NFL Nation: Jeremy Ross

W2W4: Detroit Lions

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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The Detroit Lions (1-1) and Jacksonville Jaguars (1-1) continue their preseason on Friday night at Ford Field in Detroit.

1.How much will Calvin Johnson and Ezekiel Ansah play: The wide receiver will make his season debut against Jacksonville after coach Jim Caldwell held him out of the first two preseason games as a prudent decision to rest his star. Johnson has been itching to play and should see a decent amount of snaps Friday with the starters as he figures out his role in Joe Lombardi’s new offense. Don’t expect to see him out there as much as some other starters, though, since he already has chemistry with Matthew Stafford, and this will be to just get him moving a bit for the first time this season. Ansah’s situation is a little bit different. If he’s healthy enough to be cleared for the game, he’ll end up being used a little bit but probably won’t see a full workload as he still gets himself into shape from offseason shoulder surgery. Detroit’s goal here would be to give them enough to get a taste of action and then shelve them for the regular season.

2.Which receivers work in with the first group the most: One of the tightest competitions in camp has been at receiver, where the Lions have depth and some hard decisions to make after Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Seeing how much Kevin Ogletree, Kris Durham, Ryan Broyles, Corey Fuller and Jeremy Ross work into the receiver rotation with Stafford could give an indication as to which receivers are in line for the other roster spots. Ross will make the team as a returner, but the other four players are probably fighting for two-to-three spots. A big game with the first unit could make a difference in a really tight battle.

3.Will the kicking battle end and what undrafted free agents show up early on special teams? Caldwell was cagey when asked when the Lions would decide on a kicker, but the team is now going to alternate Giorgio Tavecchio and Nate Freese on Friday instead of alternating them by halves. This is probably a good sign for Tavecchio, who has been the more consistent kicker during camp. If he has a good showing Friday, he may pull one of the upsets of camp and beat out a draft pick in Freese. Other than that, it will be important to watch which undrafted rookies might remain on first-team specialists units -- particularly George Winn and Jerome Couplin. If they keep showing up, they may also pull upsets for roster spots, however unlikely that may still seem.

Lions Camp Report: Day 3

July, 30, 2014
Jul 30
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DETROIT -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • George Johnson, a defensive end who played with Tampa Bay and Minnesota before coming to the Lions, spent time with the first team for the second straight day. He has a long way to go to make the roster for multiple reasons, however. The Lions are without the likely starter at his spot, Ezekiel Ansah, as he remains on the PUP list recovering from shoulder surgery. Another potential open defensive end, Devin Taylor, is competing for the starting closed defensive end spot.
  • The Lions were in shoulder pads for the first time during camp and it led to a little more physical play. Brandon Pettigrew was actually tackled by Jason Jones in a period of 11-on-11 and Mikel Leshoure was hit by DeAndre Levy after catching a pass.
  • In the daily kicking battle, Giorgio Tavecchio made all five of his field goal attempts. Nate Freese made four of five after having his first attempt from 30 yards blocked. On Tuesday, both Freese and Tavecchio missed 49-yard field goals to end practice. On Wednesday, Tavecchio made his practice-ending kick, while Freese missed his again. After practice, Freese could not explain what happened on the block and said he is still working on timing with holder Sam Martin and long snapper Don Muhlbach, but that they are close. On his missed field goal to end practice, Freese said it was his fault he missed the kick and the operation was good.
  • Both Reggie Bush and Jeremy Ross had nice plays in various times. Ross had an impressive one-handed catch during skeleton drills that would have been a difficult touchdown. Bush, meanwhile, made a play in 11-on-11 and then made a nasty cut on linebacker Tahir Whitehead for what would have been a large gain if the team was in full pads and tackling. The play of the day might have gone to Golden Tate, who converted a 3rd-and-4 play with a well-thrown slant pass over the middle from Stafford. Then he had the defense chase him all over the field.
  • Another day, another drop for Lions rookie tight end Eric Ebron. To be fair, this play was a little bit more difficult than a garden variety play, as he had to turn around to make the catch. But the pass hit Ebron squarely in the hands on a deep route along the sideline with DeJon Gomes in coverage and it is a play Ebron would be expected to make in a game during the season. For as many good plays and highlight reel plays Ebron has the capability of making, seeing him drop routine-or-close-to-it passes should be a concern even if it is early in camp. He is still learning the offense, but at some point it should be instinct as well. Ebron did rebound later in practice with a difficult catch on a short route for a touchdown.

Lions Camp Report: Day 2

July, 29, 2014
Jul 29
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ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- A daily review of the hot topics coming out of Detroit Lions training camp:
  • One of the players making a big early impression in a position of competition is wide receiver Kevin Ogletree. Tucked in a tight battle with Kris Durham, Ryan Broyles, Jeremy Ross and Corey Fuller for receiving spots behind Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate, Ogletree has spent time with the top unit both days as the No. 3 receiver. This comes on top of offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi singling him out during the spring as someone who impressed him. Ogletree has speed as well as the ability to make catches both over the middle and the sideline. Johnson, meanwhile, called Ogletree “smooth” when discussing him Tuesday.
  • An interesting thing occurred during individual periods Tuesday. Instead of working on their own, the Lions split their tight ends up between the offensive line and with the pass-catching receivers and running backs catching passes. So Brandon Pettigrew, for instance, was working with the line blocking while Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron were catching passes. This, Pettigrew said, was different than how the Lions operated under former coach Jim Schwartz.“We rotate and go down there during periods,” Pettigrew said. “We have five guys here, why not split it up and have some guys down there and some guys down here.” Pettigrew sees this as not only helping his blocking fundamentals, but an aid to Ebron and Fauria as well.
  • It’s early, but the kicking situation is going to be something to watch. Detroit hasn’t done many pressure field-goal situations over the first two days, but the Lions did have both Nate Freese and Giorgio Tavecchio attempt a 49-yard field goal under pressure in the final moments of practice. It did not end well and went counter to their supposed strengths. Freese had the distance but missed wide left. Tavecchio was right on line -- but about a yard or so short. It’s only one day, but this is going to be a major thing to pay attention to throughout the next few weeks.
  • It would appear the Lions are going to give both Corey Hilliard and LaAdrian Waddle an equal shot at right tackle. Hilliard worked with the first team during the first practice Monday and Waddle received the first-team snaps Tuesday. We’ll have more on the offensive line Wednesday, but this appears to be the one true spot up for grabs on what is otherwise a fairly strong front five.
  • The Lions have managed to have fairly short practices the first two days, wrapping up in well under two hours. Some of it might come from the team still practicing without pads, but Lions safety Glover Quin explained the reason for the shorter practices is kind of simple: The team has plays they want to run through and things they need to accomplish. If they limit mistakes and run through the plays at a good pace, they finish quicker. It’s a long way from the marathon practices of the past, although practices should get longer once the team goes into pads.
  • Ownership made its first public appearance at camp Tuesday as Martha Ford, the wife of the late William Clay Ford Sr., attended practice. Ford gained controlling interest in the team after her husband’s death in the offseason. Also visiting practice Tuesday were some of Michigan State’s football coaches, although head coach Mark Dantonio was not spotted, as he was in Chicago for Big Ten media days.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. – The Detroit Lions finished up their first open practice of the organized team activities period Wednesday afternoon – and after Ndamukong Suh dropped that he controlled his own draft fate in 2010 – there are other things to get to.

Here are some observations and thoughts after watching the Lions' practice under head coach Jim Caldwell, offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin for the first time.
    Vaughn
  • The defense appears faster and certainly more excited than anything I remember from last season. They celebrated plays a lot and seemed to be a fairly cohesive unit throughout the practice. They also seemed to be playing a lot better than the offense throughout the majority of Wednesday’s practice, from individual periods to team periods.They seemed sharper, from a couple of interceptions of the first and second groups to just being more aggressive throughout the practice.
  • Of those players, cornerback Cassius Vaughn stood out heavily. He made a beautiful break on intercepting a Dan Orlovsky pass and had it been a real game, Vaughn might have scored on the play. He seemed to be aggressive and realizing there was an opportunity to be had with Chris Houston and Chris Greenwood both out of practice Wednesday.“At this point in time, he’s been here with us for a while,” Caldwell said of Vaughn. “He’s a guy that loves to play and he loves to tell you about it once in a while as he’s playing. But nevertheless, he’s a guy that’s working extremely hard trying to win a spot on this team. He does bring some energy.”It’s only one practice, but if Vaughn keeps playing as he did Wednesday, he may end up in contention for a roster spot come the fall.
  • Calvin Johnson did not look like his typically sharp self. He dropped a couple of passes and looks like he is still finding his way into playing shape. Don’t forget, he did have offseason surgery and it is May – so nothing to be concerned about yet. Also not looking particularly precise was quarterback Matthew Stafford, who was intercepted by Stephen Tulloch on one play and had a couple of other balls dropped.
  • Michael Williams is going to have to put on some weight – and he knows it. He said after practice he probably needs to add another 15 to 20 pounds – he’s put on six to seven already – and hasn’t played offensive tackle in his life. Yet playing tackle instead of tight end might end up being his best path to a roster spot in the fall and in the future, so it makes sense for him to make that switch.
  • DeAndre Levy’s beard is intense – that much was known beforehand – but he looks like he could end up building well off of last season’s breakout season. He seems pretty comfortable already and in strong shape. This is going to be important for Detroit’s defense this season.
  • Was also impressed by the size of undrafted free-agent safety Jerome Couplin. He’s listed at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, but when I noticed him in the defensive backfield, he didn’t look like your typical safety. He’s longer, rangier and perhaps has a longer stride than most of your typical defensive backs. He almost looks more like a taller receiver than someone in the defensive backfield. He’s going to end up being a player to watch in contention for a roster spot at points during this camp.
  • Jeremy Ross also looks like he has improved from a season ago. Possibly a bit bigger – especially in his arms – and perhaps with a little bit more speed as well.
Other notes:
  • Golden Tate was not at the Lions’ open practice Wednesday. He was a bit busy with other things – like going to the White House with his old team, Seattle, to meet President Barack Obama.
  • Others not participating (in at least some extent) were running back Joique Bell, defensive end Kourtnei Brown, cornerback Chris Greenwood, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, left guard Rob Sims, linebacker Brandon Hepburn, defensive tackle Nick Fairley and cornerback Chris Houston. Of those players, only Houston, Tate and Fairley were not spotted as at least being in attendance. Some of these players participated in walk-throughs or individual drills.
  • The Lions have one more organized team activity in this period – Thursday – before being off for the weekend.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- He was on a rival a year ago, unsure about his future in the NFL and not knowing whether he would have a job with the Green Bay Packers for much longer. Jeremy Ross made the roster then fumbled away his opportunity early in the season.

This is all known by now, part of Ross’ past. The receiver/returner in some ways had to go through all of that to find his home now, to get released from Green Bay and then land in Detroit weeks later, first on the practice squad and then as the team’s primary returner when he replaced Micheal Spurlock.

Here he is now a year later, on the first day of voluntary workouts for Detroit, and his role with the Lions appears to be somewhat set. After returning both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown last season and also being dynamic in his ability to bring back kicks and punts along with being a gunner on punt coverage, he has a place with the Lions.

So now he’s trying to expand on it and work himself into a refurbished receiver rotation behind Calvin Johnson.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ross
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsJeremy Ross wants to be more than a special-teams player for the Detroit Lions.
“I feel like I have a lot to offer,” Ross said Monday afternoon after dropping his bags in his car. “My versatility is something good. I can play slot. I can play outside. I can be in the backfield. I can do a lot of different things for the offense.”

While winning one of the receiver slots would increase his standing with Detroit and help to solidify a roster spot come fall, his primary value entering the offseason workouts will be as a returner and special-teams player.

He trained in the offseason for everything, but worked specifically on both his straight-line speed and his ability to change directions quickly. He also worked on his strength and his quickness, the former to help give him a better foundation than he had a season ago.

Last season, Ross essentially was a returner and an occasional offensive player. He played 175 offensive snaps for the Lions last season, caught five passes for 59 yards and dropped two balls. He was also targeted on only 10.2 percent of the routes he ran. He also had two rushes for 40 yards.

His role was smaller last season, though. He was playing behind Johnson, Kris Durham, Nate Burleson and, at points, Kevin Ogletree and Ryan Broyles. He had to, in some ways, wait. Now with a new coaching staff, he can try to move up on his own merit.

“It’s good. New coaching staff. Fresh start,” Ross said. “Everybody’s coming in and coming in to compete. So when they are looking and evaluating, they aren’t going off of previous years. They are seeing what’s in front of them and that’s how they are going to make their decisions.”

That includes the spot where he has worked out the best -- on returns. With the Lions signing Golden Tate in the offseason and Tate expressing a desire to keep returning punts if possible, Ross will have competition from a player the team has invested a lot of money in as both a receiver and, if possible, returner.

Will that change how Ross does things? It won’t. After all, he is in a much better place than a season ago no matter what happens.

“I go out there and I work hard. I don’t really need any external motivation,” Ross said. “I’m pretty motivated.

“So I’ll just continue to do what I do to work on technique, catch balls after practice, watch film, all the things I’ve done in the past to do well.”
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- The Green Bay Packers signed one former Chicago Bears' Pro Bowl player in defensive end Julius Peppers, so why not another in return specialist Devin Hester?

Hester
The Packers have not gotten involved yet with Hester, who visited the Falcons on Tuesday, but they could if the price is right.

According to an NFL personnel evaluator whose team has discussed the possibility of going after Hester, the former Pro Bowl return specialist is currently seeking a deal in the $4-million-per-year range.

However, that may be too high for teams interested in the 31-year-old return man.

If Hester discovers the market for his services is lower, it could bring in more teams, the Packers among them, when the price drops.

The Packers want to upgrade their return game while also taking receiver Randall Cobb out of that job. Cobb, who has three career special teams touchdowns on returns, will take on an even greater role on offense this season after the departure of James Jones.

After Jeremy Ross was released and Cobb sustained a knee injury early last season, the Packers turned to rookie cornerback Micah Hyde as their primary returner. Hyde ranked fifth in the NFL last season in punt return average (12.3 yards per return) and had one touchdown. But the Packers struggled all season on kickoff returns, ranking 30th with a 20.3-yard average. Hyde is expected to have a larger role on defense this season, perhaps even moving to safety.

The Bears decided not to re-sign Hester after his contract expired following last season. He holds the NFL record for kickoff and punt returns for touchdowns with 18, one of which came last season on a punt return.

Lions bringing back Ross, Durham

February, 21, 2014
Feb 21
12:45
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The Detroit Lions' receiving corps was bolstered a little bit more Friday, as general manager Martin Mayhew said the team will bring back Jeremy Ross and Kris Durham, who were exclusive rights free agents.

After an injury to Nate Burleson and overall ineffective play from Patrick Edwards, Durham was elevated to a starting wide receiver opposite Calvin Johnson for the majority of the season. Durham played in 16 games, making 38 catches for 490 yards and two touchdowns last season. He has good familiarity with quarterback Matthew Stafford from their shared time at Georgia.

Ross
Durham
Ross emerged as a return threat for Detroit after he was bumped up from the practice squad in October. He was one of Mayhew's better signings throughout the season, as he grabbed Ross off the waiver wire after he was released by Green Bay.

He turned into the team's primary kick and punt returner, returning both a punt and a kick for a touchdown against Philadelphia in Week 14.

"I think he did a good job for us last season," Mayhew said. "He didn't have quite enough returns to get into some of the categories with the leaders. I guess his stats don't really show up. If he had a handful more returns, he would be one of the top punt returners in the NFL right now.

"So he's a very talented guy. He's young. He had upside. He's still growing. We might add to that (return) group. We might add there."

Among the guys Mayhew pointed to were practice squad running back Steven Miller and utility guy Carlin Isles, who has not decided whether he will give up football for rugby. Mayhew also didn't rule out adding a player through the draft or free agency as competition for Ross.
Over the phone earlier this week, Nate Burleson sounded genuinely excited. Unlike last season, when he had to continue to rehabilitate the broken right leg he suffered in October 2012, he was healthy. He was fresh.

And right after the Super Bowl ended, he had the pangs to start training for this season. He knew then it wasn’t a lock that he would return to Detroit. He wanted to come back, had ingrained himself in the community that has become almost a second home to him.

[+] EnlargeNate Burleson
Brad Mills/USA TODAY SportsNate Burleson was slated to have a cap number of $7.5 million for the 2014 season.
But as we spoke Tuesday afternoon, there was at least a little bit of doubt that he would actually get to do what he had campaigned for toward the end of the season and beyond, which was to have the team restructure his deal so that he could stay with the Lions and finish his career with the club. His $7.5 million cap number for 2014 was a massive one, even if the team decided to work with him on a restructure.

And as of Tuesday, he had not heard from the Lions about his status, which likely was not a good sign in retrospect, even though it was a similar situation a year ago. But with a new coaching staff, that was probably a sign that his time in Detroit would end.

Now, after the team's decision to release him on Thursday, that won’t happen and he’ll join a deep free-agent pool of receivers looking to find work on March 11. It is an unfortunate ending for him with Detroit, though, almost more because of what he meant to the Lions off the field.

Burleson was the player you could count on to show up at charity functions. He was, from a media perspective, one of the most readily available players on a team full of guys who were often gracious with their time. And you could ask Burleson anything about any topic -- even Thursday, the day of his release, he was quoted on ESPN.com about Michael Sam -- and he would give a thoughtful, intelligent answer.

He also meant a lot to his teammates. He was the player a lot of young guys on the roster, regardless of position, could go to for advice and guidance. He often stressed to younger players the value of saving their money and investing and finding other outlets to do business, as he did with his Lionblood clothing line.

Burleson had taken on the roles of mentor, locker-room leader and on-field leader. He complemented Calvin Johnson well. As quiet and unassuming as Johnson is, Burleson was the guy who could be loud and get the team focused and energized. He and safety Louis Delmas often were the ones leading the pregame huddle and giving speeches.

On the field, when Burleson was healthy, he was a reliable target for quarterback Matthew Stafford. This past season, he had a 73.6 percent reception rate, second-best among qualifying receivers in the NFL and by far the highest among receivers on the Lions. He was also a good underneath option for Detroit to counterbalance the deep threat of Johnson.

It will be interesting to see how the Lions plan to replace Burleson from a production and leadership standpoint. Only two experienced slot receivers are likely to be on the roster: Ryan Broyles and Jeremy Ross, assuming he is extended a exclusive-rights free-agent offer. Broyles is coming off the third straight year in which surgery ended his season. Ross is a dynamic returner who can grow into the receiver role, but he doesn’t have much experience there. So the returning options have major questions attached to them.

This could be a large indication that the team is going to revamp the receiving corps to complement Johnson. It also almost guarantees that the Lions are going to be heavily targeting receivers in May’s draft, perhaps looking for a slot receiver as well as an outside receiver.

It could mean the team is planning to target a different, perhaps younger, slot receiver in free agency. Jacoby Jones, who played under Lions coach Jim Caldwell in Baltimore, is a free agent and could be an option.

The free-agent pool of receiving targets is deep, and this could have been another reason for Burleson's release. If the Lions thought they could find a younger, perhaps cheaper, option in a deep free-agent and draft class for wide receivers, they had to make this move.

That’s a tough call to make, but one Detroit clearly made.
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- In 16 regular-season games plus the NFC wild-card playoff loss to the San Francisco 49ers, the Green Bay Packers were on the field for 1,185 offensive snaps, according to playing time totals kept by the NFL.

Only one player took them all.

Sitton
Josh Sitton played every snap at his new position, left guard, on the way to the best season of his six-year pro career. Sitton made the switch from right guard and was a second-team All-Pro selection.

A total of 30 players took at least one snap on offense (including a pair of defensive linemen -- Mike Daniels and B.J. Raji). In 2012, the Packers used 29 players on offense.

Six players -- Sitton, right guard T.J. Lang, left tackle David Bakhtiari, center Evan Dietrich-Smith, receiver Jordy Nelson and tight end Andrew Quarless -- played on offense in every game.

Here are the total snap counts on offense with playing-time percentages in parenthesis (the defense and special teams breakdowns are coming):

Quarterbacks: Offensive line:
  • Josh Sitton 1,185 (100 percent)
  • David Bakthtiari 1,171 (98.8 percent)
  • T.J. Lang 1,156 (97.6 percent)
  • Evan Dietrich-Smith 1,118 (94.3 percent)
  • Don Barclay 1,027 (86.7 percent)
  • Marshall Newhouse 256 (21.6 percent)
  • Lane Taylor 14 (1.2 percent)
  • Derek Sherrod 6 (0.5 percent)
Receivers: Running backs: Tight ends:

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 21
Preseason Power Ranking: 24

Biggest surprise: The offensive line was supposed to be one of the biggest question marks for the Lions this season with three new starters and a center who was supposed to be on the tail end of his career. Instead, the group ended up being one of the top units in the NFL. Larry Warford, a third-round pick in the 2013 draft, looks to be an anchor at right guard for the next decade. Center Dominic Raiola had arguably his best season and the Lions discovered another rookie, undrafted free agent LaAdrian Waddle, as a consistent starter at right tackle. Four of the five -- all but Raiola -- are under contract for next season. Raiola has expressed a desire to return if possible.

Biggest disappointment: At one point, Detroit was 6-3 and looked to be in control of the NFC North and a playoff berth. Then everything unraveled. The Lions lost five of their next six to fall out of playoff contention. In each of those losses, Detroit had three or more turnovers. Matthew Stafford, who appeared in the first half of the season to be moving closer to becoming an elite quarterback, regressed. Reggie Bush, brought in as a high-profile free agent in the offseason, had issues with fumbles. Calvin Johnson had the most drops in a season in his career. Almost everything imploded on the Lions, who will watch the playoffs from home again this year.

Biggest need: In the draft, the Lions need to look at a speedy wide receiver on the outside to complement Johnson along with finding a young, shutdown cornerback early on to play alongside Darius Slay, last season’s second-round draft pick. Depending on whether tight end Brandon Pettigrew and Raiola return, those are two other positions to look at, and the Lions could also use depth at linebacker. Perhaps the biggest need of all is a guru to work with Stafford to help fix his mechanical issues and decision making. Whether that person is brought on staff as a dedicated quarterback coach or an outside influence like Steve Clarkson or George Whitfield Jr., Stafford could use some specialized refresher courses at least.

Team MVP: Johnson was the team's best player, and he showed his value when he was out, as the Detroit offense couldn’t move the ball well in games he missed. But the most valuable Lions player this season was linebacker DeAndre Levy. He had career highs in tackles, solo tackles and interceptions this season. But to me, the image of him hobbling out of the locker room after the Lions’ 23-20 loss to the Giants in Week 16, after he legitimately gave every piece of himself to his team only to lose, showed his value. Levy doesn’t say much, but he was the top player on the Lions' defense and consistently made plays for Detroit all season long.

Jim SchwartAP Photo/Jim MoneJim Schwartz and the Lions held a fourth-quarter lead in all six of their losses down the stretch.

MINNEAPOLIS -- Jim Schwartz lingered for a little longer than normal on the field Sunday, seeking out some Minnesota Vikings to chat with for a second before jogging off toward the tunnel for his final postgame chat of the season.

There was a sense of finality everywhere in Minnesota on Sunday. Final game in the Metrodome. Final game of the season for both teams and, potentially, the final game of the coaching tenures of both Schwartz and Minnesota's Leslie Frazier.

Schwartz addressed his team after another fourth-quarter lead lost, this time in a 14-13 defeat to Minnesota. Players said Schwartz didn't discuss his own job status. He told them he was proud of them and receiver Jeremy Ross said he told them they needed to "bounce back."

The only question now is whether Schwartz will be bouncing back with them or if he will be bounced out of Detroit after five seasons.

True to how he has always been, Schwartz wouldn't divulge what he would say to management if he were allowed to make a case for why he should be given a sixth year. He wouldn't say if he wants clarity on the situation, either, although human nature screams that he would.

"I know the way this business is, we all do, but we can't worry about decisions that we don't make," Schwartz said. "We've got to try our very best week in and week out and if we do, we can accept any decision that is made.

"I'd certainly like to be back. I feel like we have unfinished business here. We've come a long way in these years but we still have ground that we can make and I'm anxious to have a chance to be able to do that."

The "unfinished business" extended to Sunday, where the Lions looked exactly like the team they have been all season long. It is unlikely Sunday was the final opportunity for Schwartz to save his job -- and it actually had no business being that considering what has gone on the past two months -- but if it were, he and the Lions gave management a litany of reasons why a change might be necessary.

Almost all of the same problems that plagued Detroit all season remained in the season finale, when there was nothing left for the Lions to play for after they squandered their chance at a division title.

The same issues with penalties remained -- six for 52 yards. The same issues with game management remained, as the Lions burned through two second-half timeouts in the third quarter, including one on an extra point.

Then came the fourth quarter -- winning time for so many NFL teams, but losing time this season in Detroit. The Lions' final six losses all came after the team led in the fourth quarter as they lost six of their final seven games. They lost their final eight games in 2012.

The only miscue the Lions avoided is committing a turnover.

Each week had the same theme of talking about problems during the week and committing the same ones every Sunday.

"It's frustrating when we talk about what we need to do and know what we need to do but we get to the fourth quarter, which is, in my mind, it's been about the fourth quarter for us," running back Reggie Bush said. "Fourth quarter of the season. Fourth quarter of games. That's where we've been losing football games and that's where we need that one or two or three plays to be made to help us win that game."

"Whether it's special teams, offense, defense, whatever, somebody has to make a play."

They can say they were one play, one game, one whatever away for however long they want, but they were never able to solve that problem.

"We're confident in the way that we work and what we're doing as a team," Schwartz said. "Obviously we didn't win enough games this year and there's no standard to really judge other than that.

"I understand that in this business."

So he should understand that whatever happens over the next 24 or 48 hours is exactly that -- business. And the way the Lions played Sunday, an echo of the past two months, is not a strong case for being able to stay.

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- There is no way the Detroit Lions would do this, no matter the public front it might show. There’s just no possible way the Lions would possibly risk their franchise player, Calvin Johnson, on Sunday.

Right?

Detroit coach Jim Schwartz continues to play coy about Johnson’s availability for the season finale against Minnesota, saying it will be a decision that could go until Sunday before the game. Johnson, as he usually does, declined to answer many questions about his status other than it is a two-way decision and that he’ll see how he progresses throughout the week.
That the Lions are contemplating playing Johnson this weekend makes absolutely no sense. There's nothing on the line but pride and Johnson is ailing at best and outright hurt at worst.

None at all.

Johnson won’t confirm or deny the extent of his knee injury or if he’ll have to have surgery on it after the season. He won’t even say what, exactly, is wrong with his knee. We know he has missed a ton of practice time this season, missed one game and was limited in two others.

That alone is enough to sit the best player the Lions have, the player whom your entire offense flows through. He was limited last Sunday in what was essentially an elimination game against the New York Giants, and that should tell you everything you need to know about Johnson’s health.

Or lack thereof.

Don’t push him to play. If he says he wants to play, sit him down and tell him it is in the best interest of his future and the franchise’s future that he sit out.

The first priority should be Johnson’s health and that is the first -- and most important -- reason he should sit.

One of the most obvious things about Detroit this season is its ineffectiveness without Johnson in the lineup. The Lions, whether or not Schwartz is around a week from now or a season from now, can use Sunday to figure out other wide receiver plans.

How does free agent-to-be Kevin Ogletree look with a full complement of game day snaps? Can Nate Burleson still play on the outside if need be? Could tight end Joseph Fauria line up outside? What about new-to-the-53-man-roster Matt Veldman, who will play his first NFL game Sunday? Is Jeremy Ross a potential weapon as a receiver as well as a returner?

A lot of these things can be accomplished by not playing Johnson on Sunday. If Detroit plays him, at best the Lions will get a decent, but likely limited, effort from him. At worst, he could injure himself further.

