DETROIT — Matthew Stafford and Jim Caldwell could offer no easy solutions to the problem that won’t go away for the Detroit Lions.
Another slow start forced the Lions to try to come from behind Thursday, and they fell short in a 30-23 loss to Minnesota that likely ended Detroit’s chances of winning the NFC North. The Lions trailed 13-0 early, and although they’ve spent much of the past two seasons pulling off fourth-quarter comebacks, they weren’t up to the task this time.
Afterward, Stafford and Caldwell were asked about Detroit’s poor starts and what can be done about them.
“Nothing other than what I know,” said Caldwell, in his fourth season as the team’s coach. “It’s just hard work. Just keep working at it.”
The Lions have been outscored 73-30 in the first quarter this season and 68-57 in the third. They’ve outscored opponents 106-79 in the second and 101-44 in the fourth. That pattern continued in their Thanksgiving matchup with the Vikings.
Detroit wasted solid field position after the opening kickoff, going three-and-out and then punting. Minnesota promptly drove 80 yards in 14 plays, scoring the opening touchdown on a 1-yard pass when the Lions had only 10 men on the field.
Then Detroit turned the ball over on a fumbled exchange between Stafford and Ameer Abdullah. The Vikings quickly added another TD to make it 13-0.
“I think we’ve just got to execute better,” Stafford said. “Obviously, we had the turnover that wasn’t good there early. We got to find a way to avoid that and just as a team, we got to start a little faster.”
The Lions can still make the playoffs, but in Thursday’s loss, two of their biggest problems — slow starts and a poor running game — were crucial. Detroit didn’t come any closer to solving either.
The Lions weren’t sharp at the beginning of the game, and they were just as bad coming out of the locker room to start the second half. Minnesota drove 75 yards on four running plays, scoring a touchdown that made it 27-10 early in the third quarter.
“They just took it right down the field,” Caldwell said. “Up until then, I thought our guys had been doing a pretty decent job of getting (them) stopped in that first half, but that one was tough. It didn’t knock us out of it, but nevertheless it made things more difficult.”
Stafford seems well on his way to throwing for over 4,000 yards again, but he’s done some of his best work when his team has been behind, and sometimes that’s not enough. When the Lions have tried to establish the run early, it hasn’t worked. On Thursday, Detroit elected to receive after winning the coin toss, and Stafford threw on two of the first three offensive plays — but those completions netted only 2 and 4 yards, and the Lions were unable to make a first down.
Then the defense allowed three third-down conversions on Minnesota’s long drive.
Stafford seemed tired of all the talk about slow starts. He said if the Lions had played well at the beginning of the game and then poorly for the rest of it, there would have been questions about that.
True enough, but if the Lions are going to take another step toward becoming an elite team, they’ll need to play more consistently for 60 minutes a game — and right now their biggest deficiency is at the start.
“We didn’t win the game. We didn’t play well enough to win,” Stafford said. “Didn’t make enough plays. Would love to start fast early and we didn’t, but we fought tooth and nail to get back in.”
Follow Noah Trister at www.Twitter.com/noahtrister