Matthew Stafford, Lions start fast to roll past Giants in opener

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Detroit — After scoring the 10th rushing touchdown of his career, Matthew Stafford flipped the football like many sluggers do their bat after hitting a picturesque home run.

In many ways, Stafford had a home run of a night to lead the Lions to a 35-14 victory over the New York Giants in their season opener Monday night.

The Lions played a complete game, especially in the second half. In addition to gaining 417 yards on offense, the defense allowed just 197. Detroit also won the turnover battle, two to zero, and blocked a punt.

Stafford’s brilliant performance started with touchdown passes to Calvin Johnson, the NFL’s preeminent wide receiver, on the first two drives of the game. Stafford scrambled to his right, dodged defensive end Damontre Moore and launched a ball to Johnson, who was wide open in the middle and finished the 67-yard touchdown to give the Lions a 7-0 lead.

“I can’t call it,” Johnson said when asked for the last time he was that open.

On the following drive, Stafford scrambled to his left, threw the ball back to the right and hit Johnson for a diving 16-yard touchdown to put the Lions up 14-0. He put the ball where Johnson, who the most receiving yards by a Lions player in a season opener with 164, would be the only player who could catch it.

But the rushing touchdown, a 5-yarder that gave the Lions a comfortable 27-7 lead late with 3:51 left in the third quarter, was a sign of just how much Stafford’s footwork has improved this offseason after years of simply relying on the strength of his right arm.

“I saw the one little opening to the right and knew I probably didn’t have the jets to get there, but if I sold them enough, I could maybe cut back,” Stafford said of the run. “I cut back, got in and I saw (linebacker Jon) Beason coming at me and wasn’t going to just let him hit me in the chest, so I tried to kind of give him a little something and just turn around. I was just fired up.”

That little something was flipped the football over his shoulder as Beason tried to lay into him, a subtle way to celebrate a great start to a new season under coach Jim Caldwell.

Stafford’s recognition on that rushing touchdown was a sign of how he’s trying to improve his decision making, which he also displayed on multiple throwaways. He finished the game 22 of 32 for 346 yards, three total touchdowns and no turnovers, good for a 125.3 passer rating.

Stafford had a 69 percent completion percentage, even better than Caldwell’s goal of 62 percent.

“I’m just trying to be smart, as smart as I possibly can,” Stafford said.

But in the fast-paced NFL game, Stafford doesn’t have time to consider all of his options on most plays, and his instincts stood out.

Caldwell said offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and quarterbacks coach Jim Bob Cooter deserve some credit for Stafford’s improvement, but gave most of the praise for the signal caller.

“He’s got a natural feel for (the pocket),” Caldwell said. “He certainly slid away from pressure and got himself in a position where he could make some throws for us outside of the pocket.”

Stafford admitted, though, that the juke step he used on the long touchdown pass and the run, in which he shook linebacker Jacquian Williams is the extent of his flashy footwork.

“I’ve always had that!” he said. “No, I’m just kidding. It’s about my only move. The cat’s out now. They’re all going to be playing the cutback.”

If the rest of the Lions play as they did against what looked like a Giants team that will struggle again this season, it won’t matter if Stafford can’t make similar plays with his feet this season.

Down by two scores after two drives, the Giants never sniffed the lead as quarterback Eli Manning was under heavy pressure and threw two interceptions, one on an incredible diving play by linebacker DeAndre Levy and the other a lame-duck snagged by safety Glover Quin.

Manning finished 18 of 33 for 163 yards, one touchdown and two picks.

It wasn’t all perfect, though, as Lions drew eight penalties for 85 yards in the first half. Considering they outgained the Giants 227 yards to 75, the infractions were the key reason their lead was just 14-7 at halftime.

Coach Jim Caldwell said there was no “fire and brimstone” during his intermission address, but the Lions obviously made adjustments as they played penalty free in the second half.

With the victory, Caldwell became the first Lions head coach to win his first game since Steve Mariucci in 2003.

The closest the Giants made it was 14-7 after with a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Larry Donnell on a fourth-and-goal early in the second quarter, but the Lions kept adding to their lead in the third quarter.

Rookie kicker Nate Freese made field goals of 28 yards and 27 yards in the third quarter to put the Lions up 20-7.

Down 27-7 after the Stafford run, the Giants added another score with a 1-yard run by Rashad Jennings, but the Lions sealed the game with a 12-play, 7-minute drive capped by a 3-yard Joique Bell touchdown run.

“Our offensive line did a nice job of taking over the line of scrimmage, I think, at that point,” Caldwell said.

Tight end Joseph Fauria caught the 2-point conversion to bring the final score to 35-14.

Golden Tate looked good in his Lions debut with six catches for 93 yards, including a 44-yard gain in which he was wide open. Reggie Bush struggled on the ground with just 15 yards on nine carries, but added 49 yards on six catches. Bell had 51 yards on 15 carries.

First-round pick Eric Ebron didn’t catch either of his two targets.

The worst news for the Lions, though, is they suffered a couple costly injuries in the first half. Right tackle LaAdrian Waddle left the game after the first offensive series with a calf injury and did not return.

Nickel cornerback Bill Bentley left in the first quarter with a knee injury and did not return. Rookie Nevin Lawson, a fourth-round pick, played adequately in his place, especially considering Giants slot receiver Victor Cruz had just two catches for 24 yards.

Quin also left the game briefly in the fourth quarter, but he returned. The Lions already were lacking depth at safety with strong safety James Ihedigbo and top reserve Don Carey inactive.

The Giants lost defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to a neck injury in the first quarter, a costly injury as the Lions’ offensive line gave Stafford plenty of time to pass.

After the game, the Lions presented owner and chairwoman Martha Firestone Ford and her four children with the game ball. The team honored late owner William Clay Ford Sr., who died in March, with a ceremony before the game.