Five things to watch as Lions play at Tampa Bay

Fast start at top of list

ALLEN PARK — Matthew Stafford’s hand might not be 100 percent, but he is expected to start when the Lions (6-6) play at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (4-8) on Sunday. He’s officially listed as questionable.

The Lions still have a slim chance at a postseason wild-card berth so it’s a huge game for them. The Bucs are just looking to wrap up a disappointing season.

Coach Jim Caldwell maintains an even keel whether his team is coming off a win or a loss. That’s the message he gets to the team also.

“Even our first game there’s a sense of urgency, the first game of the season, second, to third. Every single game there’s a sense of urgency. Circumstances may change in that regard, but in how we approach it, those kinds of things, that does not change. And that’s the great thing about coaching really to be honest with you,’’ Caldwell said on Thursday. “This time of the year in certain situations you get a real sense of the essence of the human spirit within you guys, and staff, and those kinds of things. So, it’s a real good challenge and thankfully I got a healthy disregard for what other people might think is impossible, so that helps as well.”

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

Five things to watch:

1. Again, the Lions have to get off to a faster start. They’ve been outscored 36-3 in the first quarters of the past four games. They won the first two and lost the most recent two. They know they need to start fast, they focus on it and talk about it, but have not been able to make it happen.

“Every one is a different story. At the end of the day — Coach (Caldwell) has said it a hundred times, I mean, hey, you’d love to be up early. That makes the game a whole lot — you’re in more control of the game and you can go from there. At the same time, pretty much we play ball around here to win the game at the end of the game, so we’re trying to win that, trying to have more points than they do at the end,’’ Cooter said.

2. Again, the Lions need to run the ball better. Last Sunday, rookie Tion Green got his first NFL touches and performed decently. His first carry went for 33 yards, he also had a 6-yard touchdown run. That performance may have earned him an increased role this week.

“Tion had a couple nice runs, some of those were really well blocked which is encouraging to see from a blocking standpoint as well, but Tion I think made the most of those runs,’’ Cooter said. “Had a couple of, sort of, young player mistakes along the way as all the young players do and he’s working on fixing some of that stuff this week. But we’re encouraged by what we saw, I think he pretty much made the most of the carries that he got.’’

3. Jim Caldwell and defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said the defensive end Dwight Freeney played fine in his first game with the Lions last week. They also said the lack of quarterback pressure was not all on him, but it needs to improved. The Lions didn’t sack Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco even once. The Lions have just three sacks in the last three games.

“I think he did OK. But I think overall, I’m looking at more overall, we just didn’t get enough pressure. We didn’t get enough,’’ Austin said. “We did not harass the quarterback enough last week. That’s something we have to do better. So, I’m again, continuing to look at ways to try and improve our rush, to try to improve our ability to get pressure on the passer.”

4. The secondary needs to step up against quarterback Jameis Winston and the Bucs who have the NFL’s fifth-best passing offense averaging 261.6 yards per game. Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson are dangerous at wide receiver. Austin said that Quandre Diggs will start again at strong safety in place of Nevin Lawson. Diggs, typically the nickel back, is clearly a playmaker no matter the position.

“Sometimes when you play up, or you play out as a corner, and then you move back, sometimes things are a little different, but he can handle it,’’ Austin said. “I thought he did a good job last week in his first appearance playing full-time in that position. So, we’ll continue to move forward with it.”

5. Then there’s a laundry list: Hold onto the ball. The Lions have eight interceptions and nine lost fumbles. Giveaways in the first half are one reason they’ve had slow starts. … The Lions have not had an interception in the past three games. …  Wide receivers and tight ends must not drop the ball. … Matt Prater must bust his mini-slump after missing a field goal and extra point last Sunday.

Prediction: Lions 27, Bucs 13

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Author: Paula Pasche

Paula Pasche, a veteran sports writer, covers the Detroit Lions for her Lions Lowdown blog. She has written two books, "Game of My Life Detroit Lions" and "100 Things Lions Fans Should Know & Do Before They Die" which are available at bookstores and on Amazon.com. She won first place for column writing from the Society of Professional Journalists in Detroit (Class B) in 2011, 2012 and 2013 and was The Oakland Press 2010 Staffer of the Year.

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