And that’s something no one around the Lions should even want to think about.
Stafford/HendersonGetty ImagesMatthew Stafford's Lions are playing for pride, Erin Henderson's Vikings to send off the Metrodome.

When the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions squared off in Week 1, both teams had legitimate designs on playoff spots in what was expected to be one of the toughest divisions in football.

Now, they’re the only two teams with no shot of winning one of the most mediocre divisions in football, and headed into their Week 17 rematch, both the Vikings and Lions could be playing their final games with their current coaches. The Vikings have reportedly been doing their homework on potential replacements for Leslie Frazier, while Jim Schwartz could also be on his way out in Detroit after the team followed a 6-3 start with five losses in its next six games. The final game at Mall of America Field (aka the Metrodome) could also be the last before each team embarks on some major changes.

To get you ready for the game and for what might be next for both teams, ESPN.com Vikings reporter Ben Goessling and Lions reporter Michael Rothstein discussed the matchup and the future of these NFC North foes.

Goessling: Michael, I’d wish you a relaxing offseason, but I think we’re probably both a ways from that starting, in light of what’s going on with these two teams. Frazier has been unable to get consistent quarterback play or reliable defense, particularly against the pass and at the end of games, but as usual, what’s happening with the Lions seems more combustible than that. After another late-season meltdown, do you think there’s any chance Schwartz survives as coach?

Rothstein: I guess there's always a chance, but I have an extremely difficult time seeing it after the Lions lost five of six games entering Sunday and played themselves out of a divisional title. That plus the mistakes Detroit has made, from turnovers to penalties to fourth-quarter collapses, and things don't seem to be getting any better.

But this is the Ford family, and it has shown more patience than almost any other owner in any sport, so there's always that chance it just rides things out with Schwartz. Still, it would send a pretty bad message after four seasons out of the playoffs in five seasons under Schwartz.

Flipping that question back to you -- what do you think Minnesota does with Frazier? The players really seem to like him, so do you think that plays into what we'll see Sunday?

Goessling: I have a hard time seeing Frazier survive, as much as the players like him. Adrian Peterson said on Sunday he planned to go to the Wilf family after the season and let the owners know he wanted Frazier to stay on as coach. He’s also said he wants to play the rest of his career for Frazier. Those are pretty strong statements from a guy whom the Vikings probably want to keep happy more than anyone else on their roster. But they also wouldn’t give Frazier a contract extension after he went 10-6 last season, and with everything that’s looked disjointed at times this year -- five blown leads in the last minute of games, the reluctance to use Cordarrelle Patterson early in the season and, of course, the mess at quarterback -- I can’t see the Wilfs standing pat. GM Rick Spielman is responsible for a fair share of this, possibly more than Frazier, but heading into a new stadium, the Vikings are looking for a jolt. They’re more likely to get that with a new coach than a new GM.

Shifting to Sunday’s game, the Lions came back to beat the Vikings in September because of how well they used Reggie Bush, but he hasn’t looked like the same guy in a number of games since then. Is that mostly attributable to the calf injury he’s had, or is there something else going on?

Rothstein: It's tough to tell with Bush. I think he is, in some ways, hampered by the calf injury and all of the earlier injuries he's suffered this season. There are also the issues of his fumbles, which have been a problem all season, and his dropped passes. Bush is still an electrifying player, but his ineffectiveness at times has been due to how Detroit chooses to use him. He sliced up the Vikings with screen plays and short passes out of the backfield, and Detroit hasn't done as much with him in that area lately. The Lions also have a lot of confidence in Joique Bell, a gifted runner who plays hard.

Sticking with the game, and really this might be more of a finality point as well, how does Jared Allen view Sunday? Is this it for him in Minnesota, and how much of a problem can he cause for a somewhat-struggling Lions offense?

Goessling: I do think this is it for Allen in Minnesota. He’ll be a free agent after the season, he’s carrying a cap figure of more than $17 million this year and he’s talked in recent weeks about how he’d rather retire than be a situational pass-rusher. He might be overestimating his value, and he could be singing a different tune when he does get out into the free-agent market in March, but I don’t think he’ll be back with the Vikings. They gave an extension to Brian Robison during the season, and they could also bring back Everson Griffen, who’s inconsistent (and a bit unpredictable) but immensely talented.

Allen has talked about how he’s still creating opportunities but just hasn’t been able to finish a few sacks. But when did you ever hear him say that in the past? It seems he’s lost a bit of his ability to get around the edge in time, and a handful of his sacks have come because he’s so relentless. The Bengals did a fantastic job of getting the ball out quick on Sunday, and Allen was shut out. If the Lions can do what they did in September, it’s possible to keep Allen pretty quiet.

