The Circus was most definitely in town....
The way the Detroit Lions have been playing this year, it's hard to say you're completely shocked that they went to Arizona and lost.
You can absolutely be shocked in the manner with which they were beaten, though.
As bad as the Lions have played, how in the world did the Arizona Cardinals drop 38 points on the Lions?
Let's put aside the mere 10 points the Lions scored themselves for a moment.
This is a Cardinals team on a nine-game losing streak, coming off a 58-0 loss and who hadn't scored more than 20 points since Week 4. A team who hadn't topped 30 points all season long.
Sure, the Cardinals were especially fired up coming off the atrocious loss to Seattle in Week 14, but even accounting for that, this should not have happened.
It did, though. Here's how.
Another Blunder Brought to You by Lions Special Teams
It would be easy to pin this on Stefan Logan, if only because Logan has so often been the reason for a special teams failure.
This one isn't on him though, for once. No, this was all on Pat Lee, a bench defensive back who showed horrific field awareness on the play.
Lee is paired up with Cardinals special teams player Michael Adams, who is lined up as a gunner. Lee's task is a simple one—keep Adams from tackling Logan. Normally a coverage player will push or otherwise force the gunner outside.
From the snap, Lee is in big trouble. Adams is way too fast for him, and he's several steps behind the guy he's covering in just a few seconds.
The only time Lee is able to catch Adams is when the latter slows down about 10 yards away from Logan. Adams slows down because Logan signals for a fair catch.
Lee stays with Adams, as he should. He still has to protect Logan in case of a fumble or at least make sure the punt returner has room to adjust and make his catch.
However, Lee doesn't direct Adams away from Logan. He allows the gunner to continue forward, right at Logan. It's almost like Lee is escorting Adams to Logan. Whether Lee sees Logan call for a fair catch or not, he should be pushing Adams away from the play.
He isn't though, and worse, he doesn't seem to realize how close to Logan he is. That is just horrible awareness, which results in Lee colliding with Logan.
Of course, Logan can't catch the ball when being run over by his own man. The ball hits him and skitters away, only to be picked up by none other than Adams.
While this isn't a run back for a touchdown, it's only a play later that Chris "Beanie" Wells punches the ball in for a score.
Oh, and that play? Another bad beat that we'll get to in just a second.
This is the start of the game going completely south on the Lions—a tipping point you can look at later and point to as where it all went wrong. The Lions never recovered from this gaffe, and it was the start of a brutal quarter of football for the team.
Speaking of brutal, let's go back to that Wells touchdown.
Backfield Legend Beanie Wells?
In the following two screen caps, you can see how far back the defensive line was pushed.
The Arizona Cardinals have one of the single worst offensive lines in the league. There are multiple players along the line who are third string (or worse), and yet these guys manage to shove the defensive line of the Lions around all throughout the game.
Which ends up with Wells—often hurt and never very good—having three touchdowns in a game.
It's an awful game for the line in many respects, and it starts here.
The yellow line shows where the line of scrimmage is.
The Lions are arrayed in a 4-3 defense, but the linebackers are close enough to where they can contribute to any run defense.
In the next cap I've added a red line. This signifies how far back the left side of the defensive front is pushed by the allegedly woeful offensive line of the Arizona Cardinals.
The center of the mass along the left side is about three yards off the line of scrimmage. We all know that in short-yardage situations, the yards are gained as much by the offensive line as the running back.
Defensively then, the run is stopped by the defensive line getting penetration or at least holding the offensive line in place.
Wells slips along that line and right through a hole that opens up, stumbling to a touchdown.
This is a constant issue throughout the rest of the game. While the Lions' defensive front gets some good penetration, it's inconsistent and uneven both against the run as well as the pass.
Again, this is an offensive line ranked the worst in the league by NFL.com. They have allowed a staggering 52 sacks, are accounting for a terrible 3.5 yards-per-carry average (tied with Dallas for futility), had only had seven rushing touchdowns before Sunday and have turned over players on a nearly weekly basis.
The Lions couldn't stop them at the goal line and got a whopping one sack in four quarters.
Futility like that costs you games.
Let's continue, if your stomach can handle it.
We would also have accepted "The Spirit of Giving is Alive and Well in Detroit."
