Depth on defense key for Detroit Lions’ coordinator Teryl Austin

Seven interceptions matches total from 2016

ALLEN PARK — In the Lions’ first three games, the defense is hardly recognizable from last season although the cast of characters is familiar.

In 2016 they finished with seven interceptions in 16 games. They’ve matched that number in just three games with Glover Quin and Miles Killebrew each returning interceptions for touchdowns.

“I think our guys are doing a good job flying around to the ball and taking advantage of opportunities,’’ defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said on Thursday. “I think that’s the one thing in this league, anytime that ball gets tipped, anytime you have an opportunity to make a turnover, you’ve got to make it and I think we’re taking advantage of it this year.”

Five things to know about the Lions defense:

1. Austin had them working on creating turnovers prior to the season and it has paid off.  “Sometimes you are able to get it done, sometimes you’re not. We really made an effort in the offseason because we know how important turnover are and how they can keep you in games when you’re not playing your best, and if you’re playing really well and you get turnovers you’re able to extend the lead,’’ Austin said. “And so, we’ve made a really conscious effort of getting our hands on balls, and finishing plays and it’s showing out for us right now the first three games and we just hope it continues.”
2. One way they’ve created more turnovers is through drills. Seems obvious but maybe not. “Whenever we have an opportunity to strip the ball from our offense, or whenever we have an opportunity to catch it, it’s been a very big deal for our guys to make sure they finish the play,’’ Austin said. “Sometimes maybe we didn’t emphasize it enough as coaches that, ‘Hey, look, those plays have to be finished,’ and I think looking what’s happened the last two years in terms of when our turnovers have come down, I put that on me. Hey listen, that’s my job for emphasizing enough, because I think like anything in coaching, whatever you emphasize, that’s what you’ll get from your players.’’

3. The Vikings’ starting quarterback Sam Bradford sat last week with a bum knee and backup Case Keenum performed well in a 34-17 win over Tampa Bay. The Lions won both games over the Vikings in 2016 when Bradford was the quarterback. Keenum was with the Rams in 2016 when he completed 19 straight passes in a loss to the Lions. “They both have different styles in terms of how they do, but one thing they both are, they’re very accurate passers. They can get the ball to the right guy, they know where the ball’s going. Sam’s obviously a little bit bigger, maybe a little bit more arm strength, but in terms of how they quarterback and how they run the team, they both do a really good, efficient job of it,’’ said Austin who is preparing for both.

4. Having more options has made Austin’s job easier and the defense better overall.  “I think when you have the depth we have, and you can mix and match and you don’t feel over-matched at a position, I think that really helps you,’’ Austin said. “You’re not hamstrung, you’re not afraid to play some certain coverage because you know there’s a big mismatch out there, and I think we match up well with just about anybody we play.’’

5. The core is back from last year but a few changes have made a difference: “We’ve talked about our depth, we’ve improved our depth. And so, I think when you improve the depth, you improve the competitiveness of the guys in the room, so they play better and I think that’s what we’ve done,’’ Austin said.

 

Detroit Lions’ kicker Matt Prater named NFC special teams player of month

First kicker in NFL to make 4 55-plus field goals in a season

ALLEN PARK — If Matt Prater ever offers you salt water taffy just say no.

The Lions placekicker owns a contraption that when opened for “taffy” a rubber mouse appears instead.

He gets the biggest kick out of it. (See what I did there.)

When Jim Caldwell was asked about Prater’s professionalism and his personality, he chortled. Not a usual reaction from the somewhat staid coach.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

He was thinking practical jokes. When it gets down to the business of kicking the 32-year-old Prater is serious.

“First of all, the first thing you notice is that he is very disciplined, very dedicated to his craft. Extremely, extremely critical of his performance in terms of practice. I mean it means a lot to him. You’d think sometimes in practice that he’s kicking in the Super Bowl to win the game,’’ Caldwell said. “I mean that’s how he approaches things. But he is a true professional. Constant expert at what he does. He spends time at it. He thinks about it. He lives it. He breathes it. And you sometimes would think a guy like that would be fairly narrowed focused that there was not much time for a little levity in his life but he’s got a pretty good sense of humor.’’

For all the fun he brings, Prater is one of the best kickers in the NFL. On Wednesday he was named the NFC special teams player of the month.

Prater sets team and NFL kicking records nearly every week.

The two 55-plus field goal he kicked in the loss to the Falcons on Sunday were his third and fourth of the season from that distance. It makes him the first kicker in NFL history to make four 55-plus yard field goals in a season. And, of course, he did it in just three games.

Prater also now holds the four longest field goals in Lions history (57, 58, 58. 59).

The Lions play at the Vikings on Sunday where Prater nailed a 58-yard field goal with 23 seconds left to send the game to overtime last year. The Lions won on a 28-yard touchdown pass from Matthew Stafford to Golden Tate. If not for Prater they wouldn’t have had a chance to win. It was his third field goal that Sunday and his second of more than 50 yards in that game.

“He’s doing a heck of a job. I mean he’s great. On offense, we’re trying to score touchdowns. We want to make his job easy and kick extra points. We haven’t done a good enough job of that lately whether it’s getting into that red zone and finishing or converting on some of those third downs when we’re in the red zone,’’ Stafford said on Wednesday. “So, hopefully we’ll make his job easier and he’s kicking a bunch of one-pointers but man, he’s been great kicking the three-pointers for us too.”

Stafford said he doesn’t necessarily watch ever Prater field goal attempt.

“Lots of times, especially at home when it’s kind of quiet, I just listen and you can hear it when it hits his foot. Either hits it good or he doesn’t, and majority of the time he hits it good, and he’s been doing a heck of a job,’’ Stafford said. “That whole operation has been great. He’s done a great job. I mean he’s had a couple different guys holding for him this year already, and those guys have stepped in and done a great job getting it down. He’s been kicking it great.”

Prater has been a perfect six-of-six on field goals and also seven-of -seven on point-after attempts in three games. He’s scored 25 of the team’s 85 points in the first three games.

“It’s huge and I realized how huge it is during my first year here (2014) when we were going through kickers pretty quickly until we found Prater,’’ Tate said.

In 2014 Lions kicker Nate Freese made just three of seven field goals in the first three games to earn a ticket out of town. Then the Lions brought in Alex Henery who missed three field goals in week 5 in a 17-14 loss to the Bills.

That’s when the Lions signed Prater who had been let go by the Broncos after serving a four-game suspension.

“He’s big time. This guy there’s no such thing as a moment being too big for him. He’s showing up week in and week out just handling business,’’ Tate said. “It’s a good feeling once you get to the 50, 40 or 30 you know chances are he can hit those.’’

Detroit Lions sign veteran G Tim Lelito, place Joe Dahl on injured reserve

Lelito has 24 NFL starts in 63 career games

After the Lions spent so much money on the offensive line in the offseason, it is starting to come apart, at least temporarily, due to injury.

The Lions made two moves Tuesday. They signed veteran guard Tim Lelito and placed guard/center Joe Dahl (in photo) on injured reserve with a lower leg injury.

Lelito comes to Detroit after most recently spending the 2017 preseason with the Tennessee Titans. He was released on Sept. 4. Prior to Tennessee, he played four seasons (2013-16) with the New Orleans Saints, where he started in 24 games.

Currently in his fifth season, Lelito has appeared in 63 career games (24 starts). He entered the NFL in 2013 with the Saints as an undrafted rookie free agent out of Grand Valley State.

Center Travis Swanson (ankle) didn’t practice all last week and was inactive in the loss to the Falcons on Sunday. He was replaced by Graham Glasgow who shifted from left guard. Zac Kerin, who was acquired off waivers on Sept. 4, started at left guard.

Dahl is a valuable asset because he can back up at center and guard. When Taylor Decker tore his labrum in June, the Lions tried out Dahl at tackle during a few practices.

Decker was placed on the reserve/PUP list which means he will miss at least three more games. Greg Robinson has been playing left tackle in his place.

The Lions (2-1) are preparing to play at the Minnesota Vikings (2-1) on Sunday in a key NFC North matchup. The Vikings have five sacks in their first three games.

Caldwell: Detroit Lions need to move on after Sunday’s strange loss

Next up is road game at Minnesota Vikings

ALLEN PARK — Jim Caldwell is moving on from the ending of Sunday’s loss to the Atlanta Falcons.

Now the Detroit Lions coach has to get the team on the same page with him.

It should not be difficult. Caldwell is consistent in his approach with the team. He’s even-keeled throughout the season and he doesn’t want players getting too excited or too down.

“I don’t want to be cynical in that sense but I can tell you that this is a fairly new group. Our nucleus is the same. Every year is different like we always talk about. I can only tell you that you have setbacks during the course of games. You have adversity. We’ve been able overcome those. So, we’ll see how we bounce back,’’ Caldwell said on Monday. “The idea is to get it behind us as quickly as we can, and a lot of that has to do with just guys making up their mind it’s over and done with. But the close ones make you think about it a little bit. We understand that part of it.’’

So on Monday the plan was to go over film of the game and make corrections which is a typical Monday.

Then on Wednesday the players will start preparing for the road game at the Minnesota Vikings (2-1) on Sunday.

We got to travel and play a very, very difficult team. Tough team that’s got some great challenges for us. So, that’s part of the challenge that we face every week after either you win or you lose. If you win and guys are still thinking about how well they played the day before or week before, that can get you,” Caldwell said. “And this is no different but this is kind of this part of this league that it’s all about. It’s how do you handle it? So, we try to preach it and talk about it, and I think our guys have always had pretty good, really good focus in that regard.”

Caldwell said it’s not just up to him to get the players in the right frame of mind. It’s the assistant coaches who work closely with the position groups and the team leaders too.

The Golden Tate touchdown with 8 seconds left was overturned and the clock run down to end the game.

Caldwell said the officials followed the rule.

“End of story. I mean I remember growing up, you guys always talked about a loser’s limp. To me, that’s the next thing to it. You start complaining about stuff, and it should’ve happened this way. Forget about that,’’ Caldwell said. “You’ve got to do something about it rather than talk about it. I don’t believe in excuses and all of those kinds of things. They don’t work, and they’re not good for us. We just need to go back to work.”

Detroit Lions players react to linking arms for national anthem

Eight Lions took a knee; Caldwell issues strong words

DETROIT — Lions players and coaches linked arms during the national anthem before the 30-26 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Ford Field.

Owner Martha Firestone Ford and her daughters were at the center linking arms with the players.

Eight of the Lions took a knee. They included Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Tahir Whitehead, Ameer Abdullah, Steve Longa, Jeremiah Ledbetter,  Akeem Spence, A’Shawn Robinson and Cornelius Washington.

Prior to the game, Lions president Rod Wood said the team supported the players. Mrs. Ford issued a statement echoing that thought on Sunday morning.

Reaction from the Lions afterward:

— Eric Ebron  “I just see things differently. Some people might condone it, I don’t. One of my biggest pet peeves is disrespect and I feel like we were disrespected as an organization. It’s not a form of protesting. Like I said, I just don’t deal with disrespect, and I felt like what came out of the mouth of our leader was disrespect.”

— Jim Caldwell: “I’ve been in the league a while and I know the players in this league, there are no SOBs in this league. These are men that work hard, with integrity, they’re involved in our communities, they’re fathers, they’re brothers, and their mothers aren’t what he said they were. Our guys believe in unity, civility and also First Amendment rights to peaceful expression and freedom of speech which you guys know a little about. So that’s really all I want to say about it, it’s taken up too much time, too much energy. We’re trying to focus on things that help us grow and develop, not things that tear us down and divide us. … It wasn’t in protest of the flag, it was unity.’’

