At midway point: Detroit Lions defense a mess, run game ineffective

At the midway point, the Detroit Lions have not been the team we thought they might be. 

After a disheartening 31-24 loss at the Oakland Raiders on Sunday, this team appears to be headed south. While not mathematically eliminated from the playoffs, chances are not looking good. The Lions (3-4-1) have lost four of their last five games.

The biggest issue is the defense.

Cornerback Darius Slay’s comments after the game were eye-opening.

“It’s not about scheme. We get the same looks every week. This league is a copycat league so we aren’t seeing any new plays being drawn up,’’ Slay said. “Everybody knows if we play this team, they run this. It’s the same problem so we just have to fix it.’’

The Pro Bowl cornerback said with 11 players on the field there are 11 problems to be fixed.

“We have a great team and all the right pieces but it’s just not sticking together right now,’’ Slay said. “We might be putting the pieces in the wrong spots so we need to change something.”

It’s not just the 11 guys on the field, it’s the coaching too.

Of course, coach Matt Patricia took blame for the loss. 

“We have to coach it better. In general, it starts with me, I have got to coach it better,’’ Patricia said. “I have to get the team ready to go so that we can play consistently. I don’t think we played consistent here today. Give the Raiders credit, they made more plays than we did. They made them when they needed  them, and we didn’t.’’

Patricia puts it on his shoulders, he always does. That’s good. But then nothing changes and, obviously, that’s not good. 

The Lions defense ranks 31st in the NFL in yards allowed. They give up 424.1 yards per game. Not only has the defense not improved this season, it’s gotten significantly worse. At the end of 2018 which was Patricia’s first season, the Lions defense was ranked 10th in yards allowed per game (335). When the 2017 season, Jim Caldwell’s last, was over the defense was giving up 355.8 yards per game.

GM Bob Quinn has put together a defensive roster that suits the needs of Patricia. Is it perfect? No, but the talent on the field should be better than 31st.

On Sunday, the Raiders ran for 171 yards — that’s the most yardage the Lions defense has given up in a game this season. So there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

“They are a big run team. They have a great back (Josh Jacobs). He’s a tough guy to tackle, and we missed a lot of tackles out there, too,’’ Patricia said. “I think that we didn’t finish some of those run fits very well.’’

Halfway through, the defense has been the biggest issue but the perennially bad run game is also ineffective. Kerryon Johnson is on injured reserve but no excuses. Running backs get hurt in the NFL, quality backups are essential.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford’s numbers are gaudy. He’s thrown 19 touchdown passes. Only Russell Wilson has thrown more (22), but Wilson has played nine games and Stafford only eight. 

Stafford is fourth in the NFL in passing yardage (2,499) behind Philip Rivers, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson.

But Stafford can’t put the whole offense on his shoulders, he needs a run game. Plus, he needs to be put in the best situations. With Sunday’s game on the line, fourth-and-goal from the 1-yard line Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones Jr., who can both catch in traffic, were on the sidelines. Stafford didn’t make the play to tight end Logan Thomas (that play call still a mystery) but it is not on the quarterback.

It’s on the coaches, just like many of the Lions’ woes.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

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Detroit Lions camp: Rookie tight end T.J. Hockenson impressive early

ALLEN PARK — Tight end T.J. Hockenson’s catches deep in the corner of the end zone have been among the highlights during the first two days of Detroit Lions training camp.

Even his teammates appreciate it — hooting and hollering for the rookie each time he brings in a ball thrown by Matthew Stafford.

The first-round pick takes his early stand-out plays in stride.

“We’re all just trying to have fun out here. I’m just trying to have fun playing the game I love, being able to do it with these guys means a lot,’’ Hockenson said. “This group of veterans has taken you in really well, they’ve accepted me as part of this team and I’m super excited to get started.’’

If the first two days of camp are any indication, this could be a very tight-end friendly offense under new coordinator Darrell Bevell.

Hockenson doesn’t put more pressure on himself because he’s a first-round pick. Like each and every one of the Lions he repeats the mantra that he just wants to get better every day.

“He knows that he has a lot to earn and he’s got a long way to go, but he is a hard worker. He loves the game. The guy’s got a great attitude, the guy just loves the grind and the passion of the game,’’ coach Matt Patricia said. “So, you take it, you work with it, you go forward, and he’s got a skill set that hopefully we got to see out on the field. He’s got to go out there and do it consistently and do it every single day.”

Hockenson, who is 6-foot-5, is one six tight ends on the camp roster. All of them are new to the Lions this season, although Logan Thomas (6-foot-6) and Jesse James (6-foot-7) bring years of NFL experience. 

“It’s competition in camp, we have such a great tight end room. Logan and everyone in that group has been great, they’ve accepted us they’ve done everything that I can ask,’’ Hockenson said. “They’ve taught us things that a rookie wouldn’t normally see. It’s nice to be with that group of guys.’’

Hockenson repeatedly mentioned how the intelligence level is so much higher than it was in college (Iowa).

“The defense can see a formation one time and know the play. You have to be smarter than the 10-year vet that is in front of you,’’ Hockenson said. “Being a rookie you have to come in and study and work at it, that’s what we’re all trying to do, that’s what I’m trying to do.’’

Tight end is traditionally one of the hardest positions to learn as a rookie requiring that they know how to catch and also block for the run game. Hockenson said it’s all a challenge.

“It’s the next level. Everything is faster, everything is more dynamic, everyone is smarter, it’s different,’’ Hockenson said. “I’m coming to work every day trying to take that next step and get better every single day.’’