PITTSBURGH — His explosive offense sputtering, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz didn’t give the ball to Matthew Stafford or Calvin Johnson or Reggie Bush.
Instead, Schwartz put it in the hands of a 205-pound rookie punter on a soggy field with 11 guys dressed up like swarming bees running at him.
The calculated risk led to an unmitigated disaster.
Sam Martin fumbled while trying to convert a fake field goal early in the fourth quarter and the Pittsburgh Steelers responded to the reprieve by scoring two touchdowns in the final 5 minutes to stun the ever erratic Lions 37-27 on Sunday.
“I don’t regret anything that happens in the game,” Schwartz said. “We’re going to do our very best to win the football game. We didn’t make enough plays to win this one, including that one.”
The Lions were nursing a four-point lead when kicker David Akers ran out to attempt a 27-yard field goal. Martin took the snap then tried to find room over the right side for the five yards necessary for a first down. He didn’t quite get there, and the ball came rolling out after Martin was slammed by Steelers nose tackle Steve McLendon.
“I got hit by a 350-pound man,” Martin said. “I don’t think I had the first down, but regardless that guy made a great play. You have to give them credit. When you looked at it initially, it was a big hole.”
Instead of getting a first down or going up by seven, the Lions gave the Steelers the ball with momentum. Pittsburgh responded with a 97-yard touchdown drive that helped keep Detroit (6-4) winless in the Steel City 58 years and counting.
Matthew Stafford passed for 362 yards and two touchdowns but also threw a late interception during a bumbling second half. Calvin Johnson added six receptions for 179 yards and both scores but didn’t touch the ball once after halftime.
“I missed some guys,” Stafford said. “We had drops. We had miscues. We had all sorts of stuff that we can’t do on the road against a good team.”
One that played like it against a contender for the first time this season.
Roethlisberger passed for 367 yards and four touchdowns. Antonio Brown caught seven passes for 147 yards and two scores and Pittsburgh’s defense forced three turnovers while keeping Stafford in check over the final 30 minutes.
Stafford completed just 3 of 16 passes after halftime.
“We knew they’d make plays and get yards,” Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark said. “We just wanted to make plays and stop them when it counted and we were able to do that.”
Just not until letting the Lions rip off 27 points during a dazzling second quarter in which Detroit seemed to toy with one of the most venerable defenses in the league.
Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said last week he couldn’t wait for the chance to go “mano-a-mano” with Johnson, the NFL’s best receiver. Like nearly every player who has lined up across the line of scrimmage from Johnson over last three years, the matchup looked like a mismatch.
At least, for a while.
Taylor landed a blow early, knocking down the first pass Stafford threw Johnson’s way. The 11-year veteran and his befuddled teammates couldn’t get a hand on the second. Or the third. Or pretty much anything else the Lions and their superstar wide receiver felt like doing.
The Lions spotted the Steelers a 14-0 first-quarter lead as Roethlisberger hit Brown for touchdowns of 34 and 47 yards, an avalanche of points for Pittsburgh’s sputtering offense but barely a blip for one of the league’s most explosive offenses.
Detroit needed to hold the ball for 6:37 to set a franchise record for points in the second quarter. Johnson, as he tends to be, was right in the middle of it. He started the onslaught with an impossibly easy 79-yard touchdown, taking a heave from Stafford at the Pittsburgh 40 and then practically jogging into the end zone to make it 14-10.
Johnson was at it again the next time the Lions had the ball, beating the coverage to the inside for a 19-yard score to tie the game at 17.
As quickly as Detroit’s eruption started, it ended. The Lions could do little in the second half and rather take another step toward the team’s first division title in 20 years, Detroit continued a flabbergasting pattern of inconsistent play.
“We will come back,” linebacker Stephen Tulloch said. “We will go back to the drawing board and continue to play ball.”
NOTES: Stafford now has 16,005 career passing yards to blow past Layne’s club record of 15,710. Stafford’s first touchdown pass to Johnson was the 100th of his career. He reached the plateau in his 55th career game, the fourth-fastest in NFL history. ... Johnson has gone over 1,000 yards in four straight seasons, tying Herman Moore’s club record. ... Detroit RB Joique Bell left in the third quarter with a foot injury. He was cleared to return, but watched the fourth quarter from the sideline.