Sunday's season opener was somewhere between "Same Ole' Lions" and finally turning the page, depending on who you ask. The warning signs were all there: the devastating, unnecessary penalties, the huge plays given up by the defense, the dropped passes, the missed opportunities, the Brandon Pettigrew fumble. The first half was a terrible reminder of everything that went wrong last year. You got the same feeling that, while the Lions looked dominant on a down to down basis, it was the few, ever-present blunders that would sink this team to the depths of irrelevancy once again.
But then the offense snapped out of it. Beginning with the last drive in the second half, the Lions scored four touchdown on five possessions and didn't turn the ball over or go three-and-out again.
And the defense did something we rarely saw last year: they played their best football in the fourth quarter. Minnesota only managed 48 yards of offense in the final frame. The result of the Vikings' three fourth-quarter drives: fumble, punt, interception.
However, those mistakes hang menacingly over the team like a darkening cloud. The Lions escaped with a win because they were clearly the more talented team. But with all the talent on this team, getting a couple of division wins should not be the goal. It's playoffs or bust. And against other playoff teams, the Lions have been horrible in the past. The Lions found themselves only down eight after their tapestry of bloopers against the Vikings, but against a team like San Francisco or Denver, they'll find themselves down three possessions. Even against Arizona next week, a first-half performance like Sunday's may bury them for good. The Cardinals sport a wicked, opportunistic defense, as I'm sure many of you remember from last year's slaughter. The Lions will not survive another season of red-zone fumbles, drive-killing penalties, and defensive breakdowns.
So what changed after the first half? The Lions got impatient.
The most promising thing from Sunday was the Lions' new faces and the coaching staff's lack of fear in utilizing them. Many of the players who were responsible for all of the mistakes in the past (Pettigrew, Tony Scheffler, Mikel Leshoure) took a backseat to the newcomers, who played a refreshingly clean game. Joique Bell, Joseph Fauria and Reggie Bush had monster second halves that helped seal the victory. When Darius Slay was suffering from rookie growing pains early in the first half, instead of letting him continue to take punishment, Jim Schwartz called in the reinforcements. Veteran Rashean Mathis took over and did a good job stabilizing the secondary.
Whether it was because of the Lions lack of depth or Schwartz's stubbornness, this is not something we have seen from the Lions in the past. Leshoure got the majority of carries last year, despite Bell being the clear superior runner. Pettigrew had the second-most team targets in 2012, despite his consistent drops and devastating fumbles. Kyle Vanden Bosch never lost his starting spot at defensive end despite his production level being next to nothing. It was this kind of infinite patience that allowed the mistakes to continue.
But on Sunday, Leshoure wasn't on the field. Pettigrew and Scheffler combined for just five targets and two receptions. Meanwhile, undrafted rookie Fauria caught all three of his targets and found the endzone. Bell turned 11 touches in to 92 yards and two touchdowns. And we all saw what Bush did.
It's hard to know how many more second chances players like Pettigrew and Leshoure will get. Schwartz has endlessly supported these guys and given them every chance to succeed. But for the first time since the Schwartz era began, it looks like the Lions have backup plans and have absolutely no fear in using them. That could mean great things for the Detroit going forward.