NFL Nation: Golden Tate

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.”
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.

Chad Greenway inactive for Vikings

October, 12, 2014
Oct 12
11:55
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MINNEAPOLIS -- Chad Greenway will miss his third consecutive game Sunday for the Minnesota Vikings. The linebacker, who was listed as doubtful for the game with broken ribs, is among the team's seven inactives for Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions.

That means Gerald Hodges will start for the third week in a row at weakside linebacker. Hodges has played well in spots since Greenway got hurt against New Orleans, and he, along with the rest of the Vikings' defense, could catch a break Sunday with both Calvin Johnson and Reggie Bush out for the Lions.

Detroit listed the receiver and running back as inactive for Sunday's game, and though Golden Tate has played well as the Lions' No. 2 receiver, the Vikings certainly have fewer contingencies to worry about as they try to slow down the Lions' offense and get to 3-3 on Sunday.

Here is the full list of the Vikings' inactives:
DETROIT – The first one clanged off the upright. The second one didn’t have a chance. The third finished wide left.

This was Alex Henery’s day Sunday as Detroit -- which dropped to an NFL-worst 4-of-12 on field goals -- lost 17-14 to the Buffalo Bills.

And it didn't take long for Henery's job security to become a topic on Twitter. Free agent kicker Jay Feely, who played at the University of Michigan and was cut by Arizona in August, tweeted Sunday evening that he is waiting for the Lions to call. He, along with Matt Prater, would be options if the Lions choose to release Henery.


Detroit led or was tied the entire game until Dan Carpenter’s decisive 58-yard field goal with four seconds left. That came after Henery missed a 50-yarder with 26 seconds remaining.

“It’s unfortunate. I know Henery feels extremely bad, but hopefully he turns that bad feeling into motivation to working hard and to find a way to make these kicks,” said wide receiver Golden Tate. “Because, to me, that’s one game, when we’re up the whole game and moving the ball the way we are, that’s one game that I think we need to win.

“I just hope that doesn’t come back and bite us later in the season.”

Henery
Tate and others offered support for Henery, but kicking has been an issue for the Lions since the preseason, when Nate Freese beat out Giorgio Tavecchio. Then Freese missed four field goals in three games and the Lions cut him for Henery, who has four misses in two games for the team’s 33.3 percentage.

The last time a team started the season this poorly in the kicking game five games into the season was 2009, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made only 2 of 6 field goals. Unlike the Lions, though, the Bucs were 0-5. The Bears were also 2 of 6 through five games in 2005 and were 2-3.

The Lions are 3-2.

Prater
Feely
Detroit coach Jim Caldwell said he couldn’t explain why the Lions have had their issues with field goals, other than performance. But it appears the coaching staff and front office whiffed twice this season with their kicking decisions.

Six of Detroit’s eight misses have been between 40 and 49 yards. Two have been from 50 yards or longer. Caldwell wouldn’t comment on Prater, who was released by Denver earlier this week, as a potential replacement if the team looks to replace Henery.

“This is the big leagues, plain and simple,” Caldwell said. “If I don’t do my job right, same thing will happen. All of us are called into question in that regard. We’ve got to perform.”

It has cost the Lions, especially with a defense playing well and an offense often driving at least into field goal territory.

“It’s definitely frustrating to leave points out there on the board when you move the ball like we did,” Tate said. “But even today, offensively, we can’t worry about, and we can’t we can’t go into games thinking, ‘All right, what’s the special teams going to be?’

“That’s not our job. That’s the coaching staff and we believe the coaching staff is going to put us in the best position to win and that’s that.”

Tate, in part, said he should have done more on his 55-yard reception that put the Lions in position for the game-winning field goal attempt. It capped a seven-catch, 134-yard day when both Reggie Bush and Calvin Johnson missed portions of the game to injury.

But as well as the offense and defense have played this season, kicking has failed them.

“This is a performance-based league, plain and simple,” Caldwell said. “You’ve got to perform. So anyone that doesn’t, we take a look and see if we can improve that one way or another.

“That’s our obligation to our fans, our team, our organization.”

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Dominic Raiola snapped the ball on the second-to-last play of the third quarter and in a matter of seconds, Golden Tate already had the thing.

Matthew Stafford threw him a quick route on the right side and Tate had the ball in space with a man to juke out of the way. He did and it was like so many of the other plays Tate made Sunday afternoon against the Jets.

A quick pass to Tate and then let him work, picking up yards upon yards after the catch. With Calvin Johnson hobbled with an ankle injury, it was up to Tate to become the Detroit Lions' No. 1 receiver in their 24-17 win over the New York Jets. Stafford targeted him 10 times and he caught eight of those passes for 116 yards, his fourth career 100-yard game.

It was a reminder that even when Johnson is not fully healthy, the Lions have another player who can play like a top receiver. And that second option has the elusiveness to turn those small plays into massive ones.

"That's huge," Johnson said. "Matt [Stafford] and myself talked about that after the game. That was big-time what Golden did today. That's what we brought him here for."

Consider this, too. For the first time in Johnson's career, the Lions have won a game when he was held to fewer than 20 yards receiving. Until Sunday, Detroit had been 0-6 in those games.

The one Tate play that stood out, though, was the quick hit and then his dash to the end zone that came up a couple yards short. The play helped seal the game for the Lions. It was part of a 90-yard drive that took momentum from New York and gave it back to Detroit.

"That says a lot about any team who can drive 90 yards late in the game like that," Tate said."It was a pretty warm day out there on the road, so it says a lot about us to go 90 and score right there. We were just clicking. We got in a rhythm and moved the ball."

Part of Tate's effectiveness Sunday came because of the Jets' decision to run zone. When Tate lined up in the slot, this sometimes left a linebacker with the task of dealing with Tate. Of course, he was doing more than that. Anything the Jets threw at Tate on Sunday, he was able to squirt out of.

"He beat two men. He beat loaded coverages," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "He beat a lot of different things. The game plan was to stop Calvin Johnson. That was the No. 1 priority.

"We recognize Golden Tate is a good football player."

Tate was reliable, too. Entering Sunday, he had nine third down catches on 11 targets for 122 yards. On Sunday, he had two more third down catches -- two of the six third downs the Lions converted -- for 46 yards, including a 35-yard catch-and-run on the Lions' first drive that led to a field goal.

It is those little things Tate is able to do that makes him so dangerous for the Lions as the second option behind Johnson.

"He has great hands," Lions running back Reggie Bush said. "You guys saw it today. He's a huge playmaker for us. We've seen that throughout the season and you've seen that throughout his career.

"I'm glad he's on our team. That guy is a big spark for us."

Packers' Matthews ailing again

September, 21, 2014
Sep 21
6:25
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DETROIT -- Observed and heard in the locker room Sunday after the Green Bay Packers' 19-7 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field:

Matthews
Matthews ailing again: Here's a new one for Clay Matthews -- the outside linebacker left the game with a groin injury in the fourth quarter. Aside from his broken thumb last year, the only other injuries Matthews has battled during his career have been to his hamstrings. Although Matthews remained on the sideline and appeared ready to go back into the game, he never did. "One of their little receivers tried to cut me, and I planted wrong, so I felt a little something down there," Matthews said. "It doesn't feel too bad. We'll see how it does moving forward. Can't really give you a timetable or anything along those lines because I've never done it before, but we'll kind of see how it goes." Matthews said he thought the receiver was Golden Tate.

Taking the blame: Coach Mike McCarthy admitted he was wrong to call the timeout with 17 seconds left in the second quarter, when the Lions had the ball at their own 25-yard line. Following the timeout, Matthew Stafford hit a 52-yard pass to Corey Fuller and put the Lions in position for a 41-yard field goal -- which they missed -- on the final play of the first half. McCarthy was hoping to get a stop and force a punt that might have set up a field goal chance for his own team. "That was a poor decision on my part -- the timeout at 17 seconds, there's too much risk in the decision," said McCarthy, who also admitted he erred on the Lions' offside penalty on their kickoff in the fourth quarter. When the Lions re-kicked, Packers tight end Brandon Bostick was called for holding, which forced the Packers to start at their own 10.

McCarthy's message: Asked what McCarthy said to the team after the game, a downtrodden Packers defensive tackle Mike Daniels said: "That's classified."

Lions vs. Packers preview

September, 19, 2014
Sep 19
8:00
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It is a rivalry filled with dirtbags, scumbags, stomps and a winning streak going on longer than some NFL rookies have been alive. And that is just the past few decades.

Whenever the Green Bay Packers and Detroit Lions play each other, something ends up happening. So far, two of the major instigators of the recent vintage -- Packers lineman Josh Sitton and Lions defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh -- have remained quiet. That doesn’t mean something won't end up happening between now and game time.

So what happens during the game? NFL Nation Lions reporter Michael Rothstein and Packers reporter Rob Demovsky break down what you might see Sunday.

Rothstein: So, Rob, the Lions are going to have their third different starting slot corner in as many weeks on Sunday. How have the Packers done in three-wide sets this season and is that an exploitable area for Aaron Rodgers?

Demovsky: The three-receiver set is essentially their base offense. They use it primarily when they go no-huddle. But it really has not mattered much what the Packers are in personnel-wise, they’ve been looking to Jordy Nelson time and again. At some point, teams are surely going to force other receivers to beat them and that’s where Randall Cobb could come in. Although he caught a pair of touchdown passes last Sunday against the Jets, he had only 39 yards receiving. Given that he’s their slot receiver, perhaps this is a matchup the Packers will look to exploit this week.

I know it’s early in the season, but Nelson is putting up Calvin Johnson-type numbers so far. In fact, Nelson and Johnson come into this game ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in receiving yards. Nelson turned 29 this offseason and doesn’t look like he’s lost a step. Johnson will turn 29 at the end of this month. Is there any reason to think he’s slowing down at all?

Rothstein: Not at all. There was perhaps some concern over that during spring workouts, but he came into training camp looking like the receiver who has dominated the NFL over the past four seasons. The Lions brought in Golden Tate and Eric Ebron to help elongate Johnson's career as much as to help Matthew Stafford from taking nasty hits. So far, it has worked. Johnson is still being targeted a ton, but Tate is tied for 25th in the league in catches and 19th in yards with 150. Not bad for a true No. 2 receiver.

As long as Johnson can avoid injuries, he should still be in his prime for another couple of seasons. He takes extremely good care of himself and the Lions are doing their best to manage him. In the preseason they barely played him. Even during regular-season games, they are doing what they can to keep him fresh. That'll be one difference for Green Bay. There will be plays he's healthy on the sideline as the team tries to keep him as healthy and fresh as possible.

While the receivers will get the attention, the last time these two teams played, Josh Sitton called Ndamukong Suh and friends "dirtbags" and the Lions defensive line responded with their best game of the season. Is there still a similar level of dislike there or has that changed with the switch in the Detroit coaching staff?

Demovsky: Certainly the change in the coaches eased some of the tension between the Packers’ players and the Lions. Let’s face it, Sitton was pretty blunt in what he said about Jim Schwartz, so some of that is now gone. And Evan Dietrich-Smith, the player Suh stomped on, is no longer with the Packers. That said, there’s always going to be an emotional charge as long as Suh is on the other side. That will never go away as long as he’s there and Sitton and T.J. Lang are here. But both of those players are experienced enough to know now that this game is bigger than the individuals. And besides, the last time the Packers were at Ford Field, they took a beating, so if anything, the Packers might go back there humbled.

How much carryover, if any, will the Lions take from that 40-10 win over the Packers last Thanksgiving given that Rodgers did not even play in the game?

Rothstein: Not much, I don't think. So much has changed since then, from Rodgers now being healthy to the Packers switching defensive fronts to the Lions changing coaching staffs and offensive and defensive philosophies. I think it helps the Lions -- and Stafford -- that he finally beat Green Bay so there's potentially an underlying confidence thing there, but not a ton to it. Detroit doesn't seem focused on last season at all. For instance, when I asked Suh about that game last year and the aforementioned dirtbags comment, he smiled and basically said that was last season and had nothing to do with this season.

One of the Detroit offensive linemen, Rob Sims, mentioned the defensive line looks a lot different this year both in size and personnel. How much has the defense really shifted and how much 3-4 might the Packers still run, if any?

Demovsky: It’s like someone took Dom Capers’ old playbook away from him given how much 4-3 he’s running. It’s the first time he has done that since he came to Green Bay in 2009. What’s more, when he’s playing a four-man line, he’s using Clay Matthews off the line of scrimmage almost like an inside linebacker. They’re also much smaller across the front without those big three defensive tackles they had last season. It’s a completely different look, and it remains to be seen whether the change has been for the good. So far, they have struggled to stop the run, allowing 176.5 yards per game, which ranks 31st in the NFL.

The Packers have not been able to run the ball at all up the middle this season, and it looks like it might not get any easier this week. Why has the Lions' run defense been so effective?

Rothstein: It starts with that familiar guy from earlier, Ndamukong Suh. While teams still like to double him as much as possible, he is so difficult to deal with when an offensive line is trying to run block. Plus, the Lions have become much more aggressive this season with sending their linebackers, so rush lanes up the middle that used to be available in the Wide 9 defensive front are no longer an option for opposing teams.

But it starts with Suh and then linebackers DeAndre Levy and Stephen Tulloch. Those three players are going to make it difficult for any team Detroit faces to run up the middle. Here’s what you need to know there. The Giants and Panthers tried 34 rushes either up the middle or behind guards the first two weeks of the season. They’ve gotten pretty much nowhere, gaining only 69 yards. It’s a strength for Detroit, without a doubt.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- When the Detroit Lions signed Golden Tate as their biggest free-agent acquisition in March, they did so with the plan he would open up the entire offense. He would become a sticky target for Matthew Stafford and deflect attention away from Calvin Johnson as a pure No. 2 receiver.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"When you can take away the other reads and guys who can hurt you on offense, it does kind of make you one-dimensional," DeCoud said. "And then they are going to try and feed their big receiver, their big target and now we can key in on that and be ready."
DETROIT – Matthew Stafford wasn’t expecting to run.

