- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
- 0 Shares
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He found his spots in the middle Sunday afternoon against Chicago, with the Bears' safeties playing back and other defenders focused on the Detroit running backs.
This is why Brandon Pettigrew found himself with open spaces against the Bears and why he was able to take plays and turn them into bigger ones -- something he's done somewhat frequently this season.
Perhaps more than any other Detroit Lions pass catcher, Pettigrew has benefited from the signing and overall health of Reggie Bush in the offense. Instead of being the second, shorter option in the Lions passing game, Pettigrew is now no higher than third on most team's scouting reports.
Teams focus on receiver Calvin Johnson on deeper plays. They worry about Bush on short routes and screens. And it has left the middle of the field, and the middle of coverages, open for Pettigrew to make plays with a little bit more space than he has before.
"[Reggie] makes a lot happen for, not just me but everybody," Pettigrew said. "Those guys on defense, they are keying on him and it leaves other guys exposed to make plays.
"Definitely helps us."
Pettigrew said he feels he has had to make fewer catches in heavy traffic this season with a defender right on him. Like last Sunday against Chicago, he actually had space to catch the ball and even turn up field to gain a few extra yards. In four separate games this season, Pettigrew has had more than 20 yards receiving after the catch.
It is the effect of Bush on the offense and the ability of Detroit to spread the ball to multiple receivers, leaving defenses guessing on a lot of plays.
"Matt [Stafford] has a great amount of confidence in him, especially in situations where we want to move the chains or we know that people are going to be playing for an outside route," offensive coordinator Scott Linehan said. "Tight ends can be pretty effective on the inside part of the field when they are overlapping the safeties for the outside part of the field. So that has a lot to do with it."
Stafford has always had confidence in Pettigrew since they were both rookies in 2009. They came in together and almost immediately had a rapport, Stafford as the strong-armed rookie quarterback and Pettigrew as his option as a security receiver.
In his five years with the Lions, Pettigrew has caught 274 passes for 2,707 yards and 15 touchdowns. While that's not a lot of Stafford's overall production, he has been the target of Detroit's quarterbacks on 22 percent of the routes he has run.
He's also been essential as a blocker, part of the reason he sees so many snaps for the Lions. They can use him in the run or the pass, on the line, split out in the slot or even in the backfield as an off-set back in front of a running back.
He has that type of versatility.
"We're asking him to do a lot," Stafford said. "He's moving around almost on every play and when he's got matchups in the passing game, we're going to him and he's answering the bell."
His blocking ability is what sets him apart from other tight ends. Most teams would like a dual threat type of tight end on the roster and that's what Pettigrew can do. He takes his blocking seriously, working on it daily in drills.
His teammates notice this, but it is what he has always done.
Linehan said Pettigrew seemed to come into this year's camp even more focused than in prior years. When Pettigrew was asked whether his consistency this season was due to his contract status -- he's an unrestricted free agent after the season -- he said no.
This is what he's always done.
"The way I look at it is that you ought to want to play hard, period, just because," Pettigrew said. "Not because it's your contract year or I need to play harder."
Also, Pettigrew said he hasn't put any more pressure on himself because he doesn't know where he'll be next season yet.
"You can't worry about that," Pettigrew said. "That's stuff that happens after the season. You've got to play ball.
"You've got 50-plus other guys and coaches depending on you. You can't worry about that stuff."
That's just how Pettigrew is. He does his job. He tries to make plays and he focuses every day. Everything else, he figures, will eventually take care of itself.
It's how he's dealt with when he has struggled in the past and now that he's having consistent success, something that he points out has happened in the past, so this season is not an anomaly.
"People like to give him a hard time, you know," Johnson said. "I don't know what for because he plays every position a tight end could play in our offense and he does everything exceptionally well.
"Everybody has their low points or whatever, where they might not be in their groove, but Pettigrew man, he's been a player for us for a long time. I love to play with him."
1dDana Wakiji / Special to ESPN.com