TAMPA, Fla. – Josh Freeman felt helpless watching Detroit's offense move up and down the field on Tampa Bay's reeling defense. By the time the Buccaneers offense finally got rolling against the improved Lions, it was too late.
"It's really frustrating because we felt like, for sure going into it, it was a winnable game. ... We just have to find a way to score points earlier," the third-year quarterback said after Sunday's 27-20 loss to another young team with expectations of being better this season.
"You hate to start the season out 0-1, but it's the first game of the year," Freeman added. "It's not going to make or break anybody."
Amazingly, the Bucs led 10-6 despite being outgained 147 yards to 4 in the opening quarter. Sammie Stroughter's 78-yard kickoff return set up an early field goal, and Aqib Talib intercepted a tipped pass and returned it 28 yards for a touchdown to put the Bucs ahead despite not having the ball much up to that point.
Eventually, Detroit's domination of time of possession would take it's toll.
"We've got to help our defense out in that manner. Being on the field for that long, it just wears and wears and wears on a defense," Freeman said. "If we can't find a way to equalize possession, if not take over control of it, then it's going to be a long day for our defense."
Matthew Stafford threw for 305 yards and three touchdowns Sunday, helping the Lions withstand several critical mistakes to win their fifth consecutive game dating to the final month of 2010.
"It's a good sign," Stafford said after Detroit opened a season with a win for the first time since 2007, overcoming the young quarterback's interception that Talib returned for a TD, the long kickoff return and several costly penalties.
"Obviously, you don't want those mistakes to keep coming back," Stafford added. "You've got to fix those, iron those out."
Jim Schwarz, beginning his third season of a rebuilding project that began after the Lions went winless in 2008, agreed.
"I don't want to discount the value of a win, particularly a win on the road, but we've got to play a lot better than we played today," Schwartz said. "We had way too many mistakes that kept Tampa in this game. I guess a sign of a good team is you can have those mistakes and still come out with a win. But we did some things that are inexcusable, and they will not continue."
Stafford completed 24 of 33 passes, including TD throws of 36 and 1 yards to Calvin Johnson and 11 yards to Tony Scheffler. The only interception he threw glanced off the hands of intended receiver Will Heller and was returned 28 yards by Aqib Talib for the only touchdown Tampa Bay managed until Freeman threw a 5-yard scoring pass to Mike Williams with less than two minutes to go.
The Lions, who haven't finished with a winning record since 2000, lost four straight to begin 2010. Stafford was hurt in the opener and went on to miss 13 of the team's remaining 15 games.
Stafford, who was not sacked, led four scoring drives of at least 70 yards and the Lions finished with 431 yards total offense to Tampa Bay's 313.
"I can't really put a finger on it right now without watching the tape and being able to review it," Bucs center Jeff Faine said of the offense's slow start. "It just felt like we weren't really able to get in a rhythm on the field."
Johnson had six receptions for 88 yards. His 36-yard TD reception came on a perfectly thrown ball on fourth-and-2, and the 6-foot-5 receiver reached above Talib to make an acrobatic grab on a lob throw for the 1-yard TD that put Detroit up 27-13 in the third quarter.
"Stafford did a nice job of getting the ball to hte correct receivers at the right time," Bucs caoch Raheem Morris said.
Freeman, selected 16 spots behind No. 1 overall pick Stafford in the 2009 draft, was 28 of 43 for 245 yards. He was intercepted once and sacked twice by Detroit's improved defense.
In addition to a pregame tribute for Sept. 11, a moment of silence was observed for Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon, the first-ever player drafted by the expansion Buccaneers in 1976. The team's all-time sack leader with 78 1-2 died on Sept. 4, two days after suffering a stroke.
The Bucs also arranged a surprise reunion during the two-minute warning in the first half for family and close friends of U.S. Army Sergeant Scott Osborn, who was returning from active duty in Afghanistan.
The Lions won their last four games of 2010, including a 23-20 overtime win over Tampa Bay, with Drew Stanton and Shaun Hill playing quarterback while Stafford was sidelined with the second of two shoulder separations that kept him out of 13 games last season. Stafford had surgery on his throwing in January and had an outstanding preseason, when he was the NFL's top-rated passer.
Detroit was one of just two teams that went unbeaten in the preseason, scoring a league-high 114 points. Teams ordinarily don't put too much stock in exhibition results, but Stafford's play fueled optimism for what the Lions hope will be their first winning season in a decade.
Jahvid Best rushed for 72 yards on 21 carries for the Lions. Tampa Bay's running game was non-existent, with Freeman leading the way with 26 yards on four attempts, thanks to a big scramble on the Bucs' final possession.
Freeman has led seven game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, but he couldn't rally his team this time.
The Bucs marched to the Lions 42 in the closing seconds before time expired on a wild play that began with Freeman completing a pass to Earnest Graham. Four laterals and a fumble later, it ended for no gain.
"We had at least a shot at the end to get back in the game," Graham said. "It's the first game. If we would have won it, you don't want to get too high. If you lose it, you don't want to get too low. It is what it is in the league. The team that keeps working and keeps getting better week by week is going to be the team that's playing at the end of the season."
Notes: The Lions limited Bucs RB LeGarrette Blount, a 1,000-yard rusher as a rookie last season, to 15 yards on five carries. ... Lions DT Ndamukong Suh, last year defensive rookie of the year, had one tackle. ... Bucs second-year DT Brian Price left the game with a hamstring injury in the third quarter and did not return. ... Freeman went to the locker room for treatment for a leg cramp late in the third quarter. He missed four plays.