Free Head Exam: Detroit Lions

October, 1, 2012
10/01/12
3:30
PM ET
After the Detroit Lions' 20-13 loss to the Minnesota Vikings, here are three issues that merit further examination:

  1. Free Head Exam
    ESPN.com
    In defending special teams coordinator Danny Crossman, coach Jim Schwartz rejected the assertion that the Vikings had outschemed them Sunday. Schwartz said that physical mistakes by players were responsible for the Lions becoming the first team in NFL history to give up punt and kickoff returns for touchdowns in consecutive games. I don't doubt that physical mistakes occurred. Kassim Osgood's failure to tackle Marcus Sherels immediately after he fielded the punt was the first of four missed tackles on the play. But multiple Vikings players and coaches said the Lions used the same coverage on the opening kickoff as they had last week in giving up a 105-yard return to the Tennessee Titans' Darius Reynaud. Said Vikings coach Leslie Frazier: "I remember in our first special teams kickoff return meeting we saw some things and we pointed out that if everybody holds their blocks, Percy [Harvin is] going to score. I mean, it was obvious. There were some things that we saw if we just held our blocks and our guys did it." That's a smoking gun as far as I'm concerned. Typically when a group performs poorly over time, there are multiple explanations. In fact, I think it would look worse for Schwartz and Crossman if the same culprit was to blame over and over again without being corrected. The Lions are a mess on special teams, but it has without a doubt been a group effort.
  2. The upshot of four special-teams touchdowns in the past two weeks: The Lions' defense has played much better than its opponents' point total would indicate. Sunday, it limited the Vikings' offense to a pair of field goals. Both were set up by pass-interference penalties. And the Lions were really the first team to do a decent job limiting the touches of receiver Percy Harvin on offense. I thought safety Ricardo Silva, promoted Saturday from the practice squad, did a nice job on several plays trailing Harvin out of the backfield. And defensive end Cliff Avril sniffed out and nearly intercepted a bubble screen pass in the second half. Harvin's 34 combined yards in rushing and receiving was by far a season low.
  3. I applaud Schwartz and quarterback Matthew Stafford for continuing to support tight end Brandon Pettigrew publicly despite a tough two-week stretch that continued Sunday with a dropped touchdown pass. But I question how they feel behind the scenes. It would be one thing if Pettigrew had suddenly fallen into a rut that was an outlier from the rest of his career. But for better or worse, Pettigrew has been this guy for most of his career. He catches plenty of passes -- only four NFL tight ends have more than his 207 receptions since the start of the 2009 season -- but also drops more than he should. You wonder how many more drops in the end zone Pettigrew can make before the Lions rearrange their red zone priorities.
And here is one issue I still don't get:
I'm not sure if the Lions should be complimented for taking a patient approach on offense or criticized for too easily allowing teams to take them away from their strength. Schwartz reiterated Monday that teams are playing them "light" at the line of scrimmage, pushing their defense further back downfield to defend big pass plays. He added: "You need to have a mentality of being aggressive and aggressively asking what the defense gives you, but there's also a downside to that: Making dumb decisions if you try to push the ball where it shouldn't go in coverage." The Lions might be running the ball more than many would like -- an average of 25 attempts per game -- but they still rank second in the NFL with 186 pass attempts and are first with 1,288 passing yards. Their biggest issues have been a really poor running game, along with an inability to complete the longer drives teams are forcing them to embark on. A total of 14 teams have more touchdown passes than them (five). If anything, this has happened as a flaw of design rather than poor play calling. If the Lions could so easily be taken out of their game, then their offense was far more imbalanced and imperfect than anyone realized. As Schwartz said, the Lions need to "make people pay" for defending the run and short-passing game as an afterthought. As it is, their running backs are averaging 3.4 yards per carry. That's an awfully low number against light boxes.

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