Before the first hit, and even before the first snap, rookie linebacker Jahlani Tavai felt the rush of adrenalin when he ran through the tunnel and onto the field with his Detroit Lions teammates for the start of last week’s road game with the Arizona Cardinals.
This was the real thing – not practice, not a preseason game. It was a game that counted, and it was special.
When he settled down, Tavai played well in the 27-27 tie with the Cardinals, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue that level of play in Sunday’s home game against the Los Angeles Chargers.
It will be a tough test for the entire team, especially for the defense with the task of defending against an offense led by future Hall of Fame quarterback Philip Rivers with a solid running attack for support.
Looking back a week, there were special memories in Tavai’s first pro game.
“You get a little emotional,” Tavai said this week. “You look at everything you sacrificed to get where you are. Nothing beats running out with the guys you worked your butt off with. All of us running out there – it’s a great experience.
“Training camp, it’s all hell. You’re sweating and dying out there. Game time, we get to have fun and let loose.
“All I can think about is the excitement, getting ready to hit somebody – playing the game I’ve played for who knows how long?
“That’s what I do it for – the love of the game.”
The Lions got good production from their linebackers last week. Devon Kennard had three sacks. Tavai and Christian Jones each had a sack. Jones also had two pass breakups and helped set up Tavai’s sack. For that, he got a hug from Tavai. And Jalen Reeves-Maybin played 51 of the 88 defensive snaps, plus 28 on special teams.
It was a good start for Tavai, a second-round pick from Hawaii.
“He clearly showed that it wasn’t too big for him,” said defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni. “Like everybody else who played in that game, there are things that we all have to do better, regardless of if you’re a player or coach.
“I think he had a very good showing in his opening game.”
Series history: The Chargers have a 7-4 series lead. The teams have split the last two meetings – a 38-10 win for the Lions at Ford Field in 2011, and a 33-28 win for the Chargers in San Diego in 2015.
2015 Game Rewind: The Lions had a 21-3 lead with 8:49 left in the first half, but the Chargers rallied to score 28 straight points. Rivers completed 34 of 41 passes for 403 yards. Rivers and Matthew Stafford both had two TD passes and two picks.
2011 Game Rewind: On Christmas Eve, the Lions jumped to a 24-0 lead to clinch their first playoff berth since 1999. Stafford passed for 373 yards and three TDs. His passer rating for the game was 137.6.
Chargers focus, the run: Running back Austin Ekeler wasn’t an unknown to the Chargers when he moved up to a starting role because of two-time Pro Bowler Melvin Gordon III’s contract holdout.
What he accomplished in last week’s win over the Colts – 58 yards rushing and a touchdown, 96 yards and two TDs receiving – was more of what head coach Anthony Lynn saw in Ekeler’s first two seasons on a limited basis.
Ekeler, who made the roster as an undrafted rookie in 2017, rushed for 260 yards and 5.5 yards per carry as a rookie, and 554 yards and a 5.2-yard average last year.
“No surprise at all,” Lynn said in a conference-call interview. “Austin has been a productive player for us. We kept him his first year, and he was little more than a special teamer. The second year he was more in a tandem role (with Gordon), and he’s still in a complementary role with Justin Jackson right now.
“Any success that he has on the field has been pretty consistent with what we see every day in practice, and with his work ethic.”
Prediction: If it feels like a mini crisis and a key game for the Lions – all in Week 2 – then it’s because they put themselves in that position by blowing the lead in last week’s tie at Arizona. The only way to play their way out of it is to win.
Pick: Lions 30, Chargers 27.
View photos from Detroit Lions practice on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.