Lions’ Den: Offense falters when it matters most in SNF loss

Photo: Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports

The old cliché that many Lions fans have been saying for years is “every week, the Lions find a new way to lose.” The cliche was true this week, as the Lions dropped a big home game vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers, 20-15.

Even though Detroit lost, there were a few positives.

The defense, with the exception of an outrageous 97-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to rookie receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, played well enough to win. Roethlisberger came into this game with eight interceptions, third-most in the NFL, and the Lions took advantage of that early on. Safety Glover Quin intercepted a pass intended for receiver Antonio Brown midway through the first quarter.

Forcing turnovers was going to be key for the Lions to stay in this game. The Steelers boast two of the best playmakers in all of football: running back Le’Veon Bell and the aforementioned Brown, and the Lions did a solid job of limiting their production. Bell averaged only three yards per carry and coughed up the ball with a minute left in the first half, leading to a Lions field goal.

Photo: Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports

Brown was held to 70 yards, and the Lions stopped him at crucial parts of the game. Cornerback Darius Slay drew an offensive pass interference call on a pass to Brown in the end zone early in the third quarter, and the very next play cornerback Quandre Diggs made a great open field tackle on a short pass to stop the shifty Brown on thirddown. Sure, the pass rush was virtually nonexistent, registering zero sacks, but this loss cannot fall on the defense.

On the offensive side, both quarterback Matthew Stafford and the offensive line showed improvement from two weeks ago in New Orleans. Stafford was sacked twice this week, which was a result of both improved pass protection and quicker throws by Stafford. Former seventh-round pick offensive tackle Brian Mihalik managed to protect well in his debut as a starter, and the offensive line should improve exponentially once 2016 first-round pick Taylor Decker is healthy and reclaims his spot as franchise left tackle.

Stafford showed great rapport with wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr., whose 128 receiving yards were the most by a Lion all season and Jones’ second-highest total of his career.

The oft-criticized Lions tight end Eric Ebron managed to have a 44-yard catch and run late in the fourth quarter. He still only caught 33 percent of his targets, but at this point Lions fans will take any kind of production out of him.

Ebron’s catch and run, which put the Lions on Pittsburgh’s 11-yard line, leads directly into the question that everyone in Detroit is asking: what the world is wrong with the Lions red zone offense?

Stafford threw the ball at will on Sunday night. His 423 yards were the most he’s thrown in a game since 2013. He spread the ball around, too, with nine Lions recording a reception, the most all season for the team. Despite all this success for the first 80 yards of the playing field, they turned into the 2008 Lions once they got in the red zone.

Playcalling is the easiest aspect of this game to blame the loss on. The Lions had the ball on third down on Pittsburgh’s one-yard line with five minutes left in the third quarter, and decided to run the ball up the middle with third-string running back Dwayne Washington, who got absolutely stuffed.

The score at this point was 13-12 in favor of Pittsburgh. Hindsight is 20/20 and Caldwell probably got caught in the heat of the moment, but a field goal would have given the Lions the lead no matter what.

Instead, Caldwell elected to go for it. Those three points left on the field ended up being the difference between an easy game winning field goal and another sad attempt at red-zone offense by the Lions.

With two minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Lions once again found themselves in a third down situation, this time on Pittsburgh’s six-yard line. It looked like Stafford audibled at the line and the play ended up being a run up the middle for Theo Riddick, resulting in a two-yard loss. An incompletion on fourth down the next play all but ended the game.

Photo: Tim Fuller/USA TODAY Sports

Running the ball is not, and hasn’t been for a decade, the Lions’ strong suit. They rank 26th in the league in rushing yards this season. Running the ball up the middle on the two biggest third downs of the game is boneheaded play calling.

However, passing in the red zone wouldn’t have been much better. The key to success in the red zone is receivers with size and the ability to catch jump balls. With 6-foot-4 rookie receiver Kenny Golladay injured, the Lions don’t have much size at receiver or running back. If Golladay isn’t back soon, Stafford must get big tight ends Ebron and Darren Fells more involved near the goal line.

Next week’s bout will see the Lions head to Green Bay to play the Packers on Monday night. Each week is becoming more and more of a must-win as the Lions move towards a game vs. the Minnesota Vikings on Thanksgiving that could decide the division.