(ORCHARD PARK, NY)-- When Marty Mornhinweg puts his team through their paces this week, he might want to work on one play at the expense of all others, fourth-and-one.
That play has plagued the Lions all season long and this week was no different. After Bracey Walker's stunning hit on Bills running back Travis Henry yielded a fumble and gave Detroit possession with a chance to tie the ballgame deep in Buffalo territory. Detroit was unable to convert a 4th-and-one and the Bills got the ball on downs.
They ran out the clock after that.
The critical play was set up by a Joey Harrington to Germane Crowell pass play. Crowell appeared to lunge past the first down marker, but a closer view showed that his elbow touched the ground. Coach Marty Mornhinweg even challenged the spot by lost the review.
The key play was a deep handoff (a questionable call by itself) to James Stewart. Stewart was led by Cory Schlesinger, who in the a loss to Minnesota admitted to missing his block and costing the team the first down. Schlesinger swore that would never happen again. The play was designed to follow 17-year veteran pro bowl guard Ray Brown and ideally right tackle Stockar McDougle.
The problem was McDougle was not in the game; he was replaced by Matt Joyce. Joyce slipped on the play, allowing the Buffalo defense to swamp the play and Bills middle linebacker London Fletcher made the play killing Detroit's last chance to tie the ballgame.
That was one of the few times Stewart was stopped in the ballgame. Detroit got another fine performance from the seven-year veteran from Tennessee who rushed 24 times for 83 yards, outpacing the Bills Travis Henry, the AFC's third leading rusher who was held to just 64 yards and two fumbles, but who also scored two touchdowns.
The real difference in this ballgame was the quarterback play. While Drew Bledsoe turned in another outstanding performance, going 21-of-36 for 302 yards and a touchdown (94.9 rating), Harrington struggled, putting together a 20-42 performance for just 199 yards one touchdown and one interception (59.5 rating).
Still, after Henry put the Bills up 7-0 following Bledsoe's 42 yard completion to Eric Moulds, Harrington drove Detroit into Buffalo territory by hitting Mikhael Ricks, Germane Crowell and Bill Schroeder in succession for long gains.
Harrington, then throwing into coverage in the end zone, got a deflected ball to land into the hands of Az-Zahir Hakim for the touchdown tying the game. Detroit's Stewart then gave Detroit the lead with a 2-yard plunge after Buffalo's Charlie Rogers muffed Jason Hanson's pooch kickoff.
But Bledsoe tied the game just before the half, hitting Peerless Price on a long 59-yarder. Price caught the ball in front of safety Eric Davis and then, on an ankle-snapping move, sprinted by Davis for the touchdown.
That changed momentum directly in Buffalo's favor. The Bills roared out at halftime and scored ten unanswered points to salt away the game. The Bills took seven plays to get a Mike Hollis 33-yard field goal to take a 17-14 lead.
Then Bledsoe took control of the game. Fearless in the pocket despite being sacked four times and hit and hurried several others, Bledsoe refused to be rattled and led Buffalo on an 11-play drive that Henry took in for the score to up Buffalo's lead to 24-14.
In the fourth quarter, Harrington caught fire briefly, hitting Bill Schroeder at the Buffalo 21 to put the Lions in scoring position, but two straight incompletions stalled the drive and led to a Hanson field goal that ended the scoring at 24-17.
Detroit's defense played about as well as you can expect them to play. Rookies Chris Cash (six tackles, two passes deflected and a fumble recovery) and Kalimba Edwards (1.5 sacks and probably should have gotten credit for one other) continue to play a big role in the resurgence of the defense. Chris Claiborne continues to play well for Detroit in the middle with seven tackles, a sack and a fumble recovery.
Their run defense stuffed Bills back Travis Henry, but Bledsoe proved to be the difference. The Lions still need better play from their outside linebackers. Barrett Green needs to make more of an impact with his speed and cover ability.
Offensively, Joey Harrington has to become more consistent. A passing percentage 48% is not going to get it done on the road. Harrington appears to be confused and rattled by what opposing defenses throw at him. That's to be expected in the natural growth process of a young quarterback. Harrington does well with the scripted plays early, but then falters as the plays come from the sideline later in the ballgame. Detroit will have to do something to remedy this.
This was a game Detroit could have won, but didn't get it done. That's the sign of a young team. The fact that they played this well shows they're improving. Look for things to come together next Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys.