NFC North: Don Carey

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If Kellen Moore were trying to make a case to Detroit Lions general manager Martin Mayhew and head coach Jim Caldwell for inclusion on the team’s 53-man roster, he certainly did it Thursday night.

Moore, who played the majority of the Lions’ 23-0 victory over Buffalo in the preseason finale, managed the game well and moved the ball down the field with relative ease. Yes, Moore continued to play with and against extreme backups, many of whom will not be on the Bills roster in 48 hours, but he did what he could with what he was given.

That included going 17-of-28 for 172 yards and two touchdowns. One of his touchdown passes, a 25-yarder to Corey Fuller, was threaded perfectly between defenders.

His status will be one of many calls for Lions coaches and Mayhew.

Here are some other thoughts from the Lions' preseason finale:
  • Left guard Garrett Reynolds blocked impressively on the first drive, sealing a pocket well for Dan Orlovsky. His candidacy hasn’t been discussed much as winning a job on the 53-man roster, but that he earned the start in the final preseason game over Rodney Austin, a young player who could use the reps, could be significant. On his second series, he got upfield blocking fairly well.
  • Wide receiver Ryan Broyles ended up as the punt returner after Jeremy Ross. Beyond the fact that Broyles' Achilles injury opened the door for Ross to return punts last season, that is a sign the team is trying to see what Broyles can give Detroit on special teams as it figures out whether to keep him on the roster. It was really interesting to see Broyles, who is in a tight receiver competition with Kevin Ogletree, Kris Durham and Fuller, on the field late in the fourth quarter with a bunch of players who won’t be on rosters by Monday.
  • Nate Freese was tabbed the team’s kicker earlier in the week. He responded by nailing a 53-yarder right down the middle in the first half and another 53-yarder in the second half Thursday night. He has rebounded well from his struggles early in camp and appears to have become a good option for Detroit.
  • Isa Abdul-Quddus probably locked up a roster spot Thursday night. He was around the ball consistently, intercepted another pass and was active on special teams. Add in both James Ihedigbo and Don Carey not traveling to Buffalo -- Carey’s been hurt -- and Abdul-Quddus should be safe this weekend. Jerome Couplin, who lined up with Abdul-Quddus a lot Thursday night, is on the bubble and could be one of two undrafted free agents with a legitimate chance to be on the 53-man roster along with tackle Cornelius Lucas. Lucas is in a fight with Michael Williams for the fourth tackle spot.
  • The Lions should be pretty happy. Unless something comes out about Ihedigbo and an injury, Detroit got out of the preseason with only injuries to Kyle Van Noy and Carey among potential major contributors. The Lions should be pleased to be so healthy.

Lions Camp Report: Day 14

August, 13, 2014
Aug 13
7:15
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. – A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • Nick Fairley Watch – Day 3: The defensive tackle remained with the second unit throughout practice Wednesday, potentially signifying he won’t be used as a starter Friday night in Oakland. C.J. Mosley again ran with the first group and continued to play well alongside usual starter Ndamukong Suh. There were also points – much as in previous days – when Jason Jones moved from end inside to tackle with the first group. Still don’t expect things to stay this way permanently – Fairley is too talented to not be a starter at some point – but there is absolutely a message being sent here with each day Fairley doesn’t line up with the starters. He also, as he has done Monday and Tuesday, declined to talk with the media after practice to discuss the situation. Meanwhile, Mosley continues to go about his business every day during practice.
  • The other defensive lineman of note, Ezekiel Ansah, practiced again Wednesday but remains limited as he works his way into the rotation. At this point, Ansah is participating in everything other than team and heavy-contact portions of practice, but that should be expected. “His progression is going to be gradual. It’s not like you come off [the physically unable to perform list] and go right to work and get banged around in here,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “This game is a bit too strenuous for that. We’re going to bring him along and make certain he gets enough work, and as soon as doctors say he is able to go full-speed, all-out, we’re going to turn him loose.”
  • Another interesting caveat of the past two days has been at safety. James Ihedigbo and Glover Quin are running with the starters, but behind them, the pairing of Jerome Couplin and Isa Abdul-Quddus has been playing consistently with the No. 2 group, and Don Carey and DeJon Gomes have been with the No. 3 unit. More than likely, this is to give Couplin and Abdul-Quddus, both of whom were brought in during the offseason, a longer look as cut days start to loom. Abdul-Quddus played more snaps than any other defensive player Saturday night and had an interception. Couplin has been among the more impressive undrafted rookie free agents and has already gained the reputation as a player who can hit. He has rebounded well since being flattened by George Winn in practice a little under a week ago.
  • Speaking of Winn, if you’re looking for a complete surprise to make the roster, he is gaining some steam to do it. He briefly saw time as a blocker on what appeared to be the first-team kick return unit Wednesday and continues to run at a strong, hard pace. Other than his fumble against the Browns on Saturday, he has had a real strong camp and while he still has a lot of players to pass, he is at least giving himself a shot.
  • The most interesting hit of the day came during a team period, when safety James Ihedigbo stepped up on a route over the middle and broke up a pass intended for Kris Durham, timing the hit perfectly and sending Durham to the ground. Ihedigbo has been one of the harder hitters during camp and that is part of why the Lions brought him in to replace Louis Delmas in the offseason.
  • Lions vice chairman Bill Ford Jr. was at practice Wednesday. The team ownership, between Bill Ford Jr. and his mother, Martha Ford, have been at practice often during camp but have not spoken publicly with the media yet.
  • Caldwell took the ALS challenge laid down for him by Golden Tate after practice Wednesday. The video lives here.
  • The Lions are off Thursday to travel to Oakland, where they play the Raiders on Friday night. The Lions next practice Saturday in Allen Park, Michigan. It will be a closed practice.

