Allen Park — The Lions seem to be getting it, steadily and surely. They’re getting there, bit by bit.
They’re getting the concept that long has eluded them, and it was on vivid display in their punishing 24-10 victory over the Giants. It’s not always about the arm and the aesthetics. To win road games on big stages, even against a wounded foe, you need more than an arm.
You need legs and feet, smarts and aggressiveness. You need a defense that pounds and a running game that at least threatens. That’s what makes the victory, and this 2-0 start, particularly unusual and impressive. No, it’s not deliriously impressive, although if the Lions beat the Falcons Sunday at Ford Field, there will be euphoria counselors stationed outside the stadium.
It’s early, sure, but the Lions have done things they rarely do. They won a game like they never do, with Matthew Stafford throwing for 122 yards, a career-low for a game he finished. They’re 2-0 for the first time since 2011, and beat the Giants and Cardinals in completely different ways, winning by sound design, not just by dash and daring.
Finding ways to win
Stafford completed precisely three of four passes for 15 yards in the second half against the Giants, and the Lions grinded it out. It’s important to note, nobody on the Lions is doing cartwheels, although if a cartwheel was added to the game plan, they seem capable of picking it up.
“You have to win in a number of different ways because teams are going to force you to,” Jim Caldwell said Tuesday. “Like my old basketball coach used to always say to us — if we had a right-handed guy, make him play left-handed. … The same thing happens in this league. They end up taking away some of the things you think are your staples, so you have to be able to adjust. There has to be some games where the defense is going to be the dominant player, or the offense may be a dominant player.”
Or the special teams, as the Lions showed with Jamal Agnew’s spectacular 88-yard punt return, and Matt Prater’s crossbar-ricochet 56-yard field goal. Admit it, when that ball bounced just inside the upright, you began to think something different was happening, right?
Forget the general rankness of the opposition, for a moment. This was supposed to be a brutal opening stretch — Atlanta, Minnesota, Carolina, Pittsburgh and Green Bay lurk among the next six games — and the Lions have won twice by double digits. They’ve done it with versatility too, from a fourth-quarter flurry to a defensive hammering. Five sacks against the Giants. Four total interceptions so far. Eli Manning and Carson Palmer are way past their best days, but the Lions almost literally knocked them into yesterday.
At one point late in the Monday night broadcast, Jon Gruden could scarcely contain himself (admittedly, his standard state of mind). Use your best Gruden voice and read along.
“I like how the Lions play,” Gruden said. “They play hard, they play every down and they’re unselfish.”
We can applaud the Lions for their balance and toughness without declaring them an automatic contender. In fact, it might be wise to hold off until they face the defending NFC champion Falcons before declaring too much.
Doing what it takes
But you’re seeing more and more of general manager Bob Quinn’s influence in the depth and soundness — not necessarily starriness — of the roster. You’re seeing the steadiness of Caldwell, who coaches a team increasingly in his reflection — unheralded by some, generally unfazed.
The Lions gained more yards rushing (138) than passing (net 119) for the first time since Dec. 12, 2010, when they outscored Green Bay 7-3. They’ve been trying to build a respectable running game only for about two decades, and Ameer Abdullah rushed for 86 yards against New York. You can argue the Lions ran nowhere a few too many times, before Abdullah busted out with his clinching 34-yard burst. The reality is, sometimes you have to weather the nowhere runs to get the 34-yarder.
That’s where Caldwell and his staff were sharp against the inept Giants — they stayed away from New York’s strength. Every Abdullah run, even if it went nowhere, was a play in which Stafford didn’t have to stand in against the Giants’ fearsome pass rush.
Stafford was hit often in the first half, sacked twice and lost a fumble, and at one point took a nasty blow to his right eye. Just because you have the highest-paid player in football doesn’t mean he’s required to be the focal point of every game.
The Giants’ pass rush can turn a righty into a lefty, to further Caldwell’s basketball analogy, and the Lions didn’t allow it.
Stafford did just enough, and showed off his renewed agility — three scrambles, 23 yards. Of course, you often need your stars to do more, including your defensive stars. If Ziggy Ansah (three sacks) truly is back, and Darius Slay continues to blossom, and rookie Jarrad Davis is as good as he appears, perhaps the Lions can keep winning in varied ways.
Just don’t expect Caldwell to tout it.
“We’ve had some production there in terms of collapsing the pocket and getting ourselves around the quarterback,” Caldwell said. “But the minute you start talking about what you think you’ve gotten done in this league, you end up getting your ears kicked in. So right now, we’ve played OK for two games. We know we got a big one coming up with an outstanding football team.”
The Lions are aware they’ve gained the ears and eyes of Lions fans, and even some national observers. Another way to avoid getting those ears kicked in is to pin them back and attack.
Two games in, the Lions are attacking from multiple directions. We don’t yet know what’s sustainable, but at least we’ve seen what’s possible.