Last one from me: What kind of an effort do you expect from the Lions on Sunday? It seems a bit like they’ve packed it in after all the losses, and with nothing on the line now, I can’t imagine they’re going to suddenly be able to reignite themselves. Will the shot at an 8-8 record and the chance to save Schwartz a little face be enough, or will the Vikings close down the Metrodome against an uninspired opponent?

Rothstein: That's one of the biggest questions of this week, and it is a question I really don't know the answer to. I think it depends how much they have left. Calvin Johnson is banged-up. Matthew Stafford has struggled in the second half of the season. DeAndre Levy was hobbling out of the locker room Sunday. There are a lot of guys hurting at this point, a lot of key guys for the Lions going forward.

It might be the most unanswerable question with this team right now. All season, even during the losing stretch, there was the possibility of the playoffs and a division title to cling to. Now there's just pride. It'll be an interesting thing to see.

So I'll finish up with this for you. Since this is the last game in the Metrodome -- and my first -- is there any particular memory that stands out about the place to you?

Goessling: Boy, it’s hard to pick just one. I’ve been watching all kinds of games -- NFL, MLB, college football, college basketball and high school football -- since I was a kid, and I’ll have a piece on my blog on Friday with some of those memories. But I’ll share one quick story. It was from one of my first college football games when I was a student at the University of Minnesota. It was the fall of 2001 against Purdue, and there were too many bizarre things that happened in the game to recount here, but it wound up in overtime, and after Purdue scored, the Gophers lost the game on a finish that could’ve happened only in the Metrodome.

Here’s what happened: Travis Cole threw a touchdown pass to Antoine Henderson that would’ve tied the game. Henderson was clearly inbounds, but the pass was ruled incomplete. Why? Well, the Gophers used to paint their end zones gold but left a strip of green turf between the gold paint and the sideline to make it easier to convert the field for Vikings games. Henderson’s foot was inbounds but outside the gold paint, so the official lost track of the sideline and called him out of bounds. That’s kind of the Metrodome in a nutshell -- built to be serviceable for any number of different sports, but not really ideal for anything. Still, at a cost of $55 million in 1982, it’s certainly paid for itself several times over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And promptly tossed to the ground.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being thrown to the Gatorade tubs or to the ground, that’s something every good gunner eventually learns how to do. Create chaos in five seconds or less.
PHILADELPHIA -- In the mass of snow where players couldn’t cut and the surface was more ice rink than football field, it did not seem to matter much to Detroit Lions returner Jeremy Ross.

If anything, the slip-and-slide surface almost helped him as he had one of the best days of his career.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Ross
AP Photo/Michael PerezJeremy Ross scored and a 58-yard punt return and a 98-yard kickoff return in Detroit's loss on Sunday.
"Players start to slip just because they get too wide, cut too wide," Ross said. "I try to keep everything in tight and narrow and not overextend. Just keep my feet underneath me."

That wasn’t easy considering the playing field at Lincoln Financial Field, but Ross was able to keep his balance enough to return both a punt and a kick for touchdowns Sunday in the Lions’ 34-20 loss and in the process matched a little bit of history.

Ross became the second Detroit Lions player to return a punt and kick for touchdowns in the same game, matching Eddie Payton -- the brother of Walter Payton -- who accomplished the same feat for the Lions in 1977.

Even more impressive was Ross did it on an increasingly difficult place to run on.

"After a while the snow started hardening up," Ross said. "The snow kept clogging up at the bottom of my cleats so it felt like I had heels on at some point. It would pile up, stack real tight on the bottom of my heels so my foot would be like lifted up.

"Sometimes you have to keep patting your feet because it just packs in there and it’s hard to run, change directions, so it really gets underneath your feet."

Ross also had some help. On both returns he was assisted by some major blocking.

Wide receiver Kevin Ogletree, who like Ross was a midseason signing for the Lions after being cut by another team, blocked Brandon Boykin enough on the outside that it gave Ross the initial crease he needed.

From there, almost in slow motion, Ross weaved his way to the end zone for a 58-yard punt return touchdown, not cutting so much as just bobbing his body side-to-side as he ran.

"When you’re running, you’re real cautious of how you cut and stuff," Ross said. "You feel like you’re just trying to turn, you can’t really cut. You’re just kind of slowly working your way around."

His kick return was a little bit easier in some ways. Ross caught the ball at the 2-yard line and had almost a perfect hole form for him -- again, due to blocking. Theo Riddick was his lead blocker and sealed off a guy on the right side, as did new signee Julian Stanford. On the left side, Israel Idonije appeared to seal off his man, giving Ross the hole.

From there, all Ross needed to do was make a diving Alex Henery miss -- he did -- and keep his balance heading into the end zone.

In all, Ross had 243 return yards, more yards than the entirety of the Lions offense, and now has three touchdowns -- two on special teams and one receiving -- in the past two weeks.

"It’s definitely, it’s special," Ross said. "It’s special to do something like that."

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