On Sunday, The Lions Suffered A Loss To The Football Giants.
The Lions dropped a game that was much less one sided than the scoreboard might lead some to believe. A few inches here and there, and the result of this game would have been completely different. The Lions battled both the New York Giants and the referees, as they are undoubtedly getting used to this season. Sometimes you eat the worm, and sometimes the worm eats you. This week the Lions ended up in the second category.
From the opening 11 play touchdown drive, it was clear this week that the Lions’ defensive line was going to have problems. Ziggy Ansah lined up four yards outside the left tackle, and the Giants audibled to a running play in to the hole between Ansah and Robinson for six yards.
In fact they opened the game with four straight running plays, none of which went for less than four yards. Then we learned that if your name is Odell Beckham, the catch rules do not apply to you; you can drop a ball, sit on it, and pick it up. That is a catch when you’re playing against the Lions. Other than the first drive, the Giants did not accomplish much in the first quarter on offense.
When the Lions did get the ball, Olivier Vernon was allowed to hit Matthew Stafford in the back a full two seconds after the officials blew the play dead without penalty. The Lions were able to move the ball in the first quarter, but their inadequacy running the ball continually put them in third and long situations. A penalty aided drive did net the Lions a field goal at the beginning of the second quarter.
The Lions proceeded to give the Giants the game in three plays during the second quarter. The first, a Giants fumble in the end zone; which Rafael Bush unfortunately failed to recover. Rather than a touch-back that would have given the Lions the ball, the Giants were able to net a field goal.
The second play was a terribly under-thrown ball by Matthew Stafford to a wide open Golden Tate on an otherwise perfect play-action roll out. If Stafford doesn’t put the ball ten yards behind his receiver, Tate does not get caught from behind by Dominique Rogers-Chromartie. Zach Zenner’s fumble in to the end zone shortly thereafter put the cork in a half that should have ended with the Lions ahead 10-7, but instead ended with the Lions down 10-3. A ten point swing in three plays.
The second half began with a heads up play by Andre Roberts on a kick return. No that is not a typo. Roberts took advantage of the rule nobody knew, that was used against the Lions earlier in the season.
If the kick returner puts his feet out of bounds before picking up a kickoff, it is considered a kick out of bounds. It was nice to see a stupid rule go in the Lions favor for once. The Lions took advantage of the gift they were given by marching down the field for a a Matt Prater chip shot. Unfortunately those were the last points they would score in the game. The offenses were equally ineffective for the remainder of the third. The only notable play was that Ziggy Ansah recorded his first sack of the season to close out the quarter.
The Lions pass rush however was ineffective throughout the fourth Quarter. The defensive line were also completely unable to limit the Giants in the running game. Leaving the Lions down by eleven with 5:42 left in the fourth quarter.
Many have been bashing the Lions stubborn refusal to abandon the run, but the Lions put the game on Staffords back entirely, and the fierce Giants pass rush made them pay with a three and out. Which Stafford was forced to unload the ball to avoid a sack twice and overthrew his receiver on the other.
The Giants ran the ball three times to kill the clock, and to the defense’s credit, they did stuff all three runs for short gains to get the ball back. Stafford drove the Lions up the field, but came up short. Then threw an interception in the end zone to finish the Lions chances on the day. If not for the disastrous string of events in the second quarter, the Lions would have been driving for a field goal to take the lead, and Stafford would not have had to force a ball into a bad spot.
Key One: The Running Game
The issues the Lions had running the ball were not entirely due to their lack of talent at the running back position with Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick out. They were also not the fault of a poor offensive line, because bluntly the Lions do not have one of those. When the Lions simply lined up in a conventional formation and handed the ball off to a running back as he moved toward the line of scrimmage, the Lions were able to run the ball. It was when the Lions decided to be cute, running toss plays out of the shotgun, or first down draw plays. The Lions struggles running the ball were in the design of their playbook.
A perfect example of this was the running play that opened the second half for the Lions offense. The play began in the shotgun. Stafford received the snap, paused a beat, and then handed Washington the ball. Laken Tomlinson and tight end Clay Harbor both pulled from the left side of the formation to the right, while the rest of the line downblocked to the left. Tomlinson kicked the defensive end outside, and Harbor handled the linebacker who went directly to where the hole was supposed to be.
The right side of the offense collapsed while the left pushed the defensive line back from the line of scrimmage. Rather than cut it back, Washington stepped around Harbor, hit the hole the play was called for, and was taken down for a two yard gain by the safety who also knew exactly where the play was going from the snap of the ball.
Dwayne Washington is not a slow player, but he doesn’t have elite initial burst, and that’s what a play like this needs. The play develops slowly, with every lineman doing something other than merely blocking the man in front of him. Washington gets the ball while standing still, and needs to accelerate as fast as he can, or there will be no hole when he gets there.
Not being a particularly shifty runner, Washington will go exactly where the play has told him to go. Such a running back is far more effectively deployed with a fullback from a conventional formation, but the Lions offense is almost criminal in its under-use of Mike Burton and runs out of the shotgun more than half the time on first down. It is the way the offense is designed from the ground up that prevents the Lions from being able to run the ball.
Their running plays are easy to read. When the tight end goes in motion across the formation his movement after the snap is all that the defense needs to read. If he goes left, it is always a run to the left, if he goes right it is a run to the right, and if he goes forward it is a pass. That is a read that every safety, linebacker, and likely half of the defensive ends in the league have picked up. Despite the crushing failure that the Lions have been running the ball, they keep doing the exact same thing. Predictability is a terminal illness against a good defense like the Giants.
Key Two: Stafford’s Finger
Several times during the game Matthew Stafford simply made a bad throw and it cost the team a down. The Lions offense relies on Stafford’s cannon to get the ball to receivers instantly on screens, and down the field when the opportunity arises later in games. All year the Lions have been lulling defenses in to a false sense of security with a barrage of short passes until they finally open up and put a dagger in to the gut of the defense. The Lions went deep more often but to less effect against the Giants than they have all season.
The accuracy with which Stafford has been delivering the ball this season was just not there. He threw Golden Tate out of bounds twice, and missed Marvin Jones late. If those three passes were delivered accurately the team’s outlook in the fourth quarter would likely have been different. I can’t really fault him for the interception in the end zone that effectively ended the Lions hopes for a comeback. It was a poor decision, but the team needed two scores so it was time to take chances. Any corner on either team but the athletic freak that is DRC likely doesn’t have the ability to jump that throw. He made a great read of Stafford’s eyes, left his coverage responsibility, and picked off what would otherwise have been a touchdown pass to Boldin.
Key Three: The Giants Are A Really Good Team
The Giants and Lions had identical records going in to this week. One team made a few exceptional plays, and the other team was just a little bit off. Beckham’s unreal one handed catch for a touchdown, Eli Apple’s spectacular pass break up, and DRC not quitting after Tate beat him deep are examples of the game changing plays that the Giants got, and the Lions did not.
The Giants punter stuck the Lions inside the five yard line throughout the second half of the game, making a sustained touchdown drive problematic. Both teams lost their premier corner back, but one team’s corner who was thrust in to a larger role played like a pro bowler, and the other’s had a rough night. The Lions just lost a game that could have gone either way with some different bounces, to what is likely one of the top five teams in the NFL. It happens; the world is not ending.
The Lions head to Dallas this week, to play another top five team. Many would say the Cowboys are the best or second best, depending on their view of the Patriots. On paper the Lions should probably have a difficult time in this match up, but the Cowboys did not fare any better than the Lions against the Giants, and they had two chances at it. The Cowboys have been looking a lot less spectacular lately, having nearly dropped their Sunday night match up with the Buccaneers in week fifteen. The Lions are far from out of this match up.
Stafford’s finger, Levy’s meniscus, Riddick’s wrist, and Abdullah’s foot are going to figure strongly in the future of the Lions. The first two because the Lions fate is linked closely to how close those players can get to their pre-injury level of play. The second pair because the Lions offense can not compete with the elite teams in the NFL with such a one dimensional offensive attack. The Lions have three good teams to play to finish off the year. They just lost the first of those games. While losing their next game would not be a terminal blow to the Lions playoff chances, it would be the end of any talk of a first round bye in the playoffs.