Yet on Monday night against the New York Giants, facing a third-and-goal, Stafford looked more mobile than he ever has. The preparation for what turned into a 5-yard touchdown run for Stafford -- the longest touchdown run of his career -- began well before the season started.

[+] EnlargeMatthew Stafford
Gregory Shamus/Getty ImagesMatthew Stafford's 5-yard touchdown run was a product of his offseason conditioning and mobility work.
“I work out with Stafford sometimes in the offseason,” receiver Calvin Johnson said. “And he’s been doing a lot of footwork drills and you see it paying off.”

It might have paid off the most on a play Stafford made in the third quarter, when his intelligence combined with an overextended pocket forced him to take off and make a play.

The Lions were lined up with Stafford in the shotgun, Joique Bell next to him and Calvin Johnson alone on the right side. On the left, the Lions had Golden Tate on the outside, Jeremy Ross in the slot and Joseph Fauria standing up as a tight end close to the line of scrimmage.

The way the play was designed, Stafford was initially supposed to throw to the left. Nothing was open. Then he looked at Johnson, who was doubled on the play. Meanwhile, Stafford’s pocket was pushed a little bit more when Giants defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka ran past right tackle Corey Hilliard before Hilliard knocked him to the ground. This slightly shifted the pocket and gave Stafford a larger hole to run through.

As the pocket shifted, Tate was cutting across the field waving his hands slightly to try and get Stafford’s attention. Stafford, still looking somewhat upfield, appeared to commit to the run at the 10-yard line.

“They did a great job of covering us up on that,” Stafford said. “They kind of had a population issue over there to the left where we were trying to get the ball, and Calvin was doubled as well, so our offensive line again did a great job of giving me some lanes to step up.

“[I] Stepped up and decided to take off.”

This is where Stafford made the entire play. Seeing Tate covered and linebacker Jacquain Williams waiting around the goal line, Stafford gave a slight head fake like he was looking toward throwing to Tate. Williams looked to the right for a split second, appearing to throw off his timing.

It was a perfect sell by Stafford to give himself a chance to get close to the goal line. He knew it still wasn’t a guarantee he’s score, though.

“Knew I probably didn’t have the jets to get there but if I sold him enough, I could maybe cut back,” Stafford said.

He joked later the cut back is “about my only move,” but the final move resulting in the touchdown was more instinct than anything planned, no matter how much he works on his footwork.

That’s what happened when he reached the 2-yard line. Stafford, Williams, Tate and Giants safety Stevie Brown all converged just right of the hashmark. Stafford timed his cut back perfectly, knocking Williams slightly off balance for the wrap tackle while taking Brown out of the play with the move.

Stafford looked like he wanted to dive into the end zone, but Giants linebacker Jon Beason was standing just inside the goal line ready for one last shot at the play. Instead of diving, Stafford tucked the ball and almost jumped in the end zone, scoring to give the Lions a 27-7 lead after the extra point.

“He’s confident in his feet,” Johnson said. “The footwork drills that we do, he runs well. He’s running better than he has in the past. He’s going to be smart.

“He knows we need him out there so he isn’t going to do anything crazy.”


DETROIT -- Golden Tate's eyes widened and it had nothing to do with his matchup against the New York Giants.

The Giants were doing something almost unfathomable -- something that led Calvin Johnson to the second-best receiving game in NFL history last season. For stretches of Monday night's 35-14 Lions win, the Giants chose to single-cover Johnson.

Big, big mistake.

"That was really surprising," Tate said. "I can't believe you would ever leave CJ open. Ever. But they did a bunch of times, and we capitalized on it. If they do that, that's what we have to do. Consistently."

The Giants’ game plan was to entrust cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to single-cover Johnson, similar to what Dallas tried to do last season with Brandon Carr when Johnson had 329 yards receiving. That strategy failed an NFC East opponent again.

It started early, when Matthew Stafford evaded Damontre Moore in the backfield and saw Johnson open with no defender within 20 yards of him. Rodgers-Cromartie and Stevie Brown appeared to misidentify the coverage on the play. That 67-yard touchdown started Johnson's seven-catch, 164-yard, two-touchdown night. He didn't remember the last time he was that open.

Johnson's 98 yards and two touchdowns in the first quarter were both career bests for an opening quarter.

"There were some opportunities there where we had some single coverage," Johnson said. "It wasn't all the time. But there were some opportunities."

Johnson noticed the single coverage. The Lions also saw the Giants' safeties cheating down in Cover 2 on intermediate routes. By doing that, Johnson and Tate were able to get behind the defense for big plays.

"After looking at some of the clips and some of the pictures and stuff, we definitely seen the safeties starting to get a little nosy," receiver Jeremy Ross said. "So we were able to get on top of them."

No one more than Johnson. On one such play, he caught his 22nd touchdown reception on a pass of more than 15 yards since 2010, the most in the NFL in that span. He has 123 catches and 3,359 yards on deep passes since 2010, also the best in the NFL over that period.

[+] EnlargeCalvin Johnson
AP Photo/Rick OsentoskiCalvin Johnson burned New York for 164 yards and two touchdowns on seven receptions.
It's part of what makes him such a significant deep threat.

Part of why Johnson was able to break free so often is how the team has treated him, both in the offseason and again in the opener on Monday night. The Lions played him in only one of four preseason games. They held him out of an early scrimmage. Offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi also indicated multiple times throughout the preseason he wouldn't play Johnson every play, in an effort to keep him fresh.

Lombardi held true to that Monday night, as there were multiple plays in which Johnson watched from the sideline with different personnel on the field.

"That plays a part in me feeling fresher throughout the game," Johnson said. "We have a lot of weapons. Like I say, tight ends, receivers, running backs -- everybody gets a chance to eat."

On Monday night, no one ate as much as Johnson, who once again showed why he is the best receiver in the NFL.

Rapid Reaction: New York Giants

September, 8, 2014
Sep 8
10:07
PM ET

DETROIT -- A few thoughts on the New York Giants' 35-14 loss to the Detroit Lions at Ford Field.

What it means: As we told you going into the season, the Giants' offense is not a finished product. Not even close. But the problems go well beyond whether they're picking up offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo's new schemes. The Giants' problems are about personnel. The offensive line isn't good enough. They don't have enough at wide receiver, as Victor Cruz is easily erased from the game and Jerrel Jernigan and Rueben Randle aren't reliable. They have no dynamic tight end. And they didn't run the ball especially well Monday, either. Eli Manning's interceptions were bad, especially the second one, but the quality of the group around him needs to improve.

Stock Watch: The new Giants' secondary, DOWN. Yes, I know Calvin Johnson makes everybody look bad, but the breakdowns in the zones were terrible, and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie made way too many mistakes, letting Johnson go into empty space on the first touchdown and letting Golden Tate get past him for a critical 44-yard catch on third down in the second half. The Giants aren't good enough on offense to allow for a leaky secondary. This is supposed to be the strength of the team, but it was a weakness Monday.

Line must improve: Pass protection was Manning's biggest problem last year, was a major issue in the preseason and was terrible again Monday night. Left tackle Will Beatty looks lost, and he and the rest of the offensive line need to figure out some things in a hurry if the Giants are to avoid a repeat of last year's offensive crater.

Game ball: Defensive tackle Cullen Jenkins. The one bright spot, I thought, was the Giants' run defense, led by the play of the beefy defensive tackles on the inside. Especially with only three of them active for the game, Jenkins, Johnathan Hankins and Mike Patterson had to handle a lot of the load and held up well, limiting a talented Detroit running game to 76 yards on 30 carries. Jenkins made the plays that stood out most to me, so I pick him.

What's next: The Giants host the Arizona Cardinals at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday at MetLife Stadium.

Seven NFL predictions for 2014

September, 4, 2014
Sep 4
9:00
AM ET
Golden Tate Otto Greule Jr/Getty ImagesThe Packers and Seahawks open the NFL season in their first meeting since 2012's "Fail Mary."

Of course. Two of the NFL's best teams will kick off the 2014 season Thursday night -- and all you want to talk about is some random play that happened two years ago in a dark period of NFL history.

Fail Mary? Thpptttt. You still don't think Golden Tate caught the ball? You're waiting for Roger Goodell to invoke his right to reverse outcomes? You're incredulous the NFL would open itself to outside influence by substituting woefully underqualified officials as leverage in collective bargaining? You're still following T.J. Lang after he posted the most re-tweeted tweet of all time?

Nope? Me neither. Over it.

I, for one, am far too focused on the crucial nuts and bolts of this game -- and the upcoming season -- to get worked up about the most recent time the Green Bay Packers visited the Seattle Seahawks. This is all business. I want to see if quarterback Aaron Rodgers can withstand the Seahawks' fierce pass rush and if his girlfriend, Oliva Munn, is in the stands to watch it. I'm pumped to break down how Richard Sherman matches up with Jordy Nelson -- in between viewings of his latest Campbell's Soup ad.

Nothing generates deep discussion of strategy, scheme and precision like the NFL. How will the Cleveland Browns find a deep threat after the suspension of Josh Gordon? (And what club will Johnny Manziel hit after their first game?) Will Robert Griffin III respond to new expectations as a pocket passer? (And who will be the next world leader to speak out against the Washington Redskins' team name?) How in the name of doomsday will the Dallas Cowboys field a competitive defense? (And can owner Jerry Jones find a way to market a practice squad player?)

So many questions, so little time in the film room. So for your collective preparation efforts, here is a touchdown's worth of predictions for the 2014 NFL season. Carve them in stone, bet the house on them, and if I'm wrong, feel free to call me at (555) 555-5555.

1. Officiating will be better

[+] EnlargeNFL Instant Replay
AP Photo/Jack DempseyOfficials will now get instant replay assistance from the league office.
Yes, I know. We spent the entire preseason freaking out about a spike of penalties for illegal contact and defensive holding, two key points of emphasis dictated by the NFL's competition committee. I'm well aware that officials called almost the same number of those penalties in 69 preseason games (271) as they did in 256 regular-season games (285) in 2013.

But it's also worth taking a breath and reiterating that the rate dropped sharply in the final week of the preseason as all sides adjusted. The rate will still be higher than in 2013, but I wouldn't expect anything close to what we saw in the first few weeks of the preseason.

Aside from that issue, the league took several important steps this offseason in response to a rough go of it in 2013. It replaced three referees and a total of 13 officials, the biggest turnover in more than a decade. New instant replay assistance from the league office will make the system more accurate and quicker -- by nearly 20 seconds per review, according to vice president of officiating Dean Blandino -- and officials will communicate better now via wireless headsets.

I still expect to see plenty of disputed calls, and I'm not sure how to quantify improvement. But there is no doubt this operation is moving in the right direction.

2. Russell Wilson will be elite . . .

By the time the season is over, the Seahawks' quarterback will no longer be the target of condescending compliments. He won't be known as a winner, a game manager or surprisingly strong-armed for his size. No, Wilson will be one regarded as one of the absolute best quarterbacks -- and passers -- in the NFL. Rodgers, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady and Drew Brees will have no choice but to let him into their club.

This preseason, Wilson looked like a Ph.D. student who has submitted his dissertation. Preseason results are to be taken lightly -- sorry, just expunging the final drops of condescension -- but Wilson was the best player on the field this summer. He accounted for six touchdowns in three games while completing 31 of 37 passes for 400 yards. Wilson looked for all the world like a player on the brink of an individual breakout, one that will force the Seahawks to place him among the league's highest-paid players when he's eligible for a contract extension this spring.

3. . . . and Johnny Manziel, uh, won't

[+] EnlargeJohnny Manziel
AP Photo/Duane BurlesonJohnny Manziel seems destined to be more like Troy Smith than Russell Wilson.
Manziel (6-foot) has drawn plenty of comparisons to Wilson (5-11) because of their height, but the associations should end there. This summer, Manziel revealed a big-play attitude but offered no confirmation that he has the physical attributes to carry it out.

There's reason to believe Manziel's inaccurate passing (47.9 percent in the preseason) can improve over time. But what made him a special college player was his ability to break the pocket and pressure defenses on the edge. Those expecting him to play that way in the NFL saw good instincts but not the kind of speed that suggests he can make a living doing it. Instead, we were reminded that Manziel (4.68 seconds in the 40-yard dash) isn't nearly as fleet as players who have pressured defenses with speed in recent years. Griffin (4.41), Wilson (4.55) and Colin Kaepernick (4.53) were all considerably faster when drafted.

Manziel will get on the field, but he'll conjure more images of Troy Smith than Russell Wilson this season.

4. Texans will regret QB approach

The Houston Texans made the right call in bypassing Manziel at No. 1 overall, despite the pleading of some fans. But they'll rue both the day they allowed the Minnesota Vikings to leapfrog them for Teddy Bridgewater at No. 32 overall and the day after, when they passed up Derek Carr at No. 33.

There is no more important job for a new coach than to identify his quarterback, and Bill O'Brien almost certainly won't do that in his first season. Evidence of concern surfaced last week, when the Texans acquired the mildly touted Ryan Mallett to join a mix of journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick and could-miss prospect Tom Savage. In all likelihood, the Texans have pushed this critical question into O'Brien's second year. Texans fans should prepare to hear a ton about Marcus Mariota, Jameis Winston and Brett Hundley, the quarterback trio that should lead the 2015 draft.

