Five things to watch when Detroit Lions face the lowly Browns

Cleveland’s defense is fourth against the run

ALLEN PARK — The Lions have been indoctrinated by coach Jim Caldwell to take one game at a time. You can ask players and coaches about the chances of winning the NFC North and they will steer the conversation back to the next game. Period.

One reason that is so important to Caldwell’s philosophy is Sunday’s game against the Cleveland Browns who are 0-8. He doesn’t want the team to overlook the lowly Browns and it’s not like he has to give them a big reason. He just wants them to stay with the same approach as the rest of the season.

The Lions at 4-4 are behind the Vikings (6-2) in the NFC North and tied with the Packers. Detroit cannot let this game get away. If ever there was a should-win game this is it.

Five things to watch:

1. Short yardage offense has to improve. It’s not like they brought in new running backs this week. Offensive Jim Bob Cooter said they were close but no one can miss an assignment. “This league is complex. You’re going to get multiple looks, you’re going to have multiple different guys moving in different spots, and different style of blitzes, and we got to be able to handle that and sort of do a better job with that. It’s very, very, very tiny details, but it’s the difference between six points and, or I guess seven points, and three points which we got to better,’’ Cooter said. “Now, you get down to the one, I think we had a first-and-goal at the one, maybe the second was at the two or so. It’s pretty fun as a play caller to kind of sometimes be sort of stubborn with the run you know, let’s hammer this thing in. So, we’ll keep evaluating that policy moving forward too, making sure we do whatever we can to score touchdown.”

2. While the Browns are pathetic in many areas, they are ranked fourth in rushing defense allowing just 84.3 yards per game. And — stop me if you’ve heard this before — the Lions’ run game is a concern averaging just 79.9 rushing yards per game. Cooter will stick with it, even if it doesn’t appear to be working early on.

3. Detroit’s defense has been good at creating turnovers. That will be an emphasis again since the Browns rank 32nd in NFL with 21 giveaways. Quarterbacks DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler have combined for 17 interceptions (and only five touchdowns). Also, the Browns have fumbled 10 times, losing four of them. In comparison, the Lions have 10 giveaways (four interceptions, six fumbles lