Wojo: Lions take a slow — and Swift — step back from the brink

Detroit News

Bob Wojnowski
| The Detroit News

Jacksonville, Fla. — The Lions were desperate, the straits were dire, the season teetered. Something had to change, and apparently, it’s not that complicated.

Hand the ball to D’Andre Swift.

Introduce your defense to the opposing quarterback with an occasional blitz.

Play Jacksonville.

The Lions’ three-part plan worked swimmingly Sunday, which doesn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme but certainly means something in the short scheme. The Lions couldn’t lose this game against the woeful Jaguars, not without really trying, and they finally exerted their will for a complete game. They pounded Jacksonville 34-16 and in the process at least altered the conversation, for now.

Until (or unless) the Lions (2-3) string together a few performances like this, Matt Patricia’s job status will remain a hot topic. This victory may put the issue on the back burner, so to speak, and the Lions will get a shot at another struggling team next week in Atlanta. The usual caveats apply — it’s just one win; Jacksonville (1-5) has lost five straight; oh by the way, are you aware of the Lions’ history? — but in the aftermath, there was sweaty relief.

Boss pleased

“I was really proud of our players, thought they played extremely hard,” Patricia said. “We handled a lot of adversity on the field, I thought our guys did a phenomenal job of that. They handled the last two weeks really well, ignored everything and went out and played aggressively.”

They coached that way too, after a bye week of intense criticism and speculation. The Lions had a chance to tinker with personnel and strategy, and whoa, what did they find here? It was Swift, the second-round pick from Georgia who had rushed for 42 yards all season and busted out with 116 and two touchdowns against the Jaguars.

It was sorely needed because Matthew Stafford wasn’t at his sharpest and the offensive line was constantly shuffled. On a humid afternoon, several players left due to dehydration and got IVs and oxygen, and all eight linemen on the depth chart played. But in the Lions’ never-ending quest for an identity, it usually comes back to their skill-position talent. It was on full display, as 10 players caught passes and three backs carried the ball.

Kenny Golladay had 105 yards receiving, including a spectacular, lunging 48-yard grab that was positively Calvin-esque. He combined with Swift to produce the Lions’ first 100-yard rushing-receiving tandem since 2013, when Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson did it.

Against a Jacksonville defense that’s bad and beaten-down — surrendering 30-plus points for a fifth consecutive game — the Lions exploited mismatches, none more notable than the boost provided by Swift. Late in the first quarter, with the Lions leading 7-3, Swift blasted through a hole and sprinted 54 yards. That was the trademark swiftness from the 5-9, 215-pounder. At the end of the drive came the athleticism, as he leapt for a 1-yard touchdown and a 14-3 lead. Later would come the power.

The Lions held their infamously treacherous lead — they’d lost six straight games after leading by double-digits — but they didn’t let up. Neither did Swift, who capped a stirring, speed-and-strength performance with pure power, including a 9-yard highlight run in which he flattened Jaguars safety Josh Jones. The Lions’ final touchdown was a straight-ahead 6-yard plow by Swift, who took his first major turn in a rotation that includes Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson.

Swift carried the ball only 12 times the first four games, and dropped the potential game-winning pass in the opener against the Bears. If that still hung over him, he never let on, and never let down.

“I know that’s not me as a player,” Swift said. “I’m just showing everybody else that.”

There’s an unflappable confidence about Swift that’s impressive, and it arrived just in time. I don’t think the Lions ramped up the effort because of the noise about Patricia’s job, although they’re well aware of it. They ramped it up because they had no choice, and when you see a weak foe, the natural instinct is to attack. Patricia had talked about simplifying the game plan to unleash players’ instincts and you saw some of that.

The Lions sacked Gardner Minshew only once, but Trey Flowers forced a fumble on the hit. They blitzed more often and sufficiently harassed the Jaguars quarterback, and also got an interception by Duron Harmon. The Lions defense was shredded through four games, one of the few in the league statistically as bad as the Jaguars. But they held Jacksonville to 44 yards rushing and actually spent some quality time in the backfield.

“We didn’t get the sack numbers, but focusing on the rush and making them throw it fast, it affects the quarterback,” Flowers said. “We can get a lot better, but we need to keep attacking throughout the game. A lot of people will probably discredit us (because of the opponent), but it’s hard to win in the NFL.”

Pride at stake

Nobody knows that better than the Lions (cheap line, I know). They hear the anger and angst, with Patricia’s record now 11-25-1. But this wasn’t a game to shut people up because, well, you know, it was the Jaguars.

It was a game the Lions had to show up and prove they were still battling, for many reasons. No, they’re not expecting plaudits for doing what they’re supposed to do.

“That’s our job, to go out there and play, not to pay attention to all the other stuff going on,” Stafford said. “We don’t live in a bubble, not yet at least.”

So take this for what it’s worth, and it’s only worth something if they keep taking it. This wasn’t about saving jobs as much as staving off the heat. It was warm in Florida and the Lions were low on fluids, but they looked deeper and found some juice. Things can change Swiftly in this league but teams are built over time, and the Lions buckled down and bought a little more.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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