NFC North: Matthew Stafford

ALLEN PARK, Mich. – Willie Young heard Matthew Stafford called him “one of my favorite teammates” Tuesday and the former Detroit Lions defensive end -- now with the Chicago Bears -- started to laugh.

Young, who left the Lions in free agency during the offseason, was actually one of the more well-liked players in the Detroit locker room during his four years with the Lions, but, yeah, Young thought Stafford might be trying to fete him just a little bit.

“Absolutely, yeah,” Young said, laughing. “Yeah. He’s buttering me up on that one. Matt Stafford, man, he was a cool guy. He came to work every day, put the work in. Obviously he’s a very talented quarterback. He doesn’t make too many bad decisions, I would say. I know this year he hasn’t been because they’ve been on the winning side of things.

[+] EnlargeWillie Young
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsFormer Lions defensive end Willie Young has been a force as a Bear, compiling eight sacks.
“He’s obviously a respected quarterback, get rid of the ball fast, make pretty good decisions, has some good guys in the backfield running the ball for him. But I could see why he might be trying to be kinda nice to me right now because he’s a little low on protection right now. I don’t blame him for being nice right now.”

Stafford is smart to try to get on Young's good side, as Young has flourished since leaving Detroit in the offseason. Finally getting a chance to be an every-down defensive end in his fifth NFL season, he is 13th in the NFL in sacks with eight -- two more than he had in his four seasons with the Lions. Considering the Lions could end up starting two rookies on the offensive line Thursday if Cornelius Lucas replaces the injured Riley Reiff at left tackle, and Young could have a big return to his old stadium.

Young was a seventh-round pick out of North Carolina State, but ended up as mostly a rotational player until last season, when he played every game after a season-ending injury to Jason Jones. Having had to learn behind Kyle VandenBosch, Cliff Avril, Ndamukong Suh, Nick Fairley and Andre Fluellen in various forms helped him as he watched from the sidelines.

“Don’t get it wrong now, is it tough sitting on the sidelines, not playing, knowing that you have what it takes to be a player, yeah, it’s tough, it’s real tough,” Young said. “But I was able to figure out a way to deal with that and take everything that I could from the game, from the sideline standpoint. It just bettered me as a person and obviously as a player.”

It’s a progression Lions players expected when Young received more snaps, especially after he made the leap from 11 tackles in 2012 to 47 in 2013, which helped set up his free agency move.

Young said Tuesday he didn’t know if the Lions made him an offer during free agency or if they even called his agent to inquire about his services. He just knows his agent told him he was headed to Chicago on a new deal.

When asked about Young and free agency, Lions coach Jim Caldwell wouldn’t say whether or not he had wanted to bring Young back this season or not, but complimented his pass rushing ability.

His old teammates, though, saw exactly what Young could do from the beginning and figured this type of leap might come from him.

“Everybody saw what he could do from the jump,” Fluellen said. “I’m actually not surprised at all. He has a special talent and he has a really good attitude for the game.

“I’m not surprised at all.”
videoWhen: 12:30 p.m. ET, Thursday Where: Ford Field, Detroit TV: CBS

The Detroit Lions broke their Thanksgiving Day hex last season when they annihilated NFC North foe Green Bay. At the time, the Lions looked like a team potentially heading for the playoffs after stopping a two-game skid.

The Lions didn't win a game the rest of the season.

This season, the Lions face a Chicago Bears team that has won two straight and, much like Detroit, has a bunch of offensive talent currently failing to meet expectations. Does one of these teams break out Thursday?

ESPN Bears reporter Michael C. Wright and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein break down what could happen in this divisional Thanksgiving clash.

Rothstein: Chicago has a ton of offensive talent on paper, but this team has not put up the offense that one would think. What has been the main culprit here?

Wright: A few things, but the main issues throughout this team's struggles have been quarterback Jay Cutler, who has a penchant for committing turnovers, and the play calling. Cutler leads the league in giveaways, and in all but one of this team's losses this season, the quarterback turned over the ball multiple times. Yet in all but one of the team's victories, Cutler didn't throw an interception. So there's definitely a correlation there, as the Bears are 3-10 during Marc Trestman's tenure when they finish on the negative side of the turnover margin and 1-4 when the turnover margin is equal. Obviously, the Bears could minimize Cutler's exposure to potential turnovers by leaning more on the ground game with Matt Forte averaging 4.2 yards per attempt. But what happens is the Bears too often abandon the running game for the pass, which is understandable given all the weapons on the outside. Once the Bears start throwing it all over the yard, Cutler starts turning it over and opposing defenses capitalize (opponents have scored 82 points off Chicago's turnovers), which in turn makes it impossible to rededicate to the ground game because by then the offense is usually trying to overcome a deficit.

What's your take on the perception that Jim Caldwell has been too conservative, and do you see him loosening up some with this team trying to snap a two-game skid?

