Wojo: Lions put on a show — a familiar, frustrating one

Detroit News

Detroit — Some of it was different. Ford Field was packed, the crowd was roaring and the Lions raced to an early lead. Hints of promise planted during the offseason were stirring anew.

And then, well, you know. Between the beginning and the end for the Lions, there’s always that maddening middle, the place where good teams reside. The Lions aren’t there, obviously. You could say they’re getting closer, and maybe they are, but too much remains numbingly the same.

The Lions had a shot in their opener, right up until they didn’t. They fell into a deep hole, as they’re prone to do, then rallied late and came up short, as they’re prone to do. Philadelphia hung on for a 38-35 victory before a sellout crowd of 64,537, and for every burst of excitement from the Lions, there was a corresponding blast of anguish.

D’Andre Swift was brilliant, rushing for 144 yards, including a 50-yard dash on the second play. Jared Goff and the offense went from productive to paltry and back to productive. One thing clearly hasn’t changed — the Lions’ defense remains a sloppy liability. Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts slipped out of their grasp again and again, just as so many of these games have. From 3-13-1 a year ago to 0-1 now, the Lions are a predictable piece of work (in progress).

In Dan Campbell’s second season, expectations rightly have grown, incrementally. Perhaps they were inflated by all the positive images from the HBO “Hard Knocks” series that portrayed the Lions as a hungry, angry, determined bunch. There were glimpses Sunday, and also inexcusable mistakes. If only it could still be a TV show, because for the Lions, reality bites.

“I told the team the good news is that we didn’t play very well and we lost by three,” Campbell said. “Now, if we just take this whole approach where every week it’s, ‘We lost by three, we lost by three, we lost by three,’ then what are we doing? We’ve got to clean this up. We’ve got to be a lot better in all the areas.”

They had their chances

If you look closely, you can see a framework. The offensive line opened sizable holes and Goff was only sacked once. The Lions flashed their explosiveness, battling back from a 38-21 deficit in the fourth quarter. When Goff hit newcomer D.J. Chark on a perfect 22-yard touchdown pass, it was 38-35 with 3:51 remaining. The crowd went from occasional booing to wild cheering, and then the defense went back on the field.

Twice the Lions had a shot to get the ball back. Twice, they failed by a slip or a slide. One third-and-2 from their own 27, Eagles running back Miles Sanders nearly was stuffed for no gain, but slithered through for 24 yards. Rookie Aidan Hutchinson dove at his feet and almost had him, then slapped his hands to his helmet as Sanders sprinted away.

Later on that drive, the Eagles faced a fourth-and-one from Detroit’s 40 with 1:06 left, game on the line. Hurts took the snap and plowed straight ahead for precisely 1 yard, and it was over. Hurts finished with 90 yards rushing and 243 passing, connecting with receiver A.J. Brown for 155 of them. For a Philadelphia team with high aspirations, Hurts appears capable of reaching them.

For the Lions, reality checks abounded. Hutchinson, the No. 2 overall pick from Michigan, had a rough rookie indoctrination and finished with one tackle. Campbell loves to gamble but a failed onside kick in the third quarter killed the Lions’ momentum. I get the whole risk-taking thing, and the defense wasn’t doing much to get the ball back, but that seemed desperate.

In the first and second quarters, Goff directed four consecutive messy drives without a first down, partly hampered by dropped passes, including a couple by T.J. Hockenson and the reliable Amon-Ra St. Brown. Goff was alternately precise and scattered. There were communication issues with receivers. There were too many overthrows, and he finished 21 for 37 for 215 yards.

“We could’ve probably pushed about 50 (points),” Goff said. “I mean we left a lot of points out there. Tip the cap to the Eagles, they’re a damn good team, but we shot ourselves in the foot all day long. We felt like we should have been able to beat them if we played the way we’re capable of, and we didn’t.”

Untimely miscues

We’ve heard it many times, and the Lions know they’ve said it many times. But they simply don’t make smart plays at key moments.  In the fourth quarter, trailing 38-28, Goff dropped the snap and got sacked, spoiling another drive. In the third quarter, safety Tracy Walker was penalized for a rough tackle of Hurts, then foolishly slapped at another Eagles player and was ejected.

“I just let my team down,” said Walker, who still led the team with 11 tackles. “Me, as a team captain, I’ve just got to be better. I was hot-headed at the moment, and like I said, I’ve just got to make better decisions.”

The Lions aren’t talented enough to overcome bad decisions, or even marginal decisions, such as Campbell’s onside kick. Mistakes are magnified. Positives are overlooked. At times, the Lions’ offense looked how they hoped it would look, running well, popping big passes downfield.

On defense, the issues are too deep to be resolved with one draft class or one player. It was good to see former first-round cornerback Jeff Okudah back after missing a year with an Achilles injury. Charles Harris was active and dangerous at defensive end and rookie linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez had a solid debut.

Campbell blames himself and his staff for not having the defense better prepared to handle the dynamic Hurts, while acknowledging the quarterback is a load to handle. If it matters, Hurts returned the compliment.

“They had a great football team,” Hurts said. “It’s clearly not the same football team we played last year (a 44-6 Eagles romp). They were flying to the ball, they played very physical. I have a lot of respect for them.”

The Lions have gotten their share of backslaps (as well as head slaps) for their effort. In last year’s opener against the 49ers, they fell behind 41-17 and lost 41-33. Sound familiar? They dropped heartbreakers to the Ravens, Rams and Vikings last season, and only once did they top the 35 points they scored Sunday. That’s one hopeful nugget they’ll try to extract from the latest tough blow.

Next Sunday they face Washington at home, a winnable game, and it’s imperative they don’t slip into another spiral. On this day, Hurts made all the hurtful plays when it mattered. Until the Lions can do that, not much has changed.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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