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Rogers: Timeout got the attention, but Lions had bigger problems in opener

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Here are four observations after having a night to ponder the Detroit Lions' 27-27 tie with the Arizona Cardinals.

First down

OK, let’s talk about the timeout heard round the NFL.

With just under three minutes remaining, and the Arizona Cardinals out of timeouts, the Lions had a chance to ice the game by converting a third-and-5 near midfield. The play call appeared to be perfect, a play-action dump-off to running back J.D. McKissic in the flat. But as he corralled the ball ahead of the defender, with plenty of green ahead, officials frantically blew their whistles, announcing the Lions had called a timeout before the snap.

Lions head coach Matt Patricia, defensive coordinator Pasqualoni and defensive line Bo Davis on the sidelines in the first quarter.

It’s the type of moment that becomes part of Lions’ lore, a blunder that seemingly only happens to this downtrodden franchise. But it’s worth seeing the moment through the eyes of the coaching staff.

Matt Patricia acknowledged his concern the play clock would expire before quarterback Matthew Stafford got the snap off, and with good reason. The Lions broke their huddle with a dozen seconds to go, but there was confusion at multiple spots as the team came to the line. The three wide receivers on the outside struggled with their alignment, mirroring some of the chaos at the line of scrimmage, as the offensive line sought to reaffirm their blocking assignments.

After the timeout, and the subsequent failure to convert the third down on the ensuing attempt, Stafford was furious and could be seen on the broadcast shouting, “Trust me!” It’s the type of passion fans have been clamoring for from the franchise quarterback. But even with all of his experience in these critical, end-of-game situations, the disorder elsewhere on the field, paired with the fact this was the first regular-season game running a new offensive scheme, the timeout call wasn’t the wrong decision, despite what hindsight suggests.

And much like the playoff loss to Dallas a few years ago, it can become easy to fixate on the moment, just like the penalty flag that was picked up in that contest. But the failure to properly execute a punt, in both games, or the defense’s inability to get a final stop compounded by penalties, those were the bigger issues.

Second down 

You cannot overreact to one game, but the Lions’ punt return game was a mess, in large part to former All-Pro Jamal Agnew. He’s never been the most ball-secure return man, and his muff at the end of the first half allowed the Cardinals to score their first points of the contest.

“That’s just poor eye discipline by me,” Agnew said. “You have to make sure you secure the ball first, before you try to run around.”

Agnew also went backward on another punt and was unable to shake the coverage, getting dropped for a 3-yard loss. It’s fair to note he missed extensive time last season with a knee injury, but he said he doesn’t feel rusty in the role.

“No, I’ve just got to concentrate better, and make sure I’m securing the ball first,” Agnew said.

Again, you don’t want to get in the habit of making snap judgments on one bad game, but, at the very least, the leash should significantly shorten after this outing, especially since the Lions have a number of viable return options on the roster.

If business doesn’t pick up quickly for Agnew, Danny Amendola can handle punts, while Ty Johnson and McKissic would both be solid choices on kickoffs.

Third down 

What was Stafford thinking at the end of the game? Obviously, no professional athlete wants to play for the tie, but what miracle did the veteran quarterback think he was going to pull off with 11 seconds remaining in overtime and the Lions buried way back at their own 15-yard line?

We’ve seen Stafford pull off some improbable late-game heroics, but it wasn’t going to happen here, at least not with the depth of that throw.

Lions quarter Matthew Stafford yells out to teammates  in the fourth quarter.

Stafford made a rookie mistake and got away with it, putting a pass directly into the chest of Cardinals cornerback Tramaine Brock near the 30-yard line. Had the defender made the play, the Cardinals were looking at a 40-45-yard field goal for the win. And if that happens, the story on Monday is somehow worse than it already is, having blown an 18-point lead on the way to a tie.

Fourth down 

Officiating is a difficult and thankless job, but it’s worth highlighting what was a well-called game by Scott Novak’s crew, in his first game as a head official.

Too often in the NFL, officials ruin the flow of a game by throwing too many flags. And while this contest wasn’t without its infractions, Novak and company really let the Lions and Cardinals play, especially in the secondary, where good, physical play by both teams wasn’t punished with yellow laundry.

Despite some tight coverage and contact downfield, there wasn’t a single pass interference call in the game, and only one defensive holding, which was declined. Take note, NFL, this is a more enjoyable product.