Lions 'stay mentally tough,' overcome mistakes to take down Chargers
Detroit — Sometimes, probably more often than not, September football is ugly.
There are more execution errors, coaching blunders and what feels like loads more penalties. Whether it's the offseason practice time restrictions, an increasing reliance on younger players or different factors, it takes a little longer to shake off the rust and build back up a fundamental base.
And through it all, you still have to find a way to win. Because in the NFL, there are only 16 games and each one is critically important.
On Sunday, the Lions found a way. Despite an ugly, mistake-filled performance, the team managed to stage a fourth-quarter rally and squeak by the Los Angeles Chargers, 13-10, at Ford Field.
"I think if you look at the NFL, in general, there's a lot of bad football in September," Lions coach Matt Patricia said. "I think there's a lot of mistakes, a lot of penalties, a lot of things in there that need to be cleaned up. ...The hardest part of all that is understanding we have to overcome some things that happen here in the game and we're just going to have to stay mentally tough through all of it."
The Lions missed a field goal and an extra point. Return man Jamal Agnew was benched in the first half after a handful of ineffective efforts and another lapse with his ball security. The team committed eight penalties and quarterback Matthew Stafford threw two second-half interceptions. Yet none of that was enough to keep the Lions from prevailing.
It was almost a must-win for the Lions, following a season-opening tie against Arizona a week ago and a brutal three-game stretch against the Eagles, Chiefs and Packers on the horizon.
A 31-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to Kenny Golladay with 7:28 remaining in the fourth quarter proved to be the difference.
Working out wide to the right side, Golladay ran a skinny post, beating the tight coverage of Pro Bowl cornerback Casey Hayward. It proved to be sweet revenge for the receiver after Hayward had picked off a pass in the end zone intended for Golladay in the third quarter.
"We put a little bit of a double-post concept against a single, high safety," Stafford said. "The safety took the inside one and Kenny did a good enough job using his big body to wall the corner off and I tried to shoot one in there and I think it ended up in a good spot."
Golladay's touchdown was set up by a critical fourth-down conversion a play earlier. Facing fourth-and-1 from the Chargers' 35, Patricia made the decision to go for it.
It was unclear, in the moment, whether the Lions intended to go for it or simply attempt to draw the Chargers offside as Stafford ran the play clock down to one before snapping the ball and firing a tight-window bullet to Marvin Jones for four yards for the conversion.
"That was a laser," Patricia said. "I didn't know if Marvin caught it or it just stuck into his chest."
The Chargers worked into Lions territory with a chance to tie the game or regain the lead in the closing minutes, but cornerback Darius Slay, living up to his nickname Big Play, intercepted a Philip Rivers pass intended for Keenan Allen in the end zone with a minute remaining.
"That's very frustrating," Allen said. "I feel like I was putting on a clinic and then to come down to the last play and he makes a play. All that, in my mind, goes out the window. I got to hold the `L' on the chin and go home with it. Hats off to him. Respect."
Allen caught eight passes for 98 yards prior to the interception, doing much of the damage against Slay. The veteran receiver also drew a pair of penalties, including a pass interference against Slay in the end zone.
Prior to the late-game flurry, the Lions had their fair share of struggles putting points on the board.
Stafford was picked twice in the second half, first on the end zone shot to Golladay and on a second deep throw to Jones, where the quarterback ignored the deep help provided by Rayshawn Jenkins, who easily snagged the pick.
"I'm mad at myself for that second one, just too aggressive," Stafford said. "Not horribly mad at myself for the first one — would have liked to maybe given (Golladay) a better ball to have a better chance.
"But I have to keep playing," Stafford continued. "I'm doing this team a disservice if I shut down after two picks or two bad plays. I've got to move on to the next one."
Kicker Matt Prater also robbed the Lions of four points, missing an extra point early in the game and a 40-yard field-goal attempt in the second quarter.
"I just had an off day and I didn’t hit it as cleanly as I would have liked to," Prater said. "Obviously, if they don’t go between the posts, it’s not good. They sent me out there to make the kicks, not miss them."
The Chargers opened the scoring by driving 68 yards on nine plays with their second possession of the game. A 35-yard pass to running back Austin Ekeler was the big play that set up his 1-yard leaping touchdown.
The Lions quickly countered with a 36-yard screen pass to Kerryon Johnson. The play design saw receiver Danny Amendola motion through the backfield heading left, setting up the screen to Johnson on the right.
Johnson bobbled the throw before securing it. That provided center Frank Ragnow enough time to get out ahead of the play and deliver the clearing block to spring Johnson for the score.
"It ended up happening just like what I was thinking," Johnson said. "So, any time you get a screen you know that, ‘Hey, this could be a big play.'"
The Chargers managed to extend their lead in the closing seconds of the half, moving the ball 64 yards in the final 28 seconds to set up a 39-yard field goal as time expired. But Detroit's defense held tough, shutting out the Chargers in the second half.
Rookie linebacker Jahlani Tavai had one of the game's biggest plays, jarring a ball free from Ekeler's grasp as the back attempted to leap into the end zone for a second score on the Chargers' first possession in the third quarter.
Stafford was 22-of-30 passing for 245 yards, while Johnson carried 12 times for 41 yards and Golladay had eight catches for 117 yards.
Rivers completed 21-of-36 passes for 293 yards, no touchdowns and the critical interception by Slay. Ekeler had 17 rushes for 66 yards and the one score.