The case for Lions RB Zach Zenner

Zenner was inactive Sunday

ALLEN PARK — Zach Zenner has scored five rushing touchdowns in the last 17 games — none of his teammates are even close to that mark.

Yet, the Lions running back was inactive in Sunday’s 20-15 loss to the Steelers when the Lions were 0-for-5 in the red zone.

Zenner has only been active in four of the seven games this season and yet, at the moment, he appears to be the Lions best chance at a rushing touchdown inside the 10-yard line.

It’s a head-scratcher.

In that 17-game stretch the only other running back to score a rushing touchdown was Ameer Abdullah on Oct. 8 when he ran in from 3 yards out at the Vikings. The only other Lions to score rushing touchdowns in the last 17 games are tight end Eric Ebron on a 1-yard run and Matthew Stafford who ran in from 7 yards out. Both were in 2016.

Dwayne Washington, Sunday’s featured power back, has only scored one touchdown — a 1-yard run —  and that was in his first game as a rookie on Sept. 11, 2016.

Zenner was huge at the end of last season with four rushing touchdowns in the last 10 games and three in the last two games. He had a good camp and preseason, yet was inactive the first two games so he hasn’t had much chance to pick up where he left off.

Here is a look at Zenner’s scores:

Oct. 23, 2016 — 1-yard touchdown run vs Redskins

Dec, 26, 2016 — Two touchdowns including a 7-yard run and a 1-yard run

Jan. 1, 2017 — 1-yard touchdown run.

Oct. 8, 2017 — 1-yard touchdown run against the Panthers

Zenner also excels at pass blocking and in 2016 had 18 catches for 196 yards. He doesn’t have one reception in the four games he played this season.

He has good hands, losing only one fumble in 2016.

Look, the Lions certainly have these stats. They do their homework. So maybe there’s a reason that’s not so obvious that has kept Zenner on the bench. In his four games this season he has 10 runs for 16 yards — one of those was for 14 yards.

Just seems Zenner could provide an option in the red zone.

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Lions Jim Caldwell on Eric Ebron: ‘We’ve got to get the best out of him’

Ebron subject of trade rumors with deadline on Tuesday

ALLEN PARK —  Jim Caldwell won’t address rumors about the possibility of trading tight end Eric Ebron. The NFL trade deadline is Tuesday.

“I do my very best not to comment on any rumors or innuendo,’’ Caldwell said on Monday.

Ebron was targeted six times and caught two passes for 58 yards in Sunday night’s 20-15 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

The tight end had a 44-yard pass play late in the fourth quarter, getting the Lions to the Steelers’ 11-yard line. But they couldn’t punch it in. The Lions didn’t score a touchdown in the game.

“He’s a guy who can make plays for us, I think you saw the catch and run he made,’’ Caldwell said. “He’s got ability, we’ve got to get the best out of him.’’

Ebron was booed loudly when he didn’t make the catches, even though a few of them weren’t necessarily on him.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

He missed a deep pass down the middle on a third-and-6 in the first quarter.

“In my mind I should’ve dove for it, it was a great ball. I just couldn’t catch up to it, I blame that on me,’’ Ebron said.

He heard the boos.

“There’s nothing I can do about it, like I said they don’t know my story,’’ Ebron said on Sunday night. “I want to always be positive, you can boo me all you want. I don’t think it’s the first time I’ve been booed.’’

He said 99.9 percent of the fans could not come out and make those catches.

“Yes, those were tough grabs, I get paid to make those grabs yes, but too damn tough. Cut a brother some slack, it’s rough. Whenever I get the opportunity and I can make a play I’m going to try to make the play and do what I can with the football in my hands.’’

Ebron has heard the trade rumors but does not seem upset by him.

“I mean it is what it is, they’ve got until Tuesday. This is a business if they want to cut ties with me, then they cut ties. Then if they can continue to use me my skills and abilities, it’s a long season,’’ Ebron said.

Well, not as long as it used to be.

Nine games remaining starting at Green Bay on Monday night.

