The Detroit Lions opened the 2013 season victoriously. overcoming all sorts of adversity to hang a 34-24 win over their NFC North foes.
This was one of the most up-and-down, emotionally draining games I can recall watching. There are all sorts of positives and negatives to glean from this one.
In the preseason, we got a taste of what Reggie Bush could offer the Lions offense.
It tastes really good.
Bush tore apart the Vikings defense. His first carry of the season went 12 yards, which would have been one of the longest runs of the 2012 season in Detroit. Bush' first reception converted a third down that kept a drive alive.
His 77-yard touchdown sprint after a short catch is a dimension the Lions have not had since Billy Sims provided something of a dual threat form the backfield. Bush pulled off several other show-stopping moves and created yardage where none appeared to be had.
His final stats:
21 carries for 90 yards, 4 receptions for 101 yards and 1 touchdown
Those numbers are great, but beyond that, it's how much of a psychological impact he has on the game. Detroit hasn't had a runner since Barry Sanders who could make defenses worry about him on every single snap. That creates mental fatigue in the opponent beyond what it takes out of them chasing Bush all over the field.
Some things never change. The Coyote never gets the Road Runner. Dan Brown novels never end when they should. Lake Michigan is cold in November. The Lions commit way too many stupid and avoidable penalties.
The most notorious was Ndamukong Suh's illegal block that nullified a touchdown. I broke that incident down here. Yet, Suh was not alone.
Nick Fairley jumped offsides, while Larry Warford and Riley Reiff were flagged for false starts. Rocky McIntosh jumped offsides on a punt. Pre-snap penalties are the bane of every coach in existence, yet the Lions continue to accrue them like vultures on roadkill.
Louis Delmas drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for jawing at Jerome Simpson after a play on the sideline. The play was well over, and Delmas wasn't even directly involved in the play, but that didn't stop him from making the boneheaded gaffe.
Suh and Delmas are considered leaders on this team. It was widely celebrated this week that Suh was named a team captain. These are supposed to be the players who establish the tone and enact the coach's wishes. This clearly goes above them. Jim Schwartz simply has no grasp of how to instill discipline into this team.
One of the major issues that plagued the 2012 Lions was the inability to create turnovers. In the two losses to Minnesota last year, the team failed to record a single takeaway.
The Lions sought to get bigger, stronger and faster on defense in the hopes that improving in those areas would create more opportunities to force turnovers. It paid off in the opener, as the Detroit defense took the ball away four times.
It could have been more. Bill Bentley dropped an easy pick-six as he nicely undercut a route. Christian Ponder hit him in the hands, but Bentley couldn't flag it in. On another play, rookie Ziggy Ansah exploded around the edge and hammered Ponder to force the sack. Alas, Ansah was offsides on the play.
It was easy to see the Lions going after the football more actively. I love seeing the opportunism but also the aggressiveness in attacking the ball that fosters that opportunism.
The Lions had three tight ends active against the Vikings. Former first-round pick Brandon Pettigrew, former second-round pick Tony Scheffler and undrafted free-agent rookie Joseph Fauria all saw action for Detroit.
Pettigrew continued his ugly play from last season. He dropped a pass with just under three minutes to go in the first half. Undeterred, Matthew Stafford looked his way on the very next snap. Pettigrew caught this one, but he loosely held the ball, and Vikings corner Josh Robinson easily stripped it for the lost fumble.
Scheffler saw just one throw in his direction, and he dropped it. I don't recall seeing him on the field after that; even if he got more snaps, Scheffler was invisible.
Meanwhile, the undrafted rookie played a whale of a game. He caught the first reception for the team in the 2013 season, but he wasn't done.
Fauria hauled in three passes for 27 yards, but the 27th yard was a big one. He looked like a savvy veteran in securing a back shoulder throw in the end zone on 1st-and-goal from the 1-yard line. His celebratory dance was cringeworthy, however.
It looks as if we can expect bigger and better things from the tight end position in 2013, though it might be with an unexpected source.
This was not a game for the faint of heart. The Lions had two touchdowns taken off the board, the first on a technically correct interpretation of a reception rule that has burned Detroit before and the second on the Suh penalty.
On the first Lions possession, a strong drive ended up failing, as rookie punter Sam Martin couldn't properly hold the ball for a field goal.