— Ebron on having Mrs. Ford link arms with them: “It meant a lot. She’s a wonderful person. She believes in us, she trusts in us, she’s always there for us whenever we need it. You know, all we can do is just be thankful for the ownership that we have of this organization and this team. She brings a lot for us and we play for a lot because of that.”

— Akeem Spence on President Donald Trump’s statements over the weekend:  “I mean, it’s just crazy and it’s wrong. You know, it shouldn’t be like that.  There are hard-working people who give back to the community.  Our owners are the same way and they have the utmost respect for us and we have the utmost respect for our country, our flag and everything like that.  So for our head guy to say something like that about our owners, what they should do – No man, that’s something I can’t.  Right is right, wrong is wrong. So I feel like he was wrong in that sense. You know, we just came out and acted in unity together and just made a statement.”

— Spence on deciding to kneel during the National Anthem: “We had a conversation and everyone felt a certain way.  Right is right, wrong is wrong and it was wrong so we came together and just made a statement.  Nobody is taking that stuff, man, it’s wrong.  That shouldn’t be accepted in this country for nobody.”

—  Matthew Stafford: “I think the majority of the team was (linking arms) if I’m not mistaken, I didn’t look all the way up and down the line. To show solidarity, we’re a team. It’s just what we decided to do, what we thought was best.” He said the decision to link arms was just talked about among players, no big meeting or anything. The word spread.

Five standouts in Detroit Lions’ loss to the Atlanta Falcons

Secondary comes up big with 3 interceptions

DETROIT — Through the years, the Lions have often found different ways to lose.

Sunday was different.

The Lions lost 30-26 to the Atlanta Falcons, the defending NFC champions.

It ended on a call that Jim Caldwell said was according to the NFL rules, but left many in the crowd stunned. After the Golden Tate touchdown call was reversed, the game was over due to a 10-second clock runoff.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

The Lions are 2-1 and play at the Vikings (2-1) next Sunday.

This ending will be a distant memory for the players and coaches but probably not for the fans.

Five standout efforts:

1. Glover Quin intercepted Matt Ryan and returned it for a touchdown while Darius Slay finished with a pair of interceptions. It was Quin’s second interception in the first three games. In Atlanta’s first two contests, Ryan had not thrown a pick. The Lions have recorded two interception return touchdowns in the first three games of the season for the first time since 1967. The team has now accomplished this for the third time in team history, including 1967 (two) and 1950 (two). Typically a team that wins the turnover battle — the Lions forced three, the Falcons forced none — wins the game. Well, that didn’t happen but it’s a good sign the secondary is playing well.

2. Safety Miles Killebrew earned a separate category since he was making his first start. It seemed like he was everywhere. With eight tackles (seven solo), Killebrew was tied with Quin for most tackles for the Lions. Tahir Whitehead was right behind with seven tackles. He started in place of Tavon Wilson who is out with a shoulder injury.

3. Matthew Stafford took the blame on that final pass to Golden Tate. The quarterback said he should’ve thrown the ball higher to make it easier for Tate to get into the end zone.  Stafford got a slow start but went 25 of 45 for 264 yards and a touchdown. He was sacked twice and hurried often. Part of that could fall on shoulders of the makeshift offensive line. With Travis Swanson (ankle) out, Graham Glasgow shifted from left guard to center. With Joe Dahl (lower leg) out, Zac Kerin started at left guard. Zac who? He was acquired off waivers from the Vikings on Sept. 3.

