Lions 'try everything' to slow powerful Rams, still lose

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News
Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford is sacked by the Rams' Cory Littleton, with Rams defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh finishing it up, in the first quarter.

Detroit — The anticipated blowout never materialized. The Detroit Lions emptied out their bag of tricks, got big play after big play out of the defense, but still fell short against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, 30-16, at Ford Field.

The defense did its job, at least through three-and-a-half quarters, limiting the high-octane Rams offense to a single touchdown, while forcing a pair of turnovers. But the injury-riddled offense was unable to come through down the stretch as the Super Bowl contender pulled away late.

"They’re outstanding in special teams, they’re great on defense, they’re great on offense," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "I think everybody understood that we were trying to do everything we could to keep it tight and control it the best we could, and in the end we (couldn't) finish it off there."

BOX SCORE: Rams 30, Lions 16

The Rams (11-1) jumped out to a 13-3 lead at the half, opening the scoring with a 24-yard field goal after a 10-play, 74-yard drive on their second possession.

The Lions (4-8) countered with a field goal of their own. A 24-yard, play-action pass to Kenny Golladay, followed by a pair of first-down grabs by Bruce Ellington got the Lions into the red zone. But on third-and-2 from the Rams 7, Ellington was stopped short on a shovel pass by defensive end Dante Fowler Jr.

Fowler's big hit caught Ellington high, arguably meriting a flag, but according to quarterback Matthew Stafford, he was told the official's view of the play was obstructed. 

"He was blocked from seeing it a little bit from me because I was kind of right in line with him," Stafford said.

Matt Prater’s 28-yard field goal knotted the score at 3 with 12:24 left in the second quarter.

Lions safety Quandre Diggs intercepted Rams quarterback Jared Goff on the ensuing drive, but the Lions quickly punted the ball back after going three-and-out.

Taking advantage of a pair of first downs via penalty, Los Angeles worked inside Detroit’s 10. Facing third-and-7 from the 8, Goff connected with Robert Woods on a crossing route for the go-ahead score.

The Rams added a 47-yard Greg Zuerlein field goal in the closing minute of the half to take the 13-3 lead into the locker room.

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But the Lions battled back in the third quarter.

After punting to start the second half, defensive tackle Damon Harrison got the ball back for the Lions, stripping Goff and recovering the loose ball near midfield.

A 15-yard pass to Golladay, a 22-yard hookup between Stafford and tight end Levine Toilolo, and a horse-collar tackle on Zach Zenner, committed by former Lion Ndamukong Suh, set the Lions up with first-and-goal from the 4.

But from there they went backward. LeGarrette Blount lost five yards on first down, Theo Riddick dropped a pass near the goal line after Aaron Donald hit Stafford on the throw, and TJ Jones was flagged for offensive pass interference on third down, negating what would have been a 9-yard touchdown grab.

Instead, Prater knocked home the 29-yard chip shot to get the Lions back within a touchdown, 13-6, with 7:56 left in the third quarter.

It was part of a frustrating day in the red zone, where the Lions managed just one touchdown on five trips inside the 20. 

"Proud of our guys for fighting there, but just got to be a little bit more consistent down there and avoid some negatives," Stafford said. "I got to do a better job of making sure we stay on track."

The Lions attempted to catch the opposition by surprise on the ensuing kickoff, but Sam Martin’s dribbler didn’t go the necessary 10 yards, setting Los Angeles up in Detroit territory.

"I’ve got to hit that kick," Martin said. "No matter how hard or easy it is, it’s a kick I work on. It’s a kick I’ve got to do and you know, I just fell on the tee there and it didn’t go as far, as deep as I’d liked it to."

The defense managed to limit the damage to a field goal, which pushed the Rams’ lead back to 10 with 5:46 remaining in the third.

Operating short-handed, with wide receiver Marvin Jones landing on injured reserve earlier in the week and running back Kerryon Johnson still out of action with a knee injury, offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter reached for some previously unseen pages in the playbook.

Stafford found Toilolo, typically a blocking specialist, for 29 yards down the seam. The team then attempted a double pass with Ellington, but the initial backward throw from Stafford to the receiver skipped across the ground, ultimately resulting in the play's failure.

But that didn’t dry up the river of creative juices. On first-and-10 from the 11, the Lions caught the Rams off-guard with a pass to left tackle Taylor Decker, resulting in an 11-yard score with 3:08 remaining in the third.

"I think we did a couple things here today that we made some decisions on to try to be aggressive, which I think is how you beat those teams that are really good," Patricia said. "We had the surprise onside, we had the double pass, the pass back to the tackle. So, look, we’re out there trying. We’re doing everything we can to try to win"

The teams traded punts the next three possessions before Donald took over. The NFL’s likely defensive MVP burst through a double-team block and swallowed up Stafford in the backfield, jarring the ball loose in the process.

Linebacker Samson Ebukam recovered the fumble at Detroit's 24 and three plays later Todd Gurley burst through a big hole on the right side of his line for a 13-yard touchdown, putting the Rams back up 10, 23-13, with 6:53 to play.

"He’s forcing turnovers, he’s getting there at the most important times," Rams coach Sean McVay said of Donald. "And that’s what we talk about all the time, that competitive greatness. Being your best when your best is required. He’s kind of the epitome of that right now for our defense, and really, a guy that represents that for a football team."

The Lions got it back within a score, thanks to a 48-yard pass interference penalty on a deep pass to Golladay, setting up a 35-yard Prater field goal with 2:57 remaining.

Down 23-16, the Lions attempted another onside kick, but it was recovered by Rams defensive back Blake Countess. Gurley put the game away with a 36-yard run, stopping short of the goal line to kill some clock before punching it in two plays later. 

The victory helped the Rams clinch the NFC West title. 

Donald lived up to his billing, finishing his day with two sacks, two tackles for loss and two additional hits on Stafford. Suh, in his return to Detroit, finished with six tackles and a quarterback hit. He was also flagged twice, including a roughing the passer call in the fourth quarter. 

Stafford struggled working with a depleted arsenal, completing 20-of-33 for 245 yards, a touchdown and an interception in the game's closing seconds. Toilolo led the Lions pass-catchers with a career-high 90 yards, while Blount paced the backfield with 61 yards on 16 carries.

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers