NFC North: Detroit Lions

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Throughout his two-year career with the Detroit Lions, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah has had myriad injuries. There was a concussion, an ankle injury and the shoulder injury that forced him to have offseason surgery.

He came back from that during training camp and on Thursday, he sat out his second straight practice with a knee injury.

"He’s a big, strong man. This is obviously our first year with him, so we’ve wiped the slate clean and see what happens," first-year Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "You can’t determine injuries and things of that nature, but he’s a capable guy and when he’s in there, he helps us a tremendous amount.

"Am I concerned about something continual with him? Not at this stage."

Missing two practices during the week, though, could cause concern for his availability Sunday against Green Bay.

Ansah was one of five players who did not practice for Detroit on Thursday, typically a heavy game plan day. Defensive end George Johnson, linebacker Travis Lewis, right tackle LaAdrian Waddle and cornerback Cassius Vaughn also sat out for Detroit. All but Vaughn were in attendance during the media portion of Thursday's practice.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Each week, we'll take a look at who or what might be rising or falling with the Detroit Lions.

RISING:

Vaughn
CB Cassius Vaughn: The whole next man up cliché has been fitting well with Detroit's slot cornerback position, as injuries shelved starter Bill Bentley and top reserve Nevin Lawson for the season. This leaves the inside corner position to Cassius Vaughn or the outside corner spot if the team chooses to play Rashean Mathis inside. Either way, it's a starting opportunity this week for Vaughn against a tough Green Bay passing attack led by Aaron Rodgers. But the extremely confident fifth-year pro from Mississippi could be in a position to thrive.

RT Garrett Reynolds: He was signed last week and started against Carolina on Sunday at right tackle. Considering he is essentially a converted guard, Reynolds held up well against a talented Panthers front four and did enough to probably hold on to the starting role until LaAdrian Waddle returns from a calf injury. Right now, it is unclear when Waddle will be back, although it is expected he won't be out for too much longer.

CB Darius Slay: The second-year corner from Mississippi State had his second straight good game on Sunday against Carolina. The Panthers threw at Slay seven times according to Pro Football Focus and he had only three of those passes caught on him, including two by tight end Greg Olsen, who was always going to be a mismatch problem for him. Slay appears more confident through two games this season than he was at any point during his rookie year in 2013. He is slowly developing into Detroit's best cornerback.

FALLING:

Bell
Bush
Bush
Detroit's run game: Joique Bell and Reggie Bush have not been as effective as the Lions would like so far this season. Neither player has over 100 yards rushing and both Bush and Bell are under 4 yards per carry this season. The first halves of games have been particularly tough, as the Lions have 44 yards on 25 carries in the opening two quarters of games. Ball security is also an issue as Bell has two fumbles in his first two games.

CB Nevin Lawson: Rough situation for Lawson, who is out for the season after dislocating the toes in his left foot against Carolina on Sunday. The rookie was seeing his first planned significant action when the injury occurred on special teams. This could be a difficult injury to come back from, so it might take him some time.

Tight end reception production: Through two games, the Lions aren't using their tight ends a ton in the passing game. Combined, Joseph Fauria, Eric Ebron and Brandon Pettigrew have six catches for 93 yards. Despite the Lions calling for balance, the tight ends seem to be at the very least the third or fourth option on almost every play behind Calvin Johnson (13 receptions, 247 yards), Golden Tate (11 receptions, 150 yards) and either Bush or Bell (combined 15 catches for 111 yards).
The Detroit Lions are at least exploring options at kicker, as colleague Adam Schefter reported the team brought in three veterans at the position to work out Tuesday: Rob Bironas, Garrett Hartley and Alex Henery.

They might not be the only possibilities, though. When the Lions kicked around switching kickers last season, they brought them in over a two-day span before sticking with David Akers for the rest of the 2013 season.

So here are some possibilities for Detroit as it explores its kicking question:

Nate Freese: He has the job right now after beating out Giorgio Tavecchio during the preseason. Detroit's seventh-round draft pick in May, Freese is 2 of 5 so far with no made field goals over 30 yards. This is on top of a somewhat shaky preseason where Tavecchio appeared to outperform him. Lions coach Jim Caldwell still thinks Freese has a future in the league, and he might. If Detroit sticks with him, he'll likely have a small margin for error to fix his issues.

Rob Bironas: Tennessee released him in March as a clear cap casualty as he was due a $250,000 roster bonus and had a $2.875 million base salary for 2014. He is, however, a strong veteran kicker. The 36-year-old Bironas made 25 of 29 field goals last season, including 2 of 3 over 50 yards.