4. Matt Prater. Amazing. He kicked field goals of 55, 57, 40 and 35 yards. He became the second player in NFL history to make at least 10 career field goals of 55 yards or more. He now has 11. With the Lions, Prater has now made five field goals of at least 55 yards. Prater joins Jason Hanson (1992-2012) as the only kickers in team history to make two 50-plus-yard field goals in at least two different games. For his career, this marks the fourth game he has registered two 50-plus yard field goals. It was the third time since he joined the Lions in 2014 that he has made at least four field goals in a game

5. Golden Tate didn’t finish with gaudy numbers — seven catches for 58 yards. But on many plays he’s the go-to guy. He gets open and hold onto the ball. Of course he came up a half-yard short on the final play, but that call looks like it could have gone either way. “It hurts, it hurts. It hurts to lose one like that at home, especially when your defense just kept coming up with turnovers, it hurts,’’ Tate said. “But I think if anything, guys are going to — we’re going to find a way to learn from this and try to bounce back next week on the road.” Tate surpassed 300 receptions since joining the Lions in 2014, and now has 301 with Detroit. He reached 300 receptions faster than any player in team history by accomplishing this feat in 51 games. He broke the previous best of 66 games to 300 catches by Calvin Johnson.

Five thoughts on controversial ending in Detroit Lions’ loss to Atlanta Falcons

Eight seconds were the difference

DETROIT — For a good chunk of the fourth quarter, fans at Ford Field were on their feet. The Lions had a chance to beat the defending NFC  champion Atlanta Falcons .

With two minutes left and 89 yards of turf in front of him, the ball was in Matthew Stafford’s hands.

This is the quarterback who has led the Lions to 29 wins when they were down or tied in the fourth quarter. He is exactly the guy you want to have the ball.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions.)

It looked like the Lions pulled out another huge win when Golden Tate made a diving catch on third-and-1 at the goal line and the line judge threw up his arms signalling a touchdown.

All scoring plays are reviewed and this one was overturned because Tate was down before crossing the goal line.

The clincher is that because only eight seconds were left, the official ruled a 10-second runoff so the game was over.

The Falcons won 30-26.

The fans were stunned, feeling the officials, once again, had torn victory out of hands of the Lions.

Five thoughts on the final play:

1. Jim Caldwell said the players were obviously disappointed because it’s hard any time to lose. “So what happens in that situation is that if you don’t have a timeout left you can get a 10-second runoff. (That’s exactly what happened.) If you have a timeout left, you can use that and give up the timeout. Without any timeouts off they ran off the time of the clock — eight seconds remaining — and game is over.”

2. Caldwell wouldn’t really bite when asked if the Lions didn’t get the bad end of the deal because it was the officials who made the mistake — originally saying it was a touchdown on the field. If they had ruled it short, the Lions would have had 8 seconds to run a play from one yard out. Eight seconds isn’t much but Caldwell said they could’ve gotten off a play. He said they practice it all the time. He seemed to have no doubt about it.  “You can kind of look at it that way if you want. They ruled it correctly and that’s the way it is,’’ Caldwell said. “Our guys fought hard, they have a really good football team, there were a lot of things we could have done better that we didn’t do well. We have to pick up the pieces, it’s one ball game, we have to get ourselves together. We have a tough one next week on the road against the Vikings.’’ The Lions are 2-1.

3. Caldwell wouldn’t say for certain if the rule should be changed. “I don’t think so, it’s tough to digest that all right now. In terms of how it works, we all kind of know what the situation could/would be.  In hindsight we can complain all we want but they administered the rule exactly the way it’s written,’’ Caldwell said.

4. While many fans and several media members didn’t know the rule, the important people did including Caldwell and Stafford. “I did (know the rule) but it wasn’t in my head at the time. But looked up at the clock and knew it was either going to be a positive or negative right there,’’ said Stafford who was 25-45, 264 yards, one touchdown and a 80.2 rating.

5. “It’s not fun. Obviously wish I would have thrown it a foot higher maybe help GT (Tate) stay up, a game of inches,’’ Stafford said. “Tough one to lose, great effort from our team … offense we have to convert a little bit more on third down early and when our defense gets turnovers we have to put some points on the board.’’ Glover Quin scored a touchdown on an interception return. The Lions could not capitalize on the two interceptions by Darius Slay.

BONUS: Stafford said he can’t rank the odd endings he’s been involved with in his career in Detroit. This is definitely one of them. “I don’t know there’s a bunch of them. That’s the way it goes, you just play and let the chips fall where they may,’’ Stafford said.