Rothstein: It's interesting because he wasn't at all against Miami, when the Lions attempted two fake punts in a half. Since then, the offense has looked completely out of rhythm, passes are getting dropped again, Stafford is under duress and Calvin Johnson is going through only the second three-game stretch of his career where he has caught less than 50 percent of his targets. But being at home cures a lot of things for Detroit typically, and that alone should help. Theoretically.

Switching to defense, what has gone into Willie Young's success with Chicago? He was emerging with Detroit, but how has his game grown?

Wright: You've been around him, Mike. You know the type of guy he is. Young's ascension is a product of the work he's put in, and the Bears just happened to bring him aboard at the perfect time in his career. Obviously it helps Young to have a veteran such as Jared Allen around to teach him some of the nuances of the game. But Young has also benefited from working with martial arts expert Joe Kim. The Bears brought in Kim as a consultant to work with the defensive linemen on hand-fighting techniques, and that's helped the group as a whole. Throw in Allen's tutelage and Young's own work ethic and you see why he's been able to put together a breakout season.

Can you provide a rundown on what's taken place with the guys Young will face, the offensive line? I know the group has struggled pretty much all season, but Riley Reiff's situation probably complicates things with the Lions looking possibly to start a couple of undrafted free agents at the tackle spots.

Rothstein: Between injuries, a small change in how the team blocks this season and just struggles with personnel, it's gotten really rough for the line. Let's start with the injuries. Right guard Larry Warford -- probably Detroit's best lineman -- is still out with a knee injury. LaAdrian Waddle, the right tackle, is healthy now but has been in and out of the lineup all season with injuries. Reiff, the left tackle, hurt his knee Sunday against the Patriots and his status is in doubt for Thursday. So the cohesion has barely been there. Also, some of the concepts have changed with how they block and how long it takes both the routes and runs to develop due to play calls, so it has put some other pressures on the line.

For so long, the Bears have used Peanut Tillman on Calvin Johnson. Tillman's out. How do the Bears deal with Johnson and Golden Tate now?

Wright: To me, that's one of the most significant concerns for the Bears entering this game. As you already know, rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller's availability for this game is uncertain with him suffering a knee injury in the win over Tampa Bay. Fuller had been playing with a broken hand and a hip pointer prior to his latest setback. Fuller's injury didn't appear to be significant initially. But if Fuller can't go, the Bears would likely go with undrafted rookie Al Louis-Jean, who possesses similar size to Tillman (6-foot-1, 187 pounds). But would you want to put an undrafted rookie on Johnson? Tim Jennings (5-8) would likely struggle matching up with Johnson. So Chicago would be in a tough spot if Fuller isn't able to play. If the Bears are forced to go with Louis-Jean, the corners would probably stay on their respective sides with the defense giving the corner to Johnson's side safety help over the top, along with extra help underneath, whether that's from a linebacker or the nickel.

The Lions have lost two in a row for the first time all season, and surely there's some level of concern starting to creep in internally. This is uncharted territory for 2014 at least, but do you believe the Lions are better equipped to deal with this type of adversity now with Jim Caldwell calling the shots?

Rothstein: Theoretically, yes, although the personal foul penalty by C.J. Mosley and then the antics from Dominic Raiola at the end of Sunday's loss to New England did have me questioning whether Caldwell's message is truly getting through. The players still seem to believe in him and in the way he goes about things, which is always trying to stay calm and not showing signs of panic. This helped earlier this season when Detroit had three straight come-from-behind wins in October and November to help put them in this position. It's why Thursday is so big. Lose three straight and thoughts of another free fall might be more than just percolating around the edges.

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QB snapshot: Matthew Stafford

November, 25, 2014
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A quick observation of Matthew Stafford and how he played in the Detroit Lions' 34-9 loss in Week 12:

Stafford
Stafford
Matthew Stafford is coming off a career-worst 39.1 completion percentage Sunday against the New England Patriots, and if his history is a guide, the Lions could be in trouble the rest of the way starting Thursday against Chicago.

In his career, Stafford is 4-12 in Weeks 13-17, including a 1-9 mark down the stretch in the past two seasons. His statistics also have showed significant drop-off as the season enters its final five weeks. Over the past three seasons, his QBR from Weeks 13-17 has dropped from 83.0 in 2011 to 49.6 in 2012 to 29.6 in 2013. His completion percentage has also been lower each season from 2011 to 2013, including a 57.4 percent mark last year.

