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Niyo: Onside kick an indictment of Lions' bad defense

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Houston — It’s always the cover-up, never the crime.

That’s as true for football coaches as it is for politicians.

And it was true enough after the Lions’ 20-13 loss to the Texans on Sunday, even if head coach Jim Caldwell was being perfectly honest in his postgame assessment.

It wasn’t the questionable decision to try an onside kick that cost his team the game. It was that the Lions' coaches felt they needed to do it, really. And the fact that they probably did, as misguided as it seems.

Bad defenses make coaches do dumb things. Indefensible things, even.

And while most of us would file Sunday’s onside kick in that category — the Lions still had three timeouts, plus the 2-minute warning, left to stop the clock — the end result probably confirmed Caldwell’s fatalistic view of his own defense.

“We hadn’t been stopping them very well on the run,” Caldwell said.

Running wild

And that wasn’t about to stop even after the Texans’ Robert Nelson easily smothered Sam Martin’s ill-fated onside attempt at Detroit’s 44-yard line with 2:53 left in regulation.

With no pretense of passing on Houston’s part — “They weren’t gonna throw the ball in that situation,” Caldwell said — there was still little, if any, resistance from the Lions’ defense as the Texans simply ran out the clock. Four carries from Lamar Miller — Houston’s running back playing with a bum shoulder — produced two easy first downs. And all that was left after that was for the Texans’ Brock Osweiler to take a knee and Lions fans to take to the airwaves with understandable vitriol.

Why not kick it deep and play it straight there? I mean, there’s a reason the Texans lined up in a regular kickoff return formation, right?

“Perfect call, in my opinion,” said veteran Don Carey, who was on the field for the onside attempt. “They weren’t looking for it. Hindsight’s 20-20, and somebody’s always gonna complain about something when it doesn’t work, after the fact.”

Caldwell was suggesting much the same afterward, adding that he’d “certainly” try the onside again.

“Win or lose, you’re certainly going to get criticized in that regard,” the coach shrugged. “And that’s the way it goes. It’s usually what happens after the decision is made.”

But it’s what happened before that forced Caldwell’s hand, as he watched his defense get carved up on the previous possession by a team that came in with one of the NFL’s worst offenses.

Playing it close

On the road in another one-score game in the fourth quarter — that’s all the Lions seem to play anymore — Caldwell saw the Texans chew up six minutes of precious clock time with a 10-play drive. A drive that began with an eight-yard run by Miller, followed by another eight-yarder from Miller, and then a 10-yarder from backup Alfred Blue, who then picked up 30 more yards on three carries after that.

“Detroit knew we were gonna run the ball,” said Osweiler, Houston's big free-agent signing who has been largely a bust as the Texans' No. 1 quarterback. “We knew we were gonna run the ball.”

And yet everyone seemed to know what would happen, didn’t they? Never mind that these were two teams that came in with winning records. These were two teams that came in with serious flaws – a losing offense in the Texans' case, and a losing defense on the Lions' side of the ledger.

That’s better than last time the Lions visited Houston, I suppose. That was October 2008, days after they’d traded Roy Williams to the Cowboys and exiled Jon Kitna to injured reserve and well on their way to that 0-16 season. That team was saddled with an awful roster and a historically-bad defense.

This one doesn’t compare to that, obviously. And Sunday, they only gave up 269 yards in 63 plays. But minus three of their best players — cornerback Darius Slay (hamstring) joined DeAndre Levy (knee) and Haloti Ngata (shoulder) on the inactive list this week — it was a patchwork quilt destined to come apart at the seams.

And on a day where the offense sputters — the special-teams units, too — that kind of unraveling can be painfully revealing. About the coaches as well as the personnel.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

Twitter @JohnNiyo