Lions Camp Report: Day 12

August, 11, 2014
Aug 11
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • The biggest news of the day, as covered here earlier, is Nick Fairley appearing to run with the second team. Fairley wouldn't talk about it. Jim Caldwell said it wasn't necessarily the second team -- although any defensive unit without Ndamukong Suh is likely not the first group -- and Fairley's replacement, C.J. Mosley, was pretty buttoned up in his answers. The one obvious thing was Fairley did not appear happy after practice. Considering how much attention was paid to him during the offseason and the team did not pick up his contract, this has to be at least a mildly discouraging sign for the Lions and something worth monitoring. Also worth monitoring -- Fairley's weight. He doesn't look quite as svelte as he did during the spring. The Lions are going to need him to be successful this season, there is not much question about that.
  • In non-Fairley news, Detroit added music to its practice Monday afternoon to help prepare for crowd noise as the Lions head to Oakland for their second preseason game Friday. There wasn't a ton of it -- three songs including what sounded like “Planet Rock,” the 1982 classic by Afrika Bambaataa & Soulsonic Force. Caldwell said the players are allowed to submit playlists for practice with one caveat: No profanity. “Obviously it creates some distraction for you. We were trying to do the same thing basically with the music,” Caldwell said. “One day here we had a Motown session. We have different music to try and accomplish the same thing. What we're trying to do is simulate crowd noise so they can't hear. They have to communicate a lot louder with one another. If it happens to be something that they like, they tend to catch the rhythm of it. But some things, obviously, I'm not quite certain what songs they were.”
  • Matthew Stafford's interception-free streak during training camp ended with a thud of the hands Monday afternoon, as a ball from Stafford tipped off the hands of Brandon Pettigrew and right into the waiting arms of cornerback Bill Bentley, who might have had a pick-six had the Lions been wearing pads. The play was immediately followed up by another interception, this one from Dan Orlovsky that tipped off a leaping receiver's hands.
  • Ryan Broyles had the offensive play of the day, jumping in the air to catch a ball thrown by Orlovsky. It showed just how much better Broyles feels now than a season ago, when he was still rehabilitating his torn ACL. Talked with Broyles a bit after practice about his mindset and where he is right now, so look for that Tuesday.
  • There were some new faces missing from Lions' practice Monday. Larry Warford was not at practice at all -- and MLive reported it is an illness. I did not spot Ezekiel Ansah at practice. He may have been there, but the media's angle during indoor practices cuts off part of the closer sideline. He remains on the active PUP list. TJ Jones also remains on the active PUP list. Don Carey missed practice as well. When asked why he was out he said, “Everything's everything, baby. I'll talk to y'all later.”
  • Actor Jeff Daniels showed up at practice Monday.
  • The Lions return to practice Tuesday night at 8:30 p.m. ET for a practice closed to the public but open to invited guests.

Lions Camp Report: Day 10

August, 7, 2014
Aug 7
8:00
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • With receiver Calvin Johnson and tight end Eric Ebron -- two of Detroit's biggest offensive pieces both physically and in terms of usage -- not practicing Thursday, there were more opportunities for others to try and stand out during practice. Joseph Fauria, who has been used with the first team often during the first two weeks of camp, saw a significant uptick in reps and appeared to fare fairly well. Fauria is going to make the team, but he needs to prove in this camp he has taken a step from last season, where he was primarily used in the red zone. If Ebron doesn't play Saturday, he'll have a large opportunity to do so before likely giving way to Jordan Thompson and Andrew Maxwell later in the game. Johnson, meanwhile, had an excused absence. With Johnson not at practice, Kris Durham appeared to receive more first-team reps than normal.
  • Speaking of Maxwell, the essentially unknown tight end had the play of practice in a rep with quarterback Matthew Stafford. Stafford fired the ball to Maxwell and it hit off of him. Then, it bounced off of safety Glover Quin and somehow right back into the hands of Maxwell, who made the catch and kept on running. It looked like one of those plays you'd see on an NFL Films highlight reel for years if it happened in a game instead of a preseason practice.
  • DeJon Gomes is making a strong push to win the fourth safety spot behind starters Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo and third safety/special teams leader Don Carey. Gomes has consistently backed up Ihedigbo, including when the starter briefly left practice after being kicked in the leg. Gomes has also shown up a lot on the first-team special teams units, which is critical for any depth player trying to make a roster.
  • As part of the veterans-getting-rest plan mentioned multiple times earlier in the week, rookie offensive lineman Travis Swanson has received a lot of time with the first-team offense, either at left guard spelling Rob Sims or at center, replacing Dominic Raiola. While there is no indication Sims or Raiola have anything to worry about when it comes to their jobs, this sort of experience can only provide value to Swanson both this season and down the road, when he eventually becomes a starter. Don't be surprised to see a lot of him Saturday night, perhaps in multiple positions.
  • The Ford family made another appearance at practice Thursday afternoon. While this is my first training camp covering the Lions, veteran reporter Dave Birkett noted the family has been out at camp more often than in the past few seasons. Of course, the team sort of changed ownership in the offseason after the death of William Clay Ford Sr. His wife, Martha, now is the owner of the team and she was at practice.
  • Darren Keyton missed another practice Thursday, as did Ezekiel Ansah, who continued doing side work. Also missing practice -- and not being in attendance at all -- was linebacker Cory Greenwood. Lions coach Jim Caldwell said Wednesday night that Greenwood has an excused absence. Both Ansah and receiver TJ Jones remain on the active PUP list.
  • The Lions have their final practice before the preseason opener at 8:30 a.m. Friday in Allen Park. It is not open to the public.

Part of the reason the Detroit Lions essentially ignored addressing the secondary in the 2014 draft was because of the faith general manager Martin Mayhew had in the potential of his young cornerbacks.

That trust is sure to be tested now.

The Lions have released their top cornerback, Chris Houston, after an inconsistent 2013 and offseason surgery for a toe that just wouldn't heal. Darius Slay and Rashean Mathis would now likely be the team's opening day starters at cornerback and the move increases the pressure on an untested group of players.

Houston
Houston
Bill Bentley has experience in the slot and is probably best suited there instead of on the outside. Jonte Green started games the past two seasons when players went down to injury, but has not been consistent. Chris Greenwood can't stay healthy and has minimal experience. Cassius Vaughn had a good spring, but was used to primarily used to provide depth at cornerback in Indianapolis.

The one pick the Lions did use on the secondary, corner Nevin Lawson in the fourth round, should have been more of a developmental selection.

At least one of those players will need to be counted on this fall. The early guess would be Vaughn, who has some experience and had moments where he looked extremely sharp in the spring. He likely won't be a starter, but he at least feels like part of the reason the team could have felt comfortable releasing Houston without even seeing him in training camp.

Now, unless the Lions sign a cornerback before camp, they will have to use this group to forge a cornerback corps. It is a unit with some talent, but short on experience. In a division with receivers like Randall Cobb, Jordy Nelson, Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery, that is not the type of situation you want to have.

Yet this is where Detroit is in the middle of June.

Something like this -- and Detroit had to have an inkling of concern here considering Houston did not play well in 2013 and had surgery -- was part of why it was so confusing how the Lions handled the secondary in the draft. Yes, Justin Gilbert was off the board when Detroit picked, but the team wasted little time before drafting tight end Eric Ebron, who the team opened up money to sign by cutting Houston.

They didn't seem to consider either selecting or trying to trade down to nab cornerbacks Kyle Fuller, Darqueze Dennard or even Jason Verrett from TCU or Bradley Roby from Ohio State. Or the team could have drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix from Alabama or Calvin Pryor from Louisville at safety and moved Don Carey, the team's third safety, to cornerback -- a position he previously played.

After Ebron, the team went with an interior lineman, Travis Swanson, in the third round and traded their fourth round pick to move up for Kyle Van Noy. The move possibly cost them one of the litany of defensive backs who went off the board before the team took Lawson with a supplemental pick in the fourth round.

Any of those first three picks could have been used on a secondary player that could have helped.

Of course all of this is hindsight now. Yet the Lions knew this possibility existed because of Houston's past few months. And that possibility became reality Friday -- even if it was somewhat predictable after Houston was excused from mandatory minicamp.

It leaves Detroit either hunting on the free agent wire or sticking with what they have – a group of young cornerbacks that could end up deciding Mayhew's future.

This is a sequence -- between the draft strategy, how's Houston's injury and eventual release was handled -- that should be used to judge Mayhew if Detroit struggles this season.

Mayhew put his faith with a group of young cornerbacks early. With Houston gone, Mayhew will now need them to prove he was right all along.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – There is now one day left.

The Detroit Lions finished up the second day of their mandatory minicamp Wednesday and it was probably the most balanced day the team has had during their sessions. After the first two weeks of open practices where the defense was dominant and the last couple of practices where the offense has been better, neither group seemed to take over the practice.

