Allen Park — Nowhere is the NFL’s push for parity more apparent than the weekly scoreboard. More than 50 percent of games were decided by one score last season and the ability to consistently emerge victorious in those close contests is what often makes up the difference in the standings at year’s end.
So far, the Detroit Lions have played two one-score games. In both, they surrendered commanding leads, falling behind in the closing minutes to Indianapolis and Tennessee.
In the opener against the Colts, the team was able to lean on some late heroics by quarterback Matthew Stafford to snatch victory back from the jaws of defeat, but when asked to do the same last week against the Titans, Stafford tossed an interception under duress.
In both games, it shouldn’t have reached that point. The Lions coughed up an 18-point lead to the Colts, allowing the opposition to score 25 points over the final two quarters. Against the Titans, the defense held longer, before collapsing down the stretch and giving up a pair of long touchdown drives.
Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin shouldered the blame for his unit’s inability to get late-game stops.
“We’ve got to be able as a defense, when our offense gives us a lead, we’ve got to be able to hold onto it,” Austin said. “At the end of the day it all falls back on me, what I do to get those guys ready and what I call in those situations.
“Like everything we do, win or loss, we go back,” Austin said. “Go back and look at what I called, how I called it, when I called it and see if there’s some things I can do better. I’ll do the same this week, and eventually we’ll get it turned around.”
A common complaint among fans is that the Lions fail to make necessary in-game adjustments. To some extent, Austin gave credence to that criticism, admitting his strategy rarely involves overhauling the game plan midstream.
“I’m one of those guys that thinks, ‘Why would you change what kind of got you there?’” he said. “I think for the most part, we ran some similar stuff throughout the game. We just didn’t get it done, so maybe I need to do something a little different.”
But it’s not just on Austin and the defense. While the offense has staked Detroit out to some early leads this year, they’ve struggled to put the final nails in the coffin when presented the opportunities.
The Lions went three-and-out three times in the second half against the Colts. And with five second-half possessions against the Titans, the end result was four punts, three points and a turnover, Stafford’s game-ending interception.
“I don’t know if there’s more of an emphasis, it’s something we talk about all the time,” Stafford said. “We definitely need to do a better job of it in the second half of games as a team, offense, defense, special teams, all of it. We can definitely play better.”
There is no magic formula for closing games in the NFL. Just like any other point in the game, it comes down to good play calling and execution of those calls by the players. If anything, because of the magnitude of the moments, a little extra mental fortitude goes a long ways.
The Lions’ margin of error is not uniquely slim. The talent level across the league is relatively even. But when you have an opponent down, like the Lions have done the first two weeks, you can’t let them get back up. It’s been a troubling early season trend, and one the team must quickly correct if they hope to compete for a postseason berth.