One reason the Lions are not where they want to be in the NFC North race: they have had seven red-zone trips end without points in six games, compared to just four scoreless possessions inside the opposition 20 in 16 regular-season games a season ago.
A review of the Lions’ red-zone struggles shows a variety of factors are to blame. In a few cases, physical mistakes were the cause, with Week Seven fumbles by RBs Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell obvious examples. Also, the Lions’ Week Three loss to Tennessee ended deep in Titans territory on a failed fourth-down QB sneak after C Dominic Raiola snapped the ball early — an uncommon error by an experienced player.
However, the factor that most commonly links the bulk of these fruitless trips inside the red zone are the struggles of the passing game in the opposition’s close quarters. The Rams picked off QB Matthew Stafford twice inside the 20 in Week One, and the Bears intercepted Stafford near the goal line in Chicago’s 13-7 win in Week Seven.
The Lions’ red-zone woes vs. the Bears are especially illustrative. On the play before Bell’s fumble, the Lions got a look that they had to have relished — WR Calvin Johnson single-covered by CB Charles Tillman. But Tillman, in the midst of a strong season, knocked the ball out of Johnson’s hands on a fade pattern. Also of note: the two plays preceding Stafford’s red-zone interception were incomplete passes. And on the pick, Stafford was under heavy pressure and side-armed the ball short of the endzone.
The Lions don’t have a robust power running game. The passing game is the engine of the offense. A season ago, Stafford was 55-of-106 passing for 437 yards with 32 TDs and just three interceptions from the 19-yard line on in, according to NFL statistics. All told, about 47 percent of the Lions’ points on the season came on Stafford TD passes in this area. This season, he’s just 15-of-37 passing for 112 yards with five TDs and three picks from the 19-yard and in, with just 26.3 percent of the club’s points coming on TDs of this nature.
Johnson’s numbers are also down. He has four catches from the 19-yard and in this season, with one TD, compared to 15 catches and 11 scores in that range a season ago. Teams surely are aware of Johnson’s red-zone prowess, and he’s going to see double-team looks.
The Lions have the elements to be a strong red-zone team. They were, after all, the NFL’s fourth-best club at converting trips inside the 20 into touchdowns in 2011. Recapturing that form will be key to their hopes to get off the mat in the latter stages of the season.