By: Will Burchfield
The Lions just can’t punch it in.
Not Dwayne Washington, not Ameer Abdullah, not Theo Riddick.
“I’m assuming you’re talking about the red zone?” Jim Caldwell asked on Wednesday.
Monday’s game versus the Packers made it two straight in which the Lions ran into some serious short-yardage issues at a critical juncture of the field. Twice set up with first-and-goal from the one-yard line, they settled for field goals both times.
Abdullah, Riddick and Washington (in that order) combined for minus six yards on three carries while Matthew Stafford went 0-2 and was stuffed on a keeper.
“I just think we have to keep working at it,” said Caldwell. “All it boils down to is execution. We got a little bit better. We got it in a few times. Didn’t get it in enough times, and we just keep working at it.”
Abdullah did take a pitch from Stafford for a four-yard touchdown, but otherwise the Lions failed to shake the problems that doomed them in Week 8 versus the Steelers. In that game, a 20-15 loss, they were twice set up with first-and-goal from the four-yard line and couldn’t crack the end zone.
In goal-to-go situations in the past two games, the Lions have called eight designed runs for a total of zero yards.
“There’s always going to be something you’re deficient at. Very rarely do you find a team that has it all covered. You’re going to be able to pick out something negative, I don’t care how well a team is playing,” said Caldwell. “That’s the way football is.”
In the wake of the Steelers game in which Washington got four carries inside the five-yard line and failed to score a touchdown, Caldwell stood behind the second-year pro as the Lions’ goal-line running back. He cited Washington’s ability to run with power. He said Washington was their guy.
But when the first goal-line opportunity arrived versus the Packers, Caldwell called on Abdullah. When that experiment failed, with Abdullah fumbling on the one-yard line, he called on Riddick. When that experiment failed, he turned to Stafford on a keeper. Only when that experiment failed did Caldwell go back to Washington.
Washington was tackled for a six-yard loss.
Why the sudden change in personnel? Did Washington forget how to “run with power” in the span of a week?
“Every game is different. Every game is a little bit different,” said Caldwell. “That’s the best I could tell you.”
The last time the Lions ran for a touchdown in a goal-to-go situation was in Week 5 when Zach Zenner rammed it in from one yard out. Zenner has been inactive each of the past two games. Tion Green, meanwhile, hasn’t dressed for a single game this year.
Why does Caldwell continue to go with Washington over Zenner and Green?
“I don’t go through specifics about everything that we think. I don’t think it’s necessary,” he said. “All those guys are capable guys.”
Entering the Steelers game, the Lions were converting 60 percent of their red zone trips into touchdowns, the fifth best rate in the NFL. It’s since fallen to 45.8 percent, down to 27th overall. That drop is almost entirely due to the Lions’ inability to gain one measly yard.
Golden Tate admitted it’s deflating to see the offense continually stall out with the end zone in reach.
“For me, it’s aways tough, just because coming from Seattle where pretty much we got to the five-yard line and we knew we were going to get it in. If we were in one-receiver set or three-tight-end set, I was going to the bench and I’ll see y’all once we score. I didn’t have to think about it. So, it can be frustrating, but I know that we have the potential to be a really, really good running team,” said Tate.
That can be debated, and the number so far suggest it’s a stretch. The Lions’ rushing attack has somehow gotten worse since last season, even with the benefit of a healthy Abdullah. This is a team that can win without running for 100-plus yards per game, but not without picking up the yards that count.
“I think it’s something that we can control and something that we can fix pretty quickly,” said Tate. “I think all it is for us is that little detail. Receivers getting into better position or holding their blocks a little longer, making the correct read, the hat placement up front. This is the NFL. We all are paid and we all are the best athletes in the world. It’s competitive in there in the trenches, but we just have to be a little bit more detailed.”