After a 15-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2011, he dipped to .86 touchdowns per interception in 2012 and .71 touchdowns per interception in 2013. Considering the way Detroit’s offense is struggling right now -- no offensive touchdowns in eight quarters -- how Stafford adjusts during the season’s final five weeks will be critical not only for the Lions’ playoff chances but also for his effort in turning around a disturbing trend.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

November, 23, 2014
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FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' 34-9 loss to the New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

What it means: This was always going to be a struggle and perhaps the Lions' toughest game of the season. However, there should be legitimate concern with Detroit's offense right now. The Lions have gone two straight games without a touchdown and despite shrinking the play-calling sheet in order to help find offensive rhythm and consistency, the Lions gained 335 yards -- right around their 332.3 yard per game average -- but once again appeared largely inconsistent.

More on this below, but perhaps a bigger concern was the return of the drops for the Lions -- an issue in 2013 but so far not a problem this season. Detroit had at least six drops against the Patriots, including three potential touchdowns.

Defensively, the Lions weren't much better. While the Patriots abandoned the run early, Tom Brady was able to carve through Detroit's defense, completing 38 of 53 passes for 349 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. He was also not sacked -- the second straight game the Lions have been unable to sack an opposing quarterback.

Stock watch: Rising – Golden Tate. He went over 1,000 yards for the season and once again had a strong game with four catches for 97 yards a week after the Lions only threw two passes to him. He also was one of the few Detroit receivers to not drop a pass -- an accomplishment on a day where the Lions dropped three potential touchdown receptions. Falling – Pass-catchers. Eric Ebron dropped Matthew Stafford's best throw of the day -- a touch pass in stride that hit Ebron in the hands before he dropped it. There were also drops in the end zone by Joseph Fauria, Corey Fuller and Jeremy Ross. Calvin Johnson had a couple of drops as well. But those three dropped touchdowns made a massive difference in the game.

Back to second: With Green Bay knocking off Minnesota, 24-21, the Lions are officially out of first place in the NFC North. The Packers are 8-3 and the Lions are 7-4. This puts Detroit in a crowded wild-card race with Philadelphia, Dallas, San Francisco and Seattle. This is realistically three teams for two spots -- one of the Eagles or Cowboys will win the NFC East -- and something that is going to be watched the rest of the season.

Game ball: Once again, Tate was one of the few bright spots on the Lions and the only one offensively for the team. He gave the Lions more than a third of their total offense Sunday -- 97 yards receiving, 13 yards rushing -- and is the only player on Detroit able to show any offensive creativity right now. He's been the only consistent thing on the Lions' inconsistent offense this season.

What's next: The Lions head home for a short week before facing division rival Chicago on Thursday in the annual Thanksgiving game.
TROY, Mich. -- Golden Tate has seen this happen before when he was in Seattle.

The team was winning games -- that was most important -- but the offense was still trying to discover itself as players adjusted to new coaches and new pieces within the offense.

So he isn’t concerned that 11 games into a season, including an entire offseason for offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi to scheme up what he wants, that the offense still looks like it's under heavy construction.

[+] EnlargeGolden Tate
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY Sports"We're still trying to figure out the type of team, of offense that we want to be," Lions WR Golden Tate said.
“We’re still doing a lot of growing,” Tate said after an event at the Microsoft Store in Troy, Michigan. “We’re still trying to figure out the type of team, of offense that we want to be. We’re learning and the good news is we still have a long ways to go but we’re still sitting 7-3 with a really bright future.

“I think we can stay healthy and stay motivated and keep grinding, it’s all going to work out. We’re still learning and figuring things out.”

That has been evident this season, as the Lions have had inconsistent offensive movement throughout the year -- something that has been masked by the team’s record and place at the top of the NFC North along with Green Bay.

It is that record, though, that is all that matters to Tate and the Lions. Not how pretty or prolific the offense has been to get there. After all, Tate has seen this before with an eventual Super Bowl champion.

“In Seattle, it took us a while to really start clicking,” Tate said. “All our records say otherwise, but it doesn’t matter how you win, it’s just as long as you win and that’s what we’re trying to do.

“This is the first year we’ve had this head coach along with some the new additions on the offense and the defense. We’re still trying to figure it out. We’re not playing bad football, still.”

Tate was largely taken away from the Lions on Sunday against Arizona. On Tuesday, he echoed his coach, Jim Caldwell, and his quarterback, Matthew Stafford, in saying Arizona didn’t do anything different against Detroit.

Instead, the progression of the reads, which so often had found Tate this season, just weren’t there. That’s Tate's reasoning for why he only got two targets Sunday in a 14-6 loss to the Cardinals.

Arizona’s defense -- which might have the deepest, most talented secondary the Lions have seen this year -- along with a slow start offensively also played a role.

“It’s something that, that’s a collective effort -- coaching, the players, the quarterback, the blockers, the running backs, it’s all a collective effort,” Tate said. “So I’m going to go out and just work that much harder this week to get the trust of the OC and my coach and the quarterback and see if I can help this team a little more.

“I just want to be impactful week in and week out and put this team in position to win.”

Tate has been a large reason the Lions have won this season.

