DETROIT • The Lions were out of timeouts, and just 15 ticks of the clock separated the Rams from a 23-20 victory — a statement victory — in Jeff Fisher's first game as head coach.

As Detroit broke the huddle on second-and-goal from the St. Louis 5, star Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson lined his 6-5 frame wide right. Two words came to mind: Fade pattern.

The Rams must have thought the same, because they sent two defensive backs his way in double-coverage. But the player known as Megatron didn't get the ball. Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford looked and looked, and just before defensive end Chris Long could get to him, he dumped the ball into the right flat to running back Kevin Smith.

Smith leaked out of the backfield undetected and could've strolled into the end zone he was so wide open. The touchdown with 10 seconds left put a dagger in the Rams, who dropped their season opener 27-23.

Johnson, the Lions would later say, was indeed the first option on the play. Smith? He was much farther down in the pecking order.

"Kevin's the last option on that play, probably behind throwing it away," said Detroit coach Jim Schwartz, who was once Fisher's defensive coordinator in Tennessee.

In fact, Schwartz said he was yelling "throw it away" in his headset, knowing full well that Stafford couldn't hear him.

So the Rams scratched, they clawed, they were resilient. In short, everything you'd expect from a Fisher-coached football team. Except they didn't win.

"It's disturbing," linebacker Jo-Lonn Dunbar said. "It's one of those things where you had the cat in the bag and you let him out. As a defense, we've got to learn how to finish and keep playing till the end."

It looked as if the Rams had the cat — or make that the Lion — in the bag when Greg "The Leg" Zuerlein's third field goal of the day snapped a 20-20 tie with 1 minute, 55 seconds remaining at Ford Field.

Zuerlein then dumped his kickoff 7 yards deep into the end zone for a touchback, meaning the Lions had 80 yards to go and only one timeout if they wanted to win the game in regulation. They did just that.

"It's tough," running back Steven Jackson said. "You definitely want to open up the season hopefully with a victory, especially on the road. We knew they were going to be a tough opponent coming off a playoff season last year. For us to have the lead the majority of the game and lose it at the end, it hurts."

For much of the game, a Rams defense designed to keep Stafford off-balance and keep the play in front of them had done just that. The big-play, high-powered Detroit offense had only three pass plays go for more than 20 yards when they took over with 1:55 to play.

But they got down the field quickly on that last drive, using their final timeout along the way, with Stafford completing passes of 20, 20 and 18 yards. Were these coverage breakdowns by the Rams, or just good throws by Stafford?

"I'd have to look at it," Fisher said. "But no, we weren't intentionally trying to give up 20 yards a chunk, not when you're up by 3. Once they got it into field goal range, then the mind-set was, 'OK, let's keep 'em out of the end zone.' "

But Smith, out of the league last year at this time, had other ideas. So did Stafford.

"I know in that formation, Calvin is going to get all of the attention in the freaking arena," Stafford said. "I just watched 58, Jo-Lonn Dunbar, drop right back in the end zone, and knew that there were about three or four (defenders) on Calvin, and just had to wait for it for a second."

That is, wait for Smith to complete his play fake and work his way past the line of scrimmage.

"If we made the tackle on the back in the flat, they may not have gotten their snap off," Fisher said. "We were that close (to a victory)."

Trouble was, no Rams defender was in the same area code when it came to being close to Smith.

So on a day when the Rams' defense bailed out the offense most of the afternoon, they couldn't do it at the end when it mattered most.

The Rams were outgained 429 yards to 251, but three first-half interceptions gave the Rams a 13-10 lead. Dunbar, Janoris Jenkins and Cortland Finnegan — all new to the roster in 2012 — came up with the interceptions. Finnegan made his a "pick 6," returning it 31 yards for a touchdown late in the second quarter.

"The coaches put us in a great position all week to make plays," said Finnegan, who had three interception returns for touchdowns as a Titan. "It was just a chance for me to make a play on Calvin (Johnson). I knew they were going to work the outside part of the field with him. They'd been doing it early and often, so the coaches told me where to go and I just made the play."

The interceptions by Jenkins and Dunbar stopped Detroit drives in the red zone and led to Rams field goals. Overall, the Rams didn't blitz much and played a lot of "off" coverage, with Rams cornerbacks several yards off the line of scrimmage.

"We had a bunch of variety in our game plan," Dunbar said. "We mixed coverages. Man, zone. Some (Cover) 3, some 4, some 2. We played a little bit of everything. So we wanted to give him different looks, get after him a little bit, and also be able to drop in coverage and make some plays."

The strategy worked like a charm — until that final drive, that is.