Wojo: Lions, Stafford playing on the edge, with an edge

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — It’s a mentality that fits the team, fits the quarterback, fits the situation. Their defense riddled, their offensive line shuffled, the Lions really have no choice — just let it loose.

That means gambling and gritting, right to the final minute. If it requires Matthew Stafford to throw for big yards, and Golden Tate and Zach Zenner to run for tough yards, so be it. If it means Jim Caldwell has to take chances on fourth down, hey, go for it.

The Lions are getting better at utilizing their strengths, partly because they recognize their flaws. They pulled out their second straight victory in almost identical fashion Sunday, rallying to beat the Rams 31-28. Again, it was a late field goal by Matt Prater. Again, it was a late interception, this time by Rafael Bush. And again, it was an aggressiveness borne of desperation, a mentality that could become an identity, if they keep it up.

The Lions are 3-3, with every game decided by a touchdown or less (five decided by four points or fewer). Caldwell said it best after this escape — “we’ve gotten to be comfortable being uncomfortable” — and Stafford showed it best, especially on a fourth-down touchdown pass on when he turned a busted play into a spectacular play.

Sturdy Stafford

On a day the Lions’ defense was helpless against unheralded quarterback Case Keenum, the offense knew it had to keep up. Without their top three running backs, they handed the ball to Zenner, and the second-year plugger rushed for 58 yards on 14 carries. Not that big a deal? Well, here’s what Rams star Todd Gurley did: 58 yards on 14 carries.

After a 1-3 start, including a dreary loss to the Bears, the Lions have unleashed more and more. They’ve used Tate in the backfield at times. Receivers Marvin Jones and Anquan Boldin have taken turns in the production spotlight. Due to injuries, the Lions were forced to play two rookies, Taylor Decker and Graham Glasgow, on the left side of the offensive line, and surrendered only one sack against a fierce Rams front.

Tate looks reborn and Stafford looks reenergized, playing as well as he ever has. He was 23-for-31 for 270 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions, and his season completion percentage is a career-best 68.9. Maybe all the years have grown callouses and amped urgency, but Stafford is up for just about anything, whether winging the ball, scrambling for first downs or jawing angrily with the Rams when he got bumped after kneeling at the end.

“What I love is, we have guys who are playmakers, and when we need it the most, No. 9 (Stafford) is gonna duck his head and just run,” said Tate, who had eight catches for 165 yards. “He’s done a phenomenal job at getting those key first downs, sliding to the line and hopping back up. That is one tough son of a gun. Every year I thank God for this tough Texas boy.”

Tate’s verbal exuberance elicited chuckles, but he’s right. Whatever the Lions are showing right now indeed trickles down from the quarterback, and from Caldwell and offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter’s more-creative game plans. Coach Jeff Fisher said the Rams were particularly aware of Stafford’s ability to extend plays, and he did it repeatedly.

All hands on deck

It was all on display at a key juncture in the first half, with the Rams ahead 14-7 and showing no signs of being stopped. On fourth down from the Los Angeles 2, Caldwell went for it, and Stafford threw for it. He was flushed from the pocket, retreated and rolled, then heaved a side-armed strike off his back foot. Andre Roberts — another unsung piece — fought through a mauling defender to make the touchdown grab.

“I don’t think any situation is too tough for us,” Stafford said. “Whether it’s Week 1 when we had to come from behind and win, or these late fourth-quarter comebacks, we just seem to rise to the occasion.”

Understand this — the Lions are acutely aware of their holes. None of these victories are masterpieces, which makes the clutch plays more important. The defense didn’t make many, but it stuffed Gurley on fourth down from the 1 at the end of the first half, then picked off Keenum’s long pass in the closing minutes.

The Lions know they can’t count on winning like this all the time, which is why Caldwell is pushing it. Besides the fourth-down pass from the 2, he went for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 49 on the opening drive, and Zenner plowed for 2 yards.

Including the 24-23 victory over the Eagles, the Lions are 4-for-4 on fourth downs the past two weeks, and the whatever-it-takes attitude is always infectious when it works.

“We gotta have that attitude,” Stafford said. “We had our meeting (Saturday night) and said it was all hands on deck. We’re not sitting here as healthy as can be, so if you had a uniform, you were playing.”

All hands and all feet were needed, as Keenum completed a staggering 19 straight passes at one point. The Rams entered the game last in the league in total yardage, but even with Ziggy Ansah’s return, the Lions struggled to slow them.

It made for an entertaining exercise in offense, a fun fling-fest fraught with flaws. It was the type of game that makes some teams uncomfortable, the type of game the Lions are learning to like.


Twitter.com: @bobwojnowski