It’s not a secret. Far from discreet is that the Detroit Lions are notoriously slow starters on offense.
They hear about it on the field, in the locker room, in the meeting rooms and even at the grocery store.
“Somebody joked around at the grocery store the other day and said, ‘how about they just put the fourth quarter on the scoreboard and maybe you guys will start faster’,” said wide receiver Nate Burleson as he recounted his recent experience during a local shopping excursion.
You can’t blame the fan for the suggestion.
The Lions have scored a combined 50 points in the first three quarters of their five games this year while scoring 73 in the fourth quarter (and three more points in overtime). This means that nearly 60 percent of their scoring is coming in less than 25 percent of the game.
How could that be? What’s the cause for the slow starts?
“I don’t know. If I knew that answer, I’d take the pads off and start coaching on the sidelines,” said Burleson. “We just got to go out there and find that spark early in the game, whatever it may be. I think we did a pretty good job of that. We moved the ball in Philly, we got points, we just got field goals. Like I said last week, we need to score touchdowns to win games. As much as I love (kicker) Jason (Hanson), I want him to stay on the sidelines as much as he can. If we get in the end zone and put 6s up, that just changes the complexion of games and gives the offense confidence and puts our defense in a better position to go out there and play a lot faster and keeps the other team on their heels.”
As frustrating as it might be for players and fans alike, there isn’t a catch-all solution. The team certainly isn’t game planning for slow starts, so it becomes difficult to game plan against them.
“We’re trying just as hard in the first quarter,” said head coach Jim Schwartz. “It’s certainly no design or scheme or anything like that. We have to be efficient in all four quarters and it can make a difference for us if we can get a lead and if we can hold a lead. We’re going to have to battle for 60 minutes. Just like in a 16-game season, you’re judged on all 16 games, you’re judged on all 60 minutes. No matter where you’re scoring them, they all count.”
With a Monday night tilt at Chicago where they'll face a well-balanced Bears team on both sides of the football, the offense will need to be productive in all four quarters.
As is the norm with professional football, critics will point fingers at the quarterback when an offense faces adversity. There is no difference with the Lions, as many are quick to critique quarterback Matthew Stafford when examining the Lions slow starts.
There is some merit to the criticism. Stafford has missed some of his targets early in games and started off last week’s contest against the Philadelphia Eagles 6-for-20.
“He didn’t start off great in this game. Had a couple throws that he could have put a little better,” said Schwartz of Stafford’s performance. “But he also made a couple big-time throws. The play that might go a little bit unnoticed was the third-down conversion to Burleson. Burleson runs a little return route and he’s getting held by the nickel, he’s covering him real hard, and Nate has a little bit of separation but Matt put it right in the mailbox. I don’t know if he could have placed it in there any better. And then Nate’s able to stretch and get a first down there. That’s a tight throw.
“There wasn’t any easy throws in this game. Every throw was going to be challenged. We knew going into it our completion percentage wasn’t going to be 80 percent like it was against the (Tennessee) Titans. It was a different scheme … he threw an interception but that was an aggressive play trying to get the ball to Calvin. We’re never going to fault trying to get Calvin the ball in the end zone.”
If Stafford is to blame for the slow starts, there isn’t a person in the locker room that will admit to it. In fact, the contrary seems to be true, as his teammates seem to rally around him and only have glowing remarks when talking about their quarterback.
Perhaps running back Joique Bell provided the most interesting comments about Stafford. Bell, having bounced around from multiple teams throughout his early career, has been exposed to great quarterbacks, including Peyton Manning, Drew Brees and Michael Vick.
“You take all three of those quarterbacks and Matt has a little bit of each one of those guys,” said Bell. “He has the ability to move around the pocket, he has mobility. As far as I think, he’s a team motivator, kind of like Drew. He’s a surgeon out there on the field, kind of like Peyton. Going around the league playing with different quarterbacks, you learn a lot from them. I’ve learned a lot from Matt. He’s a great quarterback and he’s a great leader. We believe in him. We think he’s the one for us here and we’re going to stand by him.”
The high praise from Bell may not be a direct commentary about the slow starts but does provide a glimpse into the team’s mentality as they try to overcome them.
They will not point fingers and don’t believe there are any problems in the talent or scheme. There is a genuine sense that this team is capable of extrapolating their fourth-quarter performance throughout an entire contest.
“We haven’t played our complete game yet and that’s going to be really exciting to watch, which is why we’re just ready to continue on each week and not get too down on whatever issues people talk about,” said Burleson. “Playing late in the game, coming back and winning, at the end of the day, (the opponent) gets paid too and every game is going to be a tough game, so a victory is a victory. But I do have a clear understanding that we still have a great game to show everybody who’s waiting for it and it’s coming.”