5. A big-time coach is in his final season

I'm just not sure who yet. Will it be Tom Coughlin, the 68-year-old New York Giants coach whose team might need a rebuild? Coughlin has won two Super Bowls, but he has also missed the playoffs four of the past five seasons. Would the Giants move on if that streak becomes five of the past six?

What about Marvin Lewis? In resurrecting the Cincinnati Bengals, Lewis has made the playoffs five times but now holds the NFL record for coaching the most games (176) without a postseason victory. The Bengals will have their hands full in a tougher AFC North, and Lewis will be coaching without two treasured coordinators, Jay Gruden and Mike Zimmer. Is this the year Lewis must win a playoff game to keep his job?

[+] EnlargeJim Harbaugh
AP Photo/Marcio Jose SanchezWill Jim Harbaugh's supernova personality explode in San Francisco?
Then there's Jim Harbaugh, whose contract negotiations with the 49ers have been put on hold until after the season. Plenty of smoke arose this offseason about internal discord and even a potential trade to the Browns. Some consider Harbaugh's personality to be a supernova -- burning brightly for a short time before it explodes.

Jeff Fisher might be facing the biggest challenge in St. Louis. After consecutive seven-win seasons in the game's toughest division, Fisher has again lost his starting quarterback for the year. Has he built his defense into a strong enough group to carry the Rams into the playoffs? Otherwise, he's headed toward his fifth consecutive non-playoff season. The most recent time a Jeff Fisher team won a postseason game? The 2003 Tennessee Titans.

6. Marc Trestman's reputation as a "quarterback whisperer" will swell . . .

. . . when Josh McCown goes back to being Josh McCown, when Jay Cutler continues his refinement and when Jimmy Clausen (!) survives as the Chicago Bears' backup.

McCown had an undeniably great season in 2013. He finished with the NFL's top Total Quarterback Rating (85.1) and threw 13 touchdowns with just one interception. That performance got him a starting job with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the Trestman blip in McCown's career is too obvious to ignore.

Before teaming up with Trestman, McCown was a 58 percent passer with a 13-20 career record as a starter and seven more interceptions (44) than touchdowns (37). What's more likely: that he suddenly figured it all out in his 11th season, or that Trestman found a special connection?

McCown's performance overshadowed what turned out to be the best season of Cutler's career (66.4 QBR, 89.2 rating). With a settled offensive line and the Brandon Marshall/Alshon Jeffery receiving duo, Cutler has every opportunity to continue blossoming under Trestman. And if Clausen -- who was out of football in 2013 -- proves anywhere close to a credible backup, as the Bears are counting on, then it'll be time to recognize Trestman as the NFL's top quarterback guru.

7. This will be the last season of the extra point as we know it

Enjoy it while you can. League officials were pleased with an experiment that called for 33-yard extra points in the first two weeks of the preseason. It resulted in eight misses, albeit in some cases by place-kickers who won't be in the league in 2014. At this point, however, the NFL wants something other than a sure thing moving forward -- and the past season's 99.8 conversion rate was pretty darn close.

One alternative to keep an eye on: Some coaches and players want to see the spot moved from the 2- to the 1-yard line. That shift, as the theory goes, would encourage more teams to go for two points -- a decidedly more exciting play than an extra point from any distance. In either event, start getting your autographed prints now. The closeout sale has started.

Moment in Time: Fail Mary revisited

September, 3, 2014
Sep 3
2:00
PM ET
SEATTLE -- As painful as the play might have been -- and probably still is -- for Green Bay Packers' fans, the famous Fail Mary touchdown in Seattle nearly two years ago will always have a place in franchise and NFL history.

It will forever be a "Moment in Time," which makes it interesting to revisit the play through the key figures involved in one of the most controversial endings pro football has ever seen. You can do that by clicking on the link above.

What you will find is anger, jubilation, humor and much more from the play's central characters, including the official who made the touchdown call.

Here are some highlights from each:
  • Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who was standing next to team security head Doug Collins while the play was being review: "And I remember talking to Doug saying, 'Hey, they're not playing the replay here. We're going to be fine.' But I had this weird feeling. It reminded me a little bit of the Immaculate Reception. I remember [referee] Wayne [Elliott] comes walking out to the boundary, and I said to Doug, 'Holy s---. He doesn't have the balls to overturn it.' He was scared to death. He looked nervous."
  • Side judge Lance Easley, who made the touchdown call: "I said, 'Oh God, please when I get over to that pile, let someone have clear possession of the ball.' I got over there and looked down, and it was like a meatball with spaghetti wrapped all around it. … By rule, I got it right. By rule, there's nothing else I could do with it."
  • Then-Seahawks receiver Golden Tate, who caught the touchdown: "I actually have a bottle of wine signed by Charles Woodson that says 'Touch-ception' or something like that. M.D. Jennings signed a picture that I also have that says something, but I forgot what it says; I haven't looked at it in a while."
  • Then-Packers safety M.D. Jennings, who thought he intercepted it and said he signed autographs with the postscript "Screwed in Seattle" on pictures for Packers' fans: "It's what they wanted. I did it. The fans loved it."
  • Packers cornerback Sam Shields, who said he knew immediately who had shoved him as the ball was in the air (an act the NFL later said should have been called offensive pass interference): "It was Tate."
  • Packers cornerback Tramon Williams: "I'm looking at M.D., who's got it and has got it against his chest, and I'm saying to myself, 'We won the game.' And you look up at the referee, and you want to get that validation. You look up at the referee, and those guys are looking around like they don't know, and then they call it a touchdown, and it's like, 'No, no, this can't happen.'"
  • Seahawks coach Pete Carroll: "What I liked is Golden had the ball lying on the ground. I know he had the ball on the ground. When do you call it a catch? [Easley] looked down and that's what he saw, so he gave him a touchdown. It was a tremendous play by their guy and our guy, and that's the way he saw it."
  • Seahawks receiver Charly Martin, who also was in the scrum for the ball: "I take a lot of flak, being the white guy who can't jump, because there are some pretty good pictures out there where I am about two inches off the ground and everyone else is skyrocketing over me. I just tell them, 'Hey, they used me. They used me as a springboard.' I kind of boxed them out for Golden, and they pushed me down."
  • Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, the man who heaved the pass: "Everybody was a target. I was able to find a player in the back of the end zone and hit him."
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- When Golden Tate chose to sign with the Detroit Lions during free agency, part of the appeal to the wide receiver was the offense laid out to him.

After spending the first four years of his career in Seattle, where the Seahawks ran the ball just as much as they threw it -- including 155 more runs than passes during the last three seasons after the team acquired Marshawn Lynch -- he has now moved to an offense that likes to throw.

[+] EnlargeGolden Tate
Duane Burleson/AP PhotoVeteran wide receiver Golden Tate is anxious to see how his first season with the Lions will play out.
And potentially throw a lot.

This is why, when Tate says he believes he can better his 64 receptions and 898 yards from last season, it is a plausible thought even though he moved from being the No. 1 receiver in Seattle to the No. 2 receiver in Detroit.

"I think my numbers can be way better in this offense naturally how it's set up," Tate said. "I was coming from, you gotta think I was in the toughest division with the 49ers, Rams and Cardinals, defensively, with a run-heavy offense and now I'm going to a pass-happy offense where I'm on the same team as the best player in the league, one of the best players in the league who is going to draw a lot of attention, a lot of double coverage, which is going to leave me with a lot of single coverage with a lot of No. 2 and No. 3 cornerbacks.

"So mentally I think I should be able to excel and do very well here."

The player Tate is referring to is Calvin Johnson, who should still draw the majority of a defense's attention even with the additions of Tate and tight end Eric Ebron along with running backs Reggie Bush and Joique Bell and tight ends Joseph Fauria and Brandon Pettigrew.

Those are a lot of players for Matthew Stafford to choose between on a given play, so while Tate might not receive as many looks as he did in Seattle, he should see much more favorable coverage.

If Tate wants to eclipse those numbers, he might have to do it on fewer than the 98 targets he had last season. He did say, as many players will, he would sacrifice individual stats if Detroit can finally win.

"My goals are just to be better than I was last year," Tate said. "I think every year I just want to be better than I was last year. Just a little bit better. Coach (Jim) Caldwell does a great job of using, we just want to be six inches better, that's what I want to do. I want to help this team win.

"If my numbers aren't as great and we have 11 wins and go to the playoffs and go deep into the playoffs, I'm happy with that. I want this team to win. I think we definitely have what it takes to win and it's time to win now."

Caldwell, though, has no interest in making any predictions about statistics -- or about wins. He passed on commenting about season projections and when told of Tate's thought that he could put up bigger numbers in this offense, he downplayed that as well.

"You don't know. It could be game-to-game," Caldwell said. "You often see within schemes, in particular those, we'll run the ball as well, you'll see certain schemes and how they decide to attack you, one game one guy might catch six balls and the next game he might get two. One game a guy might get 12 and the next game he might get none.

"Just kind of depends on the situation so it would be tough for me to predict that."

One prediction will be easy enough -- Johnson will still see a lot of attention and if offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi is able to do it correctly, that should open up chances for everyone else on the offense.

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