It was a familiar sight: a Lions game concluding with a game-winning field goal; a lead held most of the game snatched away by a ball sailing through the uprights, as the clock ticked down to 00:00. There was only one thing out of place in this nightmare Lions fans have lived through hundreds of times: the ball had come off of the black-shod foot of Jason Hanson, and the 27-26 come-from-behind victory belonged to the boys in Honolulu Blue.
For fans thrilled to get a glimpse of this thoroughly-turned-over roster, chomping at the bit to see the new schemes, and positively frothing at the mouth to see all three quarterbacks play, they got an eyeful—if they were patient. Daunte Culpepper, as it had been announced, would start the game, and Stafford and Stanton would each due to receive plenty of reps.
After the defense held Atlanta to a single first down, the offense took the field. Immediately, they did something Lions fans haven’t seen in a long time: they ran the ball, and ran it well. Kevin Smith ran off-tackle for first 4 yards, then 7 yards. Culpepper hit Smith on a little swing pass, and Smith turned it upfield for eleven. The Falcons defense was already starting to commit penalties trying to slow the Lions down. Culpepper was flashing a little bit of his old speed—just a little bit, but it was there—scrambling to escape the rush; rolling out to make things happen.
On a cruical 3rd-and-7, Culpepper hit Smith for another 16 yards. Smith’s day ended there, but that was all we needed to see: Kevin Smith looked quicker than last season, but no less strong—in fact, he was hitting the hole even harder. You can tell the offseason work with RB coach Sam Gash has really added explosion and burst to his game. After working all the way down to the Atlanta two-yard-line, a dude named Thomas Johnson came barreling through the Lions’ line and took Culpepper down, even before he’d finished dropping back. The Lions settled for a field goal.
Unfortunately, the Falcons answered quickly, mixing Michael Turner runs in with passes to Roddy White, moving from the Atlanta 23 to the Detroit 40 in just six plays. Then, as we saw so often last year, the dam burst: Turner got out into the open field, and blew past both Lamarcus Hicks and Kalvin Pearson on his way to paydirt; a 40-yard touchdown run. Immediately, I recalled something that Tom Kowalski said after the Lions drafted Louis Delmas: that long touchdown runs are often the result of poor safety play. Of course, we can’t know if Delmas would have made that play, but we can know that if Kalvin Pearson is starting come Week 1, the Lions will be desperately looking to upgrade the position.
Culpepper’s second drive sandwiched the break between quarters--and accomplished little of significance, stalling one yard into enemy territory. After the Falcons themselves put themselves in a hole on the first play with a holding penalty, they soon punted it right back to the Lions. The crowd started to rev up for Stafford--but he stayed on the bench, and Culpepper came out yet again. Aveion Cason, who would end the day with a very Casonesque 8 carries for 23 yards, got stuffed at the line. Culpepper tried to a couple of short passes, but Stephen Peterman committed an extremely dumb 15-yarder that stalled the drive. Atlanta took it back; while they didn’t get far, they didn’t need to to get within Jason Elam’s range. Elam hit a 46-yarder to make it 10-3.
Now? Finally, now? Yes. Now. After a very nice 28-yard return by Derrick Williams, Matthew Stafford took the field to rousing cheers. He got started right away, zipping one downfield to Keary Colbert—and it bounced right off his hands. Stafford hit Derrick Williams up the seam for a quick 10 yards and first down, then Cason ran for no gain again. After a swing pass to Cason, Stafford looked Colbert’s way again . . . and he dropped it, again. This time, it killed the drive. Nick Harris booted a beauty, and the Lions covered up on the 3-yard-line—but sixth-round pick Aaron Brown had lined up incorrectly, as he’d done in training camp, forcing a re-kick.
With the Falcons’ twos in, Cliff Avril apparently smelled blood; he jumped WAY offside on the first play of the ensuing Falcons series. Jarious Norwood used his speed to convert the first down, but then the Lions’ defense stiffened up. Nice coverage from Darnell Bing, and EMU product Chris Roberson, on successive plays forced the Falcons to punt it away.