The Vikings scored on their very first play from scrimmage, a 75-yard jaunt that you've, no doubt, seen on the highlights more than should be humanly possible.
Two other Detroit touchdowns were controversial. Joique Bell appeared to score a touchdown with a dive into the end zone, but the officials ruled the play a fumble. That was overruled, and the score just before halftime was a huge lift for the Lions.
On Detroit's next drive, Bush lunged in for another apparent touchdown that got (correctly) wiped out on review. Rather than hang their heads, Bell and the Lions smashed into the end zone on the very next play.
On numerous occasions, the Lions were pushed to breaking points. They didn't always respond positively, but they never let the obstacles deter them from playing a winning football game. This is a game that the Lions would have lost in 2012. Getting the win with all that went on in this one is a huge positive.
Lesson No. 1 in why to not write storylines too prematurely:
I tweeted the following early in the second quarter of the game.
It's really time to pull the plug on Dom Raiola. Zero ability to anchor anymore. #MINvsDET— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) September 8, 2013
Yet after that play in question, where Fred Evans pushed Dom Raiola backward into Stafford to force an errant throw, Raiola was terrific.
The Lions helped him out by moving Stafford around more and judiciously using play action and motion to keep the linemen honest. Raiola's best attribute is his ability to get out to the second level on screens and draws, and he was in fine form doing that all afternoon.
I thought rookie right guard Larry Warford played very well in his debut. He consistently generated surge with his run blocking, notably on the Bush TD that wasn't to be. The Vikings certainly missed stud defensive tackle Kevin Williams, but Warford did more than hold his own.
The depth paid off as well. Starting right tackle Jason Fox went down with an injury in the second quarter. In the past, losing a starting tackle was cause for calamity. Not this time. Corey Hilliard stepped in and might have been even better than Fox. Detroit had a heated battle for the right tackle spot this summer, and it's nice to see that the end result is the team has great depth.
Jared Allen recorded just one sack, while the running backs combined for 115 yards and two touchdowns. That's a strong day for the Lions' offensive line.
The reigning rushing champ came out blazing. His first carry of the season was a 78-yard romp through some truly shoddy defense. "AD" turned on the blazers and scorched the shell-shocked Lions for a touchdown.
After that, AD stood for "All Done" instead of "All Day."
The rest of Peterson's afternoon saw him carry the ball 17 times. In those attempts, he gathered exactly 15 yards.
That's right. Seventeen carries for 15 yards by the greatest running back in the game today. One of those gained seven, which means the other 16 produced just eight.
Detroit's defensive line thoroughly dominated the line of scrimmage. The depth of the rotation certainly helped; reserve CJ Mosley recorded consecutive tackles on Peterson in the third quarter.
Justin Bannan, Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah and Israel Idonije consistently pushed into the backfield and eliminated running lanes before they had a chance to develop. The linebackers showed patience and discipline in not overrunning plays and making sure tackles.
Holding down a special runner like Adrian Peterson in that manner is a very real sign that the Lions' commitment to bigger, stronger, faster on defense is going to work.
Matthew Stafford's numbers on the game looked fairly typical for him: 28-of-53 for 357 yards and two touchdowns and an interception. Those are pretty gaudy statistics, but we've come to expect that from Stafford.
What stood out in this contest was his decision-making. Stafford was patient in going through reads, often finding the secondary or tertiary receiver in a route.
His pre-snap work was nothing short of outstanding.
In a marked departure from last season, when Stafford and the Lions saw six men in the box, they ran at it. Last season, we saw Stafford stick with the pass play, even though the defense was sitting back. Give credit to offensive coordinator Scott Linehan for coming up with a strong game plan and to Stafford for executing it adeptly.
Going a little deeper, the interception was not his fault; the throw got tipped at the line on a strong play by Fred Evans that defeated weak pass-blocking.
The quarterback sneak to convert on fourth down late in the game is something that Lions fans have been clamoring for quite often. Stafford ran around a few times, showing good mobility and sneaky elusiveness that isn't always evident in his game.
Also, I've frequently criticized Stafford for starting games slowly and apathetically. In this game, Stafford was sharp early; he was 8-of-12 for 103 yards to start the game, and that includes the Calvin Johnson dropped touchdown. There was a visible crispness to his passes that has ebbed and waned in the past.
If this is the Matthew Stafford we're going to get all season, the Detroit Lions are going to be a very scary offense.