MIKE O'HARA

O'HARA'S MONDAY COUNTDOWN: Offense struggles as Stafford takes hits

Posted Oct 9, 2017

This week's Monday Countdown takes a look at how an inability to protect quarterback Matthew Stafford is negatively affecting the offense as a whole.

Matthew Stafford left Ford Field limping late Sunday afternoon. And for most of the day, the Detroit Lions’ offense didn’t move any better than he did.

Unfortunately, neither are new developments.

There is a connection between a battered quarterback and a stumbling offense, and it’s not a cheery one. That is one of the key issues in this week’s Monday Countdown as the Lions regroup after a 27-24 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

There’s also a look at how the Lions have fared against MVP quarterbacks in their two losses and how that has kept the Lions from taking advantage of home-field advantage, some good and bad from Sunday’s game and how the tight end issue doesn’t look like it will go away soon.

We start with the offense, and then Stafford -- hits, hurts and his locker room cred:

1. Touchdown drought: The hits on Stafford are real, but the offense has been limping for the better part of three games. It’s been hit, and mostly miss.

From Golden Tate’s TD catch with 5:41 left in the third quarter in Game 3 against the Falcons until Fells’ first touchdown catch with 5:48 left in Sunday’s game, the Lions’ offense had produced only two touchdowns. Both were on runs – by Ameer Abdullah against the Vikings and by Zach Zenner Sunday.

That barren period covers 26 offensive possessions (not counting the end-of-game kneel down vs. the Vikings) and more than two full games of clock time.

That is not an offense functioning at a winning level.

2. The hits: They keep on coming, and that’s great for a top 40 oldies rock station. For a team’s franchise quarterback – and that’s exactly what Stafford is for the Lions – it can be catastrophic.

He was sacked six times in the win over the Vikings a week ago, and six times again by the Panthers.

The hits were particularly hard and painful Sunday. He limped noticeably in the fourth quarter. It was duly noted that he did his postgame press conference in the locker room Sunday, no doubt so he wouldn’t have to walk all the way to the interview room and back.

Suffice to say, Stafford has taken a beating. With 18 sacks in five games, 12 coming in the last two games – he’s on pace to be sacked 57 times. That’s assuming he holds up long enough to play all 16 games.

“I think that’s one of the things that we have to do, is number one for us is protection for our quarterback,” head coach Jim Caldwell said after the game.

3. The hurts: The Lions saw what happened to the offense last season, when Stafford played the last three games with an injured finger on his passing hand. He was hurt in a freakish injury in Game 13 against Chicago. His hand struck a Bears defensive player on his follow through.

Injuries in sacks are not freakish plays. Hit a player often enough and it increases the odds that something will break.

That’s especially true for quarterbacks, who often are in awkward positions that make them unable to protect themselves.

4. Warrior: That’s what running back Zach Zenner called Stafford, for the way he takes hits without complaining.

“I see it like the rest of you guys see it,” he said. “He’s a warrior out there, gutting it out. He’s always out there playing, no matter what. That’s the kind of person he is.”

As badly as the offense struggled most of the day – failing to produce a first down on six of its first eight possessions – it didn’t surprise Zenner that Stafford led back-to-back touchdown drives late in the fourth quarter.

“Ever since I’ve been here, we’ve always been a great two-minute offense,” Zenner said. “It starts with our quarterback.

“He’s a rock star.”

5. Home field: Losses in the last two games at Ford Field to NFC teams who played and lost in the Super Bowl the last two years is not a good sign.

Two weeks ago it was the Atlanta Falcons and 2016 MVP quarterback Matt Ryan. When he wasn’t throwing it to the Lions’ defensive backs – who intercepted him three times – Ryan completed 24 of 35 passes for 294 yards and two touchdowns.

Sunday it was Cam Newton, the 2015 MVP, who completed 26 of 33 passes for 355 yards and three TDs. Newton’s passer rating was a gaudy 141.8, not far below the NFL maximum rating of 158.3.

Regardless of who the opposing quarterbacks are, home-field advantage is real in the NFL – and real important.

The Lions were 7-1 at home and 11-5 overall in 2014 when they made the playoffs as a wild card.

They were 6-2 at home and 9-7 overall last year when they made the playoffs, also as a wild card.

The trip to the playoffs starts at home.

6. 5 bad things from Sunday:

1. Panthers tight end Ed Dickson going off for five catches on five targets for 175 yards, which were more yards in one game than he produced in four of his previous seven full seasons.

2. Lions tight end Eric Ebron’s dropped pass in the end zone. The impact on the game is obvious. The Lions settled for a field goal instead of a touchdown. That’s a four-point swing, in the wrong direction. But it heightened the debate about Ebron’s present value and future.

3. Stafford’s fumble on the Lions’ first possession of the second half. The Panthers converted it into a field goal and a 27-10 lead. It was the only turnover of the game.

4. Kelvin Benjamin’s 17-yard catch on third and nine for the Panthers to ice the game.

5. Benjamin’s catch also not letting Stafford get the ball one more time to work his magic. Anyone think the Lions wouldn’t have gotten at least a tying field goal? Ford Field was rocking – until Benjamin’s catch turned the volume knob to 0.

7. 3 good things from Sunday:

1. Jarrad Davis back at middle linebacker for the Lions after missing two games. He was in Carolina’s backfield on the first defensive play and was credited with two of the Lions’ 13 tackles for loss.

“I was chomping at the bit these last two weeks,” he said. “Felt like a starved dog.”

2. The defense holding Carolina to 28 yards on 28 carries. Even with an adjustment -- three kneel downs at the end of the game lost six yards – 25 runs for 34 yards is good work.

3. Tight Darren Fells catching two TD passes in the fourth quarter to give the Lions a chance to win – and more interested in talking about what he could have done better than bragging about himself.

8. Eric Ebron issue: The debate about his status and value among media and fans isn’t going to subside anytime soon. He’s had two bad games out of the last three, and both were at home against the Falcons and Panthers

Ebron doesn’t have many supporters – if any – in comparisons to Fells. Against Minnesota Fells had four catches on five targets, all for first downs. He followed that with Sunday’s performance, while Ebron had one catch on four targets with the one clear drop in the end zone, and another contested ball he failed to come up with.

Caldwell has not come down hard on Ebron in public.

“I’m not gong to just focus on him,” was one of Caldwell’s comments Sunday that summed up his feelings.

It’s in Ebron’s hands to change the perception of him, and his hands have been the problem.