Wojo: Trust is a must, and Matthew Stafford delivers for Lions

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

Detroit — The ball was bouncing awry, the game was slipping away, patience was waning. And then, as pressure mounted, the oddest thing happened.

In a game of misplays and broken plays, the Lions suddenly made all the clutch plays. Matt Patricia and the coaching staff cranked up the aggressiveness and did what you’re supposed to do late in the fourth quarter of a tight game — they trusted their best players.

A week ago in a desultory tie, the Lions just tried to hang on. In the home opener Sunday at Ford Field, they went for it, in every way. The short-term result: They beat the Chargers 13-10, a crucial victory in the midst of a tough opening stretch. The long-term result: Perhaps the Lions under Patricia and new offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell began to form the framework of an identity.

Don’t back off. Don’t play it safe. Don’t wait to get beat.

Matthew Stafford threw two interceptions earlier, then fired two dazzling strikes on the winning touchdown drive. Darius Slay, picked on by Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers and star receiver Keenan Allen, didn’t back down, and wrestled away an end-zone interception with 1:03 left.

Then came the bold clincher. On third-and-6 from their own 24, with 53 seconds left and the Chargers still holding a timeout, the Lions disdained the run for the risk, and Stafford executed it perfectly. He got the call from Bevell in his helmet earphone to hustle to the line for a quick snap, then throw for the first down. It was fluid and flawless, as Stafford hit Jesse James in the left flat for a 7-yard gain, game over.

“It was sweet, I loved it,” said Stafford, who finished 22-for-30 passing for 245 yards. “We broke the huddle quick, caught them sleeping. It was the last thing on my mind when (Bevell) called it, and when it came into my helmet, I was like, this is gonna be awesome.”

Bouncing back

This goes back to the trust issue, unwittingly raised by Stafford last week during the 27-27 tie in Arizona. There, Bevell signaled for a timeout and killed a key third-down play that would’ve clinched it in regulation. In almost the exact same situation this time, the Lions went for it.

And it wasn’t only once. Trailing 10-6 midway through the fourth quarter, facing fourth-and-1 at the Chargers’ 35, the Lions kicked aside caution. It had been a frightfully bad special-teams effort, with Matt Prater missing a field goal and an extra point, so it made sense to go for it. And there was Stafford delivering an absolute laser to Marvin Jones for a 4-yard gain. On the very next play, Stafford zipped another flare down the middle for a 31-yard touchdown to Kenny Golladay, who was sensational with eight catches for 117 yards.

The Chargers then drove to the Lions’ 28, before Slay halted it. You could argue Stafford and Slay had made the biggest mistakes — right up until they made the biggest plays. That’s a bounce-back mentality we’re not used to seeing from the Lions.

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford walks off the field after failing to connect with receiver Danny Amendola on a third-down pass in the second quarter.

“I do think that right now we’re trying to be mentally tough,” Patricia said. “It was great to see those two guys in particular. They performed outstanding when we needed them to in really critical situations. I thought that was great.”

Slay got very little work last week but was in the mixing bowl in this one. He was called for three penalties, and Allen caught eight passes against him. But Rivers threw 15 in his direction, so it’s not like Slay was getting blanked.

“If I’m the quarterback, I’m throwing to (Allen) too,” Slay said. “I don’t care if he’s double-covered, triple-covered, I’m gonna make sure he can make a play. I just made one more play than he did.”

For years, fans rightly have complained about empty yards and empty plays by the Lions, coming up empty in the clutch. This one, folks, was exactly the opposite, against a good Chargers team that was 12-4 a year ago.

Fire away

Bevell’s offense curled into a shell last week with a 24-6 lead in the fourth quarter, and as much as the outcome shook the Lions, perhaps it emboldened them too. Stafford made his point with his “Trust me!” rant on the sideline, and Bevell surely heard it.

Stafford had a streak of 181 straight passes without an interception snapped in the third quarter, when he was picked off by Casey Hayward Jr. on an end-zone shot to Golladay. It was an aggressive play, on first down from the Chargers’ 36. So was the next interception, also on first down from the Lions’ 34, ultimately too aggressive.

But Stafford didn’t stop firing. And Bevell didn’t stop pushing it.

“Bev is an aggressive guy, I’m an aggressive player,” Stafford said. “I think we work so hard, go trust yourself out there. If you think something is going to work, man, go do it. You know, the one pick I threw in the end zone, I’m probably throwing that ball 10 times out of 10. It didn’t work out for us, it ended up as a turnover and I will own that, no doubt. But I’m going to keep giving our guys chances because they are great players.”

There is a fine line, and Stafford has spent a decade, under a multitude of coordinators, trying to find it. He can’t throw recklessly but he can’t be neutered either. A 181-pass streak without a pick is nice, but it also suggests Stafford tended to be safe.

In a sloppy game like this, with 17 combined penalties and the Chargers dealing with their own kicking fiascos, someone had to be cool enough to take charge. It looked like it’d be Rivers, the old savvy firebrand. And then it was Stafford, trying to rebrand himself.

“In the end, I’m just the guy back there trying to get the ball to our playmakers, let those guys do their thing,” Stafford said. “And (Bevell) is drawing up great plays. It’s been a good experience so far.”

It’s only two games with mixed results, and it’ll take time for the comfort level to develop. Kerryon Johnson made several spectacular plays, although his rushing total (41 yards) hasn’t popped yet. The Lions are still a long way from being potent, on offense or defense, but this time it was the other team that piled up the empty yardage and made crunch-time blunders. This time it was the Lions who overcame the mistakes, and earned back a bit of trust.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski