Lions pull together and hang on for 36-27 win over Commanders

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.)

Five Lions’ positives taken from opening loss to Eagles

ALLEN PARK — After watching film of the Lions 38-35 loss to the Eagles on Monday, coach Dan Campbell said he felt better than he did right after the game at Ford Field.

That’s a positive sign and not the only one.

1. Running back D’Andre Swift could not have played much better with 144 rushing yards and a touchdown, and three catches for 31 yards. “It goes without saying Swift is special and we know that. Just getting him his touches, he’s the one, he’s the one that’s the secret sauce,’’ Campbell said. “He can turn routine plays into explosive plays that will hurt you if you’re the opponent.’’

2. Rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez, a fan favorite already, had a solid start. “All in all I thought he did a nice job, there’s a couple plays I know he wishes he could have back,’’ Campbell said. “For a rookie who went in and played a substantial role for us I thought he did a nice job. He was physical, he was aggressive, zeros MA’s (missed assignments) he was on top of it. That was good to see. Now we need more out of special teams from him which we’ll get.’’

3. Campbell made a point to mention the fans. “That place was fricking booming. They keep doing that, that gives us a great chance,’’ Campbell said. Seweel said the crowd noise was so loud that at one point he couldn’t hear quarterback Jared Goff and had to kneel down in the huddle to block out the noise. He was not complaining, by the way.

4. Right tackle Penei Sewell said the difference in the offense is night and day from last season. That starts with Goff who threw one interception in the first half but found a groove in the second  half. “There were some rough moments early but I loved the way he responded in the second half to get us back into it. I thought he settled in and did some really good things, he gave us a chance. I was very confident when we get this ball back we’re going to go down and win this game. I felt very good about where we were at offensively with him,’’ Campbell said.

5. Rookie defensive lineman Aidan Hutchinson had his ups and downs and notched just one tackle on the stat sheet despite playing 90 percent of the defensive snaps. Campbell is not worried. “The takeaway I had, and I think we all had, was ‘OK, This is what it’s like, this is it. This is the true taste of the NFL and adjusting to that caliber of athlete in a full game,’’’ Campbell said. “Now, there are certainly some things to where it looks like he’s got to make that play, but he needs a little help too. … Honestly I’m not even worried about him, he’s going to adjust from this. He’s prideful, he’s a pro. We already know that about him as a rookie I think we all do. He’s going to want to better himself, he’s going to learn from this and he will be better.’’

(Up next: Washington Commanders (1-0) at Lions (0-1), at 1 p.m. on Sunday at Ford Field.)

Lions O-line potential sky-high, just ask D’Andre Swift

No doubt, months away from opening day the Lions offensive line has the potential to be one of the league’s best. 

Of course, there’s a big if. Unlike last season, can they stay healthy?

Lions running back D’Andre Swift said it crosses his mind at least once a day about what could happen next season if the offensive line remains healthy.

The line is set up so that GM Brad Holmes doesn’t need to draft an offensive lineman to make it work.

While all five “starters” O-line starters never played in one game last season, they are healthy and, of course, optimism radiates. It’s that time of year.

“I said it last year, I’m going to stand on it. I think we can be the best in the league, I know we can be the best in the league. We just have to come out to work everyday,’’ left guard Jonah Jackson said.

Projected starters from last year will all return with left tackle Taylor Decker, left guard Jonah Jackson, center Frank Ragnow, right guard Halapoulivaati Vaitai and right tackle Penei Sewell (last year’s first-round draft pick).

Due to a slew of injuries they never played in one game together. Decker missed the first six games, Ragnow played in the first four and then hurt his foot and missed the rest of the season.

The good news is that Ragnow is back and participating in offseason workouts which started this week.

“I think being hurt, that was horrible. You just gain a lot of respect for dudes who have had to deal with injuries. It’s a gut-wrenching, man you really don’t realize. Obviously you’re still part of the team but you don’t really feel part of the team,’’ Ragnow said on Thursday.

“When you’re out on the field on Sundays and you’re in your gear, you’re like a gladiator. I’m walking out there in a T-shirt and shorts walking around, it’s a humbling feeling,’’ he added.

Sewell was one of last season’s highlights.He spent training camp at right tackle but when Decker went down before the first game he shifted to the left and did a respectable job.

“He looks the same. He’s a freak show. He’s still a freak show,’’ Ragnow said of Sewell. “Big, strong kid, great energy.”

Having the same guys return is huge.

“Obviously, we would love to all stay healthy, just off-the-field wise and mentally chemistry wise people don’t understand how big that is for offensive lines in particular,’’ Ragnow said. “You have to really know how these guys think, trust these guys and the relationships we’ve developed over five years with me and Taylor and the other guys trickling in here.’’