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Lions looking for more than 'flashes' out of their offense

Nolan Bianchi
The Detroit News

Detroit — A lot of negative things have been said about the Detroit Lions defense through four games this season, and rightfully so. 

It entered Sunday's game with the league’s 26th-ranked scoring defense, allowing an average of 30.7 points. That number inflated slightly to 31.8 after the New Orleans Saints scored 35 straight en route to a 35-29 victory at Ford Field.

And sure, it’s hard to win football games when Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray are cutting through the defense like a knife through hot butter, and it’s even harder to point at the Lions’ offense as the reason this team is 1-3 heading into the bye.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford runs the ball in the first quarter Sunday against the Saints.

But while the Saints offense was kicking it into high gear Sunday, the Lions’ was downshifting into neutral, and at times, into reverse.

During the period in which the Saints scored on five straight possessions, the Lions ran 16 plays and travelled a total of 85 yards — including a 29-yard pass interference penalty on the Saints — over four drives. The result: Three punts and an interception.

“All we can do is execute when we have the ball. We just can’t have lulls in it,” Lions offensive tackle Taylor Decker said. “The teams are too good, the defenses are too good, the other teams’ offenses are too good for us to have three-and-outs, and not put up points.”

Again, this isn’t some sort of new problem. Heading into Sunday’s loss, the Lions were averaging 8.7 yards per play when the score was tied, 6.4 when the team was trailing, and a measly 4.4 when Detroit was playing with a lead. 

That is especially difficult to stomach when the opposing offense is not only putting up points, but taking complete and total control of the game. New Orleans’ averaged 9.2 plays on its five touchdown drives, an average of 5:06 coming off the clock each time.

“Gotta give credit to them,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said, “controlling the game, running the ball. (They) did a nice job stopping the run against us. And just one too many mistakes from us.”

The biggest mistake came early on, in a 14-7 game. The Lions had a chance to regain their two-score lead, but booted it when Stafford underthrew T.J. Hockenson in the end zone, resulting in an interception.

“I wish I just would’ve thrown it a couple yards further,” Stafford said. “T.J. did a nice job scrambling, I just underthrew it.”

Decker said he believes that the Lions’ biggest problem is “play-by-play execution,” and that personnel — either on the field or on the sidelines — is not the issue.

“We see flashes of how good we can be. You see flashes of it, you see spurts of it here and there, of what we can do when we execute. We know we have all the pieces that we need,” Decker said. 

“Every play’s going to end up being important to the game. I just think we need that urgency about us that, the next play’s the most important play.”

Trying times

Like so many players that have been imported from contending squads in years past, linebacker Reggie Ragland — a member of the 2020 Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs — begged the question on Sunday evening: How are the Lions 1-3?

The Lions blew their third double-digit lead of the season, and afterward, Ragland responded to a question about regrouping during the bye week with a rather confident statement.

“Rightfully, we should be 4-0 right now,” said Ragland, a five-year pro who signed a one-year deal with the Lions via free agency this offseason. 

“But we didn’t finish.”

Ragland rolled out the usual soundbites that echoed that of veteran imports before him, from players that know what it takes to compete at a high level in the NFL: “We have to finish … we got the pieces … we can go back, clean it up, and really detail the fundamentals of things.”

It’s possible that this is the reality. Logic would say that if they didn’t have those “pieces,” the Lions would never be in a position to lose those leads, to be in these games late.

But logic would also say that after two years and counting of the same results, Sunday after Sunday, the defining characteristic of coach Matt Patricia’s tenure is a lack of attention to detail. 

“I don’t think our fundamentals were very good today,” Patricia said afterward. “That needs to improve. We’ve got to coach better.”

Wash, rinse, repeat. 

Even if the Lions were within a big play or two of winning Sunday’s game, they were outplayed in every basic metric. The Saints had 29 first downs to the Lions’ 18, the Saints racked up 392 yards to the Lions’ 281, and the Lions could barely possess the ball, holding it for 13:32 less time than the Saints. 

Detroit will return in Week 6 to face an equally troubled team in the Jacksonville Jaguars, and perhaps that will be a better measuring stick for where this team truly is. After all, Ragland pointed out, “it’s still early.” 

But right now, the Lions are at the bottom of the NFC North, and in the midst of a 2-15 stretch dating back to last season, Ragland, like so many others before him, is simply having a tough time wrapping his head around it.

Nolan Bianchi is a freelance writer.