The Lions started slow, finished with a flurry and head to New York 1-0 on the season.
Allen Park — Bob Quinn sure knows how to pick them.
For the second consecutive year, the Lions general manager has loaded the coaching staff’s cupboards with rookies prepared to make immediate contributions.
Look at the impact first-year players had in Sunday’s season-opening victory:
■ Wide receiver Kenny Golladay hauled in a pair of touchdown passes, including the go-ahead score.
■ Linebacker Jarrad Davis played all 75 defensive snaps, recording a team-high nine tackles.
■ Cornerback Jamal Agnew provided a much-needed spark as a punt returner, averaging 16 yards with three attempts.
■ And a sixth-round draft pick and two undrafted free agents rounded out a defensive line rotation that hit Arizona Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer seven times.
“Yeah, I think it’s kind of been the last couple years we’ve had quite a few young guys playing for us early,” coach Jim Caldwell said. “I think it helps us, without question, because they make plays for us.”
Without the contributions of the rookies on Sunday, it could easily be argued the Lions don’t emerge victorious in the opener. And what really put the team over the top was Quinn’s rapidly developing first draft class.
Defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, a second-round pick a year ago, had a strong outing, delivering three tackles and a hit on Palmer. But it was his forced fumble that changed the game’s tide late in the third quarter.
Cardinals All-Pro running back David Johnson had bounced around the left edge of the Lions’ defense, but Robinson didn’t give up on the play, leaping over a downed blocker, he chased Johnson down from behind. Leaping on the ball carrier’s back, the ball was jarred free and recovered by Davis, giving the offense possession at the 10-yard line.
Two plays later, the Lions were in the end zone and the comeback was on.
Defensive end Anthony Zettel, a sixth-round choice in 2016, had something of a coming out party in the victory. The second-year man out of Penn State netted the team’s only sack, pressured Palmer on four other snaps, had another tackle for a loss and broke up a throw intended for future Hall of Fame receiver Larry Fitzgerald.
With Kerry Hyder, the team’s 2016 sack leader, going down with a season-ending injury in the first preseason game, the Lions had said they need someone to step up and fill the void. Asked if he felt he could match Hyder’s breakout season from a year ago, Zettel is only worried about matching his downed teammates' intensity.
“I’m not trying to compare stats or anything with Kerry,” Zettel said. “I just want to compare effort. If I can compete with his effort, good things will occur.”
As for Killebrew, he continues to come up with big plays at important moments. Building on the reputation as a third-down stopper he developed in the second half of his rookie season last year, the sophomore safety made one of the most critical plays in the first half against the Cardinals.
Looking to jump out to a 14-point lead in the first quarter after a Detroit turnover, Arizona had a third-and-goal from the 2-yard line. Palmer swung a delayed screen out to tight end Jermaine Gresham, but Killebrew sliced through the blocking and grabbed ahold of Gresham’s ankle, dropping him four yards behind the line and forcing Arizona to settle for a field goal.
And it was Killebrew who put the game on ice in the fourth quarter, when he intercepted a deflected pass and returned it 35 yards for a touchdown, putting the Lions up 35-17 with a little more than 14 minutes to go.
“I trust the scheme and this is my second year in the system, so I can see how it's all coming together and it's exciting to watch,” Killebrew said. “It's exciting to be a part of.”
Killebrew isn’t just part of a potential-laden defense starting to gel, he’s a key cog in the foundation Bob Quinn is building through the draft. That’s a group that still has more to offer once offensive tackle Taylor Decker is healthy and cornerback Teez Tabor is ready to contribute.
“Our front office has done a great job,” Caldwell said. “They do a fine job of identifying the talent, a fine job of blending (talent and need), and coaches are involved with that as well. But I think the relationship is really, really it’s productive and it always helps when you got young guys that can come in and contribute as much as we’ve had here in the last couple years.”