Five reasons the Lions lost to the Steelers

Plenty of yards, but no touchdowns

DETROIT — The Lions’ offense gained plenty of yards on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense which was second-rated in the NFL.

It didn’t matter.

Matthew Stafford and the Lions’ offense accumulated 482 yards (411 passing) in the 20-15 loss to the Steelers on Sunday night at Ford Field.

Those gaudy offensive numbers were useless because the Lions could not score a touchdown. The 15 points were courtesy of Matt Prater’s five field goals.

According to Pro Football Reference, the Lions’ offensive effort of 482 yards ranks third all-time in NFL for most yards without a touchdown in a game. No. 1 was San Francisco with 501 yards versus Washington in 1986 and second was Cincinnati with 496 yards versus Seattle in 1994.

Yikes. Not exactly a record you want to break.

“Couldn’t execute (in the red zone). We were close on a lot of plays whether I missed a throw or we didn’t catch a ball or whatever it is. It’s obviously frustrating to get down there and not come away with points twice,’’ Stafford said.

The Lions have lost three straight and now hold a 3-4 record. It was their third straight home loss.

Five reasons the Lions lost:

1. They were 0-for-5 in the red zone. Three times they settled for field goals but twice they got nothing. Zip, zilch, nada.

In the third quarter they got to the Steelers’ 4-yard line after a 23-yard catch by TJ Jones. On first-and-goal, Dwayne Washington got stopped less than a yard from the goal line. Then an incomplete pass to Marvin Jones was followed by a Washington run for no gain.

They went for it on fourth-and-1. “We had a pass play called, they dropped a lot of guys into coverage, thought I had a stop to step up and make a play and their guys did a good job rallying and tackling me,’’ said Stafford who was sacked for a one-yard loss.

Then in the fourth quarter, when they were losing 20-15, Stafford checked into a draw play for Theo Riddick on third-and-5 from the Steelers’ 6. He was stuffed, losing two yards. Stafford made the decision because the Steelers had dropped eight in coverage.
“We just didn’t execute it well and that’s on me to get everybody on the same page,’’ Stafford said.

On the next play they went for it on fourth-and-7. Stafford’s attempted pass to Eric Ebron was broken up by Ryan Shazier. That was basically the ball game with 1:54 left.

2. The run game struggled again, combining for 71 yards. Ameer Abdullah had 27, Theo Riddick has 21 and Dwayne Washington 12 yards on six carries.

Coach Jim Caldwell was defensive when asked why Washington, who had missed the last four games due to injury, is the power back. He’s their best option but was not good in the red zone. No one was.

“It’s annoying because, I mean, we’ve got a good kicker, but we’ve got a good offense too. We’ve got to score,’’ Abdullah said. “We’ve got guys that can score. We’ve got guys who, if we put them in the right position, they can make big plays for us down there. We’ve just got to find a way to do that.”

3. Detroit was 2 of 12 (17 percent) on third downs. In comparison, the Steelers were 7 of 14 (50 percent). Enough said.

4. Mistakes, miscues, you name it. You can’t pin this all on tight end Eric Ebron but he was targeted six times and caught just two — one was for 44 yards. Still he has to be more consistent. He knows that, everyone at Ford Field knew that.

Even the sure-handed Golden Tate caught a pass and then the ball slipped out of his arms and was recovered by the Steelers. “That was a great play by everybody but me. It got away from me, I don’t know what it was, if I was thinking about my next move. I have to hold onto the play. This team looks to me to make plays,’’ Tate said.

5. This loss can’t be pinned on the defense but they can take their share of the blame. They had a lousy start on the Steelers’ opening play on their first drive, a 41-yard pass from Ben Roethlisberger to JuJu Smith-Schuster.. And then there was the 97-yard pass play from Roethlisberger to Smith-Schuster in the third quarter that put the Steelers up 20-12.

“I don’t know, (Smith-Schuster) just made some catches. He got put in some good situations and he just made some plays for them,’’ safety Glover Quin said. “We go into a game, you know, if they’ve got a top receiver like that (Antonio Brown), you want to force the next guy to do that. He did.”

Quin intercepted Roethlisberger and also recovered a fumble.

Running back Le’Veon Bell was held to 76 rushing yards after rushing for more than 300 yards in the past two games combined.

 

Golden Tate active for Lions vs Steelers; Billingsley up, while Zenner, Tabor out

Punter Sam Martin plays in first game of season

DETROIT — Golden Tate is a go for the Detroit Lions tonight as they face the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night football at Ford Field.

Tate banged up his shoulder two weeks ago in the loss at New Orleans. He had limited practice on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and was listed as questionable for tonight’s game on Friday’s injury report.

Wide receiver Jace Billingsley will be active for the first time in his career.

Defensive end Ezekiel Ansah (knee) is active after being listed as questionable.  Ansah was limited in practice all week

Linebacker Paul Worrilow (knee) is out for his third straight game. He was listed as questionable and had full practices on Thursday and Friday.

Other Detroit inactives who are not injured: Running back Zach Zenner, running back Tion Green and cornerback Teez Tabor

Wide receiver Kenny Golladay (hamstring), tackle Greg Robinson (ankle) and tackle Emmett Cleary (ankle) were ruled out on Friday.

Lions punter Sam Martin makes his first start this season after missing all of training camp and the season with a non-football related ankle injury.

Steelers inactives: QB Joshua Dobbs, DE Stephon Tuitt, T Marcus Gilbert, TE Vance McDonald, WR Martavis Bryant, T Jerald Hawkins and CB Brian Allen.

Pittsburgh has won eight of the last nine matchups and four straight.

The Lions are 3-0 coming off the bye week with Jim Caldwell as coach and have won the last five coming off the bye.

Five things to watch as Lions face Steelers; plus prediction

Lions 3-0 coming off bye week under Caldwell

The Pittsburgh Steelers are coming off two straight wins. They have the NFL’s second-best defense and the offense is generated by two guys who are tough to stop — running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown.

A win on Sunday night for the Detroit Lions, who have lost two consecutive games, is a tall order, but not impossible.

Under Jim Caldwell, the Lions are 3-0 coming off bye weeks. They’re rested and ready now. They needed the week off to heal and to take a good look at the first six weeks.

“Just based off the trend of the last few years I’ve been here and Coach Caldwell it seems like we always trend up in the second half of the season and that’s the plan,’’ wide receiver Golden Tate said. “We’re going to start playing our best football real soon and maintain that week in and week out. This division is wide open and there’s a lot of season left. That’s what we’re eyeing right now taking our division, one game at a time.’’

The Vikings (5-2) are atop the NFC North, with the Packers at 4-3, the Lions at 3-3 and the Bears in the basement at 3-4.

Five things to watch in the Lions-Steelers match-up on Sunday night:

1. The consensus seems to be that Steelers’ running back Le’Veon Bell is unlike any other. “I’ve been trying to see if I could remember someone that has a running style like his, and I cannot. I cannot place a guy that has the ability he has. He’s very patient with exception of vision, and he can start and stop, and hit it into third and fourth gear in a hurry. He’s an unusual guy, really. I mean just pretty special,’’ coach Jim Caldwell said. Bell has 313 rushing yards in the past two games. (Ameer Abdullah has 342 for the season.) The Lions’ rush defense has been erratic in the first six games. They held the Panthers’ offense to 28 rushing yards one week and then the next allowed the Saints to run for 193 yards.

2. Antonio Brown is among the NFL’s elite wide receivers, leading the NFL in receiving yards with 765. Tackling him after he catches the ball is as important as the coverage. “It always is. We want to limit — we know people in this league, we have good players, and they’re going to catch the ball, and the quarterback is going to make really good throws and our job is, as defenders is OK, hey they’ve made that part of the play, let’s not let him get any extra. So, that’s going to be extremely important,’’ Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “Tackling, angles, pursuit, are going to be extremely important this week and not just with him, but — It’s always important, but especially with a guy like him in the open field who is dangerous, same thing with the running back (Bell).”

