The Detroit Lions entered Sunday at 6-3 and poised to win in Pittsburgh for the first time since 1955. Instead of running forward with their own playoff destiny, though, the Lions fell 37-27 and blew a great chance to validate those playoff aspirations.
Aside from a truly glorious second quarter, Detroit looked lethargic and uninspired. That's how Lions fans feel about the team right now as well.
Here are my initial takeaways from the game...
With a 4th-and-5 on the Pittsburgh 10-yard line and a 27-23 lead early in the fourth quarter, Lions coach Jim Schwartz opted to run a fake field goal.
Instead of taking a sure three points to push the lead to a touchdown, Schwartz gambled that he could catch the Steelers unaware.
It did not work, and the game fundamentally changed as a result.
Punter Sam Martin attempted to scamper off right tackle for the first down, but he was popped hard after about two yards. Before he was slammed to the turf well short of the needed conversion spot, he fumbled the ball forward off his foot.
The Steelers took over at their own 3, but trailing by just four instead of seven. Pittsburgh then methodically ripped off a 16-play, 97-yard drive which was capped off by a short touchdown pass to fullback Will Johnson.
What could have been a seven-point lead quickly morphed into a three-point deficit. Worse, all the momentum of the game shifted squarely to the guys dressed like bumble bees.
I don't think the concept of trying for a fake there was terrible. Even though it failed, the play pinned the Steelers deep in their own territory. Detroit's defense had been playing well, giving no indication they could mount such an impressive drive.
Yet the play called, a sprint by the punter on a slick field, was a poor decision. On such a short field goal the perimeter defenders are unlikely to sell out on a block, which means less room to operate. It was not well thought out, and it cost the Lions a game.
A couple of weeks ago I touched on the Lions' struggles in the second quarter.
In Pittsburgh, the proverbial worm didn't just turn. It barrel-rolled the Steelers for 27 points.
The Lions scored touchdowns on drives of 79, 74 and 62 yards. They also capped off the first half with a quick 50-yard drive to tack on a second field goal in the quarter.
Just as important, the defense forced three three-and-outs by the Steelers offense. Pittsburgh did manage to score two field goals, but by and large the Detroit defense significantly ratcheted up the intensity.
#Lions 27 points ties team record for points in the second quarter of a game, tying record set in Week 4 against the Bears.— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) November 17, 2013
This effort dramatically swung the game after Pittsburgh had raced out to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter. The ability to put up a copious amount of points in a short period makes the Lions a threat to overcome any lead, an important attribute moving forward.
Just as a week ago, when Nick Fairley went from goat to hero in the span of one drive, Fairley once again took Lions fans for a ride.
On Pittsburgh's first two drives, both of which ended in touchdowns, Fairley looked awful. He was repeatedly pushed backwards off the line and never got near Ben Roethlisberger.
In the rest of the first half, Fairley recorded two tackles-for-loss, one sack and one other quarterback hit. Yet in the spirit of a true roller coaster performance, Fairley followed up his sack with an encroachment penalty on the ensuing field goal attempt.
Fairley totaled just one more tackle in the rest of the game, and he never came close to Roethlisberger again.
Coach Jim Schwartz addressed the roller coaster in his weekly press conference. As Tim Twentyman of the Lions' official website reported,
There are a lot of players that deal with inconsistencies and things like that. It doesn’t have any reflection of their effort and their preparation and things like that. He has been very good at times and other times, there’s things that he still needs to work on, things he needs to do better.
I think Lions fans would love to see more consistency from Fairley, but not at the expense of his oft-spectacular flashes.
Rookie right guard Larry Warford turned in a superlative performance in Pittsburgh. Even in defeat, his dominant blocking really stood out.
Larry Warford a big part of that drive. He and Raiola had big blocks on screen. Bell ran behind a pulling Warford on TD.— Dave Birkett (@davebirkett) November 17, 2013
Twice on that drive, the third-rounder squashed Steelers safety Troy Polamalu like a bug on a truck windshield. Warford snowplowed Steelers out of his way repeatedly.
