Bob Wojnowski and Justin Rogers take a look at the Lions-Ravens game in Baltimore on Sunday. Detroit News
Allen Park — The Lions have a clearly establish identity: They are a team that remains poised, regardless of circumstance.
It starts at top with coach Jim Caldwell — the epitome of the never-too-high, never-too-low attitude he preaches. It stems to quarterback Matthew Stafford, leader of 26 fourth-quarter comebacks during his nine-year career. And that calm emanating from leadership — on the sidelines and in the huddle —trickles down across the rest of the roster.
The result, more often than not in recent years, is a team capable of rising to the challenge in the pressure cooker of big moments.
It’s said it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. The adage remains as true today as when it was first uttered. But let’s be realistic, the way you start can impact your ability to finish, and that’s been a big problem for the Lions as of late.
Few teams have been consistently slower out the gate, on both sides of the ball, than Detroit this season.
Offensively, the team has scored on three of its 11 opening possessions, finding the end zone once. They rank 25th in yardage and 26th in points in the opening quarter.
Defensively, it hasn’t been any better. The Lions are allowing an average of 6.6 points in the first quarter, worst in the NFL. The 98.2 yards they’re allowing checks in at 30th.
It’s been particularly problematic the past three games, when the Lions have found themselves in a double-digit hole by the second quarter in each contest. Sure, they were able to claw their way back against the lowly Browns and Bears, but it proved too much to overcome on Thanksgiving against the Vikings, a costlier loss than most because it essentially put the division title out of reach.
“It’s something that we got to get straightened away,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “We got to start better, and that’s something you work at, you tinker, you look at some different options, and you go ahead and try to get that done. But we’re not where we need to be in that particular area.”
On Monday, Caldwell put the slow starts solely at the feet of his staff.
“It’s our job to get them going,” he said. “It’s not the players’ job. It’s our job to get it going.”
There’s some obvious truth to that. You could make a strong case the game plan is too conservative early in games, particularly on offense. Compare and contrast the play-calling to start the first and second halves against the Vikings.
On the game’s opening series, quarterback Matthew Stafford threw a quick pass to tight end Eric Ebron that gained two yards, a run up the middle on second down netted three more, and a throw short of the sticks on third-and-5 led to a punt.
In the second half, the playbook opened up with wide receiver Golden Tate was taking two handoffs and generating misdirection by running through the backfield on another. The team was also lining up running back Ameer Abdullah in the slot and outside, not just the backfield, and Stafford was throwing vertically, connecting with Ebron, Marvin Jones and nearly Darren Fells, on a touchdown that was ultimately overturned.
Stafford noted there’s often a feeling out process early in games, but the NFL’s best offenses dictate the pace and make defenses conform to them, not sit back and wait for schematic flaws to reveal themselves.
No one is likely to be surprised to learn the New England Patriots lead the NFL in first-quarter offense, averaging nearly 70 percent more yards than the Lions, and more than double the points.
But we can’t put the blame sluggish starts fully on coaching. The execution, particularly protecting the football, has been a big contributor to the early deficits. The Lions have turned it over in the first quarter each of the past three weeks, with all three giveaways turning into opposing touchdowns.
Pushed on the topic of starting faster, Caldwell said he’s only interested in winning. That’s an easy fallback because nothing matters more, but if the Lions continue to start slow, no matter how good they are at coming back, it won't matter.
Like it did against the Vikings last week, or the Falcons, Panthers and Saints earlier in the year, a double-digit deficit rapidly shrinks a team’s margin of error, especially against quality opposition. And with hopes of a division title evaporated, the Lions no longer have room for margin of error on the season. Another loss could well be enough to sink the team’s playoff aspirations altogether.
If the Lions want to be playing in January, it’s time they start setting the tone earlier.