Kicker Fails, Offense Struggles, Defense Fights in Lions Loss

There are two words that encompass everything about the Detroit Lions’ 14-17 loss to the Buffalo Bills yesterday.

Missed.

Opportunities.

In some ways, it’s ironic that these are the terms that describe the team that shut down an opponent similar to Buffalo just a week ago. The reality is that the Lions took advantage of countless opportunities to control the game; the Lions did a lot of things well and made victory seem attainable all afternoon. In fact, the Lions didn’t miss a ton of chances on paper. WR Golden Tate once again thrashed an opposing secondary with 134 yards. The defense kept Buffalo RBs C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson to a combined 57 yards. LBs DeAndre Levy and Tamir Whitehead exploded for a combined 20 tackles. And for what it’s worth, the Lions even looked somewhat competent rushing the ball as RB George Winn averaged 4.4 yards a pop. In all of these ways, the Lions took advantage of opportunities and played to their strengths. The result was that the Lions led the game 14-3 at the half and didn’t lose that lead until more than 5 minutes into the fourth quarter.

Yet in spite of all of Detroit’s hard work, the Lions missed the mark when it mattered most. No matter how many opportunities Detroit seized, they ultimately lose the game on the little, simple, and quite frankly necessary facets of the game. First and foremost, K Alex Henery (who was released this afternoon) was literally terrible. The Lions have missed more field goals than any other team this year, but Henery’s performance yesterday propelled Detroit’s kicking to another level of awfulness. Since he was signed, Henery is 1 for 5, and yesterday went 0 for 3. In the third quarter alone, the Lions were up 14 to 3 and on back to back drives missed 44 and 47 yard field goals. These were both seven play drives, one for 31 yards, and another for 54 and Henery couldn’t deliver on basic, longer range kicks. And again (and more importantly) in the fourth quarter with seconds left following a 5 play, 57 yard drive, Henry couldn’t seal the game and missed a 50 yard field goal. Missed field goals are normal for any NFL kicker, but going 0 for 3 on attempts essential for either the lead or victory is inexcusable. Granted, Detroit’s mistakes go deeper than field goals, but on a day where routine field goals could’ve delivered a win, the Lions truly defeated themselves in every way.

 

(Relatively) Good Moments

In my estimate, the best moment of the aftermath of this game was the release of Henery, but that is still a little facetious in hindsight. Of course the Lions struggled yesterday –in ways beyond just kicking- but there are still plenty of performances worth lauding. To reiterate the ones already mentioned, the Lions run defense was spectacular. On 22 rushing attempts, Buffalo garnered 49 yards total and averaged only 2.2 yards per carry. Those are fantastic numbers for any defense, and once again the credit goes to the Lions’ stout front seven. In addition, while the Lions only sacked Orton twice, they put him on the ground multiple times. In all, Detroit had eight tackles for loss and nine QB hits; both phenomenal numbers.

The defensive effort was of course led by Levy, who had 13 tackles and another for a loss. Whithead finished with 7 and another for negative yardage. But names that haven’t been mentioned yet include DT Ndamukong Suh who had four tackles, one for loss, DE Ziggy Ansah who posted the same numbers, and DT George Johnson who had 2 tackles, and two for loss. Beyond that, reserve LB Ashlee Palmer had a sack, tackle for loss, and even registered one of the Lions’ four deflected passes. In no way was the Lions’ defense asleep yesterday, and throughout the game Detroit blew up Buffalo’s pocket and run attack.

Unfortunately, the defense’s merits seem to round out the Lions’ achievements. That is certainly a well worn narrative for Detroit this year, and while it’s great to see the Lions’ defense grow into its own,  the work of Levy, Whitehead, and company mean less as long as the offense continues to flounder. But although the offense struggle again, Winn and Tate were pleasant exceptions and at least gave Detroit moments of success. Tate’s 134 yards came off of 7 catches (9 targets) for a 19.1 yard average and a touchdown. Tate also made a key 55 catch-and-go play on the Lions’ second to last drive to put Detroit in field goal range. Admittedly Tate looks more like a number one receiver in this offense than I originally expected, and while he can’t supersede WR Calvin Johnson, he can certainly compensate for Megatron. Coming into yesterday 10th in the NFL in receiving yards, Tate has repeatedly been a positive for the inconsistent offense. Finally, Winn does deserve some credit for showing signs of potential. Winn only carried the ball 11 times for 48 yards, but compared to RB Reggie Bush’s 6 for 13 or really any of RB Joique Bell’s previous games, those figures are improvement.

