Five things to watch as Detroit Lions face Minnesota Vikings

ALLEN PARK — Focus is key in this late-season NFC North contest between the LIons and the Minnesota Vikings.

The Lions (3-8-1) are out of the playoffs heading to Minnesota where the Vikings (8-4) are still trying to scrap together meaningful wins.

“I think for all of us we know how important the division is, that’s the first and foremost, but within each week that game is the most important. It’s a critical game because it’s our next game,’’ Lions coach Matt Patricia said. “That’s certainly how we approach it and things for next year always change. You can’t predict what’s going to happen as far as next year is concerned, from your team to other teams and across the League. What’s most important for us is this week.”

The Vikings won the first matchup, 42-30, on Oct. 20. After a tie at half-time, Detroit was outscored 21-9 in the second half.

Minnesota owns just a 1-2 record in the NFC North which is better than Detroit’s 0-4 mark.

Minnesota is coming off a loss at Seattle on Monday night. Coach Mike Zimmer is not afraid of losing focus because they’re facing a team that has lost five straight. 

“I don’t think so. It’s a division game, it’s important to us. We lost last week. We have to win games, and we have to go out and execute and do the things we have to do to win games,’’ Zimmer said on a conference call. “Trust me, we have all the respect in the world for the Lions and what they’re able to do and the players that they have.”

Five things to watch: 

1. The Lions defense has shown some improvement against the run in recent weeks. They need to maintain that against Vikings running back Dalvin Cook who gashed the Lions for 142 yards in their first meeting.  Cook has been injured but is expected to play.

2. Quarterback Kirk Cousins has been dangerous this season with 23 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He’s thrown just two picks in the last 10 games. In the first game, he threw four touchdown passes against the Lions’ defense. “I would say they’re doing a great job of calling plays that fit right into his strong points,’’ Patricia said. “Obviously, the run game sets up a lot for the play-action, and the move out of the pocket sort of plays that they’re able to kind of get him out there and get him in space.’’

3. Protect quarterback David Blough in his second start. Even though the Lions lost to the Bears, the rookie was impressive in his debut on Thanksgiving. Stafford was sacked twice by the Vikings in their first meeting, both coming in the second half.

4. Let Bo Scarbrough run. The running back, who kind of came out of nowhere and has averaged 4.5 yards per carry with 53 touches for 236 yards in three games. Against Chicago, in key situations Ty Johnson and J.D. McKissic got the ball when it was Scarbrough who was having success.

5. It’s up to Patricia to keep the team pumped up the rest of the season. It might be even tougher going into a tough environment like U.S. Bank Stadium where the Vikings are 5-0. The Lions are 1-4-1 on the road. 

PREDICTION:  Vikings 40, Lions 24

Finishing is issue for Detroit Lions who have led in all 12 games but won just 3

ALLEN PARK — In a few weeks when the Lions obituary is written for this season, not finishing games will be one of the causes of an early exit from playoff hopes.

The Lions (3-8-1) have led in all 12 games but won only three of them.

It gets worse. They have led or been tied in the fourth quarter five times, losing four of them.

Lions defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni is optimistic about improvement.

“We’re a play or two away from being in position to hold those leads that we’ve had. We’ve been very fortunate, we’ve held a lead in a lot of games – probably all of them, maybe,’’ Pasqualoni said. “We just have to make another play. We’re a couple of plays away. I think it’s important that we’re playing well against the run, which gives you a chance to at least have an idea they’re going to through the ball, so you’re not always kind of in between what they are doing. I think the guys are playing really hard. I’m really pleased with how hard we play. I think we play really, really hard and I think we have a lot of guys that are going in and out of the game.’’

He thinks some of the young guys have responded “pretty well.”

“We just have to take care of some little things and get a little bit better and just make a few more plays. It’s a game of inches, you know I’ve always said that this game is a game of inches and I really believe it is a game of inches,’’ Pasqualoni said.

It’s on defense for not making stops and offense for not getting the big play when it most matters. The Lions have been outscored 105-70 in the fourth quarter.

If it continues on Sunday at the Vikings, put another one in the loss column. 

In their first meeting — a Vikings’ 42-30 win on Oct. 20 — the Lions held an early 14-7 lead, tied at the half and then were outscored 21-9 in the second half.

Lions notes: Door remains open for Matthew Stafford to return this season

ALLEN PARK — Matthew Stafford has missed four straight games and coach Matt Patricia said on Monday that he is still week to week with his back injury. 

Even though the Lions have played their way out of the playoffs, that doesn’t mean the Stafford won’t be back. 

Out of respect for Matthew and his competitiveness and what he means to this team and what he brings every single week, we’re just going to kind of take it week-by-week and see what happens from that standpoint,’’ Patricia said.

Stafford loves the game of football, he says it often and it’s genuine. He works hard year-round for a chance to play the games. He told the media weeks ago he realizes every time he takes the field he risks injury. Doesn’t matter, it’s the game he loves. 

Even though he is not able to participate in practice or in games, Stafford remains a factor in helping prepare the young quarterbacks, Jeff Driskel (who has been placed on injured reserve) and David Blough (who started his first game on Thanksgiving).

“I think he’s done a great job go all the way back to when we first started in the spring and him being here with the offseason stuff he had going on, he was really committed to the team,’’ offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said on Monday. “Now that he’s had this injury and it’s pushed him back again — he’s been here all the time, he’s been in the quarterback room going through the same preparation as if he was playing then helping those younger guys. If you ask Jeff and Dave they’ll tell you how helpful he’s been, he’s in their ear on the sideline, he’s looking through the pictures with them giving them extra coaching points, he’s doing a good job staying engaged.’’

The Lions will likely respect his wishes and let him play again this season but only if he is cleared by the medical staff. At least for now, they’ve left that door open.

Stafford had been playing extremely well even if the team was not making the most of it and winning. In eight games he has thrown for 2,499 yards, 19 touchdowns with just five interceptions. 

FLOWERS SACKS: Trey Flowers has been red-hot with five sacks in the Lions’ last five games (all losses). He’s got six for the season, just 1.5 shy of his career high (7.5) last season with the Patriots. Flowers doesn’t necessarily grade himself by statistics. “I’m very critical of myself and as far as, first of all, if we don’t get the win really nothing else matters. So if I don’t do enough for us to win, then I didn’t do enough to win,’’ Flowers said.

He played the his first four NFL seasons for the Patriots who were 50-14 in the regular season in that stretch. So playing for the Lions (3-8-1) is quite a change.

“It has been frustrating to come in work hard, work hard on the game plan, a lot of guys are working hard in the locker room and to come up short on the weekends is definitely frustrating,’’ Flowers said. “That’s part of this game, you’ve got to find ways to out-execute and out-compete.’’

SEASON OVER: Tight end T.J. Hockenson was placed on injured reserve due to the ankle injury he suffered late in the Thanksgiving Day loss to the Bears. Hockenson, the Lions’ first-round pick, ended the season with 32 receptions for 367 yards and two touchdowns. His first game, the season opener, was his best. That day he had six catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. Patricia said it’s not known if Hockenson will need surgery on his ankle.

ADJUSTMENTS: With high-tech notebooks on the sidelines during games, adjustments are made continuously, but halftime adjustments are still key at least to some coaches. ESPN’s Dianna Rossini tweeted about Steelers coach Mike Tomlin’s adjustments in Pittsburgh’s win over the Browns.

She wrote: “Spoke to Steeler players about Mike Tomlin. Players on defense pointed to the adjustments made at half. They said he ‘straight up went high school football coach and drew up how they were going to defend Cleveland’ since they Browns showing a different look. ‘He saved the game.’’’

