Lions rally to exhibition victory over Steelers

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions rookie running back Dwayne Washington celebrates in the end zone his  96-yard kick return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter.

Pittsburgh — Matthew Stafford wasn’t in the game for long, but the Detroit Lions starting quarterback will still probably be sore the morning after the team’s 30-17 exhibition-opening victory Friday over the Pittsburgh Steelers at Heinz Field.

Playing just the first series, Stafford absorbed three hits behind the line of scrimmage, including a turnover-generating sack. He also scrambled twice, diving head first on one of the runs.  

Detroit’s new-look offensive line, with first-round draft pick Taylor Decker manning the blindside, was prone to many of the mistakes that have plagued the unit in recent years. Run lanes were often clogged, free rushers charged up the gut and penalties helped kill drives.

BOX SCORE: Lions 30, Steelers 17

Decker’s debut certainly didn’t go as planned. As the Lions marched into the red zone on Stafford’s lone drive, the rookie left tackle was flagged for holding on what would have been a first down scramble by the quarterback. On the next snap, Decker was badly beaten by 38-year-old linebacker James Harrison, who forced a fumble that was recovered by the Steelers. 

Stafford’s two other hits were the result of blitzers coming unblocked through the middle of the line. On the second play, Stafford stood tall in the pocket, delivering his best pass of the day, connecting with Marvin Jones for a 16-yard gain. 

Stafford finished his night 4-6 for 58 yards and the fumble. 

“Obviously, we had a couple mistakes here and there, weren’t perfect by any means,” Stafford said in a halftime interview with Fox 2. “We’ve got to score when we get down into the red zone, but overall it’s preseason one. It’s a step in the right direction. We’re going to have a lot of tape to look at and learn from.”

That drive was actually the end of the day for the majority of Detroit’s first-team offense. Just Decker, center Travis Swanson and guards Larry Warford and Laken Tomlinson remained in the game for the second series.

Most of the first-team defense, at least the portions coach Jim Caldwell allowed to see the field, played three series, forcing the Steelers to go thee-and-out each of the drives. Defensive end Ziggy Ansah, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and cornerback Darius Slay did not play, despite dressing for the contest.

The Steelers’ offensive line was the main reason for the team’s early issues, negating a first down with an illegal hands to the face infraction on the game’s opening possession, then allowing quarterback Landry Jones to get sacked by Devin Taylor for a nine-yard loss on the first play of the second series.

Lions’ Rudock making his case to be a keeper

The game remained scoreless through the opening quarter, before Lions backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky put the Steelers on the board with a poor decision early in the second frame. 

Facing heavy pressure in the pocket, he broke free and tried to throw it away out of bounds. But the pass didn’t have enough air under it and was intercepted by Doran Grant, who returned it 39 yards for a touchdown. 

Orlovsky responded to his mistake by leading the Lions on a 13-play, 74-yard scoring drive, ending with a 29-yard Matt Prater field goal. Running backs Zach Zenner and George Winn combined for three first-down receptions on the drive. 

Partially aided by sloppy tackling and defensive breakdown, the teams would trade touchdowns on the next two possessions. The Steelers extended their advantage on a perfectly placed pass from Jones to wideout Darius Heyward-Bey in the back corner of the end zone. Lions cornerback Crezdon Butler had good coverage on the 29-yard scoring strike, but failed to get his head around and locate the ball. 

Detroit countered with an 81-yard touchdown drive highlighted by a pair of long receptions for Andre Roberts, who dove just across the goal line for a 28-yard catch-and-run touchdown, cutting the Pittsburgh lead, 14-10. 

The Lions managed to slice the Steelers’ edge to one before the half, taking advantage of a turnover. Cornerback Johnson Bademosi forced receiver Sammy Coates to fumble and the loose ball was scooped up by defensive end Kerry Hyder.

Seven plays later, Prater knocked home his second field goal of the contest, from 31 yards out.

The teams’ third-string offenses traded punts, then field goals, before rookie running back Dwayne Washington put the Lions up for good early in the fourth quarter. 

Fielding his first kickoff the of the contest, Washington burst through a hole that opened the right side, juked past the kicker and turned on the jets, taking it the house for a 96-yard touchdown. 

Quarterback Jake Rudock connected with Quinshad Davis on the two-point conversion to put the Lions up, 24-17. 

Rudock salted the game away with an 11-play, 72-yard touchdown drive. He found fellow rookie Jace Billingsley open with a short pass on third-and-9 from the 27-yard line and the receiver did the rest, weaving through would-be-tacklers for the score. 

Rudock finished his debut performance completing eight of his 11 throws for 72 yards and the touchdown to Billingsley.