November 18, 2013
On a fake field goal attempt, Detroit Lions punter Sam Martin scrambles but loses the ball after being a hit and the Steelers recover on the 3-yard line in the fourth quarter of the 37-27 Pittsburgh Steelers' victory at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh on Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)
Pittsburgh — Being aggressive is one thing, a good thing, something the Lions need to do. But for aggressive teams to win, they have to do it when it matters, and where it matters. Jim Schwartz took the wrong gamble at the wrong time, and paid for it.
The Lions blew this game, and not just because they blew a fake field goal in the fourth quarter. Schwartz angrily defended the trick play, and that’s fine. The Steelers followed with a crunching 97-yard touchdown march, so this isn’t just about one play. It’s about a bold mind-set, and how the Lions need to show it in more ways than faking a kick.
They squandered the lead shortly after the play failed, so we can easily connect the dots in their 37-27 loss to the Steelers. This is about bigger dots, about the Lions’ occasionally mysterious shell. They can look wildly aggressive for a half, or a quarter, and then inexplicably meek.
An unorthodox risk wouldn’t be necessary if the Lions had squeezed harder with the game in their hands. They wiped out a 14-0 deficit with a stirring 27-point second quarter, in which Matthew Stafford and Calvin Johnson were shredding more pages in the record book. And then it all stopped and never restarted, and Schwartz was left to explain why he tried to kick-start it with a bad call.
“It had nothing to do with mind-set,” Schwartz said, his voice rising. “It had to do with trying to make the plays to win the game. We didn’t make it. But look, y’all can say whatever you want about me, but don’t say I’m scared. Because we ain’t. This team’s gonna be aggressive, we’re gonna play our very best. We didn’t play well enough to win this game, but it’s not because we’re passive or anything.”
They weren’t passive on that play, but they were ridiculously passive at the start and in the fourth quarter. If the trick works, the Lions (6-4) are clever and ruthless and continuing to evolve as a playoff contender. Instead, they gave the Steelers (4-6) fresh life, and Ben Roethlisberger used it for a desperately needed victory.
Coming up empty
Here was the situation: Leading 27-23, the Lions faced fourth-and-5 at the Steelers 10 with 12:56 left in the fourth quarter. David Akers trotted on for an apparent short field goal. But Schwartz called for the fake, and punter-holder Sam Martin — who can change the call but saw an opening — took the snap and ran over the right side. He was hit 2 yards short of the first down, so it didn’t matter he fumbled it away at the 3.
Players adamantly defended the strategy — even in the wet field conditions — for the same reason Schwartz did.
“It’s an aggressive call,” said Reggie Bush, who was benched late after losing a fumble. “If we score a touchdown, then obviously it’s the greatest call of the day. If you don’t execute it, then everybody’s going to point fingers at us.”
And if Bush doesn’t lose that fumble in the second quarter, maybe the Lions don’t need deception. If the offense could roll in the first half — 327 yards passing by Stafford and 179 yards receiving by Johnson — how could it generate virtually nothing after that? The Steelers didn’t change much defensively but the Lions’ 27-20 lead never grew, and Stafford was three-for-16 for 35 yards in the second half. Johnson had zero catches as the Lions reverted to how they started the game, when they looked lost and listless.
And what happened to the defense, especially the sometimes-menacing front four? It sure didn’t look audacious as the Steelers marched 97 yards for the go-ahead score. It didn’t look remotely nasty as Roethlisberger threw 45 passes and was sacked only once. Coming into the game, he’d been sacked 35 times, second-most in the league.
Players talked about Roethlisberger’s quick release, but remember, this was a battered team the Lions were favored to beat. And every time the Steelers had to make a play in the fourth quarter, they made it. On third-and-9 from their own 4, Roethlisberger completed a 16-yarder to Antonio Brown. On fourth-and-2 from the Lions’ 36, he converted a 3-yard toss to Le’Veon Bell.
“We came out flat, started to play well, then we sort of put it in cruise control,” linebacker DeAndre Levy said. “I think we’ve just got to decide who we want to be. We’ve got to decide if we want to be good, want to be average, be good sometimes or be good all the time.”
It’s impossible to be good all the time in the NFL unless you’re elite. The Lions aren’t there, so let’s not waste time with a heavy dissertation on the state of the franchise. The Lions can be good, but they’re so weak in the secondary, they can’t let up, and they must get more disruptive play from Ndamukong Suh (zero tackles), Nick Fairley and others.
Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham doesn’t like to blitz because of the secondary, but sorry, when Roethlisberger is picking you apart, you gotta find a way to hit him. And that brings us back to the aggressiveness issue, and the timing. Schwartz noted a field goal only would’ve supplied a seven-point lead. OK, but converting the fake didn’t guarantee a touchdown either.
I usually appreciate when coaches go for it on short fourth downs, as Schwartz did earlier, and failed. So I understand his point, and his players do too. But the other point is, if that’s who you supposedly are, a fearless band of aggressors, there are much better ways to show it.