Going into their game Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings at the Metrodome, the Lions have the lowest red zone point production in the NFL — 92 points in the first 10 games of the season.
Part of the problem is that the Lions have had only 23 red zone possessions all season. Only a handful of teams — Jacksonville, New Orleans and Tampa Bay — have had fewer opportunities from the 20-yard line in.
But the bigger part of the problem is that the Lions have a difficult time converting the opportunities into touchdowns or field goals. Their 43.5 percent conversion mark ranks 14th in the NFC and 27th in the NFL.
And, until they can force opposing defenses to respect their running game, it appears likely they will continue to have problems cashing in on their scoring opportunities.
"You've got to be able to run the ball a little more often, kick the field goals when we should, provided the score is reasonable," coach Steve Mariucci said.
"But I think the most glaring to me is the execution and the accuracy of the throws, catch the tight ball, the tight fit in there but be able to run the ball more effectively and more often."
The Lions have had trouble running the ball all season without James Stewart, who suffered a dislocated shoulder in the final preseason game and hasn't played a down all season.
They have not gotten a 100-yard game out of either of their running backs — Shawn Bryson and Olandis Gary — and have gained less than 100 yards as a team in eight of the 10 games they've played so far.
The most recent game — a 35-14 loss at Seattle — is the perfect example of the situation the Lions face. If they don't score throwing the football, it's unlikely they're going to score at all. At least when they're in the red zone.
They penetrated the Seahawks' 20-yard line three times and scored once — on Joey Harrington's 15-yard pass to Az-Zahir Hakim.
On their second trip to the red zone, they had seven plays — a quarterback draw for a three-yard loss, a run by Olandis Gary for a yard, a completion for 11 yards to fullback Cory Schlesinger and four incomplete passes. They turned the ball over at the Seahawks three-yard line.
On the third trip to the red zone it was more of the same — three consecutive incomplete passes followed by an interception at the one-yard line.
"Everything is tightened down so the precision and execution in the passing game in the red zone is very important," Mariucci said. "Plays are going to be close. There's not going to be a lot of guys wide open. It's going to be tight fits and you've got to make the tough catch and the tight throw."
And the fit becomes even tighter when the opposing team knows there is no threat of a running game.
SERIES HISTORY: The Lions and Vikings will be meeting for the 85th time in a rivalry that began in 1961 and has leaned heavily the Vikings' way since the Lions won nine of the first 14 games. Minnesota has won the last three games, including the 23-13 victory at Ford Field earlier this season. The Lions are 12-28-1 in road games against the Vikings and 7-14 at the Metrodome.
NOTES, QUOTES, ANECDOTES
Their road losing streak has now hit 21, the third-longest in NFL history behind only the Buffalo Bills' 22-game streak (1983-86) and the Houston Oilers' 23-gamer (1981-84). And, with Minnesota, Kansas City and Carolina left on their road schedule, it is likely they will break the record.
With just three wins in their first 10 games, the Lions have a three-year record of 8-34 under team president/CEO Matt Millen. That's one win less than they had in the 2000 season, when they missed the playoffs with a 9-7 record and triggered owner William Clay Ford's decision to launch a massive housecleaning.
Their three-year record ranks with the Lions teams of the 1940s as one of the worst in club history. The 1946-47-48 teams had a combined record of 6-29 and the 1941-42-43 teams were 7-23-1.
Between those two positions, the Lions have lost six players with season-ending injuries and have lost four more players for two games or more.
The cornerbacks lost for the season include projected starter Chris Cash, Andre' Goodman, Chris Watson and rookie Rod Babers. Dre' Bly and Jimmy Wyrick, who was released last week, missed playing time because of injuries.
The wide receivers lost for the season are Shawn Jefferson and Scotty Anderson; first-round pick Charles Rogers and kick returner Eddie Drummond have been out for five and seven games respectively.
With the loss of Jefferson and Anderson, coach Steve Mariucci has brought a local favorite — David Kircus from Grand Valley State — up from the practice squad. Kircus will be one of just four active wide receivers in the game Sunday at Minnesota.
Although he showed flashes during training camp with his speed and receiving ability, the Lions cut him, then re-signed him to the practice squad on the theory he needed more time to make the transition from Division II to the NFL.
Coach Steve Mariucci was questioned weekly on Kircus' progress and — after the loss of wide receivers Shawn Jefferson and Scotty Anderson in the past two weeks — decided to activate Kircus.
"He's been waiting for this opportunity," Mariucci said. "He's practicing hard and practicing well, so hopefully he'll take advantage of this opportunity.
"He's a guy we drafted for a purpose. We felt he had something to offer this organization so now he's going to get a chance to prove it."
Although he is only 6-feet-1 and 185 pounds, Kircus has exceptional speed and the ability to make acrobatic catches. And he has another quality, as Mariucci noted.
"He's one of those Type A personalities anyway," Mariucci said. "He hits the elevator button even though it's lit up, alright? He always practices hard, he's an energetic guy and — you know what? — he's going to do fine."
Quarterback Joey Harrington says he likes Kircus' approach to the game.
"He doesn't have that stereotypical All-Pro receiver mold but he's got the attitude and he's got the moxie," Harrington said. "I like the way he comes into the huddle, the way he wants the ball. Those are the things that can make him a great receiver."
Kircus said he got some of his attitude from watching players like All-Pro wide receiver Terrell Owens of the San Francisco 49ers and that he refused to be intimidated by the NFL.
"I wouldn't call it intimidation," he said. "A lot hit me at one time and, being a young player, that's going to take a toll on you. But I think I battled through it and I've hung in there so far. Hopefully, I can continue to hang in there."
Kircus was asked if he might have to "dial it down a little bit" to stay under control in his first NFL game.
"Dial it down a little bit?" he asked. "I don't think so. I think part of the reason they did bring me up was the energy I've had in practice. Hopefully, I can bring that energy into the game with me."
"I'm getting bored," he said. "I want to be out there, I'm a competitor, I love to compete. It's miserable not being out there. A lot of people probably think, `He ain't playing, he's just chilling.' It's nothing like that."
Rogers has been sidelined for five games and, although he's eager to get back to the action, it appears unlikely he will play before the Lions' Dec. 7 game against San Diego.
"I haven't seen my last x-ray but I kinda say it's getting better," he said. "The doctor hasn't given me a word on when I'm going to return or if I'm going to return or not.
"Right now I'm just doing mostly leg exercises — biking. Doctors say I can start doing selective exercises with my arms and go from there. I don't feel any different — a little less pain at times but it can (also) get a little heavy."
BY THE NUMBERS: 92 — Total points the Lions have scored on 23 possessions inside the red zone. It is the fewest red zone points of any team in the NFL, on 10 touchdowns and seven field goals.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "We have to freshen this team up, coach them up, put the right guys in the right spot and figure out how to beat the Vikings on the road." — Lions coach Steve Mariucci on the challenge of playing at Minnesota with so many injured players.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
The Lions are down to the bare bones of their receiving corps after losing WRs Shawn Jefferson and Scotty Anderson for the rest of the season while rookie WR Charles Rogers continues his recovery from a broken collarbone.
David Kircus, a sixth-round draft pick who has spent the entire season on the practice squad, was signed to the 53-man roster. He has good speed and good hands but the Lions are concerned if he has made the complete adjustment from Division II to the NFL.
The Lions also must decide whether to keep DT Luther Elliss active for a second straight week or put Kelvin Pritchett back in the defensive line rotation. Elliss was not productive in his first game off reserve/non-football injury Sunday at Seattle.