Minneapolis — Fumbles became the unfortunate theme for the Lions Sunday.
Whether they were losing the ball on offense, having a potentially huge turnover nullified by a penalty or just clumsily struggling in all three phases of the game, the Lions kept wasting opportunities in a 26-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings at TCF Bank Stadium.
"The simple fix is, in my mind, keep the ball in your hands," wide receiver Golden Tate said after a game in which receiver Lance Moore and running back Theo Riddick lost fumbles in the third quarter.
The Lions fell to 0-2 for the first time since 2010 and dropped a critical early divisional game in the NFC North. Their inconsistency on offense continued as quarterback Matthew Stafford was battered all game by the Vikings' defense, which hit Stafford eight times officially. They couldn't run the ball — 12 carries for 18 yards by the running backs — and refused to throw the ball deep.
Meanwhile, the offense couldn't rely on the defense as it did so many times last year. After allowing just one 100-yard rusher in 2014, the Lions let running back Adrian Peterson accumulate 134 yards on 29 carries.
"Adrian Peterson is a great back, so he was just being Adrian Peterson," defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker said. "We got to just be us."
What "us" means remains to be seen two games into the season. Last week, the Lions allowed 483 yards and were beat mostly through the air. On Sunday, the Vikings had 350 yards — compared to Detroit's 323 — but 199 of them were on the ground.
Walker said the stout performance in the first half of Week 1 — 10 points allowed — and second half Sunday — nine points allowed — is what the defense can be, but it remains to be seen if that unit can maintain last year's standard as the second-best group in the NFL.
Even when things appeared to take a good turn for the Lions, something went wrong.
One of the Vikings' best plays came when Lions linebacker Kyle Van Noy nearly sacked quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, who quickly flipped the ball to Peterson and watched him gain 49 yards. A handful of plays later, the Vikings converted a field goal to take a 17-3 lead in the second quarter.
Then, in the third quarter, there was defensive end Jason Jones nullifying a fumble by the Vikings. On the play after Riddick's fumble, Peterson lost the ball, and the Lions recovered. But with Jones lining up in the neutral zone, the turnover never happened.
Stafford, who was clearly in pain throughout the game and underwent chest and ribs X-rays afterward, was incredibly inefficient, finishing 32 of 53 for 286 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. His four carries for 20 yards also led the team in rushing on a poor day for the offensive line.
"We should be able to have a pocket where he can just sit back and relax and just pass it to our players," left guard Manny Ramirez said. "We have a lot of guys that are capable of doing a lot of great things with the ball in their hands, and if we don't block right, we can't allow that to happen."
Calvin Johnson had 10 catches for 83 yards and a touchdown, but none of his 17 targets truly tested the Vikings down the field. Tate added six catches for 80 yards, and tight end Eric Ebron had five catches for 43 yards and a score.
Lions coach Jim Caldwell says, "We have not been playing consistently." Josh Katzenstein, The Detroit News
Conversely, Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was effective throughout the game, finishing 14 of 18 for 153 yards and one touchdown, along with six carries for 21 yards and another score.
The Lions' defense struggled right from the start as Peterson gained 45 yards on seven carries on an opening drive that ended with Vikings tight end Kyle Rudolph catching a 5-yard touchdown. Less than 5 minutes into the game, the Lions trailed 7-0.
Offensively, the Lions hardly moved the ball its first two drives, but Minnesota's third possession was just as effective as its first. This time, the score was a 1-yard run by Bridgewater, who found plenty of open field after the Lions' defense bit on a play-action fake to Peterson.
With a 14-0 lead 34 seconds into the second quarter, the Vikings were completely dominating the Lions and had outgained them 134 yards to 34. Even Peterson, with 70 rushing yards, was more productive than the Lions early into the second quarter.
"You can't let him break your back with that many yards, so we've got to get that straightened out," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said.
Fortunately for the Lions, things started improving on offense on the next drive as they reached the Minnesota 8. But two straight incompletions forced them to settle for a 26-yard field goal by Matt Prater, making it 14-3 with 7:12 left in the first half.
After Peterson's long catch and run, the Lions' defense did well to hold Minnesota to a 28-yard Blair Walsh field goal, but still trailed 17-3 with 2:32 left in the first half.
Tate had two 18-yard catches early in the next drive, and the Lions' quick-strike offense again worked. In just eight plays and 1 minute, 58 seconds, the Lions scored on a 73-yard drive, capped by a toe-tapping 11-yard catch by Johnson in the front left corner of the end zone.
At halftime, the Lions faced a manageable 17-10 deficit, but they didn't take advantage of any potential momentum they had going into the break. On the third play of the third quarter, Moore fumbled after catching a screen, and safety Andrew Sendejo returned it to the Detroit 6.
On the next play, Peterson fumbled right back to the Lions as safety James Ihedigbo forced it and cornerback Josh Wilson recovered it. But, once again, the Lions couldn't take advantage as they punted after a three-and-out.
Minnesota took a 23-10 lead on a 1-yard run by fullback Zach Line on the next drive, which was the last score of the third quarter. Riddick lost a fumble on the third play of the ensuing possession. It was Riddick's first carry of the year and first fumble of his three-year career.
The Lions' first possession of the fourth quarter ended with an interception by Vikings defensive end Justin Trattou, who read the short pass and caught the ball near the line of scrimmage. The Vikings turned the Lions' third turnover into a 23-yard field goal by Walsh and took a 26-10 lead with 6:20 remaining.
The Lions offense finally showed some signs of life on the next drive, and Ebron caught a 12-yard touchdown pass. But the Lions needed 18 plays to score, and the poor clock management left just 1:48 left in the game as they still trailed 26-16 — the 2-point try failed when Joique Bell tried running in after a shotgun handoff.
After a failed onside kick, the Vikings simply ran out the clock.
"We still are going to stay positive … but we do have to figure it out," Tate said. "We have to figure it out in a hurry. We have time, but not much time."