There was one play nobody has been focusing on which set the Detroit Lions back more than most Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis.
The Lions, coming off an ugly first half, had just held the Vikings to another field goal to open the third quarter. Offensively, Matthew Stafford had finally begun to carve up Minnesota's secondary with the help of Calvin Johnson, and Stafford had just found Brandon Pettigrew in the back of the end zone for Detroit's first touchdown of the game. It was 16-10, and the Lions, despite everything that had gone wrong, were feeling good, poised for another second half comeback.
Then, on the ensuing kickoff, Jason Hanson was inexplicably told to chip the ball short to the 35 yard line for some reason. Excuse me? It was a designed short kick at the worst possible moment in this game.
Conceptually, it was easy to understand what Jim Schwartz and his staff were thinking in the moment. Maybe they figured they'd get a lucky bounce, fall on the ball, put up another touchdown and really be off and running. That almost happened, as the ball temporarily squirted free after a collision. It bounced right to Christian Ballard, however, and the Lions were out of luck.
Logically, the timing of the decision was poor and the play was the biggest mistake of the day. Momentum had just turned on a dime without any gimmicks. The Lions were right where they wanted to be on the scoreboard, and for some reason, they were content to take the chance of setting the Vikings up with excellent field position. The defense hadn't contained Minnesota all day long. With great field position, the Vikings then ripped off a long drive, capped off by a touchdown and a two point conversion. All of a sudden, the Lions were staring at a gaping 24-10 fourth quarter hole.
Why? Well, that short kickoff, of course. Instead of pounding the ball deep and forcing Christian Ponder to drive the length of the field (something Minnesota had done well anyway) Detroit simply handed the Vikings excellent field position after just getting back into the game. It was the dumbest, most ill-timed decision the Lions' staff could have made in the moment. Pooch kicks aren't needed in the third quarter; they're best reserved as a desperation move late.
Afterwards, while this incident was being swept under the rug in passing as merely an interesting subplot, Schwartz was content to quietly deflect blame once again. When asked what exactly happened, the coach said Hanson didn't pooch the ball hard or far enough for a proper result.
How funny. In that moment, Hanson shouldn't have been pooching the ball in the first place. Even if the ball gets kicked deeper to the 20 yard line, the Vikings probably start out near the 30 barring a fumble or major mistake. That's still excellent field position for an offense which was moving the ball at will.
While penalties on offense, defensive struggles and offensive inconsistencies were the major talking points following a frustrating loss, quietly, a special teams mistake might have actually played the biggest role in the Lions' demise again.
That's par for the course in 2012.
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