Gurley, Rams plow over sloppy Lions

Josh Katzenstein
The Detroit News
Todd Gurley dives for the pylon in front of the Lions' Josh Bynes for a touchdown in the third quarter.

St. Louis — In finishing 11-5 and advancing to the postseason last year, the Lions excelled at stopping the run and avoiding costly turnovers.

The Lions struggled with both issues in the first half of 2015, and even though they showed improved in those areas the past month, perhaps it was fitting that those problems — along with poor pass protection — ended their infinitesimal playoff chances Sunday at the Edward Jones Dome.

In a 21-14 loss to the Rams (5-8) that eliminated them from postseason contention, the Lions (4-9) gave up 203 rushing yards, including 140 yards and two touchdowns to impressive Rams rookie Todd Gurley.

Meanwhile, the Lions had just one turnover, but it was a costly one as cornerback Trumaine Johnson returned a Matthew Stafford interception — the quarterback’s first since Week 10 — for a touchdown.

And Detroit’s offensive line had no answer for defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who had three of St. Louis’ four sacks and six total quarterback hits.

“He was an issue,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said of Donald, who now has 11 sacks this year and went three picks after Detroit selected slow-developing tight end Eric Ebron.

BOX SCORE: Rams 21, Lions 14

Now, the Lions will play three games that are meaningless in the 2015 standings, but as wide receiver Calvin Johnson said, present an opportunity for each player to build his resume.

“It’s difficult, but at the same time, we’ve got three more games to play,” Stafford said. “And I love playing football, I love playing here and no matter what’s on the line, I’m going to give it everything I’ve got.”

Stafford finished with an inefficient stat line of 30 of 46 for 245 yards with two touchdowns and the pick, but he was better in the second half when the Lions tried to come back from a 21-7 deficit.

A major problem in the game was Stafford connecting with Johnson just one time. Johnson was about 2 minutes and 25 seconds from finishing a game without a catch for the first time in his career (132 games).

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Meanwhile, as the Lions struggled to utilize their best player, they let the Rams’ stars control the game. Gurley, Donald and Rams punter Johnny Hekker — who consistently put the Lions in bad field position, appeared to be the best players on the field — and the Lions didn’t have any players step up to overcome the issue.

The Lions held teams to fewer than 70 rushing yards each of the past four games, but Gurley ran for 127 yards on nine second-half carries, including a 49-yarder and a 25-yarder — the two longest plays of the game.

“What we didn’t anticipate was them being able to run the ball as consistently well as they did against us,” Caldwell said.

The Lions had a chance to tie the game on a late drive after recovering a bouncing onside kick by punter Sam Martin with 2:03 left. But on the fourth play of the drive, a fourth-and-3, an early snap by center Travis Swanson led to a fumble, and Stafford threw the ball incomplete.

Gurley and the Rams ran out the remaining 100 seconds.

After a mostly ugly first 25 minutes, the Rams started the scoring with Trumaine Johnson’s interception return. He appeared to read Johnson’s route and Matthew Stafford’s eyes perfectly, jumping in front of Johnson for the pick before returning it 58 yards for the score to give St. Louis a 7-0 lead with 4:55 left in the first quarter.

The Lions responded with what looked to be a promising drive before a questionable penalty derailed it. After the Lions entered St. Louis territory for the first time, Golden Tate had a long catch and run that seemingly moved them to the St. Louis 8, but a phantom chop block on running back Theo Riddick erased the big play and sent the Lions 15 yards backward.

With their best drive of the first half ending with such a long down and distance, the Lions failed to score before the break and trailed by the touchdown.

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The Lions finally added some points on their second drive of the third quarter on a possession that featured big plays from Tate and running back Joique Bell. Eventually, Tate scored on a 9-yard reception with 7:35 left in the quarter.

But, the Rams quickly answered on the next drive with Gurley’s 49-yard run moving them to the Detroit 6. Two plays later, Gurley punched in a 5-yard touchdown — leaping over safety Glover Quin — to give St. Louis a 14-7 lead with 3:57 left in the third quarter.

After another stalled Lions drive, it looked like the Rams added to their lead on an 83-yard punt return by wide receiver Tavon Austin, but a holding call against St. Louis nullified the score.

Unfortunately for the Lions, the Rams scored anyway as Gurley kept running well, capping the drive with a 15-yard touchdown run with a little more than 12 minutes left.

The Lions added another score two drives later, a 2-yard catch by Tate, but couldn’t complete the comeback.

Even though the Lions are officially eliminated from the playoffs, Caldwell said he expects his guys to have no problem remaining focused, and the players said the standings won’t change their approach.

“It is tough, but we still have a job to do,” Swanson said. “We’ll come to work like I know that all of us will, and we’ll get better.”