sistaff
Wednesday October 26th, 2011

The Lions' offensive line hasn't been doing Matthew Stafford any favors. (Icon SMI)

Here's a little something that got lost amidst the hoopla of Detroit's 5-0 start: The Lions only played well -- really well -- for about half that stretch.

Winning is the end goal, of course, so it was easy to overlook the moments of mediocrity, but remember that Detroit was down 20-0 at halftime to Minnesota (now 1-6), trailed a banged-up Dallas team 27-3 and struggled to a 10-7 halftime deficit against the Bears. The Lions' rallies in each of those games, as well as impressive wins over Kansas City and Tampa Bay, showed what this team's capable of when it's clicking on all cylinders.

That wasn't the case in Week 6 or 7. Detroit came out with back-to-back flat efforts against San Francisco and Atlanta, resulting in a two-game losing streak that has the Lions reeling a bit.

So what's gone wrong? Pick a problem:

• The offensive line, which looked like the Lions' Achilles heel heading into the year, has been exposed a bit in pass protection. That issue was at the heart of the big early deficits against Dallas and Minnesota, and it popped up again in Weeks 6 and 7. The Falcons and 49ers combined for eight sacks on Matthew Stafford and at least double that number in QB pressures.

• The run game performed admirably against the Falcons (104 yards on 20 carries) but without an injured Jahvid Best, Detroit is missing its home-run threat out of the backfield.

• Detroit's defense has been far less dominant up front than expected -- teams are using the Lions' aggressive pass rush against them, exploiting it with draws and screens. And Atlanta and San Francisco both had running backs easily surpass 100 yards on the ground.

• The special teams have been a mess. Kicker Jason Hanson can be omitted for the most part, but his missed field goal against the 49ers came back to haunt Detroit late. And in each of the Lions' two losses, they've allowed huge kick/punt returns at inopportune times.

This is a good time to remind everyone that the Lions had eight wins over the past three seasons, so there's still a learning curve here.

Cornerback Chris Houston said as much Tuesday:

"We have to stop listening to how good we're supposed to be and start feeling like we're the underdogs.

"The Lions can go 6-0, 7-0 and go into the Thanksgiving Day game against the Packers — you hear that stuff and you kind of fall into it."

Playing San Francisco, a runaway leader in the NFC West right now, and a desperate Atlanta team in consecutive weeks didn't do Detroit any favors either. The trick for Jim Schwartz and his team now will be to avoid letting two losses spiral into an extended losing streak or an 8-8 season.

Step one will be figuring out how to remedy these slow starts.

The Lions are sixth in the league in points scored (27.7 per game) but have just 26 first-half points over the past five weeks -- an average of 5.2 points. Given that, it's amazing that Detroit has managed to go 3-2 over that stretch.

But for as much as Schwartz's team is built around Ndamukong Suh, Kyle Vanden Bosch and the defensive line, the Lions knew heading into this year that the offense would have to be prolific for them to be successful. That's why Detroit started, as early as the preseason, utilizing tons of shotgun and no-huddle looks in an effort to dictate tempo.

The 49ers and Falcons took that away from them.

"Maybe you are a team that likes to fast break and you got an opponent that is slowing the ball down," (Jim Schwartz) said. "Or maybe you are a half-court team and the other team is trying to push the ball on you. You aren't playing your game."

All of the recent offensive struggles have led to questions about Stafford, who's questionable for Week 8 with a right leg injury. The questions are valid, too, because while the offensive line has been awful at times, Stafford has made it worse by uncharacteristically panicking in the pocket.

In the loss to Atlanta, Stafford hit on just 15 of 32 passes and struggled spreading the ball around -- the Lions' receivers not named Calvin Johnson totaled one catch for one yard.

Detroit has a deep offense, even with Best sidelined, but it hasn't been able to use it.

And the defense is getting taken to school up front as well. Michael Turner rushed for 122 yards last Sunday, one week after Frank Gore broke loose for 141 yards against the Lions.

Add it all up -- the disappointing play on both lines, the injuries and Stafford being stuck in a rut -- and the Lions are right where they should be, dealing with a two-game losing streak. The Lions are still in a favorable playoff position, but will stay there only if they rediscover the mojo they had earlier this season.

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