August 23, 2013 at 2:22 pm

Terry Foster

Despite impressive effort on defense, Lions still lack mental toughness

Patriots quarterback Tom Brady complains to the ref as he and Lions Willie Young exchange words Thursday at Ford Field in Detroit. (Daniel Mears / The Detroit News)

Detroit — The Lions’ defense was so dominant during Thursday night’s 40-9 exhibition victory over New England that ESPN’s SportsCenter devoted its opening segment on “what is wrong with the Patriots and quarterback Tom Brady?”

It’s the ultimate compliment for a defense that has giving up big plays and late leads for the better part of a decade. Yet at halftime, defensive lineman Willie Young stood up inside the Ford Field home dressing room and apologized to teammates for making an inexcusable and bone-headed play that could prove costly when the real lights turn on.

He grabbed Brady by the jersey and shook a wicked finger in his face after Brady threw an incomplete pass in the end zone. It looked like Young was lecturing a child for bad behavior.

Dude, it’s Tom Brady. Are you kidding me? It was a 15-yard taunting penalty and Young deserved it. But he wasn’t the only one who needed to apologize. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley got called for a late hit after a turnover. Defensive tackle C.J Mosley got called for a 15-yard personal foul later after another turnover, giving the Lions worse field position in both cases.

All turned out well, but these are the type of undisciplined plays that have cost the Lions for years. Lions coach Jim Schwartz deserves a pat on the back for benching Young. He needs to send a message that this won’t be tolerated. It can’t be.

“We have an edge to us,” linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “It is something we will work on. You go over your mistakes and you move forward. I think guys accept it, realize it is a penalty and we move on.”

I’ve seen this team play well and let games slip away because of mental mistakes. Plays like this have been the Lions’ undoing for years. You can’t stop being aggressive but the Lions must be mentally tougher when the regular season begins.

“We are Lions,” safety Louis Delmas said. “At some point when you open the cage and release that lion, you are going to be aggressive. We teach our defensive linemen to go after the ball and don’t stop until the whistle blows. Sometimes that’s going to happen. We get a bit too overly aggressive. So try to hold them back and contain them? No.”

Lions wide receiver Nate Burleson accepts Young’s apology. But he’s not willing to let this roll off his back and move on. Usually, Burleson is the sunshine guy. However, he knows you cannot allow this to just slide.

“Although we had a lot of points, it’s something we have to address,” Burleson said. “It’s something we are going to continue to harp on because we are not always going to have a huge lead like that. A penalty like that could cost us and it has cost us.”

Other than that the Lions were the better team during their dress rehearsal. Be careful, however, about saying this is a defining game. The Patriots were so concerned about this game that they allowed Brady to visit the Michigan football team earlier in the day in Ann Arbor. That would never happen the day of a regular-season game.

However, the defensive front was menacing and aggressive. The offensive line appeared to look a tad better and the game allowed Lions fans to feel good about themselves for an evening. However, I am a big-picture guy and I know this game has no carryover to the regular season or no meaning.

For instance, it’s difficult to really make judgments on an offense without Calvin Johnson. It’s like judging the Miami Heat without LeBron James.

My concern is the discipline. The Lions were bad boys two years ago because they did not know how to behave on the field. They were bad boys before last season because they did not know how to behave off the field. They must remain aggressive and gritty. But the stupid stuff must stop.

Even Young admitted that during his apology to the team.

“It’s one of those things that is going to get exaggerated and magnified because of our history,” Burleson said. “And that’s what everybody has to realize. When you make a mistake and you are a Detroit Lion, people are going to bring it up. That’s what (Young) was frustrated about. He does not want to keep that image going. Everybody already thinks of us as the bad guys and gangsters with jerseys. So when you make a bone-headed penalty people are going to jump on it and assume we are that old team and we are far from it.”

terry.foster@detroitnews.com
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