By: Will Burchfield
“Against a team like that,” said Jim Caldwell, “unless you score touchdowns, it’s very difficult to beat them kicking field goals all day.”
Crazy thing is, the Lions could have done just that. They lost to the Steelers by five points on Sunday night, 20-15, and passed up two easy field goals.
The first was by choice. The second was by necessity.
“Every one changes a little bit. You just have to kind of see where you are. In any case, we had a chance to win it at the end and we just didn’t get it done,” said Caldwell.
Midway through the third quarter, with the Steelers leading 13-12, the Lions faced a fourth-and-goal from the one-yard line. They drew up a pass play, but Matthew Stafford couldn’t find an open receiver and got sacked when he scrambled for the end zone.
Faced with the same scenario early in the fourth quarter, only with the Steelers now leading 20-12, Caldwell opted for the field goal. Matt Prater knocked it through.
“Try to be aggressive and go after it the first time around. The game was a little bit later on the next time around, so we kicked it and still gave ourselves a chance to win it a couple times,” said Caldwell. “Just couldn’t get it done, a turnover and just ineffectiveness.”
Caldwell’s first decision came back to haunt the Lions when they drove the ball to the Steelers’ eight-yard line with 2:00 to play. What could have been a two-point deficit was instead five, and the Lions were forced to go for it on fourth-and-seven. Stafford’s protection broke down and his pass to Eric Ebron never had a chance.
The Steelers iced the game on the ensuing drive.
Asked if he was okay with the Jim Bob Cooter’s play-calling near the goal line, Caldwell said, “Certainly.”
But there was plenty to question. The Lions ran seven plays inside the Steelers’ five-yard line, and four of them went to running back Dwayne Washington for a total of six yards.
Why is Washington the Lions’ goal-line back?
“Because he can run with power,” Caldwell said.
Why isn’t it someone else, Ameer Abdullah perhaps?
“I think I just answered your question. The situation is, that’s our back, that’s who we choose to run with. We think he’ll give us the best opportunity to do what we are trying to do down there in that situation, plain and simple,” Caldwell said.
He deflected a question as to whether a lack of confidence in the power running game contributed to his decision to kick the field goal on the second fourth-and-goal opportunity.
“The fact of the matter is we have to be able to get it in, one way or another. We tried several different ways and we have to keep trying. I think we were capable, we just didn’t do it today. We just had a few too many of those situations where we didn’t come up with a touchdown,” Caldwell said.
“Didn’t execute well enough. Just missed here and there. Didn’t protect well enough down there and didn’t run the ball well enough down there. We just didn’t function very well in that area,” Caldwell said.
Entering Sunday’s game, the Lions were tied for fifth in the NFL with a 60 percent touchdown rate in the red zone.
Said Stafford, “I think that’s something we’ve been good at this year. I feel like when we get into the red zone we’ve done a nice job of getting points. Tonight was a different case.”
Asked about the Lions’ inability to stiffen up and punch it in on the ground, Stafford said, “The first one was good and Dwayne almost got in. On the second one we just didn’t execute well enough. We had bodies for bodies, we just didn’t execute.”
On the play prior to the failed fourth-and-one, right tackle Rick Wagner was injured and taken out of the game. Stafford wasn’t sure if that was discussed when the Lions decided to go for it.
“That’s something probably between the head coach and Jim Bob. I was in the huddle the whole time on the field. As a QB I want to go for it every time, want to go out there and get 7. No matter what happens I’ll take the bullet for not getting us in,” Stafford said.
Asked if Wagner’s injury played a role in his decision-making process, Caldwell said, “We cover every single conceivable situation. We talk about it, we analyze it, we make a decision and we move forward. We think about all those things.”
Stafford, like Caldwell, defended the play-calling near the end zone.
“I think we had some good calls. We were close on Dwayne’s run twice, and just have to find a way to get it in. You get down there and rarely is it schemed up perfect. Guys have to go out there and make plays, and that’s me included. I have to go out there and hit guys when they’re open and our guys have to come down with it. In the run we have to do a little better down there, too,” Stafford said.
Stafford completed 27 throws for 423 yards on Sunday night, the latter a season high. But on passes inside the Steelers’ 20-yard line, he went 1-10 for six yards.
He also called an audible to a draw play to Theo Riddick on third-and-five from the Steelers’ six-yard line with 2:06 to play. Riddick was quickly tackled for a two-yard loss.
“Yeah, I checked into that. We just didn’t execute it well, and that’s on me to get everybody on the same page,” said Stafford, noting the Steelers were in drop-eight coverage on the play.
As for the sack he took on fourth-and-goal in the third quarter, Stafford confirmed it was a pass play that broke down when the Steelers had all of his options covered.
“They were dropping a lot of guys into coverage, thought I had a chance to maybe step up and make a play. Their guys did a good job rallying and tackling me,” said Stafford.
The Lions gained a total of 482 yards on Sunday night, the third most in NFL history by a team that was held out of the end zone.
“If we had put it in the end zone, you would have called this a breakout performance,” said Stafford. “From 20 to 20, we were playing as good as football as we have this year.”
Said Caldwell, “We had some big plays there. It’s a bit of a situation where you don’t feel good about obviously losing the game, but also just the fact that we didn’t put the ball in the end zone. If you have to kick field goals all day it’s not ideal.”