3. Matthew Stafford must have his best game. For him to accomplish that, he must get protection from the line, tight ends, backs, whoever, to stay upright and get the ball down the field. He’s been sacked 17 times in the last three games. “My job is to go back there and trust (the offensive line) every time. As a quarterback, that’s what you’re ingrained to do. I can be better in getting the ball out a little bit quicker and helping everybody out, but for those guys I think it’s just reps together are important, and they do everything they can whoever’s in there every week to try and get as many as they can,’’ Stafford said.

4. The wide receivers have to get open so Stafford can get them the ball. This is another reason the quarterback has been sacked so often. Sometimes he has nowhere to go with the ball.

5. Try something different with the run game because it has to be more effective. Along with Abdullah, perhaps it’d be wise to get Theo Riddick and Zach Zenner more involved. Zenner seems to be the best bet when it comes to short-yardage situations. Riddick has been pretty much a non-factor so far with 39 rushing yards and 180 receiving yards and a touchdown. Don’t be surprised to see Abdullah and Riddick on the field together more often.

PREDICTION: Steelers 27, Lions 20. Pittsburgh’s defense will be too much for Detroit’s offense.

 

Five things to know about Detroit Lions’ offense and how it can be fixed

Can’t blame it all on the offensive line

The Detroit Lions offense was a disappointment in the first six games. Plain and simple.

Injuries played a role along the offensive line but that is not the only reason the offense has not found a consistent rhythm.

The offense is ranked 26th in the NFL, averaging just 298 yards per game.

After a bye week, a little reflection and much needed rest for the players, the offense will be tested big-time by the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday night. The Steelers’ defense ranks second in the NFL overall and first against the pass.

There’s no head-hanging among the Lions, just a renewed determination.

“I don’t know all the stats and stuff but we have potential to be a whole lot better than we are right now. Yeah, I see us being a much bigger part of our team winning ball games as we move forward,’’ Offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “The goal here is to win. I think we’ve won three and lost three. We’re not as successful offensively helping our team win as I and we would like us to be at this moment, and I do see us improving, and really becoming a big factor in that thing.”

Five thoughts about the offensive woes and how to fix them.

1. Cooter said he learned a “bunch” through self-scouting. “It’s good to have time to sort of spend diving deep on what we’ve done this year, what we’ve done well, what we need to do better, and hopefully improve those things and maybe throw away some of the stuff we don’t do as well,’’ Cooter said. “Throw away is probably a little bit strong, but you see certain things that maybe aren’t working great and you maybe push them to the back for a little while. Doesn’t mean they don’t come back up one of these days. But yeah, sometimes when a certain things not working and you figure out there’s maybe a reason for that with our guys, or our scheme, or our people or whatever. Sometimes a play is just not very hot, so you shove it away for a couple of weeks and maybe bring it back down the road.”

2. Matthew Stafford, who has been sacked 17 times in the last three games, needs to step up too. It would be easier if he had better protection but the Lions have to make it work with the personnel that they have. Stafford said his play was like the team’s a little up and down. “I wish it was probably a little bit more consistent like everybody does in this league. You wish you’d go out every week and play great and an extremely high level, and don’t make mistakes. But they happen, and we got to learn from them and make sure they don’t happen again,’’ Stafford said. So far he’s completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 1,428 yards, thrown a dozen touchdown passes and four interceptions.

3. Cooter is not concerned that the offense is too predictable. “We’re aware of tendencies. Sometimes it’s best to run a certain play a certain way and that’s the best way to run it. We’ve looked at all the alternatives, let’s run that play this way. Maybe it’s in the shotgun or whatever. Defenses know that as well. You might set some tendencies,’’ Cooter said. “Sometimes you have to counteract those tendencies. Sometimes you go, ‘Boy, let’s just let our guys do what’s the absolute best thing to do.’ So, sometimes you set tendencies. You got to have the ability to counteract those things as you see fit. I don’t think it’s exactly a 50/50 thing and I know it’s not 100/0 thing, and so you just kind of go out there and try to play your best game and sometimes switch things up.”

