Detroit — The day started with laser lights, thunderous music and roars from the crowd. It ended in silence after Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford was intercepted by Tennessee Titans cornerback Perrish Cox.
The Lions proved incapable of overcoming heavy-handed officiating and a number of critical injuries in the 16-15 loss.
The injuries hit early and often. The Lions (1-1) lost Pro Bowl defensive end Ezekiel Ansah because of an ankle injury on the third play of the game. Then, in the second quarter, running back Ameer Abdullah hurt his foot during a 24-yard run and was unable to return to action.
But the biggest blow was absorbed by Detroit’s linebacking corps. The team opened the day with only four linebackers on the active roster after DeAndre Levy (quad) was ruled inactive before the game. His replacement, rookie Antwione Williams, suffered a thigh injury in the second quarter and strong-side starter Kyle Van Noy had to exit at the end of the third frame with a calf injury.
Neither Williams nor Van Noy returned to action, forcing Detroit to rely on a recent waiver claim, Thurston Armbrister, and a defensive end, Brandon Copeland, down the stretch.
After struggling to move the ball for the better part of three quarters, the Titans took advantage of the softened middle of the Lions defense late in the game. Quarterback Marcus Mariota connected on a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes. He threaded the game-winner to Andre Johnson between a pair of Lions defenders.
“It doesn’t matter who is in there,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “That’s what pro football is all about. You’re going to have some attrition sometimes.”
Linebacker Tahir Whitehead talks about Tennessee's go-ahead touchdown in the final minutes.
One week after rallying to beat the Indianapolis Colts, the Lions had an opportunity to pull out another come-from-behind victory in the closing minute. After floundering early in the series, Stafford kept the drive alive, connecting with tight end Eric Ebron for a 29-yard gain on third-and-18 — only to throw the interception three plays later.
“Guy made a good play,” Stafford said. “Obviously, hindsight is 20-20, I wish I wouldn’t have thrown it, but he was guarding somebody else and came off and made the play.”
Prior to the pick, Stafford delivered a gutty performance, overcoming a number of drops by his receivers and making multiple plays with his feet, including a 24-yard scramble on third-and-14 that helped set up a field goal in the third quarter.
Stafford also got out in front of Abdullah’s run, attempting to throw a block on the play where the back was injured.
And all that outnumbered the number of injured Lions players were the yellow penalty markers that littered the field. The flow of the game was disrupted by 29 penalties, including 17 against the Lions.
Caldwell said his players knew, coming into the game, this crew was aggressive and didn’t adjust.
“I just think, in certain situations, guys just have to be able to understand exactly what’s being called,” Caldwell said. “We’ve just got to do a better job. Seventeen penalties is ridiculous.
“That’s my job. I’ll get those guys straightened out in that area.”
Even with the penalties and injuries, Detroit controlled much of the game.
The Lions defense opened the scoring in the first quarter. After punter Sam Martin pinned the Titans deep in their own territory, defensive end Devin Taylor dropped running back DeMarco Murray in the end zone for a safety, giving the Lions an early 2-0 lead.
The team expanded the advantage to 9-0 later in the quarter when Stafford found veteran receiver Anquan Boldin.
The Lions’ lone touchdown came on the 24-yard strike after pressure forced the quarterback to roll from the pocket. Finding space to his left side, Stafford squared up and fired a bullet to the veteran receiver, who used his frame to box out the defender in the end zone.
That throw came on a second-and-20, after a holding call against Ebron negated a 14-yard touchdown run by Abdullah.
Detroit had two other touchdowns wiped out by penalties, on back-to-back plays in the second quarter.
On the first, tight end Eric Ebron was flagged for a questionable offensive pass interference, and on the ensuring snap, guard Laken Tomlinson’s hold negated what would have been a second touchdown to Boldin. After a third penalty, the Lions wound up settling for a 43-yard Matt Prater field goal.
“Obviously, any time that happens, that’s going to put you in a little bit different point differentials, going to make it a little bit more difficult for you,” Caldwell said. “Your opportunities are limited. You’ve got to take advantage of them. We had a 17-play drive, didn’t put it in the end zone.”
Caldwell wasted another Lions scoring opportunity earlier in the second quarter, opting to punt when faced with a fourth-and-3 at the Titans’ 39-yard line. Martin once again pinned the Titans deep, but Murray flipped the field on the next snap, breaking free for a 67-yard run.
The Lions offense went cold the rest of the game. They managed just three points with five second-half possessions, extending the advantage to 15-3 in the third quarter before Mariota and the Titans offense kicked into gear. Tennessee cut the led to five when Mariota found tight end Delanie Walker for a 30-yard score.
The winner to Johnson capped a 13-play, 83-yard drive. Mariota completed all nine of his passes for 74 yards.