With Calvin Johnson out, Tate has already set career highs in receptions (68) and yards (950). Even with a slow week against Arizona, he’s still third in the NFL in receptions, sixth in yards and potentially in line for his first Pro Bowl berth.

The Film Don't Lie: Lions

November, 18, 2014
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A weekly look at what the Detroit Lions must fix:

This could easily be another treatise about the woes of the Lions' offense and how the team has little to no shot against the New England Patriots on Sunday if it doesn't find some remedy to its inability to run or pass with any consistency. And all of that would be true.

But let's focus on one area here. Matthew Stafford has long been a quarterback who is often at his best -- and sometimes, his worst -- when he ends up having to react to plays instead of making his reads, having time in the pocket and then throwing. When he's put on the run, under pressure, Stafford makes the big plays, and it's often when he takes his bigger chances downfield.

That's one area where Stafford has done less this season. In 2013, Stafford threw the ball downfield 15 yards or more an average of 8.6 times a game. This season, he's down to 6.9 times a game. In 2014, Stafford has taken 10 or more deep shots in a game only once -- against Atlanta. Last season, he did so six times. Stafford is on pace for his fewest deep throws since his abbreviated 2010 season. And he's completing only 37.7 percent of these passes, his lowest percentage since 2010.

It always appeared Stafford was more comfortable in these situations, though. And with receivers such as Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, those chances should be more plentiful, not less.

This week, it might also be where the Patriots could be vulnerable. Over the past two weeks, Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck completed 14 of 31 passes on deep throws. While that might not seem like a big percentage, taking some of these chances early could open up the New England defense for some underneath work later in the game and put Stafford back into his comfort zone. It would also lend a level of unpredictability to what has turned into a very conservative Lions offense.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The Detroit Lions don’t rank in the yop 10 in any major offensive statistical category. In a lot of them, they actually slide in at the lower third of the NFL.

Yet Lions coach Jim Caldwell appears to be fine with the way first-year offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is calling plays.

“Certainly I’m satisfied with it,” Caldwell said. “Joe does a good job.”

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY SportsThe Lions mustered only 262 yards and two field goals against the Cardinals.
When asked what he wanted to see change with the plays that are called, he instead pointed to Joique Bell’s 14-carry, 85-yard performance Sunday -- the first time this season Bell has eclipsed the 75-yard rushing mark. It is also the first time Bell gained more than 5 yards a carry in a game.

But for once this year, the run game wasn’t an issue -- at least not Bell’s portion of it. It was a little bit of everything else that was the problem.

Consistent production has been a problem for Detroit’s offense all season. They haven’t gained more than 400 yards in a game since Week 1 against the New York Giants. They’ve gone over 350 yards of offense in half of their games this season.

That has alternated with games where the Lions struggle to move the ball. Even in their three straight come-from-behind wins to help them reach 7-2 prior to Sunday, there were offensive inefficiencies.

In two of those three games -- New Orleans and Atlanta -- the Lions gained more than 100 yards in the fourth quarter. So the drama of the late-game movement from Matthew Stafford and the offense might have temporarily masked offensive issues that are now wide open.

“Maybe a little bit,” left guard Rob Sims said. “I’m not sure. I know some things from playing in my left guard spot, I’ll tell you that. I know I played with these guys for five years and we figure out a way to get it done over the years.

“There’s nothing in me that says we’re not going to. Obviously there are some things that we missed. Obviously some things that we didn’t do right but we’ll go back and look at the film and see what we can do.”

What happened when Caldwell went back and looked at the film was essentially the same things he saw when he was coaching it live. Protection issues. Reads by Stafford. Predictability of play calls from Lombardi.

All of it rolls into one inefficient unit right now.

Detroit is 21st in yards per game (332.3), 25th in yards per play (5.13), 30th in rushing yards per game (79.8) and yards per run (3.24), 12th in passing yards a game (252.5) and 17th in net yards per attempt (6.81).

The Lions’ QBR of 56.9 is 19th in the NFL.

“There’s never been any one thing,” Caldwell said. “And that’s the thing with consistency. We haven’t been able to be really consistent across the board and consistent enough to play as well as well as we’re capable of.

“Now, when you put 21 points up in a half or 22 points in a half, that’s moving the ball pretty well so we’ve had our spurts. But we just haven’t been able to do that consistently across the board. That’s what we’re striving for. We’ve got time to do it.

“All of the things that we’ve got problems with, they’re correctable.”

How long it takes to make those corrections, though, could determine the amount of success Detroit has throughout the remainder of the season.
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DETROIT -- They looked at each other with two minutes left Sunday afternoon, the first-year offensive coordinator and his pupil, quarterback Matthew Stafford. And in many ways it was just like the two games before.

Detroit Lions offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and Stafford had brought the Lions back against New Orleans and Atlanta, and here they were again against the Miami Dolphins, 38 yards from the end zone, almost in field-goal range and with a chance to win a game in the final two minutes for the third straight game.

Knowing the position and the talent and the poise of the quarterback, they agreed on one idea.

“We both kind of looked at each other,” Stafford said. “and said, 'Let’s go score. Let’s go win this thing.'”

A little more than 90 seconds later, Stafford found Theo Riddick with a sidearm pass while rolling left. And with a teeny, tiny window to hit his receiver, Stafford managed it again. Riddick’s 11-yard touchdown catch gave Detroit a 20-16 lead with 29 seconds left, the third straight comeback win for the Lions in the last two minutes and the first time in franchise history when they had won three straight games in the waning seconds.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford is developing into a player with a great late-game reputation.
This -- the final moments of games, when his team needs him the most -- is when Stafford has thrived in his career. When he can stay the same quarterback he has always been, maybe even become just a little bit better.

In his sixth NFL season, he has now put together 15 game-winning fourth-quarter drives. Of those, 11 have come with two minutes or less in the game. And for him, it seems ... fun.

“I just have a good time in ‘em,” Stafford said. “It’s one of those unique situations in sports where everyone’s back’s against the wall and it’s a total team thing. It’s not an individual thing. You’ve got to rely on everybody, and everybody stepped up.

“There’s no better feeling than when you come out of that drive successful, as a team, as an offense. Obviously, you fight tooth and nail for that feeling.”

It’s a good time for all the Lions right now. Stafford bringing Detroit back again is turning into a theme this season. It no longer surprises his teammates. It doesn’t surprise his coach, who is still really learning all the intricacies of his quarterback’s game.

Consider, in his final drive Sunday, Stafford drove his team 74 yards. He was 8-of-11, including a throwaway, the final part of a 25-of-40, 280-yard, two-touchdown, one-interception day.

“The guy gets in his mind that he’s going to win the game, and that’s what he does,” said his longtime top target, Calvin Johnson. “He’s the most accurate quarterback, to me, in the league. He puts the ball where ever he needs to put it.

“He helps us out a ton and we just try to make plays for him.”

He can do it from every angle. Stafford can complete throws with the traditional drop-back and over-the-top delivery. He makes throws after extending plays with his new-found footwork. And he can complete passes running left and tossing the ball sidearm, which is how he completed the touchdown pass to Riddick.

This is who Stafford has always been, a multifaceted, multi-arm-slot quarterback who thrives taking risks and ignoring pressure. In the past, it has been to both his success and failure.

This season, though, he has excelled. For some reason, in situations when other quarterbacks can falter, Stafford ends up better.

“You don’t find many guys that can handle what he does, and there’s a lot of pressure out there in those situations,” Caldwell said. “There’s a lot on the line, and every single time he goes out there and attacks it the exact same way.

“He never gets flustered. He never loses his poise and he’s got good focus. In that time, you just listen to him talk and he’s got crystallized thought going all the time. We certainly appreciate that and that’s why he’s able to bring you back when most teams probably would falter.”

In the past, Stafford might have as well, because even with his big drives throughout his career, he has also made mistakes to cost Detroit games. This season, that Stafford has been nonexistent.

This Stafford is the one who wants to have that pressure, who wants to have be in situations similar to the ones he has faced the past three Sundays he has played.

“I just love that feeling,” Stafford said.

This season, so does Detroit.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions never want to be without Calvin Johnson. Not for a play, a quarter, a game or, as they were during the first half of the 2014 season, three straight weeks.

There is an interesting byproduct here, though, especially considering quarterback Matthew Stafford was still working out the final pieces of Joe Lombardi's offense as he also had to play for the first time in his career without his top target for a good chunk of time.

With Johnson hobbled, it forced Stafford to rely on his secondary parts, including his now-1A receiver Golden Tate, to try and move the Detroit offense in any significant fashion. The Lions have struggled offensively, ranking No. 20 in yards per game, No. 15 in QBR and ninth in passing yards per game without his top target and myriad other players injured.

Now those players have returned, allowing Stafford to continue his rapport with Tate, Theo Riddick, Joique Bell and the rest while incorporating the receiver he has become so accustomed to having.

Stafford
Stafford
He said he is more comfortable with his receivers now than at any other point in his six-year NFL career. This could mean better decisions for Stafford, too, instead of trying to always find a way for Johnson to have the ball.

"Absolutely," Stafford said. "The more experience and the better everybody else plays, the less you feel like you have to get 81 the ball, but it's still conducive to playing good offense to get the best receiver on the planet the ball as much as you can.

"So we'll continue to try and do that as well."

Playing without Johnson and others forced Stafford to grow. In the first half of the season, the Lions missed these players for at least one game: Johnson, running backs Riddick, Bell and Reggie Bush; tight ends Brandon Pettigrew, Eric Ebron and Joseph Fauria and right tackle LaAdrian Waddle.

It left Stafford and Lombardi playing mix-and-match by the week depending who was definitely available, who might be available and who was definitely out of the lineup.

It made Stafford develop more patience with everything -- from offensive development to other players to his own game.

"Yeah, playing quarterback, it was an interesting time," Stafford said. "We had a lot of guys filling in spots. Meeting guys during the week and then starting and playing 40, 50 snaps. It was a challenge, not only for me, but for those guys coming in, our coaching staff building game plans and I'm proud of the way we handled it, the way we played.

"Were there plays out there that we missed? Absolutely, we wish we had back, no question. But to come out there and fight and get to 6-2 with as many guys down as we had, it was a positive sign."

The Lions are hoping that positive sign turns into a more permanent uptick for an offense that is struggling. When Johnson returns, it forces teams to plan differently for the Lions than with Johnson out.

They can no longer focus either on stopping Bush, Bell and Riddick or double-teaming Tate as often as possible. Johnson's return should allow for one or more of those options to have single coverage or get completely lost in space.

If Stafford's newfound patience and confidence in those non-Johnson players holds up, it could mean bigger plays more often for a Detroit offense in need of them.

"He has an effect on the entire unit defensively in terms of your plans," Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. "It's whether or not you feel comfortable leaving him in a one-on-one situation, whether you feel comfortable not rolling the coverage to him or not assigning an underneath cover guy.

"All of those things play a part because you can only deploy 11 guys a certain way and the minute you assign one or two to his area, that sometimes dictates what you do. I think he does make you think about a number of things that you may plan to do."

And this is exactly what the Lions have been hoping for all along this season. Let Stafford trust everyone. Make coordinators think and possibly overthink things. Then try to take advantage.
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Matthew Stafford stood at the podium a continent from home last month, almost giddy.

The sixth-year Detroit Lions quarterback had completed the unthinkable a few moments earlier, leading the Lions to their second straight double-digit come-from-behind win against an NFC South team, this time a 22-21 win against the Falcons in London.

There Stafford stood, possibly happier than anyone in the United Kingdom at that moment. In the NFL, these types of comebacks don't happen. This isn't college and Stafford is no longer at Georgia. Yet there he was, running the offense for the inexplicable, improbable, unbelievable Detroit Lions. They are 6-2 and controlling their own playoff future for the second straight season after a first half of a season that has included big comebacks and some of the worst kicking performances in recent NFL history.

MVP: The defensive line. This was a tough call because of the sustained strong play of receiver Golden Tate, who has often been the sole reason the Lions were able to have offensive success. But the Detroit defense has been in the top 10 in almost every category for the majority of the season, and all of that begins with the 10 men on the defensive line. Ndamukong Suh is the No. 5 defensive tackle in the game, according to Pro Football Focus, and Nick Fairley, before his knee injury, was ranked 12th by PFF. Why this unit earns the MVP award, though, is because of its role players. George Johnson was an off-the-street find who has given the Lions another pass-rusher besides Ezekiel Ansah at end. Jason Jones is playing back to form and Darryl Tapp is showing versatility against the run and pass. The Lions don't have anywhere close to the top-rated defense in the league if not for the front four.

Biggest disappointment: Nate Freese and Alex Henery. The Lions' first and second kickers this season were abysmal. Freese turned into a wasted draft pick who probably should not have been kept in training camp over Giorgio Tavecchio. Freese was cut after an inconsistent preseason and three weeks of missed kicks. The Lions replaced him with Henery, who on paper looked to be a decent option. However, he missed three field-goal attempts against Buffalo, including a potential game-winner, and he was gone the next day, replaced by Matt Prater. That the Lions couldn't figure out their kicking situation until Week 6 reflects on the coaches and front office.

Best moment: The last four minutes against New Orleans. The first of two improbable comebacks in the first half of the season, the way Detroit came back from 13 points down against New Orleans in the final four minutes -- a long Tate run-after-catch for a touchdown, an interception by Glover Quin and then a Stafford touchdown pass to Corey Fuller -- encapsulated what the Lions are trying to be this season. It showed Detroit's explosiveness on offense and defense, and after the season it could be one of those wins that is viewed as a turning point.

Worst moment: Calvin Johnson's ankle injuries. The first, against Green Bay, didn't look too bad. Johnson hobbled off the field a little bit but returned later in the game. What followed, though, ended the effectiveness of the top receiver in the NFL for the first half of the season. Johnson was hobbled against the Jets and played against Buffalo, when he aggravated the ankle on his only catch of the day. He hasn't played since, and it has not been good for the Detroit offense or for Johnson, who has dealt with finger, knee and ankle injuries the past two seasons.

Key to the second half: Improved offensive line play. Stafford was sacked 24 times in the first half of the season -- one more time than all of last season. Though the protection has improved the past three weeks, including no sacks allowed against Atlanta, the Lions need to protect him better for there to be sustained success. They also need to figure out a way to block for the run more effectively. The Lions have one of the two worst rushing offenses in the league a season after running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell were considered one of the best tandems in the NFL. Games at New England, Chicago and Green Bay are going to be much tougher for Detroit to win in winter if it can't find its run game.

The Film Don't Lie: Lions

October, 28, 2014
Oct 28
11:00
AM ET
A weekly look at what the Detroit Lions must fix:

The Lions must use their off week to try to find a way to revitalize their offense in the first halves of games. Detroit scored only three points combined in the first halves against New Orleans and Atlanta, while allowing 31. This is a massive change from the first six games, when the Lions didn’t allow 10 points in any first half. And while Detroit came back to win both of those games, it is playing a dangerous game by falling into large deficits.

So how does Detroit spend the off week trying to fix this before facing the Dolphins on Nov. 9? Simple. Get healthy. This will be a much more dynamic offense with a healthier Calvin Johnson, Reggie Bush, Eric Ebron, Joseph Fauria, Brandon Pettigrew and LaAdrian Waddle. All of those players have missed at least one game -- including the Atlanta game at Wembley Stadium on Sunday.

The fact that the Lions are 6-2 at the midway point of the season is kind of remarkable considering the injuries they have had on offense. The Lions have been able to better absorb injuries on defense, but they need their offense to come to form to be strong in the second half of the season.
LONDON -- All across the field at halftime here, men were poking around on the field, trying to pick up and replace divots all along the Wembley Stadium pitch.

After all, the field isn’t usually prepared for multiple 300-pound plus players to be taken down on it throughout the course of a game. In what was otherwise a pretty great day for the allure of the NFL in Europe, the field left something to be desired.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ross
Steve Flynn/USA TODAY Sports"It was chewed up a lot," Lions receiver Jeremy Ross said of the Wembley Stadium turf. "It started getting slippery out there."
“Yeah, it was chewed up a lot,” Detroit Lions receiver Jeremy Ross said. “It started getting slippery out there, especially when the grass dug up and there was just kind of mud. If you were to step right there, your foot would slip on it.”

NFL spokesman Michael Signora said after the game, however, that both the Lions and Falcons told the league the field "played well."

Ross, kicker Matt Prater and punter Sam Martin all said the grass was pretty beat up between the hashmarks on the field, mostly because that is where the offensive and defensive linemen would be banging into each other and being taken to the ground on a play-by-play basis.

“Inside the hashes was pretty chewed up late in the game,” quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “Everybody out there was wearing the big, seven-stud spikes, trying to get a grip. I’m not sure that field is used to having 300-pounders running around on it and the whole bunch.

“You know, soccer guys are a little bit lighter than us. But for the most part, it held up great. Just had to get used to it a little bit.”

Martin said it was hard for him to find grass to plant on and both Martin and Prater said the condition of the field and his footing was better on his game-winning 48-yard field goal than the 43-yard field goal he missed but was waived off due to a delay of game.

“The 35-yard lines, where I was kicking off from, was terrible,” Martin said. “I was having a hard time to find grass to plant on at the 35-yard-line to even kick off. In between those lines there, between the 35 and 40, it was nicer turf, for sure.”

One suggestion Ross had -- something that might come into play if the NFL does ever choose to move to London on a permanent basis -- is to find a different type of grass.

“Probably a little more firmer grass,” Ross said. “Something like that.”
LONDON -- It took less than six seasons for Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford to break the team's record for passing touchdowns.

With his 119th career touchdown pass coming in the third quarter on a 59-yard play to Golden Tate on Sunday, Stafford passed Bobby Layne for the top spot in franchise history.

After the record-breaker, Stafford made sure he was able to claim the ball.

“I was glad to get my hands on it. It’s going to mean a lot somewhere down the road,” Stafford said. “I think hopefully it’s not the last touchdown pass for the Lions. Hopefully got a whole lot more coming, but it’s something pretty special and to play for six years, really four-and-a-half healthy, and so it’s been nice.”

It was a play in which Stafford used the skills that have suited him most during his career. He evaded pressure from the Atlanta Falcons, moved up in the pocket and found a streaking Tate down the right sideline. Then, he used his arm to throw a perfectly placed ball to Tate.

It might have been one of Stafford's best plays of the season.

Stafford already has franchise records for passing yards, completions and attempts.
DETROIT -- Earlier this month, Corey Fuller insisted he could do more. He was playing behind Calvin Johnson then, barely the target of any of Matthew Stafford’s attention and resigned to running the deep go routes and posts he had been assigned.

His job then was to pull a defender down the field so Stafford could find Golden Tate and others on shorter routes.

[+] EnlargeCorey Fuller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCorey Fuller's first career touchdown catch was a meaningful one for Detroit on Sunday.
Then Johnson’s high ankle sprain became more of an issue and Fuller was put into a much larger, more diverse role. The deeper routes he had to run turned into a fuller route tree, with slants and hitches and the full gamut of plays he learned.