 

Obviously Bad Moments

Most of the bad from yesterday clearly falls on the offense, but truthfully a lot of it has to do with Tate. Yes, 7 catches for 134 yards and a touchdown is great, but without Johnson those numbers are hardly meaningful and even detrimental. The reason is because Golden Tate is meant to be a number two, and when the Lions have relied on him to be a number one, their offense has become far too one dimensional; all the receiving pressure is put on Tate. That was a primary issue against Buffalo, as QB Matthew Stafford emphasized Tate so much so that he under distributed the ball elsewhere. Bush had 2 catches for 30 yards, WR Corey Fuller had 3 catches for 17 yards, WR Jeremy Ross was 1 for 13, while TE duo Brandon Pettigrew and Eric Ebron combined for 4 for 20. The Lions struggled to spread the ball around substantially or for any impactful yards.  Golden Tate is a fantastic receiver, but he and the offense thrive best when Johnson is the centerpiece so that Tate can be used more creatively. In some ways, Tate has become over-relied on in ways that Johnson also has been in years past -a reality the Lions need to avoid re-exhibiting.

Of course, the clearest issue yesterday was Stafford himself. Against the 25th ranked pass defense, Stafford went 18 of 31 for just 221 yards and was sacked six times. The one touchdown to Tate was a bright spot, but an early second quarter interception killed momentum early on. Stafford finished with just a 77.5 QB rating which isn’t horrible, but ultimately Detroit was just one for eleven on third down and gave Buffalo nearly a five minute time of possession advantage. The problem is not that Stafford did too many things wrong, but just didn’t do enough things right. In the fourth quarter alone, on four drives, the Lions punted twice, missed a field goal, and then fumbled on their last chance prayer play at the end of regulation. At no point did Detroit’s offense look amazing, and once again it became the team’s biggest liability despite an earnest defensive effort. Without Johnson, Stafford’s hyper dependence on Tate was more than the offense could afford and an eight point lead became unsustainable for the Lions to just try to manage the game.

Johnson’s absence and Stafford’s blandness undoubtedly hurt the Lions, but the marquee failure yesterday comes down to lack of execution and desire. The Lions simply couldn’t score when it mattered, and failed to do the basics correctly. As already mentioned, Detroit came up short on all four drives in the fourth quarter, but what is most telling is that in each drive the Lions had a prime chance to seal the game.

After blowing their lead in the third quarter, the Lions got the ball for the first time in the fourth with 9:23 left to play on the clock. Tied 14-14 at home with divisional control on the line, the Lions held the ball for just 2 minutes, running only 3 plays for 8 yards and punting from their own 20 yard line. Even later in the quarter –and thanks to a key defensive stop- the Lions once again had a chance to win the game. With 2:57 left in the game, Detroit killed a minute and ten seconds, covered 4 yards in 5 plays and punted from their own 15. And after yet again another defensive stop, Detroit got the ball a third time with 1:02 left and still blew it. After marching 57 yards on 5 plays from their own 11, Detroit missed the walk off field goal, gave Buffalo great field position, and lost on a 58 yard miracle field goal. The final Detroit possession is hardly worth mentioning: a negative yardage fumble on a final miracle play from their own 20.  Three viable chances and two major defensive stops are absolutely amazing and still the offense didn’t show up let alone convert an important field goal.

 

Going Forward

All eyes will be on Johnson’s health status as the Lions now prepare to travel to Minnesota next week. At 3-2, the Lions are still strongly contending for the NFC North and have a new opportunity to tack on a divisional victory come Sunday. We know the defense will be there and we know the Lions will once again be favorites to win. What we don’t know is if Stafford and the offense can generate traction down the stretch and if the team can capitalize on clutch chances to finish the game.