Rogers: Crunch time for Lions – and their coordinators

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions' Matthew Stafford has to throw the ball away in the fourth quarter Sunday.

Allen Park – If the Detroit Lions are going to survive this home stretch and squeak into the playoffs, the team’s coordinators will need to be at their best, concocting game plans capable of compensating for injuries to arguably the five most important players on the roster.

No offense to Golden Tate or Glover Quin, two critical cogs to the Lions’ 9-5 record, but when quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Theo Riddick, defensive end Ziggy Ansah, cornerback Darius Slay and linebacker DeAndre Levy are full strength, the Lions are a far more formidable team.

Stafford’s injured middle finger on his throwing hand has been well-documented. It didn’t seem to affect him much in the loss to the New York Giants, but there were a handful of moments when you questioned whether it made the small difference that altered the course of a play.

For example, did it prevent him from getting enough on the two deep passes to Golden Tate, one that was broken up in the end zone and another that forced the receiver to slow down enough that he was caught a few yards short of the goal line.

No one is looking to make excuses for Stafford, certainly not the player or coach Jim Caldwell, but the latter wouldn’t pretend the single-finger glove doesn’t make a difference.

“Here’s a guy that’s been holding a football in his bare hand for years and years and years, and all of a sudden he’s wearing a glove,” Caldwell said. “These guys aren’t any different than concert pianists. These guys aren’t any different than any other expert. There is a little difference. There is some adjustment that’s made there. It’s not a non-issue until he doesn’t have it on anymore.

“Now, can he perform with it? There’s no question he can perform with it.”

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More than the finger, the absence of Riddick has hindered Stafford in recent weeks. Not only is Riddick the team’s most consistent ball carrier, he’s a security blanket out of the backfield. It’s not a coincidence the Lions have struggled in the red zone with Riddick out with a wrist injury.

That injury is a mystery. It showed up unexpectedly on the injury report two weeks ago, and based on his practice participation dropping to zero last week, concern isn’t fading.

Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter has struck out in recent weeks. His game plans have fallen flat against Chicago and New York. If Riddick is out again, the bright, young coach must be better. He has to find the right mix to compensate for the absence.

On the defensive side of the ball, Ansah and Levy are likely to be limited the remainder of the season. The Pro Bowl defensive end finally got his first sack against the Giants, but hasn’t hidden the fact that an early-season ankle injury continues to bother him.

As for Levy, the team should be thrilled to be getting anything out of the veteran linebacker. An every-down player for years, he was able to work close to half the team’s snaps in his second game back after a three-month absence. He’s been productive, but we have yet to see the splash plays that made him one of the league’s best at his position before a string of lower-body injuries sidelined him much of the past two years.

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Slay is the biggest concern. A balky hamstring forced him to the sidelined on Sunday and a reported MRI will assess the damage. The last time this was an issue, he missed two games, and it might have been three had it not been for a well-timed bye.

Defensive coordinator Teryl Austin has had his unit trending in the right direction for several weeks. In the loss, the defense still managed to limit the Giants to 17 points, the eighth consecutive opponent to score 20 or fewer.

But if Slay is out this week or longer -- and Quandre Diggs is already out for the year -- that would leave the Lions down two of their starting cornerbacks, with two potent offenses on the docket. It will take continued creativity and timely play calls to cover up for that talent deficiency.

Austin and Cooter have generated plenty of praise during their time in Detroit. Many view both as future head coaches. Now is an opportunity to bolster their resume by helping this Lions team overcome its flaws, overcome its adversity and finish what it started, winning a division title for the first time in 23 years and bringing a playoff game to Ford Field.