Baltimore Ravens vs. Detroit Lions: Takeaways from Detroit's 18-16 Loss
When Justin Tucker's 61-yard field goal, his sixth of the game, snuck inside the upright and just over the crossbar, Lions fans everywhere saw their playoff dreams crushed.
Matthew Stafford's subsequent interception was the equivalent of the high school sweetheart who breaks your heart one day and starts dating your biggest nemesis the next.
With the loss, the Lions fall to 7-7. After a 6-3 start, Detroit has lost four of its last five to fall out of the NFC North lead. The Lions now trail the 8-6 Chicago Bears and 7-6-1 Green Bay Packers.
Here are my initial takeaways from the devastating Detroit loss.
*All statistics are courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise indicated.
Good Teams Find a Way to Win
The Baltimore Ravens are the defending Super Bowl champions. This game perfectly illustrated how they can hold that distinction despite not being the most talented team.
They find ways to win. In Detroit, they somehow managed to eke out a victory despite not scoring a touchdown.
There are cliches about "heart of a champion" and "culture of winning." Detroit fans understand these phenomena from the Red Wings. While they are indeed cliche, they are also apropos for this occasion.
Baltimore won in no small part because it expected to win. The demeanor as a team never wavered, even after Joseph Fauria's go-ahead touchdown.
Joe Flacco was not rattled or fazed by the pressure, even on 3rd-and-15. He calmly found Jacoby Jones over the middle to set up Tucker's game-winner.
This is not a great football team, these Ravens. Yet, they have now won four games in a row because they are scrappy and opportunistic. They also avoid losing games with critical mistakes.
The Pass Rush Came Up Empty
Flacco entered this game having been sacked 41 times, per NFL.com, and the Baltimore offensive line has struggled all season with a variety of lineup changes.
Yet, against Detroit's much-hyped defensive front four, Flacco consistently found time and space to deliver the ball without getting hit. Willie Young made one great play (pictured), but for the rest of the night the beleaguered Ravens line won the battle up front.
The Lions recorded just one sack. That came from safety Glover Quin on a blitz.
Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and the rest of the line recorded only a handful of hits on Flacco. The official stats are not out yet, but I have the Detroit defensive line down for just two quarterback hits, one each from Fairley and Ziggy Ansah.
Detroit starts three of its past four first-round picks on the defensive line, yet once again the team could not produce a single sack from that front.
The Lions have ranked near the bottom in sack percentage all season, and this poor outing will not help.
Jonte Green Was Not Ready for Prime Time
With starting corner Chris Houston and primary backup Darius Slay both inactive with injuries, the next man up was Jonte Green.
The second-year corner from New Mexico State looked very much like a player who had seen scant playing time all season.
Baltimore tested him early, isolating him on a crossing route with speedy Torrey Smith to pick up 25 yards. A couple of drives later, Green was quickly beaten off the line by Smith even though he was (rightly) flagged for grasping the facemask.
Green did make a couple of nice plays and appeared to settle into relative competence as the game progressed. He also flashed his athleticism and avoided a potential penalty:
Jonte Green is really good at jumping over Flacco after he slides. So there's that.— Josh Katzenstein (@jkatzenstein) December 17, 2013
Sadly, that counts as legitimate praise. While he wasn't awful, Green's performance did not inspire enough confidence to demand more looks at him going forward.
Matthew Stafford Is Not Clutch
All the arm strength in the world does not make a complete quarterback. Matthew Stafford proved that in this loss.
Stafford showed poor, lazy mechanics on several occasions. It impacted his accuracy, as he completed just 18 of 34 passes.
Yes, several of those passes were dropped. And Stafford made a couple of absolutely perfect throws which few other quarterbacks can even consider, including the touchdown to Fauria.
Yet much of what is wrong with Stafford is his own fault. He rushes reads and forces throws before he needs to get rid of the ball. His touch can be nonexistent, as it was when he missed a wide open Calvin Johnson late.
His fourth-quarter performance once again left a lot to be desired. The first two drives of the period, Stafford was 1-of-5 with an interception. An impressive touchdown drive followed, completing 6-of-8 with expert marksmanship.
In the end, however, his next pass cost the Lions their season for all intents and purposes. This builds upon some truly ugly recent history:
Crazy RT @ESPNStatsInfo: Matthew Stafford is 8-of-33 passing in the 4th quarter over the past 4 weeks -- follow 4th quarter here— Kyle Meinke (@kmeinke) December 17, 2013
Just as Flacco somehow finds ways to seize victory from the jaws of humiliation, Stafford finds ways to lose games the Lions should comfortably win.
A Bad Night for Calvin Johnson to Have a Bad Game
Lions fans probably should have suspected it was not going to be their night when Johnson dropped the first pass thrown his way. He was wide open on a crossing route and could have scored a touchdown if he caught the ball.
Instead, it bounced harmlessly to the turf off his massive hands.
Johnson would drop two other balls, and he also failed to flag down a tough throw from Stafford that did hit his hands as well.
Megatron caught just six of the 14 passes thrown his direction, accruing 98 yards and failing to score a touchdown.
In a game where the Lions needed their best players to step up and make plays, Johnson did not rise to the occasion.
Mental Mistakes Continue to Plague the Lions
Eight more penalties, costing the Lions 89 yards. Four of those were of the dreaded, inexcusable pre-snap variety. They even got away with a couple of infractions, notably DeAndre Levy hitting Flacco's lower leg.
Three more interceptions, upping the turnover total to 23 over the past seven games.
Tack on at least four more dropped passes, building upon a number which was already way too high.
This Detroit team simply does not play smart or focused football often enough. It's truly maddening to watch as a fan.
Good teams do not continue to repeat the same inane mistakes week after week. These Lions do it time after time. It's a big reason why they are just not a very good football team despite having a lot of talent.
Is This the Nail in Jim Schwartz's Coaching Coffin?
This is a tough spot to call out Schwartz, because the defensive scheme he implemented prevented the Ravens from scoring a touchdown. Some of the calls on defense were absolutely brilliant, like the Don Carey run blitz or the stunt to get Ansah a clean shot on Flacco late.
But this is about something much larger with Schwartz.
Despite having the healthiest and arguably most talented team from top to bottom in the NFC North, Schwartz could not coax a win out of his Lions.
The damning penalties and mental errors are clearly beyond his coaching ability to remedy. Inconsistent performance from quarter to quarter, even possession to possession, is the sign of a team that does not have confidence in itself.
That falls directly on the head coach. So does the befuddling offensive play-calling, even if Schwartz gives coordinator Scott Linehan an incredible amount of freedom in that area.
When the defense plays well, like this game against Baltimore, the offense lays an ostrich egg. Other weeks the offense sizzles but the defense breaks like burnt bacon.
Blowing such a golden opportunity to run away with the NFC North should be a fatal blow to Schwartz's coaching career in Detroit. It will be very hard for the Ford family to go to their loyal, hard-working customers and justify keeping a coach who simply cannot get this team to play to its potential.
This loss should be the final straw. Even if the Lions win out, and they might, the time is right to make a change at the top.