Wojo: From yellow flags to red flags, Lions are plummeting

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — The fans were booing before the game began, restless and riled, eager to vent at referees who had nothing to do with last week’s mess. And then, with painstaking predictability, the Lions really gave them reasons to be angry.

This was passive resistance at its worst, a feeble display that wiped out any benefit of the doubt. If the Lions were ticked off and motivated, they sure had a funny way of showing it. The Vikings glided through the Lions’ defense with such alarming ease Sunday at Ford Field, it made you wonder what’s real with this team, and what’s a mirage.

Damon Harrison and the Lions' defense had no answers for Minnesota's offense on Sunday.

With a thumping 42-30 loss to Minnesota, the Lions plummeted to 2-3-1 and deeper into last place in the NFC North. Less than a week ago on Monday night, they were on the verge of beating the Packers in Green Bay and taking control of first, and then the yellow flags flew. Now the red flags are up for a Lions team that responded meekly in a huge game against a division rival.

They couldn’t stop Minnesota’s running game, which made it easier for them not to stop the passing game either. It was former Michigan State star Kirk Cousins who did the slashing, and star tailback Dalvin Cook who did the mashing, and it left the Lions bewildered.

“I feel like they had their way with us defensively,” linebacker Devon Kennard said. “It’s very frustrating, disappointing, and nobody is coming to save us. We have to bond together on defense and figure this thing out and find ways to stop these offenses.”

Evaluation time

This was supposed to be the reason Matt Patricia is here, to instill mental and physical toughness and to defensively outscheme opponents. This was supposed to be the reason veterans such as Damon Harrison and Trey Flowers were brought here, for adaptability and dependability. Instead, the Vikings dashed up and down the field for 503 yards and 32 first downs, and Cousins was nearly perfect. He completed 24 of 34 passes for 337 yards and four touchdowns. He did not throw an interception. He was not sacked. I’m fairly certain his uniform did not need to be laundered afterward.

Matthew Stafford and the offense certainly did their part, with Marvin Jones catching four touchdown passes. The 30 points were the most the Vikings (5-2) have allowed this season. But Minnesota possesses something the Lions lack, something that can make a defense look stupendously silly — a dynamic running game. Cook ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns, and all that ground work opened up the play-action pass, which destroyed the Lions.

Kerryon Johnson only rushed five times for 23 yards before leaving with a sore knee, and his health is a continuing concern. Same for cornerback Darius Slay, who departed with a nagging hamstring injury.

But this isn’t about injuries, unless wounded pride counts. Coming into the game, the Lions got more credit than their 2-2-1 record probably warranted, primarily because they held down elite quarterbacks and hadn’t lost a game by more than four points. That narrative just got erased, as they fell four-plus games behind first-place Green Bay (6-1).

Did the Lions let the effects of that 23-22 back-breaker in Lambeau linger? I don’t think so (although the fans sure did). But the effects are real now because that’s two straight losses to division foes, and the playoffs suddenly look remote, even though the schedule is about to lighten, theoretically. The Giants and Raiders are next, and if Patricia is as sharp with game-planning as he’s purported to be, we need to see it now.

In the second half of last season, the Lions’ run defense was among the best in the league, partly thanks to the arrival of Harrison. Now it ranks in the bottom five, and Harrison has alternately been injured and ineffective. Patricia isn’t keen on blitzing, preferring to rush three and flood the secondary, but that’s a philosophy he might have to rethink, as the Lions have a paltry 10 sacks in six games (only one by Flowers).

“We’re going to look at all of it, at all the coaching, at all the schemes,” Patricia said. “We have a lot of different schemes we can go to. We’ll look at the personnel, at the technique, everything.”

Crushing encounter

Every time the Lions struck Sunday, the Vikings responded almost immediately. Nothing was more crushing than a quick drive in the fourth quarter, cooked up by Cook, who rumbled 23 yards to Detroit’s 17. That set up a Cousins-to-Kyle Rudolph touchdown pass to make it 35-24.

Well, there was one play more crushing, with the Lions trailing 35-30 and three minutes remaining. Using the lethal play-action again, Cousins hit Stefon Diggs for 66 yards to Detroit’s 4, where the Vikings finished it off.

Cousins has been sizzling the past three games, and in this one, he led the Vikings to touchdowns on four straight possessions, covering 73, 61, 97 and 75 yards. It wasn’t effortless, although a great runner like Cook can make it look that way, even after the Vikings lost top receiver Adam Thielen early with a hamstring injury.

“I thought it was a great game and I expected it to be a tough one coming in,” Cousins said. “I thought (the Lions) could have very easily been undefeated with the way they had lost so far. I have a lot of respect for them, and the fact we were able to go on the road and get a win is a big deal.”

The loss is a bigger deal for the Lions, who weren’t supposed to be this way again. They weren’t supposed to be wholly reliant on Stafford, who threw for 364 yards and topped 40,000 for his career. They were supposed to be more balanced between passing and running, between offense and defense.

The Lions still can’t run the ball with any consistency and the defensive malaise is a legitimate concern. It’s gone on long enough, you have to consider this is who they are, not the staunch group that finished last season. If so, that would be disappointing for aggravated fans who began the day directing their ire at officials, and now again must direct all the skepticism at their team.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski