NFL Nation: Golden Tate

He was a late injury replacement after a statistically average season compared to his peers, but Matthew Stafford looked like he fit in fine Sunday night during his first Pro Bowl.

Stafford
Stafford
Stafford completed 15 of 25 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, and won the game's Offensive MVP award. He also averaged 12.6 yards per throw and had a passer rating of 114.2 in the exhibition.

Overall, Stafford appeared to enjoy his experience.

"It was great," Stafford told reporters in Arizona. "I feel like I’ve had some good seasons in this league, and haven’t gotten a chance to play in this, so I was going to go out here and try to show people that I belonged here, and I think that worked."

His receiver on the Detroit Lions, Golden Tate, led Team Irvin with two catches for 98 yards, including a 60-yard reception from Stafford in the first half.

The third Lions player in the game, Glover Quin, had five tackles and one pass defended for Team Carter. Stafford also beat Quin on a touchdown to Emmanuel Sanders in the first half.

"He came up to me and asked me if I was going at him," Stafford said. "I said, 'No, that’s where the coverage told me to throw it, Glover. Don’t worry about it.' But, no, it was fun. He played great. He got me on the next one, cut off Jimmy Graham in the end zone."
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Throughout most of the season, first-year Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell stuck with the same mantra: “Above all else, win.”

It’s something the Lions did more of during the 2014 season than almost any other year in franchise history. Detroit won 11 games -- the second-highest total in franchise history. It had the best run defense in the league. It won three straight games in the middle of the season with touchdowns in the last two minutes.

The season ended in a place that has been a rarity for the Lions since the early 1990s -- the playoffs.

Detroit’s playoff loss, though, was agonizing. They largely dominated against the Dallas Cowboys until a pass interference call was overturned in the fourth quarter. That led to a bad punt by Sam Martin, a Dallas drive during which the Lions' defense failed for one of the few times this season, and finally an offensive drive with two fumbles, poor offensive line play and a dropped pass by Calvin Johnson.

It wasn’t the way Detroit wanted its season to end, but its path to the playoffs was one of the most successful in team history.

Team MVP: He was the focal point of the game plan of every opposing offense this season, and he made everything just a little bit easier for the Detroit Lions' defense this season. Ndamukong Suh is a transcendent talent, and the Lions would not have one of the top defenses in the NFL without him. Suh’s presence on the line freed up ends Ezekiel Ansah, George Johnson, Jason Jones and Darryl Tapp to consistently rush the passer. Suh also gave linebacker DeAndre Levy open lanes up the middle to attack the run. Detroit’s best unit was its defense, and it revolved around its best player, Suh.

Best moment: With Calvin Johnson sidelined due to an ankle injury, the Detroit Lions went 3-0. None of those moments, though, were bigger than the Lions’ comeback win over New Orleans in Week 7. In the win over the Saints, the Lions scored two touchdowns in the final 3:38 to rally from 13 points down for their first of three straight come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter. The touchdown passes to Golden Tate (the play was all Tate) and Corey Fuller (a great throw from Matthew Stafford) were massive moments this past season.

Worst moment: The Lions had a chance at their first divisional title since 1993 in Week 17 against Green Bay. They ended up with one of their worst overall performances of the season, allowing Eddie Lacy to run for 100 yards and losing to Green Bay 30-20, their 24th straight loss in the state of Wisconsin. Honorable mentions go to Detroit’s loss at New England, Alex Henery's three missed field goals in a close loss to Buffalo, and Dominic Raiola's stomp on Chicago defensive end Ego Ferguson's ankle.

2015 outlook: This is tough to predict. The Lions have a lot of their starters under contract, but it is difficult to make any call on this team without knowing what will happen with Suh. He is the centerpiece of Detroit's defense, and if the Lions lose him, their best unit in 2014 would take a massive hit that would be extremely difficult to replace. If Suh returns, Detroit has the pieces to take another step. If he doesn’t, it’ll be interesting to see where they go on the defensive line.
ARLINGTON, Texas -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Detroit Lions' 24-20 loss to the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
  • Tate
    Tate
    Golden Tate had a message for the entire organization. "I challenged every man in here, coaches, trainers, fan base, players obviously, to go have the best offseason of your life," Tate said. "We see how close we are as a community and that should encourage. Yeah, this season is over and it's tough to swallow right now but, hey, the Detroit Lions are not done. We're going to go out there and have a heck of an offseason and come back and be ready and be focused. This could be the start of something great, I think."
  • Lions coach Jim Caldwell did not have an update on the severity of the knee injury to right guard Travis Swanson, but "obviously it was pretty significant when he didn't come back in."
  • Caldwell said Tahir Whitehead and Don Carey cramped up because of dehydration. Both were given IVs to try and get them back in the game. Missing those two players forced the Lions to shuffle personnel again but Caldwell said, "You've got to find a way to win." Detroit had done that often throughout the year.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Jim Caldwell wouldn't tip what the Detroit Lions might be planning Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys, but from the way he spoke Thursday -- there could be some personnel changes coming.

Caldwell said there could be one or two different players on special teams this week -- a place where running back Theo Riddick was one of their best blockers last season and Golden Tate has been a dynamic punt returner in the past.

When asked specifically about Tate, Caldwell said "everything's considered."

Tate, who is Detroit's leading receiver with 99 catches and 1,331 yards, had two seasons in the past where he returned punts. Last season in Seattle, he had 51 punt returns for 585 yards. In his rookie season in 2010, he returned 16 punts for 202 yards for the Seahawks. His yardage last season was second in the NFL and his return average of 11.47 yards was 20th in the league.

Lions punt returner Jeremy Ross is averaging 8.88 yards per punt return this season.

This is no guarantee the Lions will make a switch to use Tate on some returns or reinsert Riddick into the kick return blocking scheme, but Caldwell at least acknowledged that in the playoffs they could change some things.

Caldwell would not say if some of those changes would include playing Tate and Calvin Johnson even more in games than they have during the regular season. Early in the year, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi said he would be watching the snaps of both Johnson and running back Reggie Bush throughout the season in an attempt to keep them as healthy as possible.

According to Pro Football Focus, Tate has played 940 of a possible 1,111 snaps this season for the Lions. Johnson, who missed three games with an injury and was limited in two other games, has played in 705 snaps this season.

The Lions have the No. 19 offense in the NFL this season at 340.8 yards per game.

"I think you obviously consider a lot of different things when you get to the playoffs for a number of different reasons," Caldwell said. "You may see a guy or two different in terms of our special teams and things of that nature, but it does change."

How much? Caldwell wasn't going to say that.
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SELECTIONS:

Glover Quin, S, first Pro Bowl selection: He ranted about changing the Pro Bowl voting earlier this season, and now Quin is a first-time Pro Bowler. He leads the NFL in interceptions with seven and has been one of the leaders of the Lions’ defense. He has intercepted passes in the past four games and is the first Detroit safety to be picked for the game since Bennie Blades in 1992.

Who he beat out: Harrison Smith, Minnesota; Antoine Bethea, San Francisco; James Ihedigbo, Detroit; Devin McCourty, New England.

Ndamukong Suh, DT, fourth Pro Bowl selection: One of the most dominant tackles in the game, Suh is the third-rated defensive tackle in the league according to Pro Football Focus and has 35 quarterback hurries according to PFF -- the most among defensive tackles in the league. He changes the way offenses scheme against Detroit.

Who he beat out: Johnathan Hankins, New York Giants; Sharrif Floyd, Minnesota; Terrance Knighton, Denver.

Calvin Johnson, WR, fifth Pro Bowl selection: He had another 1,000-yard season despite missing three games due to injury and being limited in two others. He hasn’t put up the numbers he typically does -- he has only 67 catches -- but he's considered one of the top receivers in the game and is a matchup nightmare.

Who he beat out: Golden Tate, Detroit; Odell Beckham Jr., New York Giants; Emmanuel Sanders, Denver; Jeremy Maclin, Philadelphia.

SNUBS:

Golden Tate, WR, no Pro Bowls: The NFL’s leader in yards after catch with 683, he also is fourth in the league in receptions (96) and seventh in yards (1,286). He also has been a more reliable target than Calvin Johnson this season and more durable, too. He has set career highs in receptions and yards.

Who he should have beaten out: Calvin Johnson, Detroit. Tate has more yards and catches than his teammate and has been more consistent. Johnson is one of the best receivers in the game, but Tate has had the better season.

DeAndre Levy, LB, no Pro Bowls: He leads the league in solo tackles with 109 and is third in the NFL in tackles with 140. He’s one of the best linebackers in coverage in the NFL and was a snub for the second straight season. He’s been one of the key cogs of the Detroit defense.

Who he should have beaten out: It’s tough to say because Levy is a 4-3 linebacker going up against 3-4 linebackers who compile gaudy statistics and almost play a different position than Levy as far as usage goes. If you were to expand it to linebackers overall, he probably should have beaten out rookie C.J. Mosley of Baltimore.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- When Golden Tate heard the news about one of his closest friends, he immediately sent him a message.

In it, he told new Chicago Bears starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen to be safe.

Clausen
Tate
Tate
"I sent him a text saying I’m happy for you, but I’m also nervous for you," Tate said. "Our defense ain’t nothing to mess around with, so for that to be your first start with your new team, it can be nerve-racking.

"But I hope he does well. I hope he stays safe out there. I hope he puts some good stuff on film, but I hope we still beat him pretty bad."

Tate knows Clausen better than anyone else on the Lions. The two have been close friends since their time at Notre Dame together, when Clausen threw passes to Tate during Tate's Biletnikoff Award-winning season in 2009.

Tate said he has wanted to see Clausen get another chance after he was thrown into the Panthers’ lineup as a rookie. Clausen went 1-9 in his rookie year in 2010, completing 157 of 299 passes for 1,558 yards, three touchdowns and nine interceptions. He was sacked 33 times and posted a QBR of 11.0.

"I think it was unfair when he was in Carolina," Tate said. "He wasn’t on a great team, being a rookie. The next year they draft Cam Newton. He sits as a No. 3 [QB] because (Derek Anderson) was No. 2. They wouldn’t let him go, so he couldn’t even get an opportunity to go somewhere else to prove himself.

"Meanwhile, you’ve got tons of other, in my mind, terrible quarterbacks getting drafted in the first round. I’m sure you guys would agree with that, that have proven to be terrible, I’m not going to mention any names.

"That could have been his chance to shine, and then he tore his labrum last year and had to sit out the whole year and then he had to wait for someone to call. Wait for a chance. Gets to Chicago, gets a chance and beats out the No. 2 guy and is the backup quarterback. I believe in him and hope he makes the best of his opportunity for these last two games."

Well, he hopes he does well -- just not too well.

"In a perfect world he would play well and throw no touchdowns," Tate said. "And we would win."

W2W4: Buccaneers vs. Lions

December, 6, 2014
12/06/14
12:00
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Five things to watch in Sunday’s game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Detroit Lions:

Tampa Bay’s running game. The Bucs have been trying -- and usually failing -- to establish the running game all season. Now, they have to go up against a Detroit defense that’s No. 1 in the league against the run. It would be logical to think the Bucs simply will abandon the running game. But that’s not going to happen. Keep in mind that coach Lovie Smith is stubborn (sometimes to a fault). Running back Doug Martin is healthier than he’s been all season and the Bucs are going to try to get him on track.

Calvin Johnson vs. the Tampa Bay secondary. This looks like a mismatch, but Johnson looks like a mismatch against any secondary. The Bucs will throw a lot of coverage at Johnson and the safeties will be asked to provide plenty of help. But the Bucs can’t devote all their attention to Johnson because the Lions have a strong No. 2 receiver in Golden Tate.

Lovie’s luck. I had to look high and low for an encouraging stat for the Bucs. The folks at ESPN Stats & Information came up with one. Smith has won nine of the past 10 games in which he has faced Detroit. Overall, Smith’s Chicago teams were 13-5 against the Lions.

Mike Evans. The Tampa Bay rookie receiver is closing in on a milestone. He has 890 receiving yards. If he reaches 1,000 yards, he’ll be only the second rookie receiver in franchise history to reach that mark. Michael Clayton did it in 2004.

Decembers to forget. The Lions have lost nine straight games in the month of December. They haven’t won a December game since Christmas Eve in 2011.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Jim Caldwell likes to spin this one yarn whenever he talks about his receiver, Golden Tate. This particular tale happened before Caldwell was a head coach in Indianapolis and then Detroit.

[+] EnlargeGolder Tate
Jeff Haynes/AP Images for PaniniGolden Tate's emergence as a receiver took some time, but the results are paying off for the Lions.
 Caldwell’s old boss, Bill Polian, would come back from his two-plus hour drive south from South Bend, Indiana to Indianapolis and tell Caldwell about this player his son, Brian, continually raved about.

“Every week he’d come in with a new story about something that Golden did,” Caldwell said. “And obviously, Bill being one of the great evaluators of all time, had nothing but great things to say about him, even though I didn’t have a chance to watch him play much in college.”

Caldwell didn’t, but part of the reason Polian had so many stories about Tate was because his ascent was that rapid in college, and it helps explain what the Detroit Lions are seeing now. Golden Tate is naturally gifted as an athlete -- good enough to be drafted in baseball as well as football -- but what he’s been doing as a wide receiver is all him.

When Tate began his career at Notre Dame in 2007, he was recruited as an athlete, not a pure receiver. He hadn’t played the position much, if at all, in high school. As a true freshman during a disastrous 3-9 season, the Irish eventually had to put him in games at receiver due to injuries.

Against Purdue, in his first real work at receiver, Tate had the first of many moments that led to his current role with the Detroit Lions, where he has already set career-highs for receptions (80) and yards (1,136) with four games to go.

Back then, though, Tate didn’t know how to run routes well.

“It got to the point where we were yelling to Golden from the sideline what the route was and so we yelled at Golden, ‘Run a go,’ “ Brian Polian, now the head coach at Nevada, said recently. “And he ran a go and Jimmy [Clausen] threw the ball up and the sucker just jumped up in the air between two DBs and caught it.

“Later on in the game, we did the same thing. The Purdue DB looked over at Charlie [Weis] or Ron Powlus and kind of gave him this look. Someone said, ‘Hey man, it doesn’t matter, he’s going to catch it anyway.’ Sure enough, he ran a go, the DB knew the route, and we just threw the ball up in the air, and he just went up and grabbed it. That’s who Golden is to me. That’s one of my all-time favorite memories of coaching.” Tate finished with three catches for 104 yards in that game.

It was a spark in an otherwise dismal season, but to understand the level Tate reached now, that moment -- and that season -- is critical. Tate learned how to become a receiver in 2007, and that has led to everything since. The Biletnikoff Award honoring the top receiver in college in 2009. A Super Bowl championship last season with Seattle. His status as one of the NFL's emerging receivers with Detroit.

As Tate makes his way through, around and opposing defenders (he has 583 yards after the catch this year), understand it wasn’t always this way. The athleticism was there, but everything else took time to develop. Tate said he actually practices his evasive maneuvers by treating every practice he’s in like the game he’ll play Sunday.

His competitiveness -- Tate abhors losing at anything, ever -- helps explain how he reached this point.

“When you think of this day and age of eighth-grade kids getting sent off to wide receiver camp and this guy showed up at a highly-regarded FBS program and had no clue how to play receiver, and now he’s turned into a really good pro, that’s because the guy worked at it,” Polian said. “He took coaching at every level, in college and obviously in the National Football League, and he turned himself into a heck of a player.”

In Seattle, he started to evolve as a NFL receiver. In Detroit, he’s become the most consistent part of an offense finding itself in the midst of a playoff race. And Tate, who learned to play his position in college, might be the best free agent signing by any team last offseason.

“Very, very happy that neither party has any regrets,” Tate said. “I hope I exceed expectations of this city and this organization, and I know that I’m doing the things that I envisioned myself to do and like I keep saying, most important, we’re winning ball games. At the end of the day, that’s all that matters. I was OK with catching, having 30 yards a game last year because we were winning.

“ ... But the fact that I get to ball out and also win games, it doesn’t get better.”

Even if Tate’s personal history suggests there’s a chance he might actually improve as a receiver.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

November, 23, 2014
11/23/14
4:20
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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.
BRISTOL, Conn. -- The Detroit Lions have appeared fairly healthy all week leading into their game Sunday against the New England Patriots.

Now, though, there is going to be at least one question mark at Gillette Stadium.

Running back Reggie Bush, who has practiced on a limited basis all week with that lingering ankle injury, is officially questionable .

If Bush doesn't play, Detroit will once again go with heavy usage for Joique Bell along with increased work for Theo Riddick. It would probably be a similar plan to last Sunday against Arizona, when Bell rushed for 85 yards.

Only two players are completely out for Detroit: right guard Larry Warford and defensive tackle Nick Fairley.

Jason Jones, who told Detroit reporters on Friday his personal absence was dealing with his sick child in Tennessee, returned to practice Friday and is probable. Golden Tate appeared on the injury report for the first time this week -- limited in practice with a hip injury. He is probable for Sunday, though.

The Film Don't Lie: Lions

November, 18, 2014
11/18/14
11:00
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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 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.

Midseason report: Detroit Lions

November, 5, 2014
11/05/14
11:00
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» AFC Report: East | West | North | South » NFC: East | West | North | South | HOME

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.

Rapid Reaction: Detroit Lions

October, 26, 2014
10/26/14
12:39
PM ET
video
LONDON -- A few thoughts on the Detroit Lions' 22-21 win over the Atlanta Falcons at Wembley Stadium in London.

What it means: The Lions spent the first month of the season trying to find a field goal kicker. Now it appears they have one. Matt Prater made a 48-yard field goal as time expired to give the Lions their second come-from-behind win in as many weeks -- this after Prater missed a 43-yard attempt that was waived off because of a delay of game penalty. The Lions have found a way to win games they really have had no business of winning and have put themselves in a good position at the halfway point of the season. Prater’s field goal capped a 21-point second-half comeback for Detroit.

Stock watch: Rising -- Golden Tate. The receiver once again had a massive game with seven catches for 151 yards and a touchdown. He has become a star for the Lions over the past month with his fourth 100-yard game in the last five contests. Theo Riddick is also rising. With Reggie Bush out, Riddick once again became a playmaker with three carries for five yards and eight catches for 74 yards and a touchdown. He might be finding a role in Detroit’s offense even when Bush returns.

Falling -- health. The injuries are starting to become an issue for Detroit. The Lions lost Nick Fairley on Sunday and were already without Calvin Johnson, Bush, three tight ends and their starting right tackle. Tough to win games that way. Yet the Lions did.

Defensive line depth is dwindling: C.J. Mosley was suspended, and Fairley injured his knee in the first half. Atlanta then ran right at the middle of the Detroit defensive front and rookie Caraun Reid. Mosley’s suspension really hurt the Lions’ depth, to the point they had to put the undersized Darryl Tapp in at defensive tackle for some plays during the second half.

Game ball: Tate. He once again turned in a big performance and helped the Lions pull out another come-from-behind win in the second half. If Detroit ever gets to full health, it could have one of the most potent offenses in the league. But right now, Tate is the reason the Lions are 6-2 heading into the bye.

What’s next: The Lions are off for a week -- something Detroit needs desperately considering all its injuries -- before facing Miami at home in Week 10.
GUILDFORD, Surrey, England – Calvin Johnson might slowly be making progress toward his return to the field.

While the Detroit Lions wide receiver wouldn’t say he is healthy and wouldn’t say he is going to play when the Lions face Atlanta at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, he did say he has done “just a little bit” of work on the field -- a sign of progress on his injured right ankle.

“I’m still working, working to get on the field each and every week,” Johnson said at a Play60 event soon after the team arrived in Europe. “If I’m good enough to play, I’m going to play. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Johnson
Johnson has missed the past two games with the injury and has not been fully healthy since Week 3, when he injured the ankle against Green Bay. He practiced just on Fridays but played during Weeks 4 and 5 before aggravating the injury against Buffalo.

He hasn’t practiced or played since.

Johnson said he’s feeling good. As a soccer fan, he also likely would enjoy playing his version of football in Wembley Stadium if he is healthy enough.

“It’d be a great experience,” Johnson said. “Looking forward to it.”

One of the byproducts of Johnson’s injury has been Matthew Stafford gaining trust in other receivers beyond Golden Tate. That includes Corey Fuller, who caught the game-winner Sunday against New Orleans, and Jeremy Ross, who has been part of the passing plan each week.

In Johnson’s absence, Tate has turned into a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Tate is third in the NFL in receptions (48), sixth in receiving yards (649) and first in yards after catch (344). He has been a big reason why Stafford has been able to trust receivers and why the Lions are 5-2.

“I think we’ve done that. Each of us has stepped up in our own way and once we get [Johnson] back, the chemistry is just going to grow between all of us, you know,” Tate said. “I think Matt trusts that he doesn’t have to go to 81 all the time and he can rely on those guys to make some plays and help them out and we’re just excited about that.

“He’s no question one of the best players in the league and we’re going to take off and we’re just going to continue to work hard.”

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