Stafford took over again. Working out of the shotgun, Stafford faked a handoff to Ervin, then rifled one down the sideline to Colbert for—whoa—a completion, of the 28-yard variety. After the two-minute warning, An 8-yard run from Cason set the Lions up with a 2nd-and-2. Stafford zipped two more passes to Colbert, neither of which Colbert managed to catch. Stafford appeared to take it all in stride, with an almost Farvesque handclap and grin. As announcer Desmond Howard noted, Stafford didn’t appear to be feeding Colbert, so much as he was properly executing the offense; Colbert just kept happening to be the ‘right guy’. The ensuing Falcons ‘drive’ would quickly be interrupted by halftime.
As Stafford took the field again, you could feel the good vibes flowing. Stafford’s arm was as live as reports had indicated, he was placing the ball very well, he looked totally composed and poised, and was clearly having fun out there. Then . . . the badness.
Rolling to his right to get away from a blitz, Stafford tried to force it to Dan Gronkowski near the numbers. Falcons LB Tony Gilbert read it, jumped the route, picked the pass clean, and took it to the house. Stafford knew he’d messed up:
"(The receiver) ended up getting there, but he got there a little late. But still, it's not his fault. I've got to throw that one into the third row."This is the kind of thing that only game experience teaches. Schwartz can make Stafford practice throwing the ball away all he wants, but what drives the lesson home is the Ford Field crowd falling silent, while the enemy celebrates a pick-six. Incredibly, the Falcons’ veteran kicker, Jason Elam, missed the ensuing extra point attempt. Of course, that point wouldn’t prove to be the margin of victory or anything, so it wasn’t especially noteworthy.
Still, Stafford went right back to it, hitting Allen Ervin for 22, hitting Eric Fowler for 21, and then—finally—hitting paydirt. On a play action, Stafford looked deep to the left, quickly reset to the right, and zipped a gorgeous pass into the end zone, right over Derrick Williams’s far shoulder—and Williams snared it and tucked it in, beyond the reach of the cornerback, who was draped all over him. Touchdown.
Stafford, who’d stood tall in the pocket, and taken a real shot after letting it go, absolutely placed that ball. It was a really, really, really nice pass. Without the speed of the read, the quick re-set of his feet to throw to his second option, and the perfect throw in the face of the rush—without all three of those things—that’s at best an incompletion, at worst a sack. Stafford’s final stat line: 7/14, 114 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT. Colbert’s drops would have tacked on at least another 60 yards, and, perhaps, gotten Stafford and the Lions in range for another TD. Still, drops will happen no matter who’s throwing or catching, and we have to take Stafford’s performance for what it was: a really, really, really good rookie quarterback proving that he’s both really, really really good—and a rookie.
On the ensuing defensive series, the Lions made a mess of everything. Chuck Darby was flagged for a 15-yard facemask on 3rd-and-7, and then Eric King was flagged for PI—to the tune of 38 yards. The Falcons immediately punched it in from the 1, and took a 23-10 lead.
The Lions took back over on offense, and now Drew Stanton would finally have his day in the sun. No shorts, no T-shirts, no 7-on-7. No drills, no coaches, no air horn. 11-on-11, us vs. them, time to play football. After Allen Ervin ran one for a couple of yards, Stanton got hit him for a 12-yard gain. It was initially ruled that Ervin fumbled, but review proved he certainly did not. Then, DS threw a frankly horrible interception to Jaime Winborn—but luckily, it was called back thanks to defensive PI. Thanks to a nice mix of Ervin runs and a Stanton scramble, the Lions got back over midfield, and an Aaron Brown run for 6 put them up the Falcons’ 38. On the ensuing play, Brown ran to the right, the—passing up what appeared to be a wide-open hole--cut back across the defense and exploded to the sideline. He beat the incoming safety, and turned it up. 38 yards later, Aaron Brown cashed in. As he explained it:
"The inside zone play is like the play we ran at TCU. It's not really a cutback, but just seeing all the defenders banging inside in the box, if everybody's inside, there can't be that many people on the outside. So I just went to the left.''
It showed the kind of vision, burst, and cutback ability that hasn’t been seen here since a certain Hall of Famer prowled the backfield. Brown, obviously, isn’t nearly the player that player was—or he’d have been a top 3 draft pick instead of a sixth-rounder—but he certainly flashed NFL-caliber vision and speed on that play.
