Niyo: Chargers show Lions defense it indeed is a new season

John Niyo
The Detroit News

San Diego — The pass went sailing past, another one earmarked for the turf inside a noisy, not-yet-condemned Qualcomm Stadium.

And no one seemed to know what went wrong. Not Matthew Stafford, the quarterback who’d delivered the ball. Not tight end Eric Ebron, who’d finished his route near the visitors’ sideline. And not Golden Tate, who stood downfield with his hands on his hips, a portrait of frustration, long after the play had been blown dead.

It was that kind of day for the Lions, who began this season opener in sunny San Diego looking rather comfortable but ended it looking utterly confused.

“Miscues after miscues” was how coach Jim Caldwell described this 33-28 loss, one that certainly felt worse than the final score indicated, what with the Chargers rattling off 30 unanswered points after the Lions built a big first-half lead the way a child builds a house of cards.

The home team — for now, with Los Angeles beckoning — rattled Matthew Stafford’s cage, too, and on Sunday shredded what a year ago was one of the league’s best defenses. Philip Rivers finished with an obscene stat line: 35-of-42 for 404 yards, including 21-of-23 for 250 yards and two touchdowns in the second half.

“We’re banking on this being the asterisk,” defensive end Darryl Tapp said, “not the standard.”

Crossed up

That’s a wager they’d better win, though. Because they just handed the rest of the league a blueprint to beat them, the way Rivers picked the Lions apart with a steady, up-tempo diet of crossing routes and quick screens in the second half. That’s the same thing Jacksonville did in that third preseason game, the one we all ignored.

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And as safety Glover Quin noted after Sunday’s loss, “I’m pretty sure we’ll see the same thing next week, so we have to get it fixed.”

The quickest fix would be the healthy return of DeAndre Levy, their Pro Bowl linebacker who is clearly — and dearly — missed. But he’s sidelined with a hip injury for now, trying in vain to coach up his replacements as they shuttle in and out of the game. Without Levy, the middle of the defense looked a step slow Sunday, particularly in the second half as Keenan Allen turned into Kellen Winslow, tying the latter’s franchise record with 15 catches for 166 yards.

Rashean Mathis, who was beaten repeatedly, called them “basic routes that we see every day.” Yet on Sunday the Lions seemed powerless to stop them, wilting in the heat as the Chargers heated up, piling up 483 yards, their highest total in a season opener since 1986.

“They did a good job of countering us,” Caldwell said. “We didn’t do a good job of reacting.”

Or tackling, frankly. Monday’s film review won’t be pleasant for many, including veterans like Mathis and Stephen Tulloch and James Ihedigbo.

And while the Lions’ front four got off to a rousing start, with Ziggy Ansah stuffing rookie running back Melvin Gordon for a loss on his first carry and Phillip Hunt sacking Rivers on his second dropback, it hardly reached the standard it set a year ago.

Rivers was sacked just once more after that opening series, the line gave San Diego a pair of third-down conversions with pre-snap penalties, and even the Chargers’ running game found some traction. The biggest comeback in the Chargers’ home history began innocently enough, with a bunch of shotgun draws, mostly from Danny Woodhead, who finished with a pair of touchdowns.

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“There were quite a few things we need to get straightened out,” said Caldwell, who also lost No. 1 corner Darius Slay to an injury late in the fourth quarter. “There’s no question about that.”

Communication breakdown

On offense, there were questions without answers in the postgame locker room, as the Lions, who spent the offseason hailing their comfort level in Year 2 of a new system, mustered just 40 plays and 219 yards before a final 2-minute drive when they trailed by two scores. After an impressive opening drive, capped by Ameer Abdullah’s 24-yard touchdown run, the Lions’ next seven possessions lasted four plays or fewer. One produced another touchdown — an 18-yard strike from Stafford to a wide-open Ebron — but the other six produced three first downs, four punts and two turnovers.

Stafford got rocked by Melvin Ingram on the first interception he threw midway through the third quarter. He finished the game with a sleeve on his right arm, some nasty abrasions on his left, and a dour look — a painful reminder that the preseason is often a mirage.

Stafford gave credit to the Chargers’ defense for creating some of the confusion in calling out protections. (“They did a good job of disguising some things,” he said.) And for taking away Calvin Johnson, who was held to just two catches for 39 yards, one of them on that final drive.

Stafford also took the blame for the second interception he threw later in a dismal third-quarter showing, the one where he scrambled out of the pocket and flicked a pass short of the sticks — right to cornerback Patrick Robinson — while Tate turned upfield.

“That’s just a bad throw,” Stafford said. “Golden did the right thing. Just a poor decision, bad throw.”

And a game the Lions now must toss aside, they all agreed, though the way they played that’ll be easier said than done.