He insisted, at some point, he would do more. That more came Sunday afternoon, with the Detroit Lions five yards from a come-from-behind win over the Saints.

Fuller, lined up on the right side, ran toward the back of the end zone. Initially, rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste hung with Fuller as Tate was doubled by the Saints. Then, Jean-Baptiste, playing the first defensive snaps of his career Sunday, let him go as Fuller rounded his route toward the middle of the end zone, tucked in the back.

“He’s 1A,” Stafford said. “Golden was in there, too, but they doubled Golden. He had done such a great job all game, they put a little double-team down there, a little bracket. Corey had to go outside, beat a corner and he was just trailing on the baseline, saw the double team on Golden and put a ball where I thought Corey could go up and get it and get both feet down.”

Stafford threw the ball as Fuller headed toward the middle of the field. He jumped up, extended his arms and caught the ball. Then he controlled his body enough to make sure both feet landed in bounds before he fell out of the end zone for the game-winning 5-yard touchdown.

“I know I don’t get called much,” Fuller said. “I’m just here to help any way I can. Matt threw a great ball, the line blocked perfectly and all I had to do was come down with it. I had to do the easy job.”

It was a job, though, that he had never had to do before.

It was the first touchdown of Fuller’s career and only his ninth career NFL catch. It was the second week in a row Fuller had five targets and his three catches tied a career high. His 44 yards were the second-best numbers of his career.

As he said, he knew he could do more. He just had to wait for it.

“He’s put in so much work in the past year to get where he’s at,” Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew said. “He deserved that.

“He deserved every bit of that.”
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DETROIT -- On Saturday evenings, during the team’s final meeting of the night before a game on Sunday, Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell ends those sessions with the same message every time.

Above all else, win. No matter what.

It’s a simple message, really. But too often in the recent past for the Lions, it has been the opposite. This used to be a team that would give away fourth-quarter leads and hand victories to opponents. This was a team last season that held leads in the fourth quarter of almost every game in the second half of the season and found ways to lose time and time again.

This is part of why Caldwell is here, because of those collapses. So with four minutes left Sunday against the New Orleans Saints and the Lions needing two touchdowns to win and an offense struggling without Calvin Johnson, they needed Caldwell’s message to somehow resonate.

They needed a spark to resurrect an offense that was built to have many weapons to endure in the face of injuries, not to collapse when Johnson wasn’t in there.

“Just hard finding good rhythm,” tight end Brandon Pettigrew said. “These defenses are putting together great game plans as well, so it’s tough to kind of get through that sometimes.”

The Lions are hoping the double-digit deficit turned 24-23 win over the Saints in the last 3 minutes, 52 seconds is the ignition for the rest of the season.

Facing third-and-14, Matthew Stafford threw the ball up to his hot receiver, Golden Tate. And 73 yards later -- 65 of them from Tate after the catch -- a Lions offense that gained 187 yards through three quarters had a touchdown, a belief and that offensive spark.

“That play he made on that long touchdown is as good a play as I’ve seen in a long time,” Stafford said. “Just to catch it at a standstill, basically I just threw him a ball up. He was hot. He was calling for it. Wanted it.

“I gave him a chance on a ball and he came back, caught it and he did the rest. It was pretty impressive.”

The Lions' defense saw that and started pressuring Drew Brees even more on the chances it could get. On a third-and-9, the offensive spark turned into a defensive play. George Johnson pressured his man from the side and forced Brees off rhythm. His pass to Marques Colston ended up intercepted by Detroit safety Glover Quin.

Johnson said the Lions knew at some point Brees was going to have to hold the ball a split-second longer to make a play. It led to the pressure and the pick.

And Caldwell’s message of believing took hold even more: Above all else, win.

With 3:10 left and 14 yards and an extra point between a loss and an improbable victory, the Lions ran four times, passed twice and received one pass interference call. Then, five yards from the end zone on third down with 1:48 left, Stafford saw Tate bracketed by the Saints and Corey Fuller breaking toward the middle of the end zone.

Fuller started in Johnson’s place Sunday, and in the biggest spot of his career Fuller made a play reminiscent of his mentor. He leaped, controlled his body and got both of his feet down. It was the definition of a role player with a massive play.

“It was a toe-touch,” Pettigrew said. “That’s real Calvinish. I’m not taking anything away from him, but that was pretty good. That’s pretty good.”

That is an offensive spark completed for a team in desperate need of one -- for one day and for the rest of the season.

“Games in this league are crazy,” Caldwell said. “You don’t know exactly how they are going to turn out.”

Down 13 with under four minutes left and no Calvin Johnson -- no, no one could have seen this coming at all. Except maybe Caldwell with his message: Above all else, win.

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