Garrett Hartley: Hartley is somewhat of a riskier play than Bironas. He made 22 of 30 field goals last season for New Orleans and has had a downward trajectory since making all eight of his field goals in 2008. But, members of the Lions coaching staff will have familiarity with him and familiarity often breeds signings.

Henery
Alex Henery: Like Hartley, Henery has had a downward trajectory the past three seasons and lost his job in Philadelphia to rookie Cody Parkey during training camp. He has a fairly accurate leg, though, making 86 percent of field goals in his career. Plus, he's only 27 so if the Lions sign him and he does well, he could be a long-term solution.

Giorgio Tavecchio: Detroit knows what it would get with him, so probably one of the reasons it didn't call him up for a tryout. But he's a young kicker who some -- including myself -- believe should have won the job out of camp. So he'd at least be in consideration if the team makes a move.

Jay Feely: Probably the best kicker Detroit hasn't reportedly brought in yet. When he was cut by Arizona, he indicated he still wanted to kick and still believed he could. He has ties to the state, having played college football at Michigan. The 38-year-old could also provide a mentoring presence to punter Sam Martin. He wouldn't be a long-term solution, but he made 30 of 36 field goals last season, was 11 of 12 from 40-to-49 yards and 3 of 5 from 50-plus yards.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions have opened up a roster spot.

Ness
After promoting Nate Ness from the practice squad Saturday and playing him on special teams Sunday, the Lions released Ness on Monday, perhaps to open up room for another defensive back signing.

The Lions are in need of cornerbacks, having lost Bill Bentley for the season with a torn ACL and Nevin Lawson for an undetermined amount of time -- possibly the season -- after having surgery for dislocated toes.

The Lions cut Ness during the end of training camp and then brought him back to the practice squad as one of the two exceptions instituted by the NFL. He is eligible to return to Detroit's practice squad if the Lions choose to do that.

This leaves Detroit with at least one and maybe two spots open on the roster depending what happens with Lawson.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Here’s a weekly look at some numbers behind the Detroit Lions' 24-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers.

0 – Turnovers caused by Detroit against Carolina.

1 – Reception by Calvin Johnson when Matthew Stafford threw the ball more than 10 yards.

3 – Drops by Lions pass catchers Sunday, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

3.89 – Yards per rush for the Lions on Sunday, 20th in the NFL.

4 – Consecutive road losses by Detroit, dating back to last season.

5 – Receptions by Johnson from 10 yards and in.

11 – Targets to Joique Bell, the second most in Bell’s career.

49 – Yards of both field goals Nate Freese missed against Carolina.

55.0 – Stafford’s QBR on Sunday, 43 points lower than his QBR in the season opener.

62 – Offensive snaps Johnson played Sunday.

66 – Offensive snaps Golden Tate played Sunday.

72.5 – Stafford’s passer rating Sunday, more than 50 points lower than the opening week of the season.

108 – Consecutive games with a reception for Johnson, a franchise record.

130 – Consecutive games played by Stephen Tulloch, the longest active streak for a defensive player in the league.

150 – Don Muhlbach's games with the Lions. He’s the 20th person to play 150 games for the team.

Some statistics provided were courtesy of ESPN Stats & Information. Follow Stats & Information on Twitter @ESPNStatsInfo.

The Film Don't Lie: Lions

September, 15, 2014
Sep 15
4:00
PM ET
A weekly look at what the Detroit Lions must fix:

Other than one drive in the second half against New York in the opener, the Lions’ running game has struggled the first two weeks of the season. Joique Bell and Reggie Bush each have fewer than 100 yards rushing this season. Bell has 87 yards on 25 carries. Bush has 41 yards on 15 carries. Neither has gained more than 12 yards on a single run.

Despite Bell playing more snaps and having more carries, Lions coach Jim Caldwell said the team’s starting running back is as listed on the depth chart, which means Bush. Caldwell said they will be balancing both backs, but right now, the Lions would be happy to get consistent production from either one of them.

The Lions are hosting a Packers team that has the second-worst run defense in the league, allowing 176.5 yards per game.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Jim Caldwell didn’t want to make any rash decisions Sunday after Nate Freese missed two field goals in Detroit’s loss to Carolina.

A day later, though, Caldwell didn’t give Freese a ringing endorsement, either.

“We’re still discussing, talking, looking at different options,” Caldwell said Monday. “I still believe this young man is going to be a fine kicker in this league. I don’t think there is any question about that.

Freese
“We’ll see how it goes here but I still believe, you look at him, he had three kicks of 50 yards plus in the preseason, so you know he can get it out there. Sometimes guys just have a bad day, but we’ll look at that.”

