Matthew Stafford, Lions outmuscle Bucs to win opener


Lions 27, Buccaneers 20

Chris McCosky/ The Detroit News

Tampa, Fla. — It’s probably a good sign for the Lions they started the season on the road, against a team with playoff aspirations and were almost apologizing for not beating them worse than they did.

“We were very lucky to win this game,” coach Jim Schwartz said, after the Lions held on to beat the Buccaneers 27-20 at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.

Lucky?

The Lions scored on five of their first seven possessions and finished with 431 total yards. Quarterback Matthew Stafford had the second-most productive performance of his career, completing 24 of 33 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns.

His 36-yard touchdown pass to Calvin Johnson on fourth-and-2 in the second quarter was laser precise. He threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end Tony Scheffler and the eventual winner, a 1-yarder to Johnson.

Johnson had six catches for 88 yards, secured an onside kick and was on the field in the prevent defense on the last play of the game.

Lucky?

The defense didn’t allow the Bucs a first down in the first and third quarters. Until the middle of the fourth quarter, after the Lions had built a 27-13, the Bucs had amassed just 209 yards and the only touchdown was a 28-yard interception return off a tipped pass by Aqib Talib.

What did luck have to do with any of that?

“Really, we should have blown them out,” said cornerback Chris Houston, who had seven tackles and limited Bucs big-play receiver Mike Williams to four catches. “There were a couple of plays on offense, the interception return, and a couple of plays we missed on defense — just some mistakes we made that kept them in the game. We need to get back to the film and get those corrected.”

The Lions had the 14-point lead late in the third quarter and seemed content on running out the clock.

“We were in command of the game, so at that point we wanted to control the clock,” said receiver Nate Burleson, who caught five passes for 60 yards and ran a reverse for 20. “There were seven minutes left and I was saying, ‘Let’s get it to four.’ We tried to get it over with, but it was some good execution by them to get in position to tie the game.”

With 1:35 left, Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman hit Williams in the back of the end zone on fourth-and-3 from the 5. Williams caught the ball over cornerback Aaron Berry.

The Bucs went for the onside kick. Schwartz inserted Johnson on the hands team, and Johnson leaped and grabbed the high bounding kick.

The Lions couldn’t move the ball on three running plays, but they forced the Bucs to use their final two timeouts. Had things gone the way they were supposed to, the Bucs would have gotten the ball back deep in their own zone with 30 seconds left.

Instead, the clock was stopped with 1:24 left when Lions right tackle Gosder Cherilus got entangled with a defensive player and was slapped with an unnecessary roughness penalty.

“I don’t consider that about discipline, I consider that stupid,” Schwartz said. “The opponent has no timeouts left and we get a penalty? That’s a situation we talk about and we work on. That’s stupid football, and it almost put us in a situation — the defense should have been in where there were 30 seconds left and they would have to defend two plays.”

As it was, the Bucs had the ball on the 20 with 1:07 left. Freeman moved them to the Lions 42 before the clock expired on a wild play where the Bucs kept fumbling the ball to keep from getting tackled.

Lions safety Louis Delmas banged his hip on the play but said later he wasn’t injured.

“I am not going to discount the value of a win, particularly a win on the road,” Schwartz said. “But we definitely have to play a lot better than we played today. We made too many mistakes that kept Tampa in the game.

“I guess it’s the sign of a good football team that we made those mistakes and still came out with the win. But there are things that happened in this game that are inexcusable and they will not continue.”

At one point in the first quarter, the Lions had a 147-1 edge in total yards and were trailing 10-6. The Bucs first field goal — a 38-yarder by Connor Barth — was set up by a 78-yard kickoff return by Sammie Stroughter.

“We have a darn good kickoff team,” Schwartz said. “But we missed a tackle and the guy hit a gap and all of a sudden they are kicking a field goal.”

Kicker Jason Hanson, who contributed field goals of 23 and 28 yards, booted all of his other kicks to the back of the end zone.

On the Lions’ next possession, Stafford’s pass clanged off the hands of tight end Will Heller right into the waiting arms of Talib.

“You don’t want those mistakes to keep coming back,” Stafford said. “That’s the main thing. You’ve got to fix them, get them ironed out and not make them next week. We are going to need to get started a little earlier on offense.”

The game was played in oppressive 90-degree heat, and players on both sides were cramping up. Stafford didn’t miss a snap, but he limped off a couple of times. Freeman missed two series in the third quarter with cramps. Burleson also missed some time.

“That was the worst I’ve seen,” Burleson said. “I was hydrated, too, and I still cramped.”

But it was an all’s-well-that-ends-well kind of day for the Lions.

“We almost let this get away at the end,” said Johnson. “Had this been another year, who knows? We should have put it away. I didn’t feel like we were going to lose, but it shouldn’t have been as close as we made it to be.”

chrismccosky@detnews.com

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