did with Allen.

Apparently, the Lions saw that the Chargers shaded a safety toward Johnson nearly every play, and as difficult as that might be to combat, it’s the same coverage Johnson has seen for much of the career. One of the hardest plays to stop in the NFL is a quick slant to Johnson, and just a couple of those would’ve given the Lions positive yards and possibly extended one of their six drives that ended after four or fewer plays and didn’t produce points.

Stafford said after the game that the Lions will go to Johnson when they “need him,” and considering how infrequently he says anything that moves the needle, that seems like something the coaches have beat into his head.

On Sunday, the Lions needed Johnson, and while he deserves some of the blame, too, he can only make plays given the opportunity. And Lombardi needs to give him a lot more chances in every game moving forward.

Yes, there’s only one ball, as Caldwell likes to say. Yes, the Lions want to play complementary football, but knowing that DeAndre Levy was out and the defense was struggling, the best way to complement the defense would’ve been trying to score 50 points instead of being content with a system in which the offense still doesn’t have an identity.

Around the NFC North

Green Bay (1-0) beat Chicago on Sunday, 31-23, with wide receiver James Jones catching two touchdowns in his triumphant return to the Packers. Rookie receiver Ty Montgomery also had a nice debut with a 46-yard kickoff return, and if he can be a threat, the Packers will be that much harder to beat.

… It’s never a good look to lose at home to a division rival in Week 1, but Chicago showed some promise in the loss. Matt Forte ran for 141 yards, and the Bears held the Packers to 322 yards of offense despite several questions about their defense entering the season.

… The Vikings don’t make their debut until late Monday night in San Francsico.

Around the NFL

The element of surprise is still an advantage in the NFL, and Bills quarterback Tyrod Taylor proved that in a 27-14 win over the Colts. In his first career start, the speedy Taylor was an efficient 14 of 19 for 195 yards and a touchdown and ran nine times for 41 yards. If Taylor can avoid mistakes, the Bills defense is good enough to keep that team in most games.

… In the battle of first-round quarterbacks, Marcus Mariota dominated the matchup with Jameis Winston as his Titans beat the Buccaneers, 42-14, in Tampa Bay. The No. 2 overall pick, Mariota had an absurd line, going 13 of 16 for 209 yards and four touchdowns, and he didn’t even have to show off his ability to run. Winston, the top pick, was significantly less efficient as he finished 16 of 33 for 210 yards with two touchdowns and two picks.

... Tony Romo is still criminally underrated. Somehow, he led the Cowboys to a game-winning touchdown. He drove Dallas 72 yards in 87 seconds without Dez Bryant on the field, and despite his past reputation as a choker, he’s been one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL the past few years.