Wojo: Lions roll up points, dig up a new way to win

Detroit News

Detroit — Every time danger knocked, the Lions answered. Every time the opponent struck, the Lions struck back. Every time you wondered if they’d run out of offensive linemen, or out of energy, someone else raised his hand.

This was the team fans have craved to see and Dan Campbell has pledged to produce, playing with composure, discipline and creativity. The star players did star-like things and the role players rolled. The first half was about dominance, the second half was about persistence, and in the end the Lions crafted one of their more impressive, complete performances in a 36-27 victory against Washington.

They’re only 1-1 with plenty of tests ahead, but at the risk of overstating it, I’d say the Lions did things Sunday we rarely see. They got the ball in their playmakers’ hands, but they didn’t force it. They didn’t throw an interception, didn’t lose a fumble and committed only one penalty. Hamstrung by injuries — minus three starters on the offensive line — they plugged and played.

“Our offense was steady and reliable, and when we needed it, man, we answered back and made some plays,” Campbell said. “We did exactly what we needed to do. We were much more detailed and disciplined. They showed up.”

Almost literally, everybody showed up, especially on offense. The Lions have scored a touchdown in 15 consecutive quarters dating to last season, the longest current streak in the NFL. After their 38-35 loss to Philadelphia last week, the Lions welcomed their defense to the clutch-time festivities. At halftime, they led 22-0 and had allowed Washington only two first downs and 56 total yards.

The defense went from maligned to aligned, playing with better discipline, and rookie first-rounder Aidan Hutchinson made his first big impact, sacking quarterback Carson Wentz three times. The pass rush was strong, and Charles Harris also knocked Wentz sideways, resulting in a safety that produced a most-unusual 5-0 lead on a most-unusual day.

D’Andre Swift was terrific again, igniting the Ford Field crowd almost immediately with a 50-yard run. Second-year receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown was spectacular again with 184 total yards, two touchdowns and a 58-yard run on a perfect play call that probably saved the game. Every time quarterback Jared Goff looked to be in trouble, he pulled out of it.

When the Commanders rebounded and sliced the deficit to 22-15, the Lions didn’t recoil. St. Brown’s 58-yarder on a reverse was planned for just that purpose, to reverse the momentum. Three plays later, Goff escaped pressure and connected downfield with Swift, who slipped to the turf. Before a defender could reach him, Swift leaped up, scooted to the left and raced to the end zone for a 22-yard touchdown that made it 29-15. Two clutch plays, two dynamic plays that suggest the Lions finally have difference-making talent.

There were obstacles and misfires and a few throws Goff would love to have back. But when the game hung in the balance Goff was excellent, firing a 25-yard strike to tight end Brock Wright and then an 11-yard touchdown pass to St. Brown to essentially clinch it with seven minutes remaining.

“It always feels good, but I think the way it happened is awesome as well,” Goff said. “We took a good lead, defense was playing well and they counter-punched us. And then we punched right back. … I think that’s part of who we are, just because of who we have. We’ve got guys who can make those plays, guys who can stretch it. And at the same time we run the ball so well that it’s hard to defend both.”

Piling up points

The Lions have reached 35 points in three straight games (counting the 37-30 finale last season against Green Bay), a first for the franchise since 1953. The reasons are clear. They have a few special players, and first-time coordinator Ben Johnson is finding clever ways to get them the ball, from reverses to a flea-flicker. Instead of lamenting the loss of three linemen, the Lions restacked it with everyone else on the roster, often using extra linemen and two tight ends to create an eight-man front.

Goff was annoyed he missed some throws — 20-for-34 for 256 yards — but encouraged the Lions were prolific anyway. So, how good can this offense be?

“As good as anybody,” Goff said. “We scored 35 last week, 36 this week, and you still feel like, ‘Ah, but that one.’ That’s our next step of becoming maybe that more mature, understanding-the-moment team, being able to take advantage of those opportunities, and it starts with me.”

That’s not where it has to end. Goff isn’t being asked to carry the team, and is growing comfortable as a distributor. The Lions rushed for 191 yards, and if the running game stalled, well, time to pop a play to St. Brown, who caught nine passes. St. Brown is so steady, he almost doesn’t look like a star. He’s uniquely gifted, tough and shifty, and has at least eight receptions in eight straight games, tying a league record.

These streaks are odd, but much better than those the Lions are accustomed to setting. This was the first time in 25 games they actually were favored (by 1.5 points).

But things weren’t looking up when players kept going down all week. Center Frank Ragnow was out with a foot injury, guard Jonah Jackson was out with a finger injury. Another starter, Halapoulivaati Vaitai, already was sidelined for several weeks. Then Swift popped onto the injury list with an ankle injury and barely practiced all week. But he was playing, and he made that clear to Campbell.

“Never a doubt,” said Swift, while acknowledging the ankle slowed him. “That’s my mentality, if I can be out there and contribute in any way, I’ll be there.”

Stepping up

That mentality was evident all over the field. Backup guard Logan Stenberg was in the lineup alongside backup center Evan Brown. When Jackson was ruled out, here came 6-9, 330-pound Dan Skipper up from the practice squad. He was cut during training camp, as captured by the “Hard Knocks” cameras, and brought back. In six NFL seasons, he’d never stuck anywhere, and now here he was playing guard for the first time in a regular-season game, going against Washington’s fierce front.

More: For Lions’ Dan Skipper, perseverance pays off in first NFL start

Campbell singled out Skipper for extraordinary effort in a difficult spot. After being told he wasn’t on the team, then he was, and then he was starting in Ford Field.

“I’ve never made a team,” Skipper said afterward. “It’s tough, you go in, and you’re never quite good enough. … Whether you’ve been fired once or 100 times, it still sucks. You get fired, but just keep on plugging away.”

From Skipper to the team’s skipper, Campbell, the Lions are used to plugging away. But now with compelling talent on offense and rising youngsters on defense, they’re finding ways to utilize them. There will be more obstacles because there always are, and no one is signaling anyone’s arrival. But whatever comes next, I’d cautiously suggest the Lions look better equipped to handle it.


Twitter: @bobwojnowski

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