Johnson
That might be a good sign for the Lions that the offense is catching up to the defense even if both sides of the ball were without key contributors. Here are some thoughts, notes and observations from the day.
  • A decent amount of players missed practice Wednesday. Wide receiver TJ Jones, cornerback Chris Houston and linebacker Stephen Tulloch were not spotted at practice. Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (shoulder), guard Rob Sims, wide receiver Golden Tate (shoulder), wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, running back Mikel Leshoure and running back Joique Bell (knee) all sat out practice. Ansah, Tate and Bell were expected. Sims has missed team drills all offseason, as had Glover Quin, who only worked in individual drills Wednesday.
  • Jason Jones appears to be slowly moving back to health. He seemed more active Wednesday than he has during past open practices, including working some with the first unit. He is still coming back from a ruptured patella tendon suffered last season, but he will be a contender for the closed defensive end spot in the fall opposite Ansah on the defensive line.
  • Player of the practice: For the second straight day, it is Calvin Johnson. Any question about Johnson’s health are now gone. He was once again the best player on the field and caught everything around him. He appears to be completely over his injuries and has his timing with Matthew Stafford down once again. He beat any cornerback the Lions lined up against him during 1-on-1 periods and on one play leapt over DeAndre Levy to catch a pass that he ended up running in for a touchdown.
  • During those 1-on-1 drills between defensive backs and receivers, the receivers clearly won the day. They had at least six completions to start the drill, including Kris Durham reaching out to make a difficult catch in front of Darius Slay. Corey Fuller also beat Aaron Hester on a post route that was pretty impressive.
  • Sequence of the day: Two impressive plays in a row. First, safety James Ihedigbo jumped a route from Stafford to Brandon Pettigrew to break up the pass. It was a great break on the ball by Ihedigbo. Stafford followed it up, though, with a perfectly threaded ball to Patrick Edwards into a small window over safety Don Carey. It was the best throw Stafford made on the day.
  • Carey is starting to really emerge as the probable third safety, although this is not unexpected. He once again filled in for Quin during team drills and has been a decent presence back there. In the secondary, Jonte Green is the one player who doesn’t seem to be getting as many reps as one might think.
  • As they did Tuesday, Rodney Austin and rookie Travis Swanson both took first-team reps at guard and center. While Austin worked some at center Tuesday, Swanson was there Wednesday. In some ways, this is a test from Jim Caldwell to see if both of them can play both guard and center, something imperative for a reserve interior lineman. With Sims out, Austin has spent the majority of spring working with the first team at left guard.
  • This is getting repetitive, but Theo Riddick continues to be impressive. He seems a little faster than last season and might have improved more than anyone else on the roster from last season. He is putting himself in position to have a real role in this offense this season after being primarily a backup in 2013.
  • Written about Eric Ebron’s drops here a bit, so worth noting when he makes the type of catch the Lions drafted him for. He extended on what looked like a poorly thrown ball to stretch in front of safety Isa Abdul-Quddus to make the grab before hitting the ground. It is one of the best catches he has made in the open practice setting this spring.
  • With Tulloch not in attendance, Tahir Whitehead took a lot of the first-team snaps at linebacker next to Levy. He was pretty active there. While he is primarily a special-teams standout – he’ll end up having a roster spot because of his special-teams play – that the Lions staff inserted him there behind Tulloch would appear to indicate he is having a pretty good spring. After practice, Caldwell cited how Whitehead controls the movement of other players in that space as one of the reasons they like him behind Tulloch.
  • Really good day for Sam Martin. The second-year punter had some help with the wind, but he crushed almost all of his punts. It is tough to see yard lines because of how the Lions’ outdoor practice fields are set up, but he said after practice one of his punts went over 80 yards and had a few go at least 70 yards. He said his shortest on the day was 63 yards. Strong day for him.

The NFL draft is less than 12 hours away, which means soon enough the Detroit Lions will have to reveal whether all of their Sammy Watkins attention and visits from Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack had substance or were designed to throw everyone off.

But the draft will be more than just one round for the Lions, who will need to use the three days in May to build depth on a roster that is big on stars but small on those players beyond the big names that can turn the Lions into a playoff team.

Every day up until the first day of the draft, we’ll look at a different position grouping and see what Detroit has and what the team could end up looking for during the 2014 draft.

Today concludes with safeties.

Other previews

Players Lost: Louis Delmas (signed with Miami)

Players Signed: Isa Abdul-Quddus (from New Orleans); James Ihedigbo (from Baltimore); Nate Ness.

Players on the roster: Glover Quin; Don Carey; DeJon Gomes; Ihedigbo; Abdul-Quddus; Ness.

Draft priority: High

Potential Rounds: Any

Players who have visited or the Lions have met with: Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Alabama; Deone Bucannon, Washington State; Jaylen Watkins, Florida (per Detroit Free Press).

Analysis: Much like cornerback, safety is a definitive need for Detroit in this draft. The Lions tried to assist themselves at the position in free agency by signing Ihedigbo and Abdul-Quddus. The problem there is Abdul-Quddus is more of a four-unit special teams player and Ihedigbo appears to be more of a stop-gap option for the Lions than the safety of the future.

This is a position group Detroit needs to upgrade and it is a somewhat tough class to do it in unless the Lions make a move early. That’s part of the reason why I had the Lions taking Clinton-Dix in the first round of the NFL Nation mock draft earlier this week and why he could very well be the team’s choice Thursday night.

Clinton-Dix
In letting go of Delmas, the team signified it wanted to find a more reliable playmaker than Delmas. Too often, Delmas would miss on plays and his injured knees were a concern. The Lions let him go and he signed with Miami, but it also all but guaranteed the team would look to safety early in the draft.

If Detroit is going to really go after winning now, it needs to improve its defensive backfield with a top pick or two. In doing so, it should also improve the front seven, which would then have that extra half-second they so often seemed to need last season to sack quarterbacks.

Depending how the board falls Thursday -- and really, other than a trade, that will dictate all of the Lions’ decisions -- Clinton-Dix could be taken by Detroit or left on the board for someone else. That’s part of the fun of the draft, truly no one can accurately predict what is going to happen.

Of all reasonable options, I’d take: Clinton-Dix in the first round if the board falls even as close to expected. I know Bill Polian disagreed with me on "SportsCenter" on Wednesday, but the Alabama safety does not feel like a stretch at No. 10 and would fill an immediate need. Drafting Clinton-Dix could also move Ihedigbo into a more flexible role. Of course, the Lions haven't drafted a safety in the first round since Bennie Blades in 1988.

If the Lions passed on Clinton-Dix in the first round, a player to watch in later rounds could be Northern Illinois’ Jimmie Ward in the second round; Minnesota’s Brock Vereen in the third or fourth round and Wisconsin’s Dez Southward in the fourth or fifth round.

Possible targets: Clinton-Dix; Calvin Pryor, Louisville; Bucannon; Ward; Craig Loston, LSU; Vereen; Southward; Dion Bailey, USC.

His knees were always going to be a problem.

At age 26, with a cap number of $6.5 million on a team that desperately needed to recover some room to get under the 2014 salary cap, safety Louis Delmas was going to be a target for either a major pay cut or what happened Thursday, which was a full release from the Detroit Lions.

Unlike Nate Burleson, who was also released Thursday as a cap cut, Delmas was done in by his injury history. While Delmas, who like Burleson was a loud presence in the huddle and in pregame, played all 16 games this season, he could barely practice during the week.

[+] EnlargeLouis Delmas
Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY SportsLouis Delmas leaves big shoes to fill in Detroit's defense as far as leadership is concerned.
And there were little guarantee his knees would be able to hold up in the long term, even as he took care of them well during the 2013 season. Considering Detroit’s struggles in the secondary throughout last season and Delmas’ sometimes erratic and wild play, it wasn’t worth it to the team to keep him on the payroll at the price he was going to cost Detroit.

He is an exciting player who can make big hits, but those hits had cost the Lions at times this season, both in terms of personal foul penalties and, in one instance, injuries when he had a head-to-head collision with cornerback Bill Bentley that gave him a concussion.

Delmas was often praised as being more consistent this season than he had been in prior years. His chemistry with Glover Quin, who was brought in as a free agent last season, was a big part of that. And even his new coaches, Jim Caldwell and Teryl Austin, had positive things to say about Delmas.

But it wasn't enough to retain his services for 2014 at the salary he was going to make. If the team doesn’t target a safety early in free agency and Delmas is still around, the team could reach out to him to return, but one would have to surmise the team will at least investigate other options first.

How the team handles the safety position could be intriguing. This could be a sign the team has more confidence in Don Carey, who played a lot of nickel last season and signed a three-year extension before the season ended, to become a full-time starter opposite Quin.

It also could signal the team wanting to sign another free agent at safety. Among the potential options are Bernard Pollard and Jairus Byrd.

There is also the NFL draft, and while it would still be surprising to see the Lions take a safety early in the draft, if Alabama’s Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is around at No. 10, he could be worth taking a hard look at. Calvin Pryor from Louisville and Deone Bucannon from Washington could both fit as second-day selections if they are there.

Much like Burleson on the offensive side, Detroit will lose fire from the defensive huddle without Delmas. The Lions will also lose two of their bigger characters in the locker room, both of whom knew how to keep the mood light for teammates no matter what was going on.

That can’t be understated -- and it will be one area where Detroit will have to find new leadership, for sure, in 2014.

In many ways, Monday night on national television could have looked a lot different for the Detroit Lions. There could have been a chance the Lions could have clinched the division against the Baltimore Ravens. But with everything set up well for Detroit in the division, the Lions could not close it out.

They let the Chicago Bears hang around. Let the Green Bay Packers hang around. So now the Lions are in this other situation: Win to hold on to the lead in the division.

"It's there for the taking, but we have to go out and take it," Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. "That starts with the Ravens on Monday night. Last time we left Ford Field, we were feeling really good about ourselves with the win over Green Bay on Thanksgiving.

"We have to get that feeling back. We know our crowd will make a difference for us. I think you'll see that from our players."

Detroit has to. Its season might depend on it. So how do the Lions accomplish this? Here are the four keys.

