Jacksonville — The Lions’ starting defense looked ready for the regular season last week in Washington, but in a 22-17 exhibition victory over the Jacksonville Jaguars Friday night, the group showed it has plenty of work to do before the regular season begins.
Matthew Stafford, rookie running back Zach Zenner and the reserve defensive players were among the bright spots. Penalties, special teams and covering tight ends were among the problems the Lions must correct before Sept. 13.
As poorly as the defense played on the first two drives, falling behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, the Lions offense was spectacular on its last two possessions of the first half, which ended with Jacksonville leading 14-13 after Matt Prater missed an extra point.
On the first two drives, the Lions allowed 130 yards and gave up two touchdowns as Jacksonville jumped to a 14-0 lead with 13:44 left in the second quarter.
After falling behind, the Lions quickly responded with a perfect 62-yard touchdown strike from Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate, cutting the lead to 14-7 just 84 seconds later.
Stafford finished the first half 11 of 15 for 173 yards with two touchdowns before Dan Orlovsky replaced him in the third quarter. Through three exhibition games, he’s 19 of 25 for 308 yards with three touchdowns and a 156.3 passer rating.
Third-string quarterback Kellen Moore led the winning touchdown drive as Zenner punched in a 3-yard run with 1:41 left in the fourth quarter, though Moore’s pass on the 2-point try fell incomplete. The drive started in Jacksonville territory after Corey Wootton recovered a fumble, the second recovery by the Lions defense in the second half.
Tate caught three passes for 91 yards, and tight end Brandon Pettigrew had a nice 20-yard catch on a ball thrown a bit short. Tight end Eric Ebron, meanwhile, did not play as he continues to recover from an undisclosed injury that held him out of practice this week.
A couple other issues plaguing the Lions were penalties — 13 for 130 yards — and special teams, as they allowed a 27-yard punt return to rookie cornerback Nick Marshall, formerly Auburn’s quarterback.
With seven starters playing the first drive, the Lions defense struggled in all aspects during a 15-play scoring drive that lasted nearly 8 minutes. Jaguars quarterback Blake Bortles picked the Lions apart on the drive and converted all three third-down tries, two by pass and one on an 11-yard run on which he faked a pitch to fool linebacker Stephen Tulloch.
One point of concern will be the Lions’ struggles to cover tight ends without DeAndre Levy, who sat while recovering from an injury. Jaguars tight ends had eight catches for 123 yards through 2-1/2 quarters, and starter Julius Thomas did not play.
The Lions could see a silver lining in their run defense in the first half, though, as they held rookie running back T.J. Yeldon to 10 yards on eight carries.
A lapse in coverage by cornerback Rashean Mathis created an opening for Bortles to hit Allen Hurns for a 13-yard touchdown pass as Jacksonville took a 7-0 lead with 3:18 left in the first quarter.
The Lions defense allowed 117 yards in the first quarter and didn’t do much better for the rest of the first half. On their second drive, the Jaguars scored on a 1-yard run by Yeldon to go up 14-0 with 13:44 left in the second quarter.
While the Lions were down some of their top defensive players, some of their legitimate starters were the ones making the costly mistakes. Safety James Ihedigbo gave Jacksonville 15 free yards when he hit Bortles after the quarterback slid during the second drive. On the same drive, Mathis had a pass interference penalty in the end zone that helped set up Yeldon’s touchdown.
Jacksonville converted its first seven third down attempts. After the eighth failed, the Jaguars went for a fourth down near the Lions goal line, but came up short.
On the ensuing drive, the Lions drove 95 yards for a touchdown, highlighted by a 45-yard run by Zenner and capped by a 4-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to Corey Fuller.
The third exhibition game normally provides the best indication for where players stand with roster cuts looming. Among the players who were on the early special teams units were linebackers Julian Stanford and Brandon Copeland and fullback Emil Igwenagu, who earned the start on offense, too.
Wide receiver Lance Moore was the third receiver to play behind Tate and Corey Fuller. Greg Salas started on the second drive. Running backs Theo Riddick, Ameer Abdullah and George Winn had opportunities on the first drive, including a nice third-down conversion by Winn. Abdullah, who was the kick returner in the first half, did have a 21-yard reception on the Lions’ second scoring drive.
Still, Zenner was the most impressive back on the field with eight carries for 85 yards and the score.
On defense, end Phillip Hunt was among the players who made an early appearance. Linebacker Travis Lewis started in place of a healthy Tahir Whitehead, perhaps a chance for Lewis to prepare himself to be Whitehead’s backup as Kyle Van Noy deals with an injury.
The Lions defensive starters returned to the field to begin the third quarter, perhaps a chance for them to prove their first-half performance was an aberration. Instead, the Jaguars marched quickly to a field goal to start the second half, and the backups entered thereafter on both offense and defense.