Observations: Lions defense wooped again, season already on brink

OAKLAND, Calif. — Matt Patricia was supposed to win, and he was supposed to do it with defense.

Neither happened in Year 1.

And barring a miracle, neither will happen in Year 2 either.

The Lions defense has been among the worst in the league, and got run off the field Sunday in a 31-24 loss against the Raiders at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum — dealing a critical blow to whatever’s left of their fading playoff chances. Which isn’t much.

Both Minnesota and Green Bay lost on Sunday, giving the Lions an opportunity to make up ground in the competitive NFC North. Instead, they fell to 3-4-1 and remain buried in the bottom-third of the conference.

Considering Jim Caldwell was fired because “9-7 is no longer good enough,” according to Bob Quinn, their fall is disappointing. And that it has come because of a defense that was supposed to be so good, especially so.

The Raiders were playing without starting center Rodney Hudson, then lost starting right tackle Trent Brown on their first series. That didn’t stop them from running the ball eight times for 51 yards on the opening series alone, with Josh Jacobs punching it in from 2 yards out.

Jacobs gutted Detroit’s defense for 120 rushing yards on 28 carries and scored two touchdowns. The Lions allowed 171 rushing yards and 450 yards overall — the fourth time in five weeks they’ve allowed at least 430 yards in a game.

That’s just atrocious defense. That’s losing defense. And the Lions have now lost four of their last five games because of it, leaving their season spinning around the drain.

They were so bad, not even a 400-yard day from Matthew Stafford could save them.

Still, he almost did.

Stafford led a nine-play, 76-yard drive that brought Detroit within 1 yard of a tie game. They had one shot at it, a fourth down from the goal line with 8 seconds left. But the Lions went with an unusual playcall, taking Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones off the field — both of whom had already hit 100 yards receiving — in favor of a play-action pass to the tight ends.

Jesse James was marked on one route, so Stafford tried to throw over the top to Logan Thomas in the back of the end zone. The ball sailed through his fingertips — and so too, maybe, did Detroit’s season.

Some more instant observations:

— That final fourth-down playcall is going to be scrutinized. That often happens when a play doesn’t work, but taking your two best receivers off the field — when they’ve lit up the Raiders all day — is a curious decision. So is dialing up a play-action pass where the first two reads are tight ends — and your top tight end isn’t available. T.J. Hockenson played better against Oakland, but was removed from the game after hitting his head on the turf earlier on the drive. Still, Detroit went to the play-action pass for the tight end. It didn’t work. And Darrell Bevell, who has been so good this season, is going to catch some heat for it.

— After trading for Snacks Harrison last season, the Lions allowed 3.76 yards per carry the rest of the way. That was second in the NFL. This year, they were allowing 4.74 yards per carry heading into the weekend. That was 24th. In this game, they were gashed for 171 yards on 36 carries — 4.8 yards per carry. What a disaster. Matt Patricia was hired for his defensive expertise, and it’s just not working. You can understand it when Patrick Mahomes or Aaron Rodgers is doing the damage, but they still can’t get stops against the 3-4 Raiders. That’s a problem. And it has Detroit’s season on the brink.

— The Lions didn’t force a punt until Oakland’s first drive of the second half, but the Raiders kept their streak alive by pulling off a successful fake. Derek Carrier took the pitch and ran for 27 yards on a fourth-and-3. The play turned out to be a big one, too, because Da’Shawn Hand — in just his second game back from an elbow injury — went down with another injury three plays later. Then the Raiders kicked a field goal.

— For the second time this season, Detroit’s defense squandered a fabulous game from Marvin Jones. He caught four touchdowns against Minnesota, a franchise record, but the Vikings had their best offensive day in a half-decade and won anyway. Jones went off again in Oakland, including catching a 49-yard pass with a defender draped all over him, and a 2-yard touchdown pass on a critical fourth down early in the game. He finished with eight catches for 126 yards — but the Lions lost anyway. If only he could tackle a running back, I guess.

— The Lions defense was ripped again, and the Lions running game was trash again. Yet they almost won anyway. They have Matthew Stafford to thank for that. He threw for 406 yards, which moved him past Kerry Collins for 18th on the all-time passing list, one week after he passed Joe Montana, one week after he passed Johnny Unitas. Busy guy. And man, has he been good. After completing all 12 passes in the second half against the Giants, he picked up where he left off in Oakland, connecting on 11 of his first 14 passes, two of which scored touchdowns to Marvin Jones and Kenny Golladay — the latter of which came on a 59-yard bomb. The rediscovery of the deep ball has been a revelation this season, and has made Detroit competitive despite profound problems pretty much everywhere else on this team.

— Stafford was so good, he actually passed for 93 yards on one drive that began at his own 27-yard line. Not bad. He wasn’t perfect against Oakland, though, including fumbling an early handoff to McKissic and throwing an interception in the end zone. Those plays both occurred in Raiders territory, and Oakland turned them into 14 points, the difference in a game so close.

— Running back Kerryon Johnson went on injured reserve with a knee injury, forcing Tra Carson into the starting lineup last week. Then he went on IR with a hamstring injury on Saturday, forcing J.D. McKissic into the starting lineup against Oakland. It didn’t go very well. McKissic fumbled on the very first series of the game, stalling a promising scoring opportunity, and finished with 32 rushing yards. Detroit had 90 yards on 20 carries as a team, while the Raiders ran roughshod all over their defense.

— T.J. Hockenson also broke out of his slumber, catching three passes for 56 yards, his best game since that historic opener. He’s also missed a bunch of opportunities in the end zone over the last few weeks, dropping two passes and stepping out of bounds on another. Nobody in Allen Park is worried at this point — tight end is notoriously difficult on rookies — but Hockenson’s slide has been discouraging. And his re-emergence in Oakland is encouraging, although now attention turns back to his brain. He suffered a concussion earlier this season, and left this game late holding his head.

— I know what the Lions were trying to do by rotating in Kenny Wiggins at guard throughout the season. How many times have we seen the offensive line fall apart because of injuries over the years? So it makes some sense to have a warm arm ready to go in the bullpen. And with Graham Glasgow missing this game with a back injury — snapping a 50-game start streak — hey, the strategy paid off. Wiggins earned the start for Glasgow at right guard and appeared to hold up OK.

— Having said that, I still disagree with the strategy. Glasgow has been a top-10 guard this year, and one of the best run blockers in the league. You don’t get better by taking a guy like that off the field for two series per game. And more importantly, I’m honestly curious to see if the rotation hurts Detroit’s chances of re-signing Glasgow after the season. He’s said all the right things about the rotation — that he just wants to do what’s best for the team — but then again, nobody likes to come off the field. And that’s especially true at a position like guard, where rotations aren’t usually a thing, and when you’re playing that position like he is.

Glasgow lives in Ann Arbor, where he went to college, and is marrying a girl he met there. He has roots in Southeast Michigan, and I think ultimately would prefer to stay put. But this game is a business, too, and if someone offers him more money to play full time, that could be hard for Detroit to counter. Having said that, the rotation sure helped them get through this game too. There is a short-term benefit, no doubt. But I’m concerned what it could mean long term for Detroit’s most consistent offensive lineman.

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