Caldwell declined to say whether the team will audition kickers this week. Among the available kickers are the player Freese beat out during training camp, Giorgio Tavecchio, and veterans Jay Feely and Rob Bironas. Feely was cut by Arizona during the preseason and Bironas was released by Tennessee in March.

As far as Freese having a bad day, these types of struggles have not been new for him. He has not made a field goal this season over 30 yards – he’s 0 of 3 including two misses from 49 yards on Sunday – and had some consistency issues during training camp as well.

As the Lions decide what to do with Freese, they are also working on trying to figure out what his struggles are.

“We don’t analyze it any differently than any other position when you have some mistakes and problems you need to get corrected,” Caldwell said. “We try to look at those from a technical standpoint. We try to look at all the variables just to make sure we narrow it down and see if we can solve the problem.

“Take a look at what the problem was, what caused the problem and how do we go about correcting it.”
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Reggie Bush may be listed as the Detroit Lions’ starting running back, but the snaps don’t lie.

Joique Bell is seeing more action.

Bell
That’s one of the biggest things to pull from the first two weeks of snap counts, particularly Sunday against Carolina, where Bell had 42 plays compared to Bush’s 29. The more interesting part is Bush’s usage seemed to go down as the game wore on, even as the Lions were shifting from a balanced team to a team needing to pass to score because they fell behind.

And then there’s Bell’s fumble -- offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said he isn’t going to punish a guy for fumbling once or twice as long as it isn’t habit-forming. The fumble didn’t hurt his usage, either. Last week, Bell had five more snaps than Bush.

It always felt like the Bell/Bush combination would be a time-sharing situation anyway, but the way it has broken down so far certainly is an indication that it might be Bell more than Bush as Detroit’s main running back.

Meanwhile, Theo Riddick had just two offensive snaps Sunday as the third back.

Some other snap count thoughts:
  • Garrett Reynolds received the start at right tackle over Cornelius Lucas and played 55 of 72 snaps (76 percent). Lucas came in, mostly late in the game from what I could tell, and played 17 snaps at right tackle. It isn’t clear when LaAdrian Waddle will return from his calf injury, but when he does, he’ll end up right back in the lineup as neither player was overly impressive.
  • The tight end snap count is going to be something to watch. As long as Waddle is out, expect Brandon Pettigrew to get a decent amount of snaps (35 of 72), followed by Joseph Fauria (25 of 72) and Eric Ebron (26 of 72). Fauria is turning into the most complete tight end of the three, mostly due to his massively improved blocking. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Pettigrew’s snaps drop while Fauria’s and Ebron’s rise over the course of the season.
  • George Johnson is starting to emerge as Detroit’s third defensive end. He played 27 of 67 snaps on Sunday, nine more than Devin Taylor (18 of 67) and 13 more than Darryl Tapp (14 of 67). He has had the production to match it. Johnson had another tackle against Carolina.
  • Cassius Vaughn’s snaps are about to go up. With Nevin Lawson out for a while and no other corners on the roster right now, he’s likely to slide into the nickel corner spot that seems to be an injury-prone area right now after Bill Bentley’s ACL tear in Week 1 and Lawson’s dislocated foot Sunday. Cornerback Rashean Mathis, who could also play inside, had confidence in Vaughn and so did the coaches. Even before Lawson’s injury, he was getting some run at the slot corner. It’s almost a guarantee Detroit is making a move for a defensive back again this week. At least one of them.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Detroit Lions might have a kicking conundrum for the second straight season.

Rookie Nate Freese, who won the job during the preseason, missed two more field goals Sunday. He is now 2 of 5 on the season and his job could in a little bit of peril.

“We’re not going to make any rash decisions now five minutes after the game’s over,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “We certainly want to take a look at all of our options and see where we’d like to go from here.”

Where Detroit goes is unknown. Freese has missed on all of his attempts beyond 30 yards, including a pair of 49-yard attempts Sunday during a 24-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers. The Lions chose him over Giorgio Tavecchio during training camp, even though Tavecchio appeared to be the more consistent kicker.

But the Lions used a seventh round pick on Freese, who did not miss a field goal during his final season at Boston College.

“It was definitely windy but that’s one of those things it happens so fast it’s hard to tell right away,” holder Sam Martin said. “But he’s a pro. He’ll go watch film and he’ll figure it out.”

Caldwell said the Lions’ goal is to make “100 percent” of their kicks during the season, although he allows leeway there due to long field goals and other extenuating circumstances. Despite the wind, there didn’t seem to be many of them Sunday against the Panthers, though.

