DETROIT -- Matthew Stafford had the ball, the game tied with a little more than six minutes left and in position to do what he’s done so often throughout his career: take the Detroit Lions on a drive to win.
Then he dropped back. Looked to his left. Threw the ball. And visions of that potential drive disappeared almost immediately. Stafford stared down Michael Roberts. Threw the ball. Chicago safety Eddie Jackson didn’t even need to blink.
He broke on the ball, picked it off and trotted down the field for a 41-yard interception return for a touchdown that flipped the game and turned what might have been the Lions’ second straight win into a potentially season-crushing 23-16 loss on Thanksgiving.
“Saw him coming out of centerfield. Just thought we had outflanked him, thought Mike was out wider than he was, which was the truth,” Stafford said. “Just didn’t get it to him quick enough. He did a good job undercutting it and obviously made a great play.”
It symbolized so much of what the Lions have struggled with this year and at 4-7 the Lions have matched their loss total from each of the past two seasons with five games to go in this one. The playcalling was subpar as it was clear that Jackson knew what was coming. So too was the decision-making of Stafford, who has enough experience that he should have been able to adjust in some form without a massive amount of pressure coming at him.
Instead, he’s now lumped in with this: There are two quarterbacks who have thrown a pick-six this season in the fourth quarter of a tie game. Stafford is one of them. The other is the recently-released Nathan Peterman, who the Lions coincidentally had in for a workout earlier this month.
This goes beyond Stafford, who as usual has good and bad moments throughout the course of a game. He completed 28-of-38 passes for 236 yards -- but with no touchdowns and two fourth-quarter interceptions. Case in point: The drive after the pick-six, Stafford moved the Lions down the field to the red zone with a chance to tie before he threw an interception in the end zone to Kyle Fuller that essentially ended the game.
On that play, Stafford thought Roberts was going to be a different spot on the field -- not a defined spot as the play is based on “feel,” but he just thought he’d be heading more toward the back pylon instead of shallower in the end zone. Roberts said it was “a different angle than we had practiced.”
“I’m just trying to get leverage on the, I think, strong safety that I think was guarding me,” Roberts said. “I got that leverage. Took an angle toward the sideline and not the back pylon, which, you know.”
The bigger issue here goes to the offense as a whole and the coaching.
The offense struggled all day. By halftime Stafford had thrown 20 passes, completing 16 of them. Those look like good numbers until you consider that the Lions were dinking and dunking their way so much that it resulted in just 98 total yards. Sure, some of that was by design to neutralize a Chicago pass rush that pummeled Stafford six times less than two weeks ago. And some of it was due to two of the Lions’ better offensive options -- Kerryon Johnson and Marvin Jones -- being sidelined with knee injuries.
But still, Stafford is in his 10th year in the NFL. He’s known for a strong arm that can make any throw -- good or bad. But the Lions kept him under wraps during the first half and throughout most of the day. Stafford said part of the strategy was due to what the Lions had seen from Chicago’s aggressive defense before.
“Teams that hold the ball against those guys don’t get the ball off quite a bit,” Stafford said. “So just try to make sure we mix it up. For the most part, if I don’t have those two turnovers, if I don’t make those two poor plays, we’re right where we want to be.”
LeGarrette Blount, who had 103 scrimmage yards and two touchdowns, became the lead back but was ineffective for the most part until the middle of the third quarter. The Lions wasted a pretty decent day from their defense, holding Chicago to 38 yards rushing and registering four sacks (although Chase Daniel completed 27-of-37 passes for 230 yards and two touchdowns). And a lot of that is due to the offensive issues.
Even the last drive -- the one that ended with a Stafford interception in the end zone -- was somewhat confusing. Detroit played with no urgency despite trailing by seven points. Either the Lions had supreme confidence in an offense that had been inconsistent all day, or they didn’t have any faith in a defense that had played well.
“There definitely was some strategy there with that," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "I thought that we were in a good situation where our guys were feeling pretty good from a conditioning standpoint. I felt like we were able to kind of control it a little bit as far as that and if we brought the ball down and scored, you know, tied it or went for two at that point, I thought we’d be OK. It wasn’t a situation where I felt like we had to score quick and try to get the ball back. It’s an explosive offense, they have great players, too.
“So definitely a strategy there as far as we felt like we were doing things well to move the ball, not be in a panic situation. Just go down and try and score, use all the clock if we have to and if we needed extra clock, use extra clock. So that’s really about it.”
All of it, though, led to one thing. Another loss. More frustration, as multiple players said they just want to win. There’s also this: the reality that the Lions couldn’t beat a backup quarterback making his first start since 2014, even with a defense that held Chicago to 17 points.
And that’s on the offense.
“I thought we left a lot of points on the board, you know,” tight end Luke Willson said. “I think we’re all going to be pretty sad when we watch this one.”