Matthew Stafford can send a thank-you card to Mark Sanchez because the Jets quarterback's meltdown on Monday Night Football is one reason Stafford's disastrous picks aren't getting play outside of Detroit.
They were soul-crushingly bad, though, even if not always totally his fault.
Let's look at them and see what went wrong and how they helped contribute to the loss.
The first pick is either an awful throw by Stafford (believable this season) or a wrong route by Calvin Johnson. It's possible Johnson was just abused on the route, but it really doesn't look that way on the All-22.
The play starts with the Lions in a formation with just two receivers wide—one along the top and Calvin Johnson along the bottom, matched up with Patrick Peterson.
At the snap, the two hand fight for a few yards, then get into their stride around the 10-yard line.
Johnson slows down and undercuts his route at about the 15-yard line, but Stafford is already throwing the ball as if his receiver is going long. It's a miscommunication at best, an out-and-out blunder at worst.
Johnson stops once he sees the ball is sailing—a curious choice given Peterson's presence. I assume he believed the ball was thrown well out of bounds, but he was wrong and Peterson makes a nice play for an interception. The pick sets up the Cardinals offense with yet another short field.
Aside from what is going on with Johnson, let's also take a closer look at Stafford.
He looks at Johnson the whole time. There is never any threat that he's going left—he's locked onto Megatron.
Can you blame him? Every other receiver lets him down.
That said, at least try to look your first read off. Everyone knows you are going to go to Johnson most of the time (they just need to look at his targets relative to everyone else on the team). You're already at a disadvantage.
In this case you can see Stafford stare Johnson down the entire route. You're already dealing with the fact that most of the field knows it's going there—why make it even more obvious?
Peterson is in perfect position and Johnson would have had a hard time making the catch anyway, but the miscommunication and Stafford staring his receiver down exacerbated the issue.
To top it off, the Cardinals score right after this on another Wells touchdown, which again features a great push by the Arizona offensive line.
We'll move on to the second interception, which is even more backbreaking, as it's returned for a touchdown.
On the play, the Lions have three receivers out wide with two men in the backfield to help block. The Cardinals appear to be leaving their two safeties deep, with man coverage on the receivers.
At the snap, the linebackers drop into coverage, one cutting off the middle route while the other two assist in coverage. The Cardinals are only rushing four, and Stafford has plenty of time to make his read and throw.
Unfortunately, Stafford incorrectly reads tight end Tony Scheffler as being in single coverage, and fails to see Rashad Johnson moving over to support defensive back Randall Gay.
In Stafford's defense, Johnson was a good five yards away from Scheffler when the ball left the quarterback's hand. It took perfect timing to not only get in front of Scheffler, but pick the ball off as well.
Again, this is a situation where it looks as though the defender read Stafford's eyes and intention early. It's not quite the stare down Johnson received, but it's close.
The final interception comes when the game is essentially done, with Detroit down 24 to 10 and just five minutes left in the game. It's another terrible pick-six, and worse, it's on fourth down at the Arizona 4-yard line, just two yards from a touchdown.
There are plenty of plays here that could either gain a first down or perhaps a touchdown. Stafford goes for the big-money play—though amazingly not to Calvin Johnson. Instead he goes to Kris Durham, who had a whopping one catch on four targets for the day.
Durham lines up along the far left side with tight end Will Heller to his right. Johnson is on the right side of the field. All players are in single coverage.
The Cardinals have crowded the line, but at the snap, drop a safety into the end zone and have a pair of linebackers in containment.
Stafford sees Durham heading into the end zone, but he's well-covered by Greg Toler. I'm not sure if Stafford planned to put it up and hope Durham would go up and get it like Johnson does, if Durham thought he was going to do a fade route and Stafford didn't expect that or if Stafford's throw was merely awful.
What we do know is, it was a terribly short pass. Durham keeps running and can't turn around in time to stop Toler from easily intercepting the throw.
From there it's a pretty easy jog 102 yards for an interception.
If there were thoughts of coming back, that killed them. Of course, it's also another illustration of Stafford's constant issues all season.
In fact, the issues that sank the Lions during this game are a microcosm of the issues that have plagued them all year long: poor quarterback play, no chemistry between Stafford and most of his receivers, an offense based on one player, special teams mistakes and inconsistent defensive play.
How did the Cardinals score so many points? The answer is the same as it's been all too often this season—because both sides of the ball helped them.
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