4. The run game — or lack of it — continues to be an issue. “I think we have a good running game but we have a lot of negative to no yardage runs. but we’ll also have a 60-yarder and so statistically you look at that average is OK but it could be a lot better,’’ wide receiver Golden Tate said. “I want to see every time we put the ball in the running back’s hands in the backfield we get three (yards). That’s the goal when you’re doing that it makes it tough on the defense to know if you’re going to pass or throw, it makes it more manageable on third down. I think those are all huge points to be a successful offense.’’ The Lions average 84 rushing yards a game which ranks 26th in the NFL. Ameer Abdullah leads with 342 rushing yards and Stafford is the second leading rusher with 57 yards.

— They are confident but know there is work to be done. “Just really knowing the personality that this offense has and seeing the trend in the past, just keep working, we know that we can do it, we know we have the personnel to do it, we just need to have all 11 men on each play to be on the same page,’’ Tate said. “As we’ve seen may many times in the past if one guy doesn’t do his job correctly that can mess up the whole play it’s not on Jim Bob by any means it’s a collective effort.’’

Touchdown celebrations an art form of sorts

ALLEN PARK — A monster was unleashed when the NFL loosened up the touchdown celebrations for this season.

It’s a fun thing and the Lions have been taking advantage of it.

Wide receiver Golden Tate has been having some fun in the first six weeks after his two touchdowns.

“Maybe I’m a little biased but I think our celebrations have been amazing. In my mind some of the ones in the past were OK but could be better. We’re just having fun we’re enjoying the new celebration rule and having fun,’’ Tate said on Thursday. “I think it’s drawing more attention to our league, I think we’re drawing more fans.’’

Coach Jim Caldwell said he misses most of them when they happen live, because he’s moving on to the next phase of the game.

Five things to know about the Lions and celebrations:

1. While you will never see coach Jim Caldwell involved (he barely cracks a smile during a game), he’s well aware and has no problem with it. “Coach Caldwell after the bye, after the meeting, he’s standing over me and I’m like, ‘Oh crap, what did I do? Am i in trouble? …  He showed me a video of his grandson catching a touchdown and running up to the camera and blowing a kiss.’’ That was one of Tate’s celebrations from 2016. Tate told Caldwell to make sure his grandson doesn’t practice the “Peoples Elbow” — a Tate special from the Saints game — unless he’s on a bed. Word is the 2-year-old has been practicing in his bed every night. “(The players) enjoy it and any time you can add enjoyment for them it’s good,’’ Caldwell said.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

2. Anything that can draw more young fans to the NFL is a positive. “It’s getting our young fans more involved, I think that’s what makes these celebrations more powerful — it’s things we’ve all done,’ Tate said.  “We’ve all played hide go seek, we’ve all watched The Rock at some point, we’ve all played hopscotch, duck-duck-goose and jump rope that’s what makes it so amazing.’’

3. The Lions have a players ad hoc celebration committee comprised of the usual suspects. They discuss celebrations on group texts. “And maybe on a Monday or something we’ll throw some ideas out there and see if there’s something. If it’s something that needs to be rehearsed we’ll do it once and be done with it,’’ Tate said. They are not crazy. The key to all their hard work is winning and scoring more touchdowns. The bulk of their time goes to that goal.

4. A celebration has to be short and impactful without lasting for three acts. “It happens so quick that there’s a lot of things you have to think about. That clock is still going. You’d hate to be penalized or leave (Matt) Prater with 1 second because we’re out there messing around after a touchdown we have to manage our time,’’ Tate said. “We’re just having fun, enjoying what we do.’’

5. Quarterback Matthew Stafford is more of a bystander during these celebrations. “I think he’ll get there at some point when the time is right for him. He’s so focused during the game, he’ll come and give you a high-five and he keeps it moving. … I don’t think it’s his personality. If he wants we’d love to have him,’’ Tate said.

BONUS — “This is something fun. I remember when I grew up and would see different players celebrating i thought it was the coolest thing ever. I think about our young crowd, I understand where we are in 2017, everything is about social media. … A lot of fans miss some of those things. It’s something that’s relevant right now,’’ said Tate who uses social media to send links to celebration videos.