Lions sputter after strong start, fall to Vikings

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News

Detroit — Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen has been one of the most consistent pass rushers in the NFL in recent seasons, so he was surprised that he went unblocked on a second-quarter play against the Lions.

“You can’t miss the layup when you come free like that,” Griffen said of the sack.

The Vikings had many layups in Sunday's game as the Lions simply couldn’t protect their metaphorical basket. In a 28-19 loss at Ford Field, quarterback Matthew Stafford took seven sacks and 13 quarterback hits as the Lions fell to 1-6.

The Lions seemed to carry some of their offensive success from last week’s win over the Bears over to Sunday. They led 14-3 less than 14 minutes into the game against Minnesota (4-2) as Stafford was a perfect 6-for-6 for 119 yards and two touchdowns on the first two drives. By the end of the game, it was clear last week’s win was indeed the outlier in a season on the verge of collapse.

Box score: Vikings 28, Lions 19

The Lions finished with 274 total yards. They lost four yards — combined — on their first four possessions of the second half. And questions about debatable coaching and poor play again will be the main topic of discussion this week, though those talks will be in London, where the Lions play next.

“There’s no escape in our game,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said when asked if the trip can be a getaway of sorts. “You’ve to play well; you’ve got to function well no matter where you are. So, that’s not the issue. The issue is, can we get better? And we’ve got to make certain that we do just that.”

Unfortunately for the Lions, the issues Sunday were the same ones they’ve been for much of the season. The impressive offensive display was seen in nothing more than glimpses. The defense made some nice plays, too, but allowed far too many big gains.

And the offensive line — coupled with other blocking players and the blocking scheme — was simply woeful.

Stafford suffered a left hand injury that required a heavy tape job and a glove in the second half. He said the hits can be frustrating, but he knows everyone was giving their full effort.

“You’re going to have to peel me off the field,” he said. “I’m going to always get up if I can. That part of it, it’s a part of football.”

But, it’s not typically a part of winning football, and wide receiver Golden Tate said he prayed every time he saw Stafford on the turf.

“At some point, it’s going to catch up to you,” Tate said. “It doesn’t catch up to you until it catches up to you. If the quarterback keeps taking hits from linebackers and ends and 300-pound guys, one of these times he’s not going to get up.

“I have the ultimate — I believe in Stafford, but that’s just the nature of the game. Your quarterback has to stay on (his feet). If he stays on the ground, that’s tough.”

Stafford finished 18 of 26 for 256 yards with two touchdowns, and he played through a left-hand injury in the second half, which surely happened on one of the Vikings’ several hard hits by unblocked rushers.

Wide receiver Calvin Johnson added five catches for 86 yards and a touchdown, and tight end Eric Ebron had five catches for 89 yards and a touchdown.

For the Vikings (4-2), Adrian Peterson had 19 carries for 98 yards, most of which came on a 75-yarder in the third quarter. Rookie receiver Stefon Diggs added six catches for 108 yards and a touchdown, and quarterback Teddy Bridgewater was an efficient 25 of 35 for 316 yards and two touchdowns.

Six players had at least a half sack for Minnesota, led by Griffen’s 1-1/2. Rookie linebacker Eric Kendricks had two sacks and three tackles for loss, and second-year linebacker Anthony Barr had a half sack and two quarterback hits. But coach Mike Zimmer downplayed the impressive performance of the young linebackers.

“It’s pretty easy when you don’t go blocked,” Zimmer said.

And there is the sad truth about Sunday’s game. The Lions, as was the case the first three games, again let far too many rushers go unabated to the quarterback, and for the second time this year, Stafford needed a medical examination after playing the Vikings.

The Lions knew the Vikings would disguise blitzes, as they said all week and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle said after the game. But executing in a game situation is always tougher than making the right moves in practice.

The Lions had some bright spots defensively — defensive linemen Ezekiel Ansah and Caraun Reid among them — but the Vikings’ 425 yards were just another sign that this unit isn’t anywhere close to last year’s imposing defense.

It looked so good for the Lions at the beginning of the game. Stafford started the game 6-for-6 for 119 yards with two touchdowns on the first two drives as the Lions opened a 14-3 lead. The team averaged 8.2 yards on its first five carries, too.

But after the first 14 minutes, the Lions offense couldn’t find its rhythm again, and the defense was consistently plagued by inconsistency, as has been the case for most of the season.

After Matt Prater’s 52-yard field goal gave the Lions a 17-6 lead with 5:03 left in the second quarter, the Vikings scored 19 unanswered points.

Down 25-17, the Lions finally drove into Minnesota territory late in the fourth quarter, but after reaching the 1, two failed runs — one by George Winn, one by Michael Burton — and an incomplete pass resulted in a turnover on downs.

Minnesota briefly ended the Lions misery as they gave the Lions a safety instead of punting, making it 28-19 with 59 seconds remaining. But down two possessions, the Lions didn't care about the free points. They will travel to London still at the bottom of the NFL standings.

“We’re 1-6; there’s no other way to shave it,” Lions safety James Ihedigbo said. “The reality is winning and losing. That’s what we need to do. The reality is winning. We’re just not getting that done."