As exciting as the comeback wins have been for the Detroit Lions this season, including Sunday's 16-14 victory over Minnesota, they cover up an underlying issue that must be fixed if these Lions hope to keep winning. Slow starts to the game are forcing all those late comebacks.
It's been an issue all season, but the Vikings game takes the cake. Detroit's offense came out with an almost disinterested flatness, and it paved the way for Minnesota to build up a 14-0 lead.
The Lions did not record a single first down in the first quarter. The first four drives didn't combine to accrue even 20 yards.
|Detroit Lions First-Half Drives vs. Minnesota|
Detroit ended the first half with just 64 yards. Two Minnesota turnovers were the only saving grace, giving the Lions the ball at the Vikings 11- and 32-yard lines to start the short scoring drives.
The Lions were fortunate to score at all before halftime, continuing a recurring theme for the season. Detroit ranks just 20th in first-half scoring, and the 10.2-point average was greatly augmented by scoring 41 points in the two prior wins over Chicago and Tampa Bay.
It's the first quarter that is the real problem. Detroit has just two first-quarter touchdowns since the first Minnesota game back in Week 6. The Lions have scored at least four touchdowns in every other quarter in the same time frame.
The defense is not immune either. In fact, that side of the ball is often at its worst right out of the gate.
Take the Chicago victory on Thanksgiving. The Bears raced out to a quick 14-3 lead before the slumbering Lions awakened. That particular game proved it's not just the offense that is prone to early-game struggles.
After a 3-and-out where the Lions netted minus-one yard, Chicago quickly engineered a six-play, 55-yard touchdown drive. Detroit answered with a field goal, but the Lions' next drive ended quickly with a Jared Allen strip-sack of Matthew Stafford. The Bears scored two plays later, and the score was an unappetizing deficit just as many fans were settling in for their holiday dinner.
As great as Detroit's defense has been this year, it has proved most vulnerable early in games.
|Lions First Quarter vs. Overall Rank|
Detroit has allowed nine first-quarter touchdowns this season. By comparison, the Lions have allowed just 10 in the second halves of their games, including only three in the six games since the bye week.
Perhaps this is an issue with a rookie coordinator in Teryl Austin. While he's often fantastic with in-game adjustments, Austin's game-preparation skills need some honing.
That might work in regular-season games against non-contenders like Chicago and Minnesota, but the Lions defense will need to roar for 60 full minutes if they want to beat Green Bay in Week 17 or advance in the playoffs against the likes of Philadelphia or Seattle.
This needs to be the focus of Detroit's coaching staff: winning playoff games. Those start in Wisconsin on Dec. 28, where the NFC North title and perhaps a playoff bye will be at stake.
If head coach Jim Caldwell and his staff closely examine what they can do better, getting both units sharp out of the tunnel is the primary way to help make their team better.
They get a golden opportunity to demonstrate improvement in the next two weeks, as Detroit has already played both Chicago and Green Bay earlier this season. Familiarity with the opponent should foster the ability to devise a more complete game plan, not relying so heavily on making in-game adjustments.
Then again, they had that advantage against Minnesota too. Hopefully Caldwell and his lieges learn from their past problems and correct the propensity for puttering through the first period.
All stats are from Pro-Football-Reference.com. All rankings are from Team Rankings.