By: Will Burchfield
No one is innocent within the Lions’ underperforming offense.
The running backs need to find more seams, the receivers need to win more battles and the $27-million quarterback needs to make more throws.
And the man behind it all, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter, needs to broaden his approach.
But all of the problems can be traced back to one: the offensive line. As much as it’s hindered Matthew Stafford, so has it affected the players around him.
Wide receiver Golden Tate admitted the constant pressure on Stafford is starting to weigh on his mind.
“We definitely think about it. It can be frustrating at times when you run a good route and you’re wide open and you see your quarterback back there scrambling for his life. It can be frustrating. It’s kind of hard not to start cutting routes off early when every time you run something you look back and he’s being pressured or having to run for his life,” said Tate.
He added, “We try not to blame anyone.”
Stafford has been sacked 23 times in six games and owns an ugly passer rating of 89.3. He had a whopping 10 passes batted down in the Lions’ Week 6 loss to the Saints. With left tackle Taylor Decker still on the mend and T.J. Lang and Rick Wagner both battling injuries, Detroit’s offensive line has lately become a turnstile for pass-rushers.
Tate said it’s affecting the way he runs his routes.
“Just speaking on myself, mentally it does something to you. Sometimes it makes me rush and I don’t get the correct release because I’m trying to get open so quickly to be available. It does mess with your head a little bit. We just have to continue to trust in the process and just keep working,” he said.
The Lions rank 26th in the NFL in yards per game (298) and 19th in passing yards per game (214). There’s plenty of blame to go around, but the simple fact is they haven’t put their best player in a position to succeed.
Stafford on Wednesday characterized his own season as “up and down,” but refused to place any culpability on the offensive line.
“My job is to go back there and trust it every time. As a quarterback that’s what you’re engrained to do. I can be better in getting the ball out a little bit quicker and helping everybody out, but for those guys I think it’s just reps together are important. They do everything they can, whoever’s in there every week, to try and get as many as they can,” Stafford said.
Things may get even dicier on Sunday night versus the Steelers. Neither left tackle Greg Robinson nor his backup Emmett Cleary has practiced this week, both sidelined with ankle injuries, meaning it may fall to Brian Mihalik to protect Stafford’s blindside against one of the best pass-rushing teams in the league.
Mihalik, a seventh-round draft pick in 2015 who played defensive end in college, is in his second stint with the Lions after the team acquired him via waivers in September. He’s yet to start a game in the NFL.
“What we see from him, he’s smart, he’s tough, he’s rugged. He’s gotten a feel for our scheme, and obviously I think he’s going to do just fine,” said Jim Caldwell.
It’s not all on Mihalik, just as it’s not all on the offensive line. Tate said the bye week forced a lot of honest self-evaluation.
“All the coaches and players just taking it personally, like, what can I do better to help us? Is that reading coverages? Is that running better routes? Is that coming out of the routes more crisply? Whatever it may be there’s somewhere we all can be better,” said Tate.
Said Caldwell, “It’s a team game. You have to learn to win a number of different ways. We need everybody playing well to get that done. You certainly cannot just put your finger on one particular issue and say, ‘Hey, this was it.’”
Still, the most glaring issue is the O-line. And it’s not just Stafford who’s paying for it.