This is the second straight season where kicking has been a question for Detroit since the retirement of stalwart Jason Hanson. The Lions kept veteran David Akers over rookie Havard Rugland last season and Akers was one of the worst kickers in the league, converting 79.2 percent of his field goals. Last season, 26 kickers made at least 80 percent of their attempts.

Martin said he felt Freese would be able to bounce back from his rough start, in part because of the way Freese handles himself with every kick.

But it is an area that certainly needs improvement. And if the Lions were to look at kickers, among the names out there would be Tavecchio, Jay Feely and Rob Bironas.

“That’s an area we need to be able to count on,” Caldwell said. “We certainly can get better in a lot of different phases.”
video
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When the Detroit Lions signed Golden Tate as their biggest free-agent acquisition in March, they did so with the plan he would open up the entire offense. He would become a sticky target for Matthew Stafford and deflect attention away from Calvin Johnson as a pure No. 2 receiver.

Through a game and a quarter, this worked, as Tate was targeted five times in the first quarter against Carolina on Sunday, catching four passes for 51 yards. Then, for the first time this season, a team took away Tate and helped turn the game.

Tate
Tate
Stafford targeted Tate only three more times the entire game and he caught only one more pass, finishing with five grabs for 57 yards. It isn't a bad stat line, but it also showed what could happen when a team eliminates him from the plan.

"They just paid more attention to me," Tate said. "For the most part, they did a good job of keeping me in front of them, not letting me behind the defense. That's what I noticed the most."

The Panthers didn't exactly shift their coverage to eliminate Tate, but they started to pick up on things they saw in their film study during the week. Based on where Tate was lined up in Detroit's offense, the Panthers predicted the route he would run or the area of the field he would be aiming to end up in.

Carolina knew there was a chance Tate and the Lions could adjust, but more often than not, they said they were right.

"More or less," Carolina safety Thomas DeCoud said. "This early in the season, there aren't going to be too many wrinkles. They are going to kind of stick to what they were doing. There were a few tells we were able to key in on."

Johnson said Carolina "mixed up their coverages pretty well." Stafford said it was "the way the reads go" as to why Tate was open in the first quarter and disappeared for the rest of the game.

None of the Panthers were willing to give up the tells they saw or the true specifics of what they did to eliminate Tate, but in doing so, they also turned the Lions' offense into more of a 2013 version of itself than the balanced 2014 version the Lions had been practicing toward.

The 2013 version meant a bunch of tosses to Johnson, who was targeted 13 times, catching only six passes. Included in that was a very 2013-like interception by Stafford, where he tossed the ball downfield to Johnson in double coverage, leading to a tipped ball and then the turnover.

Eventually, Carolina saw the benefit of what it was doing. It made the Lions dependent on Johnson, which is an all-too-familiar issue for Detroit. It wasn't necessarily the Panthers' strategy entering the game, but it is what happened.

"No question," cornerback Antoine Cason said. "That's their guy. That's what we as a defense have to do is continue to take things away from what they want and force it to be one-dimensional."

This is exactly what Detroit wanted to escape from -- and for a quarter it did. Then it returned to a past the Lions are trying to distance themselves from.

"When you can take away the other reads and guys who can hurt you on offense, it does kind of make you one-dimensional," DeCoud said. "And then they are going to try and feed their big receiver, their big target and now we can key in on that and be ready."

Lions frustrated with turnovers

September, 14, 2014
Sep 14
6:03
PM ET
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Detroit Lions' 24-7 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
  • Johnson
    Turnovers were the biggest lament for Detroit after the game. Almost every player -- on both offense and defense -- mentioned the turnovers as the biggest reason for the Lions’ loss on Sunday to Carolina. “It’s hard to win games when you’re 0-3 on the turnover battle,” Lions receiver Calvin Johnson said as he was getting dressed after the game.
  • It was, as expected, a pretty somber mood in the locker room after the game. Very few Lions I spoke with individually felt they played well as there were issues on offense, defense and special teams.
  • Golden Tate continued to be one of the Lions’ most fashionable postgame dressers, with a sport coat and matching bow tie after the game.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- The Detroit Lions are down another cornerback.

Rookie Nevin Lawson left Sunday’s game between the Lions and Carolina Panthers in the third quarter with a foot injury and his return is doubtful.

Lawson was injured on a Jeremy Ross punt return and his helmet was off before the play was over. Trainers immediately huddled around Lawson, who appeared to be in a lot of pain as they looked at his left leg and foot.

The rookie was then loaded onto a cart on the field and taken to the locker room. He became the team’s starting slot cornerback after Bill Bentley tore his ACL against the Giants, knocking him out for the season.

