The Detroit Lions' offense has struggled all season to match their Week 1 performance against the New York Giants. That theme rang true again on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. They only had 10 points through the first 56 minutes and 22 seconds. The offense was asleep for roughly 94 percent of the game. They only managed three points in two red-zone trips, one of which resulted in an interception.
The biggest issue for this offense may be that there isn't just one issue currently hurting them. Losing Calvin Johnson for two games hasn't helped anything, but there are several issues holding this offense back.
Problem 1: Matthew Stafford
It all starts with the quarterback, doesn't it? I've been a staunch supporter of Matthew Stafford, and I've always looked at him with a glass-half-full mentality. I've loved his ability to rally the team and the toughness that he plays with. But the Stafford we've seen the last six weeks isn't anywhere close to the guy we all saw in the season opener.
There are tons of excuses that can be made for him right now, but the main fact is that he's simply not playing well. On the first pick against the Saints he guessed wrong on the coverage. Thinking it was man coverage, he tried to sling the pass to Golden Tate only to see Keenan Lewis drop into the zone and pick it off.
I've never thought of Stafford as a pure passer. He's never been the type of guy that throws a perfectly placed ball on a consistent basis a la Aaron Rodgers. He relies heavily on his big targets to help him out. You can't question Stafford's physical tools, but he's much more of a thrower than a passer, similar to how Brett Favre played quarterback.
Being a thrower also comes with a certain mentality. Under the previous regime, Stafford was encouraged to embrace his gunslinger mentality. Now, under Jim Caldwell, Stafford has been asked to rein it in a bit more. It has me wondering if Stafford may be fighting his natural instincts a bit in the offense and questioning more of his own decisions.
Problem 2: Injuries
Playing without your best player is never a good option. Playing without two of your better players is tough. And playing without three of your top offensive weapons is downright brutal. This is what the Lions have had to deal with over the first third of the season. Here's a list of key guys on offense who have missed at least one game since the start of the year: Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Joseph Fauria, Eric Ebron and Theo Riddick.
Those are all key guys in the Lions' offensive game plan. When you go back and watch the Giants game you can see some of the elements that the Lions wanted to use on offense. Two and even three tight end sets with Pettigrew, Fauria and Ebron. Gone. A deeper passing attack with Johnson. Gone. Mismatching Bush on linebackers and safeties. Gone.
Here's where the Lions were at on offense against the Saints on Sunday: Johnson, the best offensive player in the NFL, was replaced by Corey Fuller, a practice squad player just a year ago. Pettigrew tried to play a role designed for Ebron and Fauria. And Bush's lingering ankle injury limited his playmaking ability. Essentially the Lions were down to one reliable receiver in Golden Tate. And thankfully he showed up big for them.
Problem 3: Joe Lombardi
If you're calling for Lombardi's head at this point in the season, please go and reread the previous paragraph. Has he been perfect as a play-caller? Not at all, but he hasn't had much ammunition to go with either. Add in a maligned running attack and poor offensive line play (more on that in a minute) and it's no wonder why the Lions' first-time coordinator is having trouble dialing up the right calls.
The other issue is that he's essentially learning on the job. Unlike Teryl Austin, who had experience calling plays at the college level, Lombardi is getting his first crack at this. It would be foolish to try and think he'd be able to go out and call a game just like Sean Payton. Much like it takes time for players to learn the system, it's going to take time for Lombardi to learn his players. We're only seven weeks into the season. I'm pleading for some patience.
Patience, however, doesn't mean no criticism. And Lombardi certainly deserves some of that too. He's been oddly conservative in situations where aggression is needed and fallen victim to not trusting the talent he has on the field. Like I mentioned previously, he's playing with a short hand due to injuries, but that's no excuse for lackluster play calls.
Problem 4: Offensive line
This might be the most obvious, and surprising, problem all year. The Lions brought back their entire starting offensive line from last year and seemed set on repeating the great season they had in 2013. They even kept the offensive line coach to ensure cohesion on the line, but it appears all of that was for naught.
It's tough to pinpoint just one issue with the line. They've played four right tackles this season so far. Both Rob Sims and Dominic Raiola look past their primes. And Larry Warford has been a completely different player in his sophomore season.
In my mind, this is the worst problem on the Lions offense because there is no quick fix. There might not even be a long-term fix for this season. In all the other areas you can somehow conceive the problem correcting itself, but I just don't see it here. I fear the Lions are going to have to figure out how to hide their line going forward, and that's never a good spot to be in.