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Lions' defense picks apart Saints in 4th straight win

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
The Lions' Glover Quin celebrates with Kerry Hyder after Quin's interception in the third quarter.

New Orleans — In a season defined by its steady stream of heart-stopping drama, the Detroit Lions finally delivered a dominant performance, dismantling the Saints on Sunday, 28-13.

The Lions’ offense did what was expected of them, moving the ball effectively against one of the worst defenses in the league. And the special teams, which has been a strength all season, stayed true to form in the victory. But it was the Herculean effort of the defense that defined the day for the surging Lions, who won their fourth straight and moved to 8-4 on the season, inching the team closer to the team’s first division title in 23 years.

BOX SCORE: Lions 28, Saints 13

The Saints offense came into the day rolling. They ranked second in the NFL, averaging better than 30 points and hung 49 on the Los Angeles Rams, an above-average group, last week. And while the Lions defense had been playing better the past month, many felt this game could show that improvement to be a mirage. Plus, the unit was missing its leading tackler, Tahir Whitehead, who was sidelined with a knee injury.

But when the clock reached all zeros, the Saints had scored a season-low 13 points as rookie safety Miles Killebrew celebrated a game-ending interception in the end zone, the third time the Lions picked off quarterback Drew Brees on the afternoon.

“Our defensive coaches did a great job in terms of preparation,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “We had a lot of young guys playing, young guys playing a little bit more than they’ve been playing previously, but they stayed in there, they found, they played together. It was a great defensive effort.”

The defense was strong from start to finish, forcing punts on the first three possessions as the Lions jumped out to a 10-0 lead.

After the Saints went three-and-out to open the day, when an errant snap escaped the grasp of Brees, quarterback Matthew Stafford steered the Lions into the red zone where the team settled for a 27-yard field goal from Matt Prater.

Detroit started its second possession at its own 7-yard line, but Stafford carved up the porous secondary, going 8-for-8 for 85 yards on the drive. He zipped a laser into the chest of tight end Eric Ebron to convert a third-and-11, found wide receiver Golden Tate for 37 yards deep down the sideline, and capped the series with a one-yard touchdown throw to running back Theo Riddick, putting the Lions up, 10-0.

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Stafford finished the game 30-for-42 for 341 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. Including the eight passes on that touchdown drive, he would complete a franchise record 13 consecutive throws in the first half.

The teams would trade punts before the Saints finally got on the board.

Sparked by a 24-yard punt return that put them into Lions territory, the Saints worked into the red zone behind a 21-yard run by running back Mark Ingram. But the Lions defense held, forcing a 40-yard Will Lutz field goal that cut the lead, 10-3.

The teams each added a field goal before the half after the Lions stalled in the red zone and settled for a Prater chip shot from 29 yards.

Getting the ball with under a minute remaining the first half, Brees got the Saints into field-goal range after connecting with Brandin Cooks on a 39-yard bomb down the middle. The team had an opportunity to put seven on the board, but tight end Coby Fleener couldn’t hang on to a pass in the end zone with five seconds remaining, leading to a 32-yard field goal from Lutz.

Justin Rogers' Lions grades: Secondary outstanding

The Lions offense and defense stayed hot to start the second half, although the team’s red zone issues continued to persist. The Lions added field goals on their first two possessions, from 32 and 27 yards and extending their lead, 19-6, by the end of the third quarter.

Sandwiched between those scoring drives, Lions safety Glover Quin picked off Brees, the quarterback’s first of three turnovers.

Brees would bring the Saints within one score early in the fourth quarter, 19-13, competing all five of his throws for 72 yards on a 75-yard touchdown drive that was capped by fullback John Kuhn leaping in from a yard out.

But once again the Lions responded. On third-and-10, Stafford found Tate behind the defense and the receiver did the rest, racing 66 yards into the end zone. A failed two-point conversion left the Lions up, 25-13.

“It was just a great call our coaches made and drew it up just this week,” Tate said. “It was a play we hadn’t called the entire year. It was perfect timing and Matt took a pretty good hit on the throw, but his throw gave me a chance to get underneath it and catch the ball. I caught it and was off to the races.”

Tate led the Lions with eight catches for 145 yards and the touchdown.

The Lions would tack on another field goal from Prater, from 52 yards out, for the final margin.

jdrogers@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @justin_rogers