By: Will Burchfield
What was an isolated issue has become a team-wide problem.
The Lions suddenly appear as crossed-up on offense as they do on defense. Their communication issues have spread like a plague, from one side of the ball to the other, and the losses are mounting.
The outbreak came to a head against the Chicago Bears, when the defense was gashed for easy yards and the offense shot itself in the foot. After winning their first game of the season, the Lions have lost three straight and fallen into the cellar of the NFC North.
Maybe, down there, they can get back in sync.
“It’s just something that’s so simple that you wouldn’t think about, but it’s something that universally makes a whole lot of difference. When everyone’s on the same page, everything works together,” said defensive end Devin Taylor.
Communication has been a weak point of the defense since the season began. All too often, the players are tossing up their hands and looking at each other in confusion, unable to comprehend how they surrendered another big play.
On Sunday against the Bears, the Lions defense abandoned receivers throughout the game. It cost them dearly on Chicago’s first two scoring drives of the game, enabling an otherwise feeble offense to march down the field. In particular, Eddie Royal was left wide open for a 64-yard gain early in the second half, setting up the Bears’ second touchdown.
“You can’t make excuses about it. It’s just something that you have to get fixed,” said linebacker Tahir Whitehead, a vocal leader on defense. “At the end of the day it’s never perfect in a football game. We just have to find ways to limit the communication errors and I think this past game we did a better job of that but they were able to execute on the plays we had mishaps.”
As much as the players are responsible for staying on the same page, missed signs and mudded signals would seem to reflect poorly on the coaches.
“I shoot that down right away, that’s not the case at all,” Whitehead said. “The coaches have done a great job of getting us prepared for each and every game (but) we’ve gone out there and just not quite executed the game plan the way we initially think. If you have communication errors, there’s going to be breakdowns. Teams have just found that guy that we happen to let loose.”
True, the Lions have been compromised by injuries on defense. In particular, linebacker DeAndre Levy hasn’t played a full game since Week 1, stripping the defense of its in-game general. But defensive coordinator Teryl Austin refuses to use that as an excuse for faulty player-to-player communication.
“No, because we’ve emphasized communication,” he said. “The one thing I always like to talk to our guys about is, when we make corrections in our meeting room, it’s always for the position not the person. We always want to make sure that whoever that next person is that steps into the game, they understand communication is expected of them.”
On offense, a unit that is mostly healthy, the same issues of dissonance are taking root. After Matthew Stafford and his receivers looked mostly in sync through the first three weeks of the season, the harmony is beginning to fall apart.
Never was this more evident than on Sunday, when receiver Golden Tate ran a fly route and Stafford was expecting him to run an out route. Stafford threw the ball toward the sideline, Tate kept running and Bears cornerback Jacoby Glenn swooped in for the easy interception.
“Just a miscommunication, specifically on my part,” Tate said after the game. “I didn’t get a signal, and it became a costly error on my part.”
Stafford suggested otherwise.
“At the end of the day, communication is on the quarterback, so I need to do a better job of getting what I want out of them,” he said.
Either way, the interception killed a promising Lions drive, one that could have given Detroit the lead at halftime, and revealed a glitch in a previously dynamic quarterback-receiver relationship.
“It doesn’t matter what position you play or what style of offense that you’re operating, communication is key whether it’s a guard communicating with a tackle, a tackle communicating with a tight end in terms of combination blocks or coverage responsibilities as you change up techniques according to formations that you have set. It’s all vital,” Jim Caldwell said.
And it’s all garbled at the moment, leaving the Lions gesturing at one another in frustration and shaking their heads in defeat.