Lions crafted winning drive with careful prep work

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
The Lions' Marvin Jones hangs on to a reception with the Colts' Antonio Cromartie defending to set up the game-winning field goal in the fourth quarter.

Allen Park – No one in the Detroit Lions’ locker room will tell you it was easy, but the team felt well prepared to execute the game-winning drive in the season-opening victory over the Indianapolis Colts on Sunday.

The Lions practice end-of-game scenarios every week, and coach Jim Caldwell often puts his players in tougher predicaments than the team faced against the Colts, needing a field goal with 37 seconds and three timeouts remaining.

“Coach Caldwell puts us in those situations in practice,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “I feel he makes them tougher than that half the time. We either have no timeouts or one timeout.

“It was great to have the full complement of timeouts,” Stafford continued. “That’s team football when you do that. No one is burning a timeout in the third quarter that hurts us.”

The Lions actually benefitted from the Colts burning a timeout minutes earlier.

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After completing a first-and-10 pass for no gain at Detroit’s 12-yard line, Indianapolis immediately stopped the clock with 1:15 remaining. Colts coach Chuck Pagano explained his thought process after the game.

“Looking back on it, could we have burned more time off the clock? Yeah, but we had some personnel issues,” Pagano said. “We wanted to get a few other guys, a different personnel group in there, whatever it was, and decided to call a timeout there and regroup and get back to the line of scrimmage.”

The Lions were able to conserve another timeout on the next play when the officials reviewed a completed pass. The call on the field stood, giving the Colts a third-and-4 from the 6-yard line.

That was an underrated element at the end of this game. Yes, the Colts scored a touchdown on the next play, taking the lead, 35-34, but also could have potentially converted a first down without scoring.  If that happens, the Lions could have needed all three to keep their hopes alive.

“There are so many factors that you have to consider as the ball is moving,” Caldwell said. “Number one is the point differential. If it’s a field goal or a touchdown they have to go to win, if it’s a touchdown, you want to make them work a little bit. You don’t want to help them. It’s a pretty delicate balancing back. If you have your timeouts in your pocket, you can take it down a little ways.”

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Caldwell has long had a reputation for poor clock-management skills, dating back to when he coached the Colts several years ago. But whatever struggles he may have do not come from a lack of effort.

Each week, Caldwell and his staff study every two-minute drill around the NFL, as well as many from the college ranks. They use each one as a learning process and often implement the scenarios on the practice field.

And although he’s always declined to elaborate on the specifics of the team’s in-game process, Caldwell doesn’t work alone managing the clock at the end of close contests. Earlier this offseason, it was reported that new assistant Randy Edsall would be helping in the process.

“We have a system in place,” Caldwell said. “There are too many algorhythms, and things of that nature, to kind of weigh all those things in your head. … We’re not always right, but we try to work it out.”

One component that remains constant is the effort to conserve timeouts. Caldwell harps on his staff and players to do everything in their power from unnecessarily wasting the precious tool.

“That’s by design,” Caldwell said. “We work at it. We won’t waste a timeout if we don’t have to. We’ll even take a penalty sometimes, rather than call a timeout.”

The Lions’ end-game strategy against the Colts was debated in real-time, but in this case, Caldwell’s approach proved to be an effective decision. The three timeouts gave the Lions plenty of flexibility on offense that final drive and Stafford completed three passes for 50 yards to set up Matt Prater’s game-winning field goal.

“Yeah, you know, it’s not easy, but our guys stuck together,” Stafford said.