Deal with the pressure: The Lions spent all week saying essentially different variations of the playoffs are starting now. Well, Detroit got what it wanted. With Chicago winning on the road at Cleveland, the Lions need to beat Baltimore to keep pace with the Bears in the NFC North and hold on to a playoff spot for the time being. And if the Lions lose Monday, then they drop to third in the division.

This is the way it is going to be for Detroit the rest of the season and the Lions, if they are going to be a playoff team like they say they want to be, have to be able to deal with it. The Lions have vacillated between being very good and very bad in games like this over the course of this season.

Pressure Flacco: Joe Flacco likes to find receivers downfield when he can and is eighth in the NFL in air yards per attempt. Considering Detroit's depleted cornerback situation -- it'd be surprising if Chris Houston or Darius Slay played Monday night -- the Lions front four needs to be able to reach Flacco at the rate they reached Matt Flynn on Thanksgiving in order to cause disruptions in the passing game. Detroit did this to Flynn by taking away his first read, but the Lions also had a healthy-enough secondary then. They don't now, so Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley, Ziggy Ansah and Willie Young need to get to Flacco early.

Stop the turnovers: This is becoming a weekly topic, but considering the Lions' lack of margin for error both in games and in the season at this point, they need to have a game where they are not careless with the ball. Detroit hasn't had a game without a turnover since facing Cincinnati in October and haven't had a game with less than three turnovers since the win over Chicago in Week 10.

Baltimore has only picked off nine passes this season, so the Ravens aren't exactly an opportunistic defense. Detroit can't have that switch on Monday night.

Give help on the outside: Defensive coordinator Gunther Cunningham and Schwartz both expressed confidence in Jonte Green and Chris Greenwood, the two likely candidates to line up opposite Rashean Mathis at cornerback. The Lions have to trust Mathis will be able to hang with Torrey Smith, especially since Green or Greenwood might need help with Marlon Brown (36 catches, 412 yards, six touchdowns) on the other side. Bill Bentley or Don Carey will also have a difficult assignment with speedster Jacoby Jones in the slot, but the matchup between Green/Greenwood and Brown could be a big factor Monday.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Don Carey lined up on special teams in training camp his rookie season. This, he knew, was how he was going to make an NFL roster. The Cleveland coaches were giving him a chance during training camp as a gunner.

He lined up. Got ready. The ball was snapped. It didn’t go well.

“A couple of the vets took me to the Gatorades,” Carey said. “Took me to the Gatorades.”

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ross
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsWhen Jeremy Ross isn't catching TD passes, he's usually fighting his way downfield to cover a punt.
As in pushed him so far out of bounds he was thrown into the tubs of Gatorade on the sidelines. After that, Carey went to Josh Cribbs to learn the intricacies of playing one of the most important spots on special teams.

Every gunner has this type of story, the welcome to the world of special teams moment that makes them realize both what it takes to be a gunner in the NFL, and also whether or not they can handle it.

And for many players, it is a way onto a roster.

It’s a position often overlooked, and many times fans have no idea who the gunners are. But to NFL teams, they are extremely important. They are the ones who keep big returns from happening. They are the ones who make punters look good.

And it is something that takes time, strategy and a certain type of mentality to perfect.

“You have to have a combination of mental toughness and physical toughness,” said assistant special teams coach Evan Rothstein, who coaches the gunners. “The speed to get downfield in about four-and-a-half seconds to go and make a play. You have to be mentally and physically tough ... it’s a want-to type of position.

“You have to want to go make a big play.”

They also have to understand there will be points, especially early on, where being a gunner will likely end in failure in a big way. Every gunner has that type of story, especially early on in their career.

Micheal Spurlock, the former Lions returner and gunner, remembers being tossed aside into the bench by Shawn Springs when he was with Tampa Bay facing Washington. Jeremy Ross, who replaced Spurlock at both spots, was with New England his rookie year when he was thrown out there in the preseason.

And promptly tossed to the ground.

“Both guys were on top of me,” Ross said. “And I couldn’t do nothing.”

Eventually, they learned, and now, with some years of experience in the NFL, have become a good gunner tandem for Detroit. For most of the season, Carey and Spurlock were handling the duties. Once Spurlock was cut, Ross took his place.

Both Ross and Carey have similar size and speed to be effective against single press (one defender) and double press (two defenders) coverages that are trying to keep them from the punt returner.

So what, actually, is a successful play for a gunner?

“A gunner has done his job if he makes a tackle or forces a fair catch,” Rothstein said. “So if you’re making a tackle or forcing a fair catch, that’s a job well done for a gunner.”

The Lions have the third-best opponent punt return average in the league, holding returners to 5.04 yards a return. The Lions have also forced 11 fair catches this season.

Most of the actual strategy for gunners, especially for a dome team like Detroit, comes during the week studying how punt return teams block for their returner and how they try to jam the gunners at the line. That’s the biggest key. In order for any gunner to have any success, he must learn to beat the initial jam coverage.

The planning that happens during the week, besides studying the jammers, is understanding where punter Sam Martin will likely try to place his punts during the game based off tendencies and potentially anticipated weather and wind.