If you're looking for a bright spot after the ugly loss, it's Larry Warford. At minimum he will make the All-Rookie team. With more games like this, he should merit some votes for Offensive Rookie of the Year.
After such a wonderfully productive second quarter, the Lions appeared poised to shatter some offensive records. Instead, the offense completely fizzled in the second half.
The tweets tell the story:
Matthew Stafford had 327 passing yds at half then sputtered only throwing 35 Yds in the 2nd half. Steelers get the 37-27 win, move to 4-6 .— FOX Sports: NFL (@NFLONFOX) November 17, 2013
Calvin Johnson did not have a catch in second half. #DETvsPIT— Detroit Lions (@NFLDetroitLions) November 17, 2013
To quote Katy Perry,
you're hot then you're cold, you're yes then you're no,
you're in then you're out, you're up then you're down.
The Lions went from red hot to ice cold, and it cost them a road victory. Even a last-place team like the Steelers can rise up when the opponent only plays offense for one quarter.
Detroit must string together four consistent quarters if it hopes to win critical games against quality opponents.
It was not pretty from the get-go. I tweeted this following Pittsburgh's first scoring drive:
I logged 5 missed tackles by #Lions on that TD drive. 2 on Quin, 2 on Tulloch.— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) November 17, 2013
I charted three other missed tackles for linebacker Stephen Tulloch, who had quite a decline from a great game against Chicago.
Defensive end Willie Young missed an easy tackle-for-loss when he failed to wrap up Le'Veon Bell in the backfield. Safety Glover Quin had another ugly missed tackle aside from the aforementioned flops on the first drive.
Corner Chris Houston missed at least two tackles, including the one pictured here.
To be fair, the Steelers missed several tackles as well. The disintegrating field conditions throughout the game made footing a real problem, and defenders often slid past where they thought they could stop.
But in a loss like this, excuses don't matter. The Lions must improve the effort and attention to detail on tackling.
When Matthew Stafford found Calvin Johnson for a 79-yard touchdown pass early in the second quarter, the Lions quarterback set a team record for career passing yards.
Stafford bumped Bobby Layne from the top spot, besting the Hall of Fame member's 15,710 yards accrued from 1950-58.
I'm sure Stafford would trade the record for a win. He set the mark in the course of one of his worst games of the season. Other than an epic second quarter, Stafford was inaccurate and ineffective. As Justin Rogers of MLive.com noted just before the first scoring drive of the second quarter,
Stafford is killing the Lions right now with these missed throws. He started off well, but it's quickly fallen apart.— Justin Rogers (@Justin_Rogers) November 17, 2013
The quarterback's lethal ways returned in the second half. He threw for just 35 yards in the final two quarters, completing just three of his 16 passes.
His receivers didn't help Stafford with a handful of drops, but the Lions quarterback did not have a good game. Even though he's now the all-time passing yardage leader in Detroit Lions history, he earned it with a subpar performance.
The Detroit Lions epitomized the old Hall & Oates classic "Missed Opportunities" in the loss to Pittsburgh.
DeAndre Levy dropped not one but two interceptions. One of them was thrown directly into his waiting hands, but he could not secure the ball.
Glover Quin could not flag down a tipped ball in the red zone. It would have been a spectacular play, but the veteran safety just couldn't make it.
Matthew Stafford wildly overthrew a wide open Reggie Bush on an early third down, a play which would have gained beau coup yardage. Instead, the Lions faced fourth down in no-man's land and failed on the ensuing conversion.
Then there is the infamous fake field goal. Instead of seizing the opportunity to put easy points on the board, the Lions missed out.
To quote another Hall & Oates gem, "I Can't Go For That." Nor can you, Lions fans. Playoff contenders take advantage when opportunity knocks as it did for Detroit. Instead, the Lions failed to answer the bell.