There were many reasons why the Detroit Lions lost to the Tennessee Titans on Sunday.
A rash of injuries left them shorthanded on defense, losing Ameer Abdullah hurt the running game and normally sure-handed receivers dropped Matthew Stafford’s passes all over the field.
At the end of the 16-15 loss, there was one statistic that stood out over all the rest — Detroit’s 17 penalties for 138 yards. That matched the franchise high for penalties since 1951, and as bad as 138 yards looks, it can’t even begin to explain the damage done by the constant flags.
The Lions had three touchdowns taken away by penalties, and while they were able to overcome it the first time by putting the ball back in the end zone, it cost them points in the second quarter.
Detroit had first-and-goal on the Tennessee 1, leading 9-3. Stafford hit Eric Ebron in the corner of the end zone, but Ebron was called for a highly questionable offensive pass interference. No push-off showed up on replays, but the ball was moved back to the 11.
No problem, though, as Stafford hit Anquan Boldin in the end zone to put the touchdown back on the board. Unfortunately for the Lions, guard Laken Tomlinson was called for holding to take it right back off and move the ball to the 21.
On the next play, a five-yard pass to Golden Tate, it was Boldin who was called for holding at the end of the run, so now the Lions were facing first-and-goal at the 26. Stafford threw two incompletions and the drive stalled into a 42-yard Matt Prater field goal.
That’s how the whole game went, and Lions coach Jim Caldwell was about as unhappy as you would expect.
“Seventeen penalties is ridiculous,” he said. “Time after time, we were taking points off the board by making those mistakes, and on defense, we let them off the hook several times with penalties. This has to stop.”
Caldwell was angered even more by his team’s inability to adjust their style of play to the officiating crew. At halftime, the game was on pace to threaten the NFL record for most penalties called on two teams, but the Titans were able to stop drawing as many flags in the second half.
“Our players need to be able to adjust to the way the game is being called,” Caldwell said. “Before the game even started, they could have looked at the crew stats and see that this group ranks very high in the number of penalties called. That’s information that they should have had and should have used.”
For three quarters, it didn’t look like it was going to matter, as the Lions led 15-3, but sure-handed receivers kept dropping Stafford’s passes. That sabotaged drives that could have run crucial time off the clock, instead giving the ball back to Marcus Mariota, who threw two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter, the winner coming with 1:19 to play.
“We didn’t have a single dropped pass last week, and we had an abundance of them this week,” Caldwell said. “In this league, there are a lot of games that will come down to the last few minutes, and when that happened today, the Titans made plays and we didn’t.”
Stafford had a chance to lead another game-winning drive, just as he had done in Week 1 against the Colts, but the game was sealed by a final mistake. Looking for Ebron, Stafford never saw Perrish Cox adjust his coverage.
“He started the play on Anquan, and then he sloughed off to slide down toward Ebron,” Stafford said. “Ebron had to cut his route short because of the coverage, which was the right thing to do, and (Cox) made a great play.”
Cox had been embarrassed in the first half when Stafford ran over him on a scramble, but he stepped in front of the pass and made the easy interception to clinch the victory.