There are times during games, though, that strategy becomes useless and becomes all about beating your man -- somewhat akin to how a receiver tries to beat a cornerback. Spurlock compares it to a fight. Every time.

“Your job is to get down to the returner as fast as you can,” Ross said. “And cause havoc, you know.”

Being thrown to the Gatorade tubs or to the ground, that’s something every good gunner eventually learns how to do. Create chaos in five seconds or less.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Rookie cornerback Darius Slay, who suffered a knee injury in practice Thursday, is officially listed as doubtful for Sunday against Philadelphia.

Slay
"Still being evaluated. We'll see where that takes us," Detroit coach Jim Schwartz said. "It was sort of a freak thing."

Schwartz said the Lions would find out if Slay's injury would potentially be a long term injury later Friday.

In other cornerback-related news, Chris Houston is officially listed as questionable with a foot injury that kept him out of the Thanksgiving Day game against Green Bay.

If Slay is unable to play, cornerback Jonte Green, who has played sparingly all season, could be an option as a reserve. Another potential option would be to move Bill Bentley outside from the nickel spot he currently inhabits and play Don Carey more in the nickel.

Other than Slay and Houston, Detroit is fairly healthy for the Lions. Running back Reggie Bush is officially questionable with a calf injury, but he practiced Friday.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

November, 17, 2013
11/17/13
4:35
PM ET


PITTSBURGH -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' 37-27 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

What it means: What a complete collapse for the Lions, a team that had went through every sort of emotion during Sunday’s game. They started off discombobulated in the first quarter, set records in the second quarter, then fell apart in the second half.

It’s tough to explain how the Lions went from an offensive juggernaut in the first half to Calvin Johnson not having a reception in the second half and Matthew Stafford unable to even throw for half a field after halftime. It is, though, a loss that could hurt the Lions down the road. Detroit had complete control over this game before a combination of defensive lapses, dropped passes and a bizarre fake field goal call in the fourth quarter turned a win into a loss and a potential three-game winning streak into a 6-4 record that gives the Bears and Packers a chance to keep pace in the NFC North.

Stock Watch: Rising -- Safety Don Carey. Carey had yet another week of significant playing time with cornerback Bill Bentley injured, and he had a decent game, making nine tackles and two tackles for loss. ... DeAndre Levy had a game-high 12 tackles, including two tackles for loss. Falling -- Detroit’s fourth quarter defense. The Lions gave up a 97-yard drive to Ben Roethlisberger and the Steelers midway through the fourth quarter, resulting in a touchdown with 4:46 left to give Pittsburgh the lead. ... Reggie Bush's production. The running back fumbled, ran for 31 yards on 12 carries and caught two passes for 23 yards. Not his best day.

Setting records: Detroit’s typical combination of Stafford-to-Johnson gave the Lions some big records in the first half. Stafford threw for 327 yards in the first half, a franchise record. He also broke Bobby Layne’s franchise passing record of 15,710 yards. With 362 yards Sunday, Stafford now has 16,005 yards. Stafford, though, faded in the second half, passing for only 35 yards.

What’s next: The Lions return home for two games in less than two weeks when they face Tampa Bay next Sunday and then Green Bay on Thanksgiving Day.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A year ago, things were a bit different with the Detroit Lions. The team was losing. People weren’t happy. The Lions looked like a team headed toward the bottom of the NFL.

“Last year it was kind of like position groups with their position groups,” left guard Rob Sims said. “That’s, any time you’re losing, that’s what it looks like. Stick to your guns, never pointing fingers, but maybe we didn’t associate with everybody like we should've.”

Now you look in the Detroit locker room today and players are, for the most part, happy. Position groups intermingle. The team appears to genuinely get along.

You have a wide receiver, Kevin Ogletree, rooming with a defensive back, Louis Delmas. You have players congregating at events outside of the Lions facility. There’s a different attitude around the team now, and if you think that doesn’t have something to do with their play -- and that the play doesn't have something to do with their attitude -- you’d be wrong.

There’s a chemistry within this Detroit team now, a comfort with one another that has helped on Sundays.

“The real change came in the offseason, when everyone got back here,” backup quarterback Shaun Hill said. “You could tell there was a different mentality around. The leaders were really stepping up and came in with a new focus.

“There’s a lot of things. One was just attention to detail in the offseason program and everybody came with the intentions of working hard and then, aside from that, there was kind of a high priority put on coming together and being a cohesive team, just coming together and being a better team.”

This new mentality began in April, when Detroit returned for its organized team activities and started to slowly prepare for this season. In those first few days, the returning Lions were able to sense that something was changing.

Some of it might have had to do with the changes in the on-field personnel -- Reggie Bush and others were brought in -- and some of it had to do with understanding what happened in 2012, from players who were distractions to chemistry that did not exist.

“Overall demeanor,” safety Don Carey said. “You could tell everyone still had that 4-12 season in the back of their head and we didn’t want that to happen again. So guys worked really hard this offseason, and you could see it from the first time they stepped on the field.”

