Detroit — The defense forced four turnovers and rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay emphatically announced his arrival with a pair of touchdown receptions as the Detroit Lions overcame a sluggish start Sunday to beat the Arizona Cardinals in the season opener, 35-23.
The Lions’ much-maligned defense, which struggled to stop opponents much of last season, made life rough on the Cardinals, coming up with big plays all afternoon, including back-to-back stops in the red zone after a pair of special teams blunders.
And even though the offense sputtered much of the first half, they got it together in time to surge past Arizona for an all-too-familiar fourth-quarter comeback.
The game was a defensive struggle throughout the opening half.
The Cardinals took the ball to open the contest, but the drive lasted just six plays when Lions safety Tavon Wilson intercepted an overthrown pass by Carson Palmer, intended for running back David Johnson.
BOX SCORE: Lions 35, Cardinals 23
But instead of capitalizing on the mistake, the Lions did the opposite. On quarterback Matthew Stafford’s first throw, Cardinals cornerback Justin Bethel snagged the pick and returned it 82 yards, putting his team up, 7-0.
The throw had been intended for Golden Tate, but the receiver was knocked off his route by a nasty jam by former Lions linebacker Josh Bynes, resulting in the easy turnover.
“Unfortunate,” Stafford said. “I wish I had seen it a little bit better and maybe pulled it back. Anything is better than that.”
The teams briefly traded punts, but as the Lions lined up to boot it out of their own end zone, punter Kasey Redfern dropped the snap and was forced to scramble. Stopped short of the sticks, the error gave the Cardinals the ball at the 13.
Worse yet, Redfern was knocked from the game, forcing kicker Matt Prater to handle punt duties for the rest of the game, the first time he’s done so during his professional career.
Despite the precarious situation, the defense stepped up, stuffing back-to-back Johnson runs before nickelback Quandre Diggs broke up a pass just short of the goal line intended for Larry Fitzgerald.
The effort appeared to be wasted when defensive end Anthony Zettel was flagged for leaping on the field-goal attempt, giving the Cardinals a fresh set of downs, but the defense held firm a second time, forcing the Cardinals to settle for a chip-shot field goal and a 10-point lead.
“Typically, in a game like that you end up being 21-0 or 28-0 very easily,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “What our defense did, the way they hung in there, they did not flinch. They did a great job I think of holding them, making them work for every inch.”
The Lions defense would come through again in the second quarter when safety Glover Quin intercepted another Palmer overthrow. After a 25-yard return set the Lions up inside Arizona territory, Stafford steered the offense 42 yards in 11 plays, finding Marvin Jones in the end zone on a broken play for a six-yard score.
The Lions missed the extra point, but were able to cut the lead to one at the half as Prater knocked down a 58-yard field goal as time expired.
In addition to the two interceptions, the Lions limited the Cardinals offense to 118 yards in the first half, but they got on track in the third quarter, driving 94 yards for a touchdown with their first possession.
The Lions offense responded by stalling out again as the game looked to be slipping away, before the defense delivered yet another game-altering turnover. Defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson stripped Johnson from behind on a carry and rookie linebacker Jarrad Davis recovered, setting the Lions up with a short field.
Two plays later, Stafford connected with Theo Riddick from seven yards out for a touchdown, but a failed two-point conversion left the Lions down two.
The defense got the ball back in short order, thanks to a third-down sack by Zettel, and the offense was able to sustain its momentum, thanks in large part to receiver TJ Jones, who made a pair of difficult grabs, including a third-down conversion on a ball behind him. That set up a 10-yard touchdown pass to rookie Golladay to give Detroit its first lead of the day, 21-17.
After forcing yet another punt, Stafford looked to Golladay again, heaving a bomb out of play-action. The rookie did the rest, making an impressive diving grab to put the Lions up 11.
“Matt just gave me a shot and just let my skills do the rest,” Golladay said. “Just left my feet, used all hands and just made a nice catch.”
Stafford finished his day 29-for-41 for 292 yards, four touchdowns and the one interception. Golladay had four grabs for 69 yards and Golden Tate paced the receivers with 10 catches for 107 yards.
Appropriately, it was the defense that put an exclamation point on the victory. Miles Killebrew capped the four-turnover day, intercepting a ball that deflected off the hands of running back Andre Ellington’s hands and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown.
“Getting four of them in critical moments as well, and to be able to get the big one in the end to seal it with the pick-six, Miles coming in, that’s just huge for us,” Quin said.
The Cardinals added a meaningless score late in the closing minutes.