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Lions sharpen focus on improving in 'dagger time'

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

During his 11-year career, Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford has solidified his reputation in the clutch. His 28 fourth-quarter comebacks rank 11th all-time, tied with Hall of Famer Brett Favre. 

But after setting a single-season record with eight come-from-behind victories in 2016, the franchise has lost much of its late-game mojo. Take last season for example. Even before Stafford went out with a season-ending injury, the Lions gave away more games down the stretch than they won. 

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford throws during drills at practice on Monday.

It started in the season-opener, when Detroit coughed up a 17-point, second-half lead to the Arizona Cardinals. The Lions also led late against Kansas City and Green Bay before falling short, and were tied with Oakland in the fourth quarter but couldn't force overtime after a botched red zone series in the closing seconds. 

Many NFL games are decided by a single score, and postseason qualifiers are often separated by their ability to finish. That's why Stafford has the offense focusing on those critical plays at the end of contests, something he's dubbed "dagger time." 

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"It's something that we came up with in a team meeting," tight end T.J. Hockenson said during a video conference after Monday's practice. "Everyone says 'finish,' but I think we wanted to change it up. We've heard that throughout growing up is 'finish, finish, finish.'

"We kind of wanted to put our own little spin on it. It was something Stafford came up with. I think we're all just trying to buy into it, dagger time. Red zone, finishing, it's the name of the game. It's just things we want to improve. It's just a little spin that us as an offense and team that we've adapted."

The Lions actually made steady improvements in the red zone between 2018 and 2019, but still have plenty of room for improvement. The team scored a touchdown on 59.5% of their opportunities inside the 20-yard line last year. That ranked 12th in the NFL, well behind league-leading Tennessee, which punched it across the goal line 77.4% of the time. 

Of course, Detroit's defense also needs to get on board with finishing strong. Stafford handed the defense leads in those games against Kansas City and Green Bay, only to see the unit give it away in the closing minutes. 

The Lions defense ranked 18th in the red zone and 28th on third down in 2019. Most importantly, the team gave up far too many points, including an average of 9.3 in the fourth quarter. Only Miami was worse in the final frame.

"You like to dive into the stats, you don't like to live in them, but they do say a lot for us and where we need to improve," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "I think we had quite a few games where we were winning, had a chance to win and didn't. Quite a few games where we were actually leading in the fourth quarter and we need to close those out.

"That's something for us where we can certainly look at last year and say, if we can make these improvements and maybe do a couple things better here in those situations and close those out better, I think that would really help everything overall."

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers