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Landover, Md. — The end result was a defeat, but the Lions' starting defense provided plenty of reasons for fans to be optimistic about the upcoming season in a 21-17 loss against Washington at FedEx Field.

On the first four drives, the Lions pummeled quarterback Robert Griffin III, sacking him three times and giving him minimal time to throw. Washington gained just 16 yards on those four series against a Lions defense that's still missing starting linemen Jason Jones and Haloti Ngata.

"We should feel good about that, but we've got a ways to go yet," coach Jim Caldwell said. "And we still don't have Jason back and Haloti's not back, so both of those guys play an integral part of what we do. So, I would anticipate it even stiffening up a little bit more."

Ziggy Ansah and Tyrunn Walker split the first sack on the opening drive, leading to a third-and-long Washington didn't convert. On the second drive, safety James Ihedigbo and linebacker DeAndre Levy had hits on Griffin during a three-and-out. Defensive end Phillip Hunt hit him on the third drive, another three-and-out, and the Lions had sacks on two of the three plays on the fourth drive, one by defensive tackle Jermelle Cudjo and another awarded to the team as multiple players fell on Griffin after he fumbled. The quarterback left the game with a brain injury after that third sack.

BOX SCORE: Washington 21, Detroit 17

The Lions played the aggressive brand of defense they used last year under defensive coordinator Teryl Austin, creating pressure with varied attacks from different angles.

"We've got some dogs at linebacker, but the man that makes it work is Teryl Austin," defensive end Darryl Tapp said. "That guy is a guru up there in the box knowing the right time to call different plays and whatnot."

Of course, it wasn't all good for the Lions defense. After Griffin left, Colt McCoy and Kirk Cousins had little problem leading three combined touchdown drives and another that reached the 1 before McCoy fumbled it away at the end of the first half.

Washington outgained the Lions 341 yards to 241, including a 179 to 46 advantage in the run game.

"After that (first) group went out, we didn't perform very well," Caldwell said.

The Lions managed to escape with quarterback Matthew Stafford healthy, pulling him just before the end of the first quarter. He finished 6-for-8 for 78 yards — with one drop by Corey Fuller on a ball thrown slightly behind him — before ceding to Dan Orlovsky.

CLOSE

Coach Jim Caldwell and QB Matthew Stafford break down what went right and what went wrong in 21-17 exhibition game loss.

Stafford's first drive reached the Washington 24, but a sack forced the Lions to settle for a 49-yard Matt Prater field goal. The second drive ended in a punt after stalling at the Washington 43 on the incompletion to Fuller.

After impressing last week against the New York Jets, rookie running back Ameer Abdullah received the star treatment as his night ended with just two carries for 7 yards with one touch on each of the first two drives. Any caution would be logical, especially after star right guard Larry Warford exited in the first quarter with an ankle injury.

Griffin finished just 2 of 5 for 8 yards, but the sacks against him were the only ones the Lions had.

Lions rookie defensive tackle Gabe Wright, who played significantly after Caraun Reid (ankle) left in the first series, recovered Griffin's fumble at the Washington 11. On the ensuing drive, which was Orlovsky's second, Joseph Fauria caught a 10-yard pass, hurdling a defender and falling just short of the goal line.

A false start by Fauria — one of nine penalties for the Lions — moved them back, but two plays later, Orlovksy threw a 3-yard touchdown pass to Ross, giving them a 10-0 lead with 7:31 left in the second quarter.

After Griffin left, Washington started to move the ball well against the Lions backups. Quarterback Colt McCoy helped lead the team to a score, a 1-yard rushing touchdown by rookie Matt Jones that cut the Lions lead to 10-7 with 1:56 left in the first half.

After a three-and-out by the Lions, Washington drove to the Detroit 1, but a fumble by McCoy gave the Lions the ball back and preserved the first half lead.

Orlovsky played well, finishing 13 of 17 for 118 yards and two touchdowns. Running back Zach Zenner impressed with four carries for 22 yards and five catches for 59 yards, including a 36-yarder in which he juked away from a defender near the sideline and a 5-yard touchdown that gave the Lions a 17-14 lead with 1:43 left in the third quarter.

Washington's second touchdown was a 19-yard pass from McCoy to Reggie Bell on the previous drive.

Washington scored the winning touchdown, a 4-yard pass from Cousins to Rashad Ross, with 10:47 left in the game. Kellen Moore couldn't lead the Lions back, finishing 3 of 7 for 31 yards.

Caldwell said the Lions need to improve in all phases. They allowed a 34-yard punt return to Andre Roberts. But the defensive players who will be on the field in September showed flashes of what could be a group that doesn't experience much drop off compared to 2014.

"It's that defense that we saw last year," Stafford said. "They played fantastic, they're all on the same page, they give you a bunch of different looks and do a great job of disguising."

jkatzenstein@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/jkatzenstein

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