When Patricia was asked about making adjustments on Monday, he said, “I think the in-game adjustments are something that’s critical for us. I think there are games where those have been done at a high level and probably some games that we go back and we look at and say, ‘Of course we should have done this or maybe made this change.’’’

The Lions have led in all 12 of their games at some point, but have only held on for three wins.

 

Lions QB David Blough impressive in NFL debut despite loss to Bears

DETROIT — David Blough said Thanksgiving was what he dreamed about as a kid.

The Lions third-string quarterback started against the Bears in the nationally televised Thanksgiving game.

Although perhaps in his dreams, Blough was able to pull out the win. Instead on Thursday, the Lions lost 24-20 to Chicago.

Still, Blough — a rookie who had never played in an NFL regular season game — was impressive.

Ini his first drive, after throwing a short incompletion to T.J. Hockenson, he aired it out and connected with Kenny Golladay on a 75-yard touchdown pass play. It was his first of four passes for 158 yards to Golladay.

Welcome to Detroit, David Blough.

On his second drive he took the offense 75 yards down the field, wrapping it up with an 8-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones Jr. 

“Even though it was a short week, we all had a lot of confidence in him. He had a chip on his shoulder during the week. He was very confident,’’ Golladay said. “He even told (Matt Patricia) Matty P, ‘I’m ready to rip it.’ He definitely stepped-up to the challenge. I’m proud of him.”

Blough, who was undrafted out of Purdue, signed as a free agent in June with Cleveland and came to Detroit in a trade following training camp. 

He finished the game 22 of 38 for 280 yards, two touchdowns, one interception and a 87.6 rating. 

“Going into it I felt comfortable and prepared. In the short week we had a great plan to go into the game and take our shots. We were hoping a guy like me could come in, throw some checkdowns. We were going to throw it around a little bit, credit that to (offensive coordinator Darrell) Bevell you saw how open Kenny was and made great plays, I think that’s where a lot of the credit belongs in the quick start for us.’’

Driskel, who started the previous three games, was bothered by a hamstring since the loss to the Redskins on Sunday. Bough found out on Wednesday night before team meetings that he would be the starter. 

“I had been getting a lot of the reps in the walk-throughs and practices leading up to this week I was ready to go,’’ Blough said. “I prepare every week to play on the field it just so happened it was done on a short week, Matthew has been out, a couple different twists and turns. They told me last night and I was pretty excited.’’

He said one of the best things about his day was all the support he received from the coaches and teammates.

“I just wanted to give everything that I had and the guys lifted me up. It was incredible to have the veterans, to have (Danny) Amendola, the guys just come around me and, ‘Hey, we have your back.’ That was encouraging to me as a guy who’s just been here 10 or 11 weeks or whatever it is, to know that I had those guys in my corner,’’ Blough said. “That was special.”

Detroit Lions defense falters again in Thanksgiving loss to Bears

DETROIT — David Blough, the Detroit Lions’ third-string quarterback played beyond most expectations but once again Detroit’s defense came up short.

Blough, in for the injured Jeff Driskel, threw touchdown passes on his first two drives to give the Lions a one-touchdown lead.

Still the Bears came back and beat the Lions, 24-20, on Thanksgiving at Ford Field.

Coach Matt Patricia said he loves the fight he sees in his bunch and their toughness, but it is not enough.

“This is one of the toughest teams I’ve probably ever been around, this team fights like no other team I’ve ever seen we have to find a way to win, we have to find a way to break through that thing that’s stopping us right now and smash that and get going,’’ Patricia said. “… Obviously the goal is to win and that’s what we have to get done and we will, we’re building toward that and working toward that every single day.’’

The Lions have lost five straight, eight of their last nine, are 3-8-1 and are officially out of playoff contention.

“I think a lot of it is obviously the tangible thing is the mistakes in the game that we have to eliminate, we have to push through and make a couple more plays or coach a couple things better, get that cleaned up,’’ Patricia said.

Safety Tracy Walker said Patricia’s message to the team was that they can’t settle for losses. “So we are just going to continue to try to improve and continue to correct the mistakes we made,’’ Walker said.

The Lions were up 17-10 at the half, but the Bears scored touchdowns in the third and fourth quarters. On the first Mitchell Trubisky passed 18 yards  to tight end Jesper Horsted for the score. It was just Horsted’s second catch all season and his first touchdown. Will Harris was on the coverage.

With 6:40 left in the game, and the Lions leading 20-17, the Bears’ 90-yard touchdown drive included passses of 35 and 32 yards to Anthony Miller, it was capped with a 3-yard touchdown pass to David Montgomery. 

That gave the Bears a 24-20 lead. 

Blough and the Lions’ offense had 2:12 left but couldn’t get the ball in the end zone.

Trubisky has struggled much of the season except in the two wins against the Lions. He’s thrown 13 touchdown passes all season, six of them against the Detroit defense including three on Thanksgiving.

He wasn’t pressure much all day.

“He was throwing the ball fairly fast, got rid of the ball. They out-executed (us) on a lot of different things like that. We just weren’t able to bring him down a lot of times,’’ defensive end Trey Flowers said. “He’s definitely a guy that’s dynamic with his feet, so he’s able to make a few plays, escape the pocket and continue to scramble.”

Flowers sacked Trubisky on a third-and-7 early in the fourth for a loss of 7 yards forcing the Bears to punt.

Chicago had a better second half which has been the case most of the season with Lions’ opponents. Detroit has been outscored 105-70 in the fourth quarter. 

“The quarterback kind of extended a lot of plays and made a lot of plays on the run. We have to do better in the back end, extending plays, finding our guys, plastering around,’’ said cornerback Darius Slay who intercepted Trubisky. “What they did was extend plays, and they overall just were controlling the game almost.”

Lions backup David Blough will start against Bears on Thanksgiving

ALLEN PARK — Lions backup quarterback Jeff Driskel seemed optimistic on Tuesday that he would start against the Chicago Bears on Thanksgiving. However, his hamstring will keep him out of the starting role.

David Blough, a rookie who has never played in an NFL regular season game, will get the start for the Lions at Ford Field.

Blough, who played at Purdue, was signed as an undrafted free agent last June by the Cleveland Browns and then was traded to Detroit. Driskel is expected to serve as the backup. Matthew Stafford (back) will miss his fourth straight game.

Thanksgiving spirits might not be so bright since the Lions (3-7-1) have lost four straight and seven of their last eight. They’ll face the Chicago Bears (5-6) for the second straight year 

Ready or not, they’ll be the only NFL game on national TV at 12:30 p.m.

For us, we’re going to obviously try and go out and play as hard as we can. We know how important this game is, we know how important it is to our organization, our ownership and obviously the fans,’’ coach Matt Patricia said. “It’s a great privilege to be in this game. For us, we understand that, we’re very blessed to be here, I think Thanksgiving is a great time, a great week to reflect.’’

Five things to watch:

1. Certainly don’t know what to expect from Blough, although seems likely the run game will need to carry the offense. 

2. Running back Bo Scarbrough has been the highlight of the past two weeks. From the practice squad two weeks ago he has had games of 55 and 98 rushing yards. Although now defenses know to prepare for him. “It’s kind of why you just hesitate to have too many conversations about those guys and not help opponents figure out who they are ahead of time. You try to let the opponents figure it out on their own. Certainly, I think you watch Bo run and some of the things that he did last week, he’s running really hard,’’ Patricia said. The big back (6-foot-1, 235 pounds) has five more games to prove himself. He could be the answer to the question of who will back up Kerryon Johnson next season. 

3. Lions linebacker Devon Kennard thinks the defense is showing signs of improvement in recent weeks (despite four straight losses), especially against the run. But overall the defense has been ineffective and is a big reason the Lions have lost seven of the last eight. If they are close to turning it around, Thanksgiving would be a good start especially with Blough starting at quarterback.

4. Chicago’s Mitchell Trubisky leads the NFL’s 29th best offense averaging just 269.3 yards per game. The quarterback has thrown just 10 touchdown passes in 10 games and three of them were in the first matchup with the Lions — one each to Ben Braunecker, Tarik Cohen and Taylor Gabriel. He was sacked five times by the Lions in that game — perhaps a little more of that type of pressure could be applied.

5. Patricia and the players have talked a good game this week. They say they’re focused solely on the Bears and they take the season one game at a time. There’s been a lot of talk in Detroit from fans who are beyond frustrated at the lack of wins. Some of them want Patricia and/or GM Bob Quinn fired. Fans didn’t seem to expect that the Lions, who were 9-7 in 2017, would fall so low in an effort to rebuild. On Thursday at Ford Field, the team has to show the focus they discuss and they need to do it in all four quarters.

PREDICTION: Bears 23, Lions 10. Not sure the Lions can pull it together.

(Photo courtesy of the Detroit Lions)

Detroit Lions: Ten best Thanksgiving Day games

This will be 80th Lions’ Turkey Day game

ALLEN PARK — Thanksgiving has been special for the Lions for 80 years.

When they meet the Chicago Bears at Ford Field, it will be the 17th meeting between the rivals on Thanksgiving. It started in 1934, the Lions’ first game on Thanksgiving.

In some years, the game plays a pivotal role in the season. This week? Not so much. The Lions (3-7-1) are still licking their wounds after a 19-16 loss at the Redskins on Sunday. The Bears (5-6) haven’t exactly lit up the NFC North either. A year ago, the Bears beat the Lions 23-16 on Thanksgiving.

This list of 10 of the most memorable Thanksgiving games was assembled a few years ago. It still stands:

1. Nov. 22, 1962, Lions 26, Packers 14 —  Roger Brown, the Lions defensive tackle, remembers this game like it was yesterday. The Packers were 10-0 and had beaten the Lions seven weeks earlier. The Lions wanted revenge and got it big-time. Brown sacked Hall of Fame quarterback Bart Starr seven times. Sacks weren’t an official NFL stat, but they were recorded. Starr was 11 of 19 for 49 yards and minus-6 yards rushing on four carries.

2. Nov. 26, 1970, Lions 28, Raiders 14 —  The Lions fell behind 14-0, then the late Charlie Sanders went to work. The tight end’s first touchdown — a pass from Greg Landry — was the most memorable.  “If you actually look at it you can actually see my fingernails gripping the ball. It didn’t hit in the palm of my hand, it was being gripped by my fingernails. If you look at that, if you are teaching technique, that would not be the technique,’’ Sanders said in the book “Game of My Life Detroit Lions.” The Lions won the next five games and got into the playoffs. They lost 5-0 to Dallas, the eventual Super Bowl winner, in the first round.

3. Nov. 25, 1976. Lions 27, Bills 14 — This was the O.J. Simpson show. The Buffalo running back ran for 273 yards and two touchdowns but the rest of the Bills offense only contributed 49 yards at the Silverdome. Lions quarterback Greg Landry threw touchdown passes of 21 yards and 24 yards to David Hill. Simpson’s touchdowns came late in the game after the Lions had grabbed a 20-0 lead.

4. Nov. 23, 1978 Lions 17, Broncos 14 —  The Broncos were heavily favored but Detroit’s defensive line was ready with a new coach, Floyd Peters, who stressed aggressive play. Defensive tackle Doug English remembers he had four sacks of quarterback Craig Morton. Stats were not an official NFL stat at the time, but there was no question that the D-line made sure it would not be Morton’s best Thanksgiving. The Lions scored on two rushing touchdowns (Rick Kane and Horace King) and a Benny Ricardo field goal. It was quarterback Gary Danielson’s best day but he did enough to get the win.

