Niyo: Lions, frenzied Ford Field undone by empty-handed defense

Detroit News

Detroit — It’s not that they were unmasked, really.

But the Lions certainly left their fans holding the bag Sunday, after Seattle’s 37-31 overtime win spoiled Detroit’s home opener at Ford Field.

And while the Seahawks were busy celebrating in the visitors’ locker room afterward, with rap music blaring — “Take Over Your Trap,” fittingly — and safety Jerrick Reed donning one of those blue ski masks that hundreds of Lions diehards had worn to Sunday’s game, there was a far different scene playing out across the hall.

Rookie defensive back Brian Branch was still in his uniform nearly 30 minutes after the game, looking despondent as he sat hunched over on a stool in front of his locker. He’d been the man in coverage on the final play of Sunday’s game, a 6-yard touchdown pass from Geno Smith to Tyler Lockett on third-and-2 as Seattle never let Jared Goff and the Lions’ offense touch the football in overtime.

Not far away, there was C.J. Gardner-Johnson, the live-wire safety who’d sparked this early-season fashion statement among Detroit’s frenzied fanbase and embraced the idea of the Lions as villains after that season-opening win at Kansas City. Only now, he was answering questions about a defense that allowed nearly 400 yards of offense and four scores on five Seattle possessions in the second half and overtime.

“We gave up 300-something yards (passing) — not good enough,” said Gardner-Johnson, one of a handful of Lions starters briefly sidelined by injuries in Sunday’s loss. “We gave up 37 points — not good enough. We know we’re not going to win a championship that way. That’s on us. …

“Everybody fought hard on both sides of the ball. But the best team won today. Ain’t nothing you can say, or nothing you can do.”

Nothing to erase this loss, anyway. It was a game the Seahawks felt they “needed” to avoid an 0-2 start, Smith said, and it showed. It’s one the Lions “didn’t deserve” to win, Goff agreed, adding, “They earned that win and we kind of earned the loss.”

Dan Campbell called it a slice of “humble pie” in his postgame press conference. Defensive end Aidan Hutchinson called it a “wake-up call.” And just for the record, don’t bother asking him about that apparent holding call the officials missed on the final play in overtime, when right tackle Jake Curhan had Hutchinson “hog-tied around his neck,” according to Fox analyst Greg Olsen.

“Yeah, I probably won’t speak on that, because they’re gonna go fine my ass,” Hutchinson said, offering a wry smile instead. “It is what it is, man.”

It wasn’t the reason the Lions lost this game, of course. It wasn’t even close to the worst call or non-call of the game by this officiating crew, for that matter. (Seahawks coach Pete Carroll blew a gasket over an intentional grounding call on Smith on Seattle’s touchdown drive early in the fourth quarter.)

As for what this game became, though, that’s another story. And it’s one that Lions defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn surely will need to address in time for next week’s game against the surprising 2-0 Atlanta Falcons.

Detroit has just one sack through two games, and the rush discipline that Glenn praised after the opener against Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs felt fleeting against Seattle. Smith had 45 dropbacks Sunday, yet he was only hit once all game, when linebacker Alex Anzalone finally chased him down for a coverage sack on third-and-18 late in the fourth quarter. That led to a punt that set up Goff & Co. for the game-tying drive to force overtime.

But it wasn’t nearly enough against a Seattle team starting a pair of inexperienced backup tackles due to injuries. Shane Waldron, the Seahawks’ offensive coordinator, did a good job protecting Smith early, utilizing two tight-end sets and even a fullback, at times, to help keep Hutchinson at arm’s length. Yet even when he didn’t, Smith, the veteran QB who’d run circles around Detroit’s defense a year ago here, never seemed all that uncomfortable.

Sure, there were a few false-start penalties amid all the crowd noise Sunday, but Seattle still converted 50% of the time (6-of-12) in third- and fourth-down situations, including twice on the winning drive in overtime.

“Yeah, you’d like to believe we could’ve applied a little more pressure, but I felt like we never really got him in that type of game consistently enough,” Campbell said of Smith, who finished 32-of-41 for 328 yards and two touchdowns. “We let them continue to function in their offense and they were better at it and just better on the day than we were overall. They didn’t make those critical errors.”

The Lions’ defense did do a solid job of limiting the Seahawks’ run game, limiting Kenneth Walker III to 17 carries for 43 yards, 14 of which came on the first play from scrimmage. But on a day where the offense coughed up the ball twice — on a fumble at Detroit’s own 22 to start the second half and a pick-six midway through the fourth quarter — Glenn’s group didn’t exactly respond in kind.

No turnovers forced, a lone sack and one big missed opportunity, in the end, as a sellout crowd of 66,434 was sent home empty-handed.

“It’s awesome to see, but we did let them down today,” Anzalone said, when asked about the fans. “So it’s disappointing, in that regard, and we just need them to stick with us all season.”

Twitter/X: @JohnNiyo

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