The Lions kicked off to the Falcons, and on first down Stu Schweigert made the first of many great plays. On 2nd-and-10, the Falcons again committed holding, and again this put their offense way out of rhythm. Ultimately they punted, and Derrick Williams fair-caught it at the 12. After Ervin was stuffed up the middle, Drew Stanton again proved why he’s worth an NFL roster spot. Seeing nothing, he tucked it and ran up the middle for a 27-yard gain. After a 2-yard run by Ervin, the third quarter came to a conclusion.
Two more Brown runs netted only five yards, and the Lions were forced to punt, just short of field goal range. Rookie Atlanta tailback Thomas Brown was stuffed by Stu Schweigert for a one-yard loss, and then D.J. Shockley threw an incomplete pass. Working out of the shotgun on 3rd-and-6, Shockley hit Eric Weems for a 15-yarder. They tried to run Brown again, and again Schweigert came up to the line and made the play. They ran Brown for three more consecutive plays, and he tallied up 13 yards and a first down, keeping the drive alive. Back in the shotgun on 3rd-and-6, Shockley again looked to Weems, but couldn’t pull it off; Atlanta was again forced to punt.
The Lions completely misfired on this drive; a Stanton intentional grounding penalty on third down actually put the Lions back seven yards from where they started, on their own 13. The rookie out of Alabama, John Parker Wilson, took over for the Falcons just shy of midfield. Wilson dinked and dunked up to Lions’ 23, where undrafted rookie free agent DE Ryan Kees made a great stop on 3rd-and-3, forcing the Falcons to go to Elam again. Elam nailed it, making the score 26-17.
Stanton took over, knowing this was his chance to flash the “gamer” skills I (and others) have been waxing rhapsodic about all offseason. Working from the shotgun, Stanton hit D.J. Boldin for 9 yards. Forgoing the huddle, Stanton again helped himself out with a judicious six-yard run—and got out of bounds. Again from the gun, Stanton hit rookie Carson Butler, who turned it up for a 24-yard gain. Then, Aaron Brown earned himself a roster spot. Seeing nothing, Stanton floated it to Brown as he released from his man—and Brown turned it upfield with a vengeance. Freezing a DB with a sick stutter move, Brown turned it on and raced to the endzone—and then capped his 45-yard touchdown with a picture-perfect roundoff/backflip combination. After sticking the landing, he got a –15 from the Zebra judge; a unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that, frankly, was bunk. Since his celebration involved no props, teammates, obvious premeditiation, or taunting, there’s absolutely no on-the-books rule against what he did. Oh, well, it’s preseason—I’ll take it.
With the score now 26-24, it was imperative the Lions’ defense come up with a stop—and that they did, with Stu Schweigert again coming up and making a big tackle for a loss, DeAndre Levy following suit on second down, and the rookie from D-II Saint Cloud State, Ryan Kees, holding the Falcons to a single yard on third down. The Falcons punted.
Stanton took the reigns on his on 27, down by two, with 1:36 left on the clock. This is exactly the kind of goofy scenario that Jim Schwartz relentlessly forces the Lions to practice. Again from the gun, Stanton hit Billy McMullen for 8 yards. Going no-huddle, he threw an incompletion intended for Aaron Brown—then hit Brown for six on third-and-2. On the ensuing play, the Falcons jumped offside, making it an easy 1st-and-five for Drew. He again hit Boldin for seven, and quickly spiked the ball to kill the clock. He went deep to Sippio on second down, but couldn’t connect. On third-and-10 from the 47, this was it; convert or lose. Stanton, almost predictably, called his own number. With an 18-yard scramble up the middle, Stanton both converted, and got the Lions into field goal range. With a spike to stop the clock with three seconds left, Jason Hanson took the field. Spotted on the left hash, 47 yards out, Hanson put it just inside the left upright. Victory. It may not count in the record books, but there’s no doubt it counted with the players, the coaches, and the fans.There’s a lot of discussion to be had about this game, and—rest assured—we will have it. But for now, let us bask. We have not only one decent quarterback, but we may have three. The two picks most widely panned—WR Derrick Williams and RB Aaron Brown—both came up huge in this game. The protection was decent, coverage was solid, and Kevin Smith looks like he’s ready to not only repeat 2008, but take a big step forward.