Cassius Vaughn is Lawson's likely replacement at nickel.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- It appeared as if the Detroit Lions would have starting safety James Ihedigbo back in the lineup Sunday against Carolina.

Now it might not be that guaranteed.

Ihedigbo, who is battling what is listed as a neck injury, and what he said is more of a shoulder issue, was listed as doubtful by the team= Friday afternoon. This comes a day after Ihedigbo said he believed he was pretty close to playing against the Panthers.

“I definitely expect to play,” Ihedigbo said Thursday. “I expect to get my body ready to play. That’s the goal moving forward and trying to make that happen.”

It is still a possibility, but Ihedigbo was listed as doubtful for the season opener against New York as well and did not play. If he is unable to play, expect to see Isa Abdul-Quddus again starting opposite Glover Quin in the secondary. This could also affect whom the Lions promote from the practice squad between safety Nate Ness and cornerback Mohammed Seisay -- a decision that has yet to be announced.

The Lions are also now officially without safety Don Carey (hamstring) and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle (calf) on Sunday against Carolina, but that news is not a surprise. Waddle and Carey have not practiced at all this week and Lions coach Jim Caldwell even indicated they are still making a decision at right tackle between Garrett Reynolds and Cornelius Lucas against the Panthers.

Running back Reggie Bush (knee) and tight end Brandon Pettigrew (foot) are both listed as probable for Detroit.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Nevin Lawson was prepared for anything, although the Detroit Lions' rookie cornerback didn’t want the "anything" to really happen like this.

Ever since the Lions drafted him in the fourth round, Lawson had mentally prepared himself to be a starter, or at least a contributor, during his rookie season. He did so even if everything about him, from his size to his skill to the somewhat small Utah State school he attended, screamed that he’d be a developmental project.

Lawson
That development needs to be quicker now. Bill Bentley’s season-ending injury means Lawson is about to play a whole lot.

“In my head, especially coming in as a rookie, it’s always to play and be the best that you can be,” Lawson said. “In my head, I always thought I could be a starter or eventually be a starter.”

Lions coach Jim Caldwell committed to Lawson as his slot cornerback Friday, merely confirming what had appeared obvious from the time Bentley was put on injured reserve after he suffered a torn ACL against the New York Giants.

It was an immediate indoctrination to the NFL for Bentley, who was forced to match up against one of the best slot receivers in the NFL, Victor Cruz, when he was put into the game for 49 snaps against the Giants.

Considering the circumstances and that the Lions were planning on using him exclusively on special teams Monday night, he handled it well.

“We weren’t planning on him playing a whole bunch,” defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “… Nevin went in there and the thing we talk to our guys about is they are always one play away, and I think that’s a testament to what Tony [Oden] and Alan [Williams] are doing in the back end, teaching those guys.

“That a young guy who wasn’t supposed to play or people thought he wasn’t ready to play went in there and played well. They did a great job with him.”

The competent play came in pass coverage, too. Pro Football Focus charted Lawson as being targeted four times by New York quarterback Eli Manning, allowing three completions. One was a 20-yard reception to Cruz, according to PFF, but that was the only pass Cruz caught against the rookie.

Lawson, for his first go-round, will take that. He’ll also take the experience facing Cruz in his debut will give him both this week against Carolina and the rest of the season, where he’s likely to stay in the nickel role.

“It definitely helps,” Lawson said. “It’s game experience and going against good quarterbacks and good receivers like that definitely helps you to move forward into the next week, to help your preparation.

“[Such as] 'OK, I should do this better and I did this good, so I can keep on doing this.' It definitely helps.”
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- In researching this game, there was nothing that stood out on either side that screamed extreme mismatch. Detroit's secondary is a question and even though Kelvin Benjamin looked good in his debut (six catches, 92 yards), he is still a rookie so consistency could be an issue. If Cam Newton plays, both offenses should be able to score in bunches and both defensive lines have enough star quality to put pressure on the quarterbacks. It feels like a fairly even matchup and since Newton didn't play in the opener, it is tough to even judge numbers. Provided Newton is healthy and sharp, his scrambling ability could be the small enough difference.

Another concern developing through the week has been Detroit's issue at right tackle, where Corey Hilliard is out for the season and LaAdrian Waddle is highly unlikely to play. This leaves the Lions with either rookie Cornelius Lucas or just-signed veteran Garrett Reynolds starting at right tackle potentially opposite Greg Hardy. Considering Carolina's strong front seven, this does not bode well for the Lions' run game and their chances in general.

Other than the right tackle issue, these teams feel pretty equal. When teams are equal, I usually give the edge typically goes to the home team, and that's what I'm doing here. Pick: Carolina 31, Detroit 28

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