By: Will Burchfield

Here’s the easy take on the Lions’ 4-4 start: they are alive thanks to their offense, perilously so because of their defense. The former unit, it appears, has bailed out the latter.

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Under closer examination, that’s not exactly the case.

Consider Sunday’s loss to the Houston Texans, for example. The Lions’ offense sleep-walked through the first three quarters, putting the team in a 17-3 hole entering the final 15 minutes of play. Matthew Stafford and Co. made things interesting with a 10-point awakening down the stretch, but it was too little too late.

They finished with just 13 points against a Texans defense that entered the contest allowing 22 points per game. Houston 20, Detroit 13.

“You’ll have games like that against good defenses that play well against you,” said Jim Caldwell. “You know, you may not light it up every single time, but we certainly expect to be a little bit more potent than we were.”

That’s fair, to an extent. The Lions had averaged 24.3 points though their first seven games, a number that ranked in the upper half of the league. One could reasonably expect that to continue against a middle-of-the-pack defense.

Then again – take a closer look.

A large portion of the Lions’ offensive production this season has come in do-or-die situations at the end of games, typically with Detroit playing from behind. This has earned the offense praise for “rising to the occasion” and “coming up clutch,” but it has also covered up otherwise mediocre play.

From the first quarter through the third, the Lions have continually struggled to move the ball. In the last seven games, Detroit has entered the fourth quarter with an average of 13.3 points, a four-quarter scoring pace that would rank 29th in the league.

Not surprisingly, the team’s recent three-game win streak was the product of three fourth-quarter comebacks. Looking to make it four in a row versus the Texans, the Lions dug themselves too deep of a hole and their good fortune ran dry. Eventually, it always does.

“It just didn’t work out,” said Golden Tate, lamenting the offense being stuck on the sideline as time expired. “We gotta do a better job of not putting our team in that situation where we’re playing from behind like that.”

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It’s fun and exciting to watch the Lions stage comeback after comeback, but it’s not a sustainable pattern of success. And as explosive as their offense has looked on its numerous game-winning drives, it has looked just as sluggish on those that precede them.

The Lions’ larger offensive struggles, per usual, can be traced back to their inability to run the ball. They rank 27th in the league with 85.5 rushing yards per game and haven’t gained 100 yards on the ground in a game since their Week 2 loss to the Tennessee Titans.

The only time Detroit’s offense slides into gear, it seems, is when Stafford drops back and starts slinging the ball like a madman. Desperate times call for desperate measures.

And desperate measures don’t yield consistent success.

It has become current this season to highlight Stafford’s staggering number of fourth-quarter comebacks: 24 all time and 22 since 2011, more than any other NFL quarterback in that span. More than Tom Brady, more than Ben Roethlisberger, more than Aaron Rodgers.

Man, we think. That’s impressive.

But the asterisk we often overlook is one of opportunity. The Lions QB has the most fourth quarter comebacks in the past five-and-a-half years in large part because his teams are so frequently playing from behind. That’s the unavoidable blemish on Stafford’s most impressive career accomplishment.

That’s not necessarily a knock on him. But it’s certainly a condemnation of the teams on which he’s played, this year’s squad included. The Lions are frequently facing late-game deficits and their offense, one of the worst in the league through the first three quarters of a game, deserves as much blame for that as their defense.

Their 4-4 start isn’t the product of success on one side of the ball and failure on the other. The offense hasn’t bailed out the defense – it has bailed out itself. That won’t always be the case, of course, and Sunday was just the latest example.

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For the Lions to stay in the playoff hunt, it’s imperative that they start scoring points before their backs are against the wall.