DETROIT -- They’ve masked it with last-minute comebacks and a defense playing like one of the better units in the league. They’ve hidden it behind kicker Matt Prater, a consistent point-saver anywhere 60 yards and in.
The Lions are 3-2. They are in the middle of a tight NFC. But the Detroit Lions have issues on offense -- plenty of them. The offensive line has struggled to protect Matthew Stafford, allowing six sacks each to Minnesota and Carolina. The run game, in part due to mediocre line play, has been inconsistent.
After a hot start to the season, Stafford has missed throws and is fortunate to have his interception-less streak still intact after another week in which he should have had at least one pass picked off. Stafford is still playing well for the most part, but he's needing to be increasingly perfect for Detroit to win.
The players haven’t been helped by questionable playcalling by offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, either. Some of it is players having miscues on plays, but Cooter has been conservative despite having one of the strongest-armed quarterbacks in the NFL. For every innovative wrinkle he has, there are a handful of play sequences that just fail.
This is an offense that has gained over 350 yards in a game once this season -- Week 1. In three of the next four games, the Lions have had fewer than 260 yards of offense, including a season-worst 242 yards in a 27-23 loss to Carolina on Sunday.
“Just sporadic,” running back Ameer Abdullah said. “A little disappointed with the output [Sunday]. Just how well we practiced, felt like we had a really good practice week. So to come out and sputter out a couple drives, it’s never encouraging.
“But we understand where we made our mistakes, and probably came down to about three to four plays where we’re not synced up. That’s all it takes in this league. I was disappointed in how well we practiced and then the outcome of the game.”
The issues are bigger than Sunday. Detroit is in the bottom half of the league in almost every meaningful offensive statistical category -- not including points per game but including offensive points per game.
The Cooter-Stafford coordinator-quarterback marriage has led to better completion percentages and fewer interceptions. These are good things. But far too often, the Lions are forgoing taking big-play chances until it is absolutely necessary.
Some of that is because Stafford has received subpar blocking, but too often in the middle of games there’s a lull. Consider a seven-drive sequence between Detroit’s touchdowns in the second and fourth quarters. Punt. Punt. End of half. Fumble. Punt. Downs. Punt. The Lions got first downs on only two of those drives.
That lack of production led to Detroit's trailing 27-10 in the fourth quarter and needing the two-minute offense for almost a quarter to bring it back to make it even close. The two-minute offense led to two touchdowns and improved Lions statistics, but it also has been why Detroit’s offensive problems have not been as widely discussed.
“Just not executing, you know what I mean,” Stafford said. “Throwing and catching. Myself included; I haven’t played as good as I can possibly play. I’ve got to play better. That’s who I’ll look at first, is my play and find a way to be better.”
Stafford said he doesn’t believe playcalling has been an issue. Predictability -- at least Sunday -- was not a problem, either. The Lions had nine rushes on first down and 17 passes, a number skewed in the second half because of Detroit’s deficit.
The Lions also insist they have been practicing well. But as good as the Lions might say the practices are, it’s not translating to Sundays. It’s something the Lions can’t figure out. There seems to be a disconnect between what Detroit says are good weeks of work and then performing when it counts.
“I don’t know,” tight end Eric Ebron said. “We’ll continue to try and come together and continue to try and put points on the board and play the game of football. We’re not that good on offense right now.
“We need to come together and continue to practice and continue to get better and try to match the intensity of our defense. Because our defense is going to keep playing the way they are, we’ve got to come out and we’ve got to help ourselves.”
Lions coach Jim Caldwell pointed to the “ebb and flows to our game” when asked about Detroit’s offense, but admitted the Lions aren’t finishing drives well enough. Too often they’ve settled for field goals or worse. Caldwell, as he always does, took some of the blame, saying, “I have to do a better job with them.”
But it’s not just on him. It’s not just on the players. It’s on Cooter, too. If something isn’t working with an offense, a game plan, and it has consistently been an issue, he has to be the one to solve it. And so far, the only thing consistent about Detroit’s offense is that each week, it has been less productive.
The points might not show it. The record might not show it. But the statistics have made that much clear.
“That’s tough to pinpoint. I can’t really say. I’m not really sure,” running back Zach Zenner said. “I think we’ve been preparing well. Been impressed with our weeks of preparation, and I think we have a good group of players.
“Just bringing it out on Sundays and executing, I guess, is what it would come down to.”