Execution, more than play-calling, root of Lions' red-zone woes

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
The Patriots' Stephon Gilmore, left, tries to tackle the Lions' Kenny Golladay at the goal line in the second quarter. The play was ruled short initially but after a challenge and review it was ruled a touchdown.

Allen Park — Through three weeks, there’s a lot to like about the Detroit Lions offense.

After a clunker to start the year, quarterback Matthew Stafford is slowly returning to form. The overall passing attack has been bolstered by the massive step second-year receiver Kenny Golladay has taken in his development, giving Stafford three legitimate options he can use to attack the field at all depths.

And, after years and years of searching, it appears the team has found itself a running game. Through three weeks, the Lions rank 10th in yards-per-carry with rookie Kerryon Johnson leading the charge. 

But for all that’s going well, the offense is lagging behind in one critical area: the red zone. Once the Lions work their way inside the 20-yard line, the operation has been breaking down. After three games, the team is failing to get into the end zone at the worst rate in the NFL, a dreadful 30 percent.

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Football is the game of inches, and most NFL games are one-score affairs, so routinely settling for three points instead of seven is a good way to find yourself on the wrong side of a result.

“I think it’s really difficult to score, especially against a defense that is ranked high in that area for a long time,” Lions coach Matt Patricia said after his team went 1-for-4 in the red zone against the Patriots last Sunday. “I thought our guys tried to do a good job executing, we were just off a little bit and we have to tighten that down. I can probably do a better job coaching it up and getting some better schemes and some better plays in there to help them out in those situations, too.”

Patricia’s accountability for the offense’s red-zone struggles, despite most of his NFL coaching experience coming on the defensive side of the ball, is reflective of something he said when he took the job this offseason — that he planned on being heavily involved in all aspects of the team.

Lions offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said most of Patricia’s involvement comes during the week, when the team is constructing its game plan.

“We’re in constant communication, talking through different things during the week,” Cooter said. “Obviously, our weekly schedule, we go through all the different situations, all those types of things. We’re communicating quite a bit about the plan and maybe even specific plays within that.”

Patricia said he does his best not to infringe on either coordinator’s play-calling within games, but is quick to provide real-time observations he feels could be situationally valuable.

“There’s things in the game that I may see and I can help with them,” Patricia said. “Different set of eyes or different lenses to look at. I’m certainly going to let those guys know about it and let them adjust accordingly.”

As for the red zone woes, Cooter said the blame is shared, putting most of it of himself, but noting the players have to take better advantage of their opportunities.

“Starting point will be I have to call a little better game, get to the right call at a certain time, those type of things,” Cooter said. “I want to put our players in better positions to make plays down there and at the same time we have to execute a little bit better, go down there and when we have our opportunities take advantage of them. So, ultimately it starts with me. I have to improve, I have to do a better job.”

A review of all 10 of Detroit’s red-zone opportunities show execution is a bigger problem than Cooter was willing to acknowledge.

You can throw out one of the 10 trips, the final one against the Patriots. The Lions inherited possession after a turnover on downs late in the fourth quarter and ran it three times with LeGarrette Blount with the primary purpose of killing clock.

But on several others, the Lions left touchdown opportunities on the table. On one, back-to-back holding penalties turned a first-and-10 into an unmanageable first-and-30. On another, rookie guard Frank Ragnow badly blew a block on a third-and-goal from the 3, giving Stafford no shot to make a throw.

And on multiple others, Stafford was the culprit. Late in the first halves of both the Jets and 49ers games, Stafford sailed passes over Marvin Jones’ head on post patterns. He did it again, against the Patriots, with a high throw after Jones got separation on his release.  

To a lesser extent, there have been some clunker calls from Cooter. The decision to run Theo Riddick between the tackles on second-and-goal from the 6 with the clock running down in the first half against the Jets, or the awkward delayed route to fullback Nick Bellore are two that quickly come to mind.

Regardless of the reason for the problems, the Lions need to resolve them quickly. That could be a tough task against this week’s opponent, the Dallas Cowboys, who are holding opponents to under 18 points per game and a 55.6-percent success rate inside the 20.

“They have big, long corners, so which is kind of a staple of a little bit of that scheme, make it very difficult to throw over,” Patricia said. “They have some good safeties, and obviously fast linebackers. I would say they just have a good combination of defense. Their front, the aggressiveness of the front, they get off. They have good pass rushers up there and then just with the speed behind it, I think it makes it really difficult from a timing standpoint.

“You’re not going to be able to hold the ball very long, you’re not going to be able to run the ball at any great length,” Patricia continued. “So, it turns into that kind of a one-dimensional game and especially when you get down to the red (zone), with the size and the length that they have. It becomes real difficult to either get the ball over the top of them or try to find space in those underneath zones.”


Twitter: @justin_rogers