DETROIT – Through the years, under a variety of coaches, the Lions have folded down the stretch in games and seasons. Big leads don’t necessarily lead to big wins. That’s just how it has been.
It appears — and it’s early in the season — that is starting to change.
As proof, the Lions held on for a 36-27 win over the Washington Commanders on Sunday at Ford Field.
Detroit jumped out to a 22-0 lead at the half, but everyone in the stadium knew the game was far from over, the win far from assured. Offense, defense and special teams all pitched in to seal the victory putting the Lions at 1-1.
“It feels good to win. There’s a lot of hard work that’s put in across the board. The best thing about it is our guys trust in the system, they believe in what we’re doing as coaches and the schemes and they believe in how we’re setting up for success,’’ coach Dan Campbell said. “They believe in the plan and they execute the plan.”
Not to mention they have solid coaching, depth at key spots and budding superstars like D’Andre Swift, Amon-Ra St. Brown and Aidan Hutchinson.
One third-quarter series was a microcosm of what happened in the game.
The Commanders had just scored a touchdown to close the gap to 22-15 with 4:30 left in the third. If ever the Lions needed the offense to come through, this was the time.
On first down, they called a play they’ve had in their hip pocket for a time just like this. St. Brown performed it (with a little help) to perfection for a 58-yard gain.
“So that whole first half I was motioning across, almost every drive, running across. I feel as a defense at some point you don’t pay a mind to it,’’ St. Brown explained. “This was a play we had in this week and we knew if we got it, it would hit big. Q (Quintez Cephus) had a great block, Craig (Reynolds) had a good fake. No one knew I had the ball. I don’t think the safety who was looking at me knew I had the ball. All I hear from the defense is ‘Oh sh-t.’ I knew that was a big play.’’
St. Brown blames the Jumbo-tron for not scoring. It’s a second or so behind and when he looked up, he was going to start high-kicking when he got tackled at the Commanders’ 17-yard line.
Next play, quarterback Jared Goff was sacked. The 5-yard loss didn’t deflate the offense, instead it seemed to pump them up.
On second-and-15, Goff’s pass to T.J. Hockenson was incomplete. Then on third-and-15, Goff threw a pass short right to Swift. He fell but was untouched by the defense, so he got up and ran in for the score.
At first look, Goff thought at least it was good for a first down, then he watched Swift get up and run into the end zone. Even better.
That touchdown and extra point boosted the lead to 29-15 which was key.
St. Brown set team and NFL records with nine catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns along with two carries for 68 yards.
“He’s as steady as they come, he’s as steady as a rock. You can always depend on what he’s going to bring every day. Not just on Sunday, but on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday,’’ Campbell said. “He’s been that way since he walked in the door as a rookie and nothing has changed. He expects a lot of himself and us as a team and that offense and he’s reliable, he’s a good athlete and he’s explosive and he’s strong.’’
The offensive line featured three non-starters in the middle and they performed. Campbell noted them before he took questions after the game. Dan Skipper, who had never played guard in an NFL game, started at left guard. Evan Brown was in at center for Frank Ragnow (toe) and Logan Stenberg got his second straight start at right guard.
They certainly got some help but without them there is no way the Lions would have rushed for 191 yards
The defense, which had a stranglehold on the Commanders in the first half allowing them just 56 total yards, softened up in the second half.
Rookie defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson sacked Carson Wentz three times in the first half — his first three NFL sacks. In the opener he was OK, but Campbell said he had no worries. It’s clear why.
“You learn from stuff and you move on. I don’t think that I played bad in the first game. But definitely, I had a lot more opportunity I felt in this game and I made the most of it,’’ Hutchinson said. “Yeah, I think I played good in both games but definitely, I made the most of my opportunities in this game.”
When Wentz wasn’t sacked — the Lions got him five times — he was pressured early and often.
“All those guys up front, they did a good job. They were much better than last week because they were much more disciplined,’’ Campbell said.
The defense played like a group possessed in the first half and made key plays when it mattered in the second like Will Harris’ interception of Wentz in the third quarter.
“I think we just came into the game prepared. Came in with the mentality, ‘Last week wasn’t good enough.’ So this was an opportunity to correct some of those mistakes and hone in on the details,’’ said cornerback Jeff Okudah who left the game in the fourth quarter due to cramping.
Building this Lions team is a process which started last year with a 3-13-1 record.
It’s clear after Sunday’s win they are moving in the right direction in all three areas including the offense.
“We scored 35 last week, scored 36 this week, and you still feel like, ‘Ah, but that – but that one.’ And I can’t think of a few ones off the top of my head, but that one would have really blown the game wide open, and that’s our next step, right? That’s our next step of going – becoming that maybe more mature, understanding-the-moment team, being able to take those – take advantage of those opportunities and it starts with me,’’ Goff said. “I’ve got to hit some of those throws and really get on the same page with those guys. We are, just it’s more reps and making sure we know the landmarks and everything, it’s mostly me. But like you’re saying, it’s – we feel good about what we did today, but there’s so much more out there for us.”
(Up next: Lions (1-1) at Minnesota Vikings (1-0 with game scheduled for Monday night), at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 25.)