September 9, 2013 at 7:30 am

John Niyo

Take it away, defense: Unit forces turnovers to help turn Lions' fortunes

Detroit — Nobody was out of breath yet. They’d barely gotten their legs stretched, to be honest.

But there he went: Adrian Peterson was off and running. And here we go again, right?

That’s what the bulk of the crowd of 62,461 at Ford Field had to be thinking Sunday, breaking into a collective cold sweat as the Lions’ retooled defense looked like they’d fooled everyone again, the head coach included.

“We were working all offseason on stopping Adrian Peterson,” Jim Schwartz sarcastically noted after a helter-skelter season-opening win, “and the first play he goes 80.”

Actually, it was only 78 yards for Peterson, the NFL’s reigning MVP, on the Vikings’ first play from scrimmage. And it wasn’t just one play: The Lions already had bumbled their way into some opening-day boos with a red-zone flameout and a botched field-goal attempt on their first drive.

Still, this was about as deflating as it gets. One handoff, a couple of blown gaps, one rookie whiff and, man, it smelled like 2012 all over again, didn’t it?

It sure did, but give the Lions credit: They don’t stink anymore. The talent’s there, and Sunday’s 34-24 victory showed something else might be, too, from a defense that managed to shake off that awful start and put the clamps on Peterson and the rest of the Vikings offense, as redundant as that might sound.

Detroit’s defense allowed just one third-down conversion in the first 57½ minutes and two for the game. The Lions finished with three sacks, six quarterback hits and seven tackles for loss. And after that first burst, Peterson, the Vikings’ All-Pro who rushed for more than 2,000 yards last season, managed just 15 yards on 17 carries the rest of the afternoon — pedestrian numbers for any back, let alone a guy who occasionally answers to Purple Jesus.

“Actually, the first thing we said was, ‘Next series,’ ” Lions defensive tackle Nick Fairley said, trying to explain the defensive about-face. “That’s gonna happen against A.P. A guy miss-fits here or there, and, you know, he’s gonna hit his head on the goalpost.”

That’s another way of saying Peterson’s going to go the distance, which he certainly will. And he obviously did.

“But we came back to the sideline and we didn’t even look at the card after that,” Fairley said. “Because we knew it was something that we did, and not something that they did.

And what they did after that is what they didn’t do nearly enough of last season.

Keeping their cool

They kept their heads, for the most part, though Ndamukong Suh did negate a DeAndre Levy interception return with an illegal low block and Louis Delmas had Schwartz fuming with a taunting penalty in the second quarter.

They kept getting pressure, hounding Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder all game without much, if any, blitzing. (“They just have a great front four,” Ponder said, “and they got back there.”)

And they kept getting their hands on the football, forcing four turnovers Sunday to make what was Fairley deemed a “big-time statement” against a divisional opponent.

“After we gave up one play — you have to be resilient,” Schwartz said. “Again, that’s a playoff team over there.”

Well, it was a playoff team. I’m not so sure it is anymore. In fact, I’d be surprised if it is. Besides, as Schwartz himself keeps saying, last year is last year.

Take it away

But if this Lions team is going to be something this year, the defense is going to have to play like it did in 2011, when it scored seven touchdowns en route to the playoffs. Last season, they failed to score at all. Sunday, they probably should’ve had a pair of TDs, as Levy’s interception return was called back early in the second quarter and Bill Bentley dropped a sure pick-six a couple series later.

By game’s end, though, they’d picked off three of Ponder’s passes — the last on fourth down to seal the win with 1:20 left — and recovered a fumble off a botched handoff to Peterson earlier in the fourth quarter.

That puts them right on schedule, as the coaches reiterated in a defensive team meeting Thursday. Three turnovers a game is the goal.

“At least three,” Fairley corrected. “And if we do that, we’re gonna be a top-five defense and help our team win.”

The Lions spent much of the first half helping stake the Vikings to the early lead, of course. After Peterson busted the long run, the home team stayed in self-destruct mode for most of the first half, aided by instant replay after instant replay. (“Every time we scored,” Matthew Stafford joked afterward, “it was review, review, review.”

But after Joique Bell’s 2-yard plunge pulled the Lions to within a point at the half, the defense made its point on the opening drive of the third quarter. They forced another quick three-and-out by the Vikings, punctuated by Fairley’s third-down sack of Ponder on a delayed stunt that worked to perfection.

“The Red Sea parted and that boat stayed,” Fairley said, laughing. “Hey, I jumped on it.”

The offense, in turn, jumped on the short-field opportunity for the go-ahead touchdown. And the Lions never relinquished the lead after that, which is the idea, after all, given what they’ve invested in what Peterson called “one of the best defensive fronts we’re going to see all year.”

They didn’t look like it at first glance Sunday. But upon further review, as Suh said, “we did take care of business.”

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Lions' Ziggy Ansah, with some help from Nick Fairley, brings down Vikings quarterback Christian Ponder in the fourth quarter. / Daniel Mears / Detroit News