5. Nov, 28, 1991, Lions 16, Bears 6 —  This might have been one of the more emotional games. It was played 11 days after a freak on-field incident paralyzed guard Mike Utley who was in the hospital watching the game. Before the game Utley’s teammate Lomas Brown read a message on national television: “You’re still as big a part of this team as you ever were. Keep the faith.’’ The Lions defense intercepted Bears quarterback Jim Harbaugh four times and recovered two Bears’ fumbles.

6. Nov. 23, 1995, Lions 44, Vikings 38 — The last time the Lions played the Vikings on Thanksgiving, quarterback Scott Mitchell had a career afternoon completing 30 of 45 passes for 410 yards, four touchdowns and one interception. Brett Perriman caught two and Herman Moore and Johnnie Morton each had one. Barry Sanders’ 138 rushing yards included a 50-yard scamper for a touchdown that was possible thank to downfield blocks from Morton and Moore. Minnesota’s Warren Moon had a big day too with 384 passing yards, three touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. The Lions were 5-6 entering the game and won the remaining games in their schedule to finish 10-6 earning a wild-card playoff berth. 

7. Nov. 26, 1998, Lions 19, Steelers 16 OT — How many games are known for the overtime coin toss? That’s certainly what set this one apart. When the captains at the center of the field, referee Phil Luckett asked the visiting Steelers to make the coin toss in the air to determine who would have possession. Jerome Bettis said “tails” — it was clear —, but Luckett heard “heads”, and when the coin came up tails, he awarded the ball to the Lions. The Steelers and Bettis argued but Luckett would not change. The Lions got possession, Charlie Batch and Barry Sanders got them down the field. Jason Hanson kicked the game-winner. It was not the Steelers’ best Thanksgiving.

8. Nov. 24, 2011, Packers 27, Lions 15 — The outcome for this one isn’t remembered as much as Ndamukong Suh’s misdeed. In the third quarter he pushed Green Bay’s Evan Dietrich-Smith’s head into the turf and then stomped on his upper right arm. Afterward Suh claimed he was trying to get his balance and it wasn’t intentional. The NFL thought otherwise and he was suspended for two games.

9. Nov. 22, 2012, Texans 34, Lions 31 OT —  Lions coach Jim Schwartz let his emotions get the best of him and possibly cost his team the game. In the third quarter, Houston’s running back Justin Forsett (who is now with the Lions)  went straight up the gut, looked like he got tackled with his left knee and left elbow on the turf. But he got up and kept going 81 yards into the end zone. The Lions didn’t chase him because they thought he was down and they were right. Even though all scoring plays are reviewed, Schwartz was so hot that he threw the red review flag which at the time prevented a replay due to NFL rules. The Lion were up by 10 before that Forsett touchdown. It took the wind out of their sails. Matthew Stafford was 31 of 61 for 441 yards, two touchdowns

10. Nov. 26, 2015, Lions 45, Eagles 14 — Matthew Stafford threw for five touchdowns with three of them landing in the mitts of Calvin Johnson. It was the third straight win for Detroit after Jim Bob Cooter had taken over as offensive coordinator, bringing their record to 4-7. Ziggy Ansah was on fire with 3.5 sacks (a career high) and a recovered fumble on the Eagles’ 14-yard line. Coach Jim Caldwell called it their most complete win.

Honorable mentions: In 2000, Patriots backup quarterback Tom Brady saw his first NFL action. He was one of three for six yards when the Lions won 34-9. … In 1997’s 55-20 rout of the Bears, Barry Sanders had 19 carries for 167 yards and three touchdowns. … In 2004, Colts quarterback Peyton Manning threw six touchdown passes in a 41-9 beatdown of the Lions. It was the start of a nine-game losing streak on Thanksgiving. … In 2006, Dolphins quarterback Joey Harrington threw for three touchdowns in a 27-10 win. When he was with the Lions, Harrington was 1-3 with zero touchdowns on Thanksgiving.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)