How Detroit converted its fourth-down call

September, 22, 2013
9/22/13
7:45
PM ET
LANDOVER, Md. -- Matthew Stafford walked into his huddle, his team staring at him waiting for direction, for a play that could alter the fortune of his Detroit Lions on this Week 3 Sunday and perhaps many Sundays after.

It was 4th-and-inches. Detroit led by three, 20-17. A field goal could have made sense. But the Lions decided to go for it. To try and win on their own without having to rely on a defensive stop.

[+] EnlargeJim Schwartz
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsCoach Jim Schwartz watched from the sidelines as his Lions executed a quarterback sneak to give Detroit a crucial first down.
So Stafford walked into his huddle and said the Lions would try a quarterback sneak. Then he turned to his center, Dominic Raiola and asked what side he wanted to run the sneak off of -- over the middle, to his left, over veteran guard Rob Sims, or to his right, over rookie Larry Warford.

"I told Rob, 'Look, I’m going to put this on us,'" Raiola said. “Look what happened. I just told him we’re going to go left, to go left. The guy’s a monster. I’m not saying Larry isn’t, but I’m going to go to my vet.

"I'm going to go to my second-in-command over here."

Between Raiola and Sims, there is a combined 17 years playing for Detroit. Almost two decades of not converting this type of play. Not this time. Not this season. They have heard the talk of this being the same type of team as years past.

This play -- this chance -- was an opportunity to begin to remove it. To win. And Raiola wanted that on him.

When the play was called, Detroit running back Joique Bell turned to Stafford with a message -- one filled with coincidence. He told Stafford "I'll push you in the back." Anything to get the first down, to push for the inches they needed.

"Matt looked at me in my face," Bell said later. "And said 'Push me back.'"

Detroit lined up on the Washington 12-yard-line. Four minutes, 42 seconds remained. The Lions shifted into a balanced formation to make sure everything was set to head left.

Then Raiola snapped the ball to Stafford. Sims pushed forward.

“I got out to the backer pretty easy and I know Riley (Reiff) had his guy because I felt him on my heels,” Sims said. “If we were going left we should have something there if we’re talking about inches.”

The inches were there. Stafford moved. Bell lined up behind him and pushed. That’s where there was some irony.

Had it been another week, Reggie Bush might have been the running back behind Stafford. And Bush had perhaps the most famous push for a touchdown in college football history at USC -- pushing his then-quarterback, Matthew Leinart, into the end zone to beat Notre Dame late in the fourth quarter.

This time, Bush watched from the sidelines. It wasn’t a touchdown, but a first down.

“It was just a heads-up play, by [Bell] and by Stafford,” Bush said. “Stafford, that’s a huge play by him and what more can you ask for out of your quarterback.”

Stafford fell forward. He knew he got it. Detroit had it by much more than it needed, gaining two yards on the play. Two plays later, the Lions would score on an 11-yard touchdown pass from Stafford to Calvin Johnson to take a 27-17 lead and an eventual 27-20 win against Washington.

But it was the play that set it up, a fourth-down call that took some guts, that made it happen. That might have turned the Lions around. And might have shown that a team with a lot of young players, including a still-growing quarterback, is starting to grow up.

“It was movie stuff. He looked at everybody and Dom said look, 'follow me, I got you,'" receiver Nate Burleson said. “And then he went in there and got hit and kept his feet moving and Joique came in and gave him another bump.

“That’s team football at its best. That’s the Detroit Lions, everybody dialing in for one play, giving all you got, knowing that one play could change the game and get the victory.”

Plays like that change games and potentially the fortunes of a franchise. There’s still a lot of things the Lions have to accomplish, a lot of things the Lions have to get through.

But Sunday -- one play -- might have been the start.

Michael Rothstein | email

ESPN Detroit Lions reporter

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