DETROIT — The Patriots’ third exhibition game, on Thursday night against the Lions, was oddly reminiscent of the last time New England played its third exhibition here, in 2011.
In both, considered dress rehearsals for starters, the Patriots’ offense struggled mightily against the Lions’ top defense, this year anchored by tackles Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley.
On Thursday night, the Patriots committed four first-half turnovers and converted just 1 of 7 third-down opportunities before intermission, though the Lions’ own offensive struggles meant New England trailed just 16-3 at the half.
But the Patriots’ second- and third-string defenses let the game get away in the second half, resulting in a 40-9 loss at Ford Field.
As Tom Brady and Logan Mankins noted earlier in the week, coach Bill Belichick reminded his players about the 2011 meeting several times in the days leading up to the trip, not wanting history to repeat itself. That it did only makes things worse.
“He’s the best coach for a reason,” Brady said of Belichick. “He’s been coaching a long time; he sees things coming. Almost foreshadowing it and telling us, ‘Look, this is what we’re getting ourselves into . . . We’re going to come in here and we’re going to get their best.’ And we did. And we weren’t prepared for it.
“It’s a good lesson for us; I hope we learn from it. These games are tough. It’s hard to win when you don’t play well.”
“We predicted it, we discussed what could happen,” Devin McCourty said. “[The Lions] didn’t play as well as they wanted to [in a loss to Cleveland a week earlier]. We didn’t match their level of intensity.”
The problems began on New England’s first possession.
In Lions’ territory after a 37-yard pass from Brady to rookie Kenbrell Thompkins, Brady sought out tight end Zach Sudfeld on second down from the 30. Sudfeld made the catch and was at the 10 when safety Glover Quin got his helmet on the ball, forcing a fumble. Louis Delmas scooped up the loose ball, ending a drive that looked like it was headed for the end zone.
Unable to convert on third and short from the 5, Detroit got only a field goal from the turnover.
But it didn’t take long to recognize that the Lions wouldn’t need much more than field goals to build a lead.
The Patriots’ second possession was a three-and-out, after Thompkins’s only miscue of the night — he dropped a pass in his belly that would have kept the drive going.
Their third possession ended with another fumble, this one by Brandon Bolden. Given a short field this time — they started at the Patriots’ 19 — the Lions again didn’t score a touchdown, and David Akers missed the 31-yard field goal try.
Possession four for New England? Another turnover.
On the second play, Brady looked to second-round pick Aaron Dobson and was intercepted. Judging by Brady’s reaction, Dobson may not have been where he was supposed to be. Either way, it was another miscue.
“When you lose the turnover battle, 4-0 or something, you have like a 2 percent chance at winning a game. It’s impossible,” Brady said. “We always talk about turnovers and protecting the ball, and we had a couple games where we did a pretty good job protecting it, and then you have a game like this where we don’t and these are the ones you lose.”
This time, the Lions were able to take full advantage, with Matthew Stafford hitting an open Tony Scheffler for a 9-yard touchdown.
And since things weren’t looking bad enough, Shane Vereen added on. New England was backed up to its 8 after Brady took a 9-yard sack, and on third and 15, Vereen got the handoff. He was stopped for a 2-yard loss, stripped of the ball by cornerback Bill Bentley, and Lions rookie Ziggy Ansah recovered.
Of the players who fumbled, Sudfeld and Vereen did not get another chance to touch the ball until the fourth quarter. Bolden didn’t even get that, and was in sweats on the sideline in the second half.
New England’s only scoring drive of the first half included a 19-yard completion to Dobson and another deep ball for Thompkins, this one good for 27 yards. The drive stalled in the red zone, and Stephen Gostkowski made a 31-yard field goal.
The challenge now for the Patriots will be regrouping: learning from the loss, and moving on from it. Forty-seven of the 71 players in uniform Thursday night were not with the team for the 2011 loss here. Though not all of them will still be on the roster in a week, those who remain can’t let things go “in the tank,” as Matthew Slater said.
“This is a different team, a different season. We have to find our own identity,” Slater said. “We have to keep an even keel. We can’t get too high and we can’t get too low, and the older guys have to do a good job of spreading that through the locker room.
“Hopefully we’ll learn from tonight, and it won’t be all for nothing.”
The Patriots went nowhere on the ground in the opening 30 minutes, with 18 carries for 32 yards (1.8-yard average). Brady completed 16 of 24 passes for 185 yards with the interception and two sacks.
Thompkins was the lone bright spot offensively, with eight catches for 116 yards. After the game, he brushed aside any talk of his performance, saying, “It was a disappointing loss for the team . . . That was a team performance. We can’t point fingers at any one person, anything like that. We’ve just got to watch the film and correct the mistakes that we made.”
The Patriots’ defense had a good showing in the first half: The Lions gained just 3 yards on eight carries, though Reggie Bush’s five receptions were screens on which he gained 103 yards. Stafford completed less than half of his 25 pass attempts and was sacked once, with one touchdown.
Despite the offense’s first-half performance, Brady did not play in the third quarter. Ryan Mallett came off the bench to complete 11 of 22 throws for 96 yards and the Patriots’ lone touchdown, a 9-yarder to fullback James Develin with 32 seconds remaining.