Lions wide receiver Marvin Jones Jr. misses a touchdown pbad during the fourth quarter of the Lions’ 20-15 loss on Sunday, Oct. 29, 2017, at Ford Field.(Photo: Kirthmon F. Dozier DFP)

It’s easy to fault the Lions’ underwhelming running game for their red-zone struggles in Sunday’s 20-15 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, and there’s no question it plays a role.

The Lions are not a very good short-yardage rushing team right now, haven’t been for some time, and the lack of respect defenses have for their running game makes life difficult on everyone else on offense.

But the Lions’ red-zone issues go well beyond who plays the big-back role or what happened on a certain fourth down.

The Lions had 18 offensive snaps in the red zone, including one holding penalty, and came away with only nine points. They made three field goals on those possessions, and turned the ball over twice on downs.

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Matthew Stafford has the third lowest red-zone completion percentage among NFL quarterbacks at 39.5% – DeShone Kizer (33.3%) and Marcus Mariota (38.9%) are the only signal callers worse — and he’s not getting much help from his wide receivers or offensive line.

Marvin Jones dropped one touchdown pbad Sunday, Darren Fells had another knocked out of his hands, and the Lions had several protection breakdowns in the red zone.
With the help of the NFL’s all-22 film on Game Rewind, here’s a film review of what went wrong for the Lions in the red zone.

First red-zone visit: Second quarter, about 10 minutes to play.

The Lions had a first-and-goal at the Steelers’ 10-yard line after Matthew Stafford hit Marvin Jones with a 33-yard pbad, but the drive stalled immediately thereafter when Travis Swanson was called for holding on first down.

Swanson took issue with the call at the time, but it’s understandable why officials flagged him on replay. As Steelers lineman L.T. Walton tried to cross face and blow up a running play, Swanson appeared to have one hand on Walton’s back and a fistful of jersey on the front side.

Stafford threw short to Theo Riddick in the right flat on first-and-20, with a free blitzer flying in off right tackle, and incomplete to Marvin Jones and TJ Jones on second and third down. Marvin Jones had a favorable inside release against Joe Haden on second down, but Stafford rushed a throw with no pressure and overshot him in the end zone
TJ Jones got behind his defender in the end zone on third down, but Stafford’s wobbler sailed too far and carried him out of the side of the end zone. Matt Prater capped the drive with a 37-yard field goal.

Second red-zone visit: Second quarter, about 30 seconds to play.

The Lions started this possession with 56 seconds left in the first half and crossed into the red zone seconds laterless than a half a minute later on an 11-yard pbad to Golden Tate. Stafford threw incomplete on his next three pbades, and Prater made his second field goal just before halftime.

Stafford should have had a touchdown on his first red-zone throw of the possession, when he found his favorite red-zone target, Fells, down the seam of the field. Stafford threw a nice ball, and Fells jumped to make the catch, but had the ball knocked out of his hand by Sean Davis as he came down.

Stafford threw behind a well-covered Fells on second down, and missed Jones, who didn’t appear to run the crispest route, in the end zone on third down.

Third red-zone visit: Third quarter, about 6 minutes to play

The Lions had first-and-goal at the 4 after a long catch by TJ Jones, and gained just 2 yards on their next four plays. 

Dwayne Washington had a nice hole on the right side of the line on first down, and running behind blocks by Fells and Michael Roberts nearly got in the end zone. Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis motioned to the formation and kicked inside to block Davis, but Davis spun off the block and got just enough of Washington to tag-team with Ryan Shazier on the tackle.

Shazier showed great patience on the play, and covered significant ground, coming from his A-gap position between left guard Graham Glasgow and center Travis Swanson to make the play. Had Shazier attacked the line of scrimmage at the snap, Washington would have scored.

On second-and-goal from the 1, the Lions ran essentially a two-receiver route (with Ameer Abdullah as a late outlet) with six Steelers defenders dropping into coverage. The play never had a chance and Stafford was forced to throw on the run.

The Lions sent their jumbo package out on third-and-goal, but Washington had no room to run as Swanson got pushed back at the snap and Glasgow missed a cut block on his defender. By the time Washington got back to the line of scrimmage, two Steelers were waiting to stonewall him.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell made the controversial decision to pbad on a field-goal try on fourth down. The decision backfired as the Steelers double-teamed Marvin Jones as the only receiver on the right side of the formation, played cloud coverage to the left with three defenders shadowing late looks Eric Ebron and Golden Tate, and took Fells out of the play with a good jam at the line of scrimmage by linebacker Vince Williams.

Stafford, with the pocket collapsing, stepped up and tried to run for the touchdown, but was stopped for a 1-yard loss. His only other option might have been able to flip the ball to Washington for a touchdown, but that wouldn’t have been an easy shovel to make.

“It’s pbad play, but they dropped seven guys into coverage on that play. Doubling Marv, doubling Ebron, or playing three-for-two over there to the left. 98 (Williams) did a nice job on Fells over the middle and 50 (Shazier) had 36 (Washington), so it parted ways and thought I had a chance to maybe make a play to Dwayne or run it in and right as I was about to kind of do something I got hit.”

Fourth red-zone trip: Fourth quarter, about 14 minutes to play

The Lions had first-and-goal at the 4 for the second straight series, but kicked a field goal this time after failing to reach the end zone on their first three plays.

With little respect for the Lions’ running game, the Steelers didn’t bite on play-action bootleg on first down. Stafford extended the play with his feet, rolling all the way to the far sideline, and eventually threw just a hair wide for Ebron in the back of the end zone. Stafford made the right read after the play broke down, but none of his receivers won their one-on-one matchups.

Washington gained 2 yards on a second down dive play, but was tripped up as he hit the line of scrimmage after Bud Dupree beat a block by Roberts. On third-and-goal at the 2, the Lions ran a similar play but Washington was stuffed by Davis. Abbrederis was supposed to block Davis on the play, but he didn’t have enough time or space to get around Roberts on the right edge and get to his man.

Fifth red-zone trip: Fourth quarter, about 3 minutes to play

Down five points, the Lions needed to get in the end zone and they had a chance after making first-and-10 at the Steelers 11.

Stafford had Marvin Jones one-on-one with Artie Burns as his only receiver to the left and threw a nice pbad on the fade route. It wouldn’t have been an easy catch, but Jones outjumped Burns only to have the ball hit him in the facemask and carom out of bounds, an opportunity wasted.

On second down, the Lions tried to shorten the field and threw a quick in-breaking route to pick up 5 yards, leaving them with a manageable third-and-goal at the 6. Stafford, seeing just five defenders in the box, checked to a handoff to Theo Riddick.

The play, in theory, should have worked given the defensive alignment, and it’s unclear if the Steelers simply made a good play or if not every Lions player got the check. Mike Hilton, who was matched against Tate in the slot to the left of the formation, read run and hit Riddick for a 2-yard loss in the backfield. On the TV copy of the game, Tate can be seen in the end zone with his hands askew, palms up, after the play as if to say, “What happened?”

“I checked into that,” Stafford said. “We just didn’t execute it well and that’s on me to get everybody on the same page.”

Down to one final play, Stafford threw incomplete to Ebron over the middle as the Steelers dropped eight men in coverage yet still got pressure up the middle as Javon Hargrave overpowered Swanson.

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