No Rhyme Or Reason To Coaching Decisions In Lions' Loss To Rams

They swung between aggressive and conservative, and chose the wrong times for both.

Will Burchfield
December 02, 2018 - 8:13 pm

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At times on Sunday the Lions looked desperate to win. At others, they looked scared to lose. The coaching staff swung back and forth and failed to pick its spots, and the result was a 30-16 defeat to the NFC-leading Rams. 

There was so many puzzling calls, ranging from oddly-timed onside kicks to inexplicably conservative plays on offense, that Matt Patricia addressed the topic before he even took any questions at his post-game press conference. 

Let's start toward the end of the second quarter, when the Lions got the ball back with 2:28 on the clock and two timeouts following a Rams touchdown. Instead of trying to push the ball downfield and cut into a 10-3 deficit, the Lions ran the ball twice for three yards, setting up a third and long on which Matthew Stafford was sacked. They punted it back to the Rams, who took over with 1:33 to go and promptly drove 39 yards in 50 seconds for a field goal to extend their lead. 

That was playing scared to lose. So was this: On third and goal from the 19-yard line midway through the third quarter with the Lions still down 10, Jim Bob Cooter called a running back draw to Theo Riddick, who was predictably stopped well short of the end zone. Boos rained down from the crowd. Then, out of nowhere, Patricia called for an onside kick, like a coach desperate to win. 

Sam Martin's attempt failed to travel 10 yards, and the Rams turned the favorable field position into another field goal. It was a bizarre combination of decisions, the Lions playing it safe one moment, only to throw caution to the wind the very next. How do you reconcile the two?

Cooter and the Lions opened up the playbook on their ensuing drive, punctuated by a touchdown pass to tackle Taylor Decker. It was bold and imaginative, aggressive and effective -- which begs the question: Where was that approach the drive prior? No, not every play on offense can feature linemen as eligible receivers, but it pays to take risks, especially in a league that's geared toward offense, even more so for a team that has nothing to lose. 

Down 23-13 with 6:53 left in the game, the Lions offense trotted back onto the field with incentive to work quickly. The first play? A handoff to Theo Riddick for a one-yard gain that burned 38 seconds. The third play was a deep ball to Kenny Golladay, and the Lions were rewarded for thinking big with a pass interference penalty for 48 yards. Three plays later, on first and 10 from the 15, they ran LeGarrette Blount up the middle for the loss of one yard and 35 seconds. One play after that, they ran Riddick up the middle for the loss of another yard and 33 more seconds. 

The needlessly-long drive took four minutes off the clock and resulted in a field goal. 

With 2:54 to play and two timeouts in his pocket plus the two-minute warning, Patricia, suddenly desperate to win again, called for another onside kick. It failed, again. With his defense playing so well, why not try to pin the Rams deep and set up his offense for a potentially game-tying drive?

“Again, think about the situation, think about the team we’re playing. The Rams," Patricia said. "They’re one of the best four-minute teams in the league. They obviously score a lot of points, very dynamic. They have a lot of talent, they have a lot of guys in that situation that can make big plays. With the timeouts that we had, 2:54 left on the clock, go for the onside. Either way we have to stop them, right? If they get two first downs, game’s over, it doesn’t matter. We have to stop them in that situation and try to hold them, and really thought it was the best opportunity for us to get a chance to get the ball back."

The Lions forced the Rams into third and three from Detroit's 38, but Todd Gurley busted through a big hole for a 36-yard gain that pretty much sealed the game. Even if the Lions had gotten the stop, the Rams would have been within range of a Greg Zuerlein field goal, which also would have sealed the game. It makes the call for an onside kick a difficult one to defend, which makes it like so many other decisions the coaching staff made in a game that was there for the taking. 

Within every game are moments to be aggressive and moments to play it safe. It's not necessarily wrong to have a fluid approach. But it's crucial to pick the right spots, and Patricia and the Lions chose the wrong ones on Sunday.