Foes eliminating big plays from Lions’ attack

The way Nate Burleson looks at it, the Detroit Lions’ offense has become a victim of its own success.

Since the season-opening kickoff against St. Louis, opponents have been playing the Lions a little different. It’s the classic bend-but-don’t-break approach, basically from start to finish.

They’re keeping two safeties deep most of the time, not blitzing, just trying to take away the big play and force the Lions to drive the length of the field with razor-sharp execution, without making a mistake.

It’s the ultimate show of respect for star receiver Calvin Johnson and the best way to contain the Lions’ high-powered passing game. So far, it’s been working. The Lions are 1-3 and the offense has been inconsistent, certainly not as explosive as in the past.

“We changed the way a lot of teams game-plan us,” receiver Burleson said. “Last year, teams were confident enough to give us single high safety (one deep safety) and (give) Calvin one-on-one coverage. We played them out of that.

“Now every team is playing us Cover 2 (two deep safeties). That’s justification enough to know that we’re well-respected as an offense. It’s just tough to play against. The patience and execution is what we have to work on. We’ve got to nickel-and-dime the rest of the season.”

The Lions lead the NFL in passing yards per game (322), but it’s not getting them very far.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford has only three touchdown passes, none to Johnson, to go with four interceptions in four games.

Johnson’s lone TD catch was thrown by backup QB Shaun Hill near the end of the Tennessee game when Stafford was out with a hip injury.

Johnson is actually on pace for more catches and more receiving yards than last season, but they aren’t the high-impact plays right now. He averaged a touchdown every game a year ago, not every four games.

“I’m sure some teams spent all offseason (figuring out), ‘How are we going to beat these two guys (Stafford and Johnson). How are we going to beat the passing attack,’ ” offensive lineman Rob Sims said. “They had an answer. So now we’ve just got to answer back. It’s that simple.”

The Lions have been forced to throw the ball underneath and to try to run the ball more, especially early in games.

The result has been early deficits with the offense stalling out and having to settle for too many field goals. Through four games, they have a total of one touchdown and eight field goals in the first half.

The question that many are asking is whether the Lions have reacted too much to what the defense is doing and, in the process, stopped relying on their primary assets.

That is, of course, having Stafford throw downfield to Johnson and the other threats in the receiving corps.

“I think you do need to have a mentality of being aggressive, aggressively take what the defense gives you,” coach Jim Schwartz said. “There’s also a downside to that, making dumb decisions where you try to push a ball where it shouldn’t go in a coverage.”

To be successful with how they’re currently trying to attack these defenses, the Lions will need to be much more productive running the ball when teams put fewer defenders near the line of scrimmage.

They’re also going to have to convert more on third downs to keep drives going. They rank 21st in the league at 36.5 percent.

And when there’s an opportunity to hit big in the passing game, they simply can’t afford dropped passes like the two they had in the end zone in Sunday’s 20-13 loss to Minnesota.

A more effective running game could help solve everything. It would help keep their suspect defense off the field and, eventually, there would be benefits for the passing game.

The Lions, however, rank No. 22 in rushing yards per game (90.3) and are tied for No. 24 in yards per carry (3.6).

“If you take the wide receivers and quarterbacks out of it, we’ve rushed for about 3.4 yards a carry,” Schwartz said. “Three-point-four a carry against teams that are loading up the box to try to stop the run isn’t necessarily bad. But against teams that have taken a light approach and played all their players back deep to take away big plays, it’s not good enough.”

Actually, it’s a disgrace.

The Lions have zero so-called “explosive” runs of 20-plus yards. The longest run of the season has been 19 yards.

Mikel Leshoure had a nice one going for 14 yards into Vikings’ territory, but then he fumbled it away.

“Those are the kinds of runs that force a defense into stepping up and respecting the run more, but you can’t finish with a fumble,” Schwartz said. “Key first-down runs, explosive runs, will open up our passing game.”

Until then, there could be a lot more frustration over having so many weapons seemingly going to waste.