Then there is the maturity. The free agents the Lions brought in were veterans of either multiple teams or multiple years in the league. Bush, Rashean Mathis and C.J. Mosley all are good presences in the locker room. And the players who were there before all grew up a bit, both in knowing their roles and in understanding what it takes to be a pro.

“There was a lot said about guys not being a distraction and getting into trouble,” Hill said. “And to this point, we’ve held up that end of it. I think that would fall into the maturity category.”

So when you look at the Lions, at 6-3 and leading the NFC North, understand that for all the talent on the outside, it starts inside their locker room, where there is a greater sense of comfort than there was 12 months ago.

Upon Further Review: Lions Week 10

November, 11, 2013
11/11/13
8:00
AM ET

CHICAGO -- A review of four hot issues from the Detroit Lions' 21-19 win over the Chicago Bears.

First place? First place: Detroit has not been in first place this late in the season this century. By beating the rival Bears and with the Green Bay Packers losing to the Philadelphia Eagles, the Lions are rolling solo in first place at 6-3. With just two teams -- the Packers at 5-4 and the Philadelphia Eagles at 5-5 -- at .500 or better remaining on the Detroit schedule, the Lions have what appears to be a clear path to their first NFC North title. At worst, they should have their second playoff appearance in three seasons.

Even more impressive during this run to the top of the division is how Detroit has done it. There have been come-from-behind wins and games in which the Lions had to hold on. They have been balanced. This isn’t a team that only wins at home. The Lions have three of their six wins on the road -- only the third time in the past decade Detroit has won at least three road games (the other years being the 2011 playoff season and 2004, when the Lions went 6-10).

[+] EnlargeNick Fairley and Jay Cutler
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNick Fairley is one of the few players to produce for the Lions in their 2011 draft class.
Return of the pressure: Detroit’s defensive line took advantage of a clearly hobbled Jay Cutler, hitting him 10 times and hitting Chicago quarterbacks 11 times in all. Defensive tackles Nick Fairley and Ndamukong Suh hit the Chicago quarterbacks four times each and both had a sack. In all, five defensive linemen hit a Chicago quarterback on Sunday, with pressure coming from both the ends and the tackles. This is something the Lions have been missing the past few weeks.

Willie Young's point: The defensive end was clearly frustrated after the game with his roughing the passer penalty on Detroit’s first two-point conversion stop late in the fourth quarter.

Young’s argument on his penalty was that he was going for the ball as quarterback Josh McCown threw a millisecond earlier. Their helmets grazed each other, resulting in a helmet-to-helmet call he couldn’t really control. He argued it was more incidental than anything malicious.

"The players need to have a meeting after the season,” Young said. “We need to get that stuff straight. We need to sit down and talk about that thing, man, cause obviously we see guys getting tagged left and right all across the league.”

Young said he went up to McCown after the game and told him to go back and watch the play again to show he wasn’t trying to do anything malicious.

Open field tackling: Detroit’s defensive backs did a decent job making plays in the open field Sunday. Nickel back Don Carey made two open-field stops on receivers and cornerback Chris Houston had at least two as well. This was key as the Bears consistently tried to run outside with pitches against the Lions, who held Matt Forte to 33 yards rushing.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

November, 10, 2013
11/10/13
4:09
PM ET


CHICAGO -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' 21-19 victory against the Chicago Bears.

What it means: The Lions, a team that has spent most of the past 30 or so years wandering in mediocrity or worse, are in first place in the NFC North. By themselves, barring a miracle comeback by Green Bay. In the second half of the season. For the first time in a long time.

And by beating the Bears in Chicago for the first time since 2007, the Lions now hold the tiebreaker over the Bears for any playoff implications and put themselves in even better position for a playoff berth should they end up not winning the division.

Detroit made it interesting, though, taking a lead late in the fourth quarter and then needing a two-point conversion stop at the end of the game to hold on. But a win is a win is a win, and the Lions are in first place in the division.

Stock Watch: Rising -- The play of defensive back Don Carey. Thrown into the game after Chicago picked on rookie Darius Slay early in the game -- the Bears went at him on two straight third-down conversions -- the Lions went to Carey and he played well, reading underneath routes and making two tackles. Detroit’s run defense is also rising. The Lions did a good job containing Matt Forte, holding him to 33 yards on 17 carries. And once again, Detroit’s playoff chances are rising. The Lions, with the victory and the Green Bay loss, are alone atop the NFC North. And Nick Fairley is on the rise. The large defensive tackle broke through the line, swallowed Forte on a two-point conversion and won the game for the Lions.

Return of the process: After a Matthew Stafford interception, Chicago had a first-and-goal to go. A holding call nullified a touchdown and set up a third down, when Jay Cutler hit Alshon Jeffery for what looked like a 14-yard touchdown catch. But in the same stadium where the Calvin Johnson complete the process rule cost Detroit a game in 2010, the Lions got one back in 2013. In the opposite end zone of the Johnson non-catch, Jeffery bobbled the ball after he hit the ground, costing the Bears a touchdown.

What’s next: Detroit stays on the road next week, heading to Pittsburgh to take on the Steelers.

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