August 23, 2013 at 3:46 pm

John Niyo

Lions first-team offense still trying to find its footing

Detroit — The Lions exited last season lamenting the lack of big plays from their defense.

They’ll enter this season wondering more about their playmakers on offense, even after routing the New England Patriots, 40-9, at Ford Field.

Or maybe they won’t. You might have questions about this offense — and I certainly do, too — but the Lions didn’t seem overly concerned after Thursday night’s performance. Certainly not the way they were a week ago after an awful performance at Cleveland.

“I’m OK with what we did out there,” receiver Nate Burleson said. “There’s always room for improvement. But I joked about it with the guys afterward. We put up points, moved the ball, every receiver caught a pass, and LeBron (James) didn’t even suit up today.”

That would be Calvin Johnson, of course. The All-Pro receiver went through pregame warm-ups Thursday, but was inactive for a second consecutive week resting a bruised knee. And even in the exhibition season, it’s impossible to ignore his absence, because opposing defenses certainly don’t.

“Without having the full playbook in, and without having the best receiver in the world in, that changes the game,” said Burleson, who readily admits he’s no LeBron, even though he was out there running Johnson’s routes Thursday. “Not only will Calvin be a big-time target in the red zone, but most of the time he’s attracting two or three guys. There’s gonna be a lot of things that look a lot different when the big boy is out there.”

There better be, though to be fair, the offense did get another jolt from Reggie Bush, who flashed his game-changing ability with a 67-yard reception on a screen play in the first quarter. And the Lions’ first-team offense finally did score a touchdown. They also played a third straight turnover-free game and led 16-3 at the half against Tom Brady and the Patriots, prompting quarterback Matthew Stafford to shrug afterward, “We’re moving in the right direction.”

But it took them 11 possessions to score their first TD this exhibition season, and it was the only one Stafford & Co. could manage on this night, despite the defense forcing four first-half turnovers.

That brings the exhibition season total to 16 possessions for the starters on offense — about five full quarters of work over three games — with only five field goals and the lone touchdown to show for it, not to mention a meager 14 first downs. Granted, 14 of those 16 drives have come without Johnson. But even coach Jim Schwartz, while echoing his quarterback and calling it “progress,” acknowledged the stalled drives are a problem.

Trying to catch on

They were a crippling problem for this team last season on its way to a 4-12 finish. The Lions scored just one first-half touchdown in the first six games of 2012. And with only the exhibition season finale at Buffalo left before the real games begin — and perhaps a couple possessions for the starters — that offensive execution will remain a question mark until the opener Sept. 8 against Minnesota.

Burleson, who missed most of last season with a broken leg, didn’t catch a pass the first two weeks of the exhibition season, and he find much separation Thursday, with one reception — a third-down catch on the opening drive — and one penalty drawn on the Patriots’ Aqib Talib.

Ryan Broyles, the presumptive No. 3 wideout coming off ACL surgery, wasn’t targeted in 19 snaps in the loss at Cleveland and didn’t play in the first half against New England, spending his time riding a stationary bike. (He did catch two passes for 32 yards as the Lions’ reserves dominated the second half, though.)

The tight ends resurfaced Thursday, with Brandon Pettigrew catching a few balls and Tony Scheffler making amends for an early drop with a 9-yard grab for the lone first-half touchdown. But give Bush a little credit for that one, too, as a run fake suckered Patriots linebacker Dane Fletcher and left Scheffler wide open.

That, by the way, is the kind of backfield threat he can be for the Lions, who simply didn’t have that option a year ago.

Bush finished with one net rushing yard in six carries, but he caught five passes for 103 yards, including the 67-yard scamper to beat a blitz on third-and-10 from his own 20. That’s something you’ll certainly see more of in the regular season. Teams are going to blitz the Lions and their inexperienced offensive line, but Bush can make a defense pay.

And the hope, obviously, is that the Lions’ defense can make opponents pay the way it did Thursday, albeit without the idiotic personal fouls. (Taunting Tom Brady? Really?)

Defense offers spark

We got a glimpse of the starting secondary for the first time, with Louis Delmas playing a couple of series and providing a spark, teaming up with partner Glover Quin for the game’s first fumble recovery. Linebacker DeAndre Levy forced another turnover with a big open-field hit. (The Lions are a plus-6 in turnover margin this exhibition season after ranking 30th in that stat a year ago at minus-16.) And up front, this looked a lot like the 2011 exhibition game when the Lions battered Brady and, in some respects, set the tone for their season.

The Patriots gained just 17 yards on their first 11 rushing attempts, and the Lions finished the first half with a couple of sacks, five quarterback hits, three fumble recoveries (Delmas, Ziggy Ansah and Jason Jones) and Chris Houston’s interception.

“I thought our defense played lights-out today,” Bush said.

We’re still waiting for the offense to flip that switch, however.

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Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford looks for a target in the first quarter Thursday night. / Robin Buckson / Detroit News