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Lions still offering few answers for struggles holding on to leads

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

The Detroit Lions have shown a knack for scoring first this season, and on multiple occasions, have jumped out to double-digit leads. But, one thing they've proven again and again in 2020 is no lead is big enough. 

Last Sunday against Washington, they put that hypothesis to the test, watching a 21-point, second-half advantage evaporate against one of the league's least-efficient offenses. Had Matt Prater not bailed the team out with a 59-yard field goal as time expired, and the Lions went on to lose in overtime, it would have matched the biggest blown lead in franchise history. 

Lions defensive lineman John Penisini blocks a pass by Washington quarterback Alex Smith in the second quarter.

Yikes. 

Blowing a lead of that size is a collective effort. The offense's inability to sustain drives is just as problematic as the defense's inability to stop them. And it raises all kinds of questions about the coaching staff's inability to put their players in position to seal the deal. 

Against Washington, that was on full display. After scoring a touchdown to open the second half, the offense went cold, going three-and-out on back-to-back possessions, while the defense conceded three consecutive touchdown drives of 82,85 and 66 yards after keeping Washington out of the end zone their first five series. 

Data provided by ESPN shows the Lions defense went away from a zone-heavy coverage scheme that had been working in the first half, and early stages of the second-half, in favor of more man-to-man focused looks.

And the film shows repeated breakdowns by Detroit in man coverage during those scoring drives, which also coincided with occasionally sending just three rushers after the quarterback. 

Still, despite evidence to the contrary, defensive coordinator Cory Undlin doesn't believe that the transition to man coverage was an issue, instead suggesting he should have incorporated it even earlier in the second half. 

"Looking back at it, I could have probably changed it up faster than that just to give them another look," Undlin said during a Tuesday video conference. "... Probably held on to it a little bit too long because (quarterback Alex Smith) was getting the ball out quick and there was some space in there on a couple. We didn't get off the ball in time. We were short in a couple of our drops and the ball got floated over the top of us there. We ended up playing man at the end, like I said, and ended up getting in some third downs and some fourth downs and we couldn't make a play."

Another factor easily could have been fatigue, although Undlin dismissed it. He correctly noted the Lions practice hard and view themselves as "built for that." But the defense was on for a season-high 88 defensive snaps, in part because the offense was striking quickly in the first half and struggling to get a first down in the second. 

For context, Dallas averages a league-high 73.4 offensive snaps. 

In the end, the Lions came out with the win and can take solace in style points being reserved for college football pollsters. The victory also keeps the team's faint playoff hopes alive, with a favorable schedule through the rest of the month positioning the Lions to get above .500 heading into the season's stretch run. 

But if the Lions can't figure out what's ailing them late in games, there are more capable opponents than Washington on the docket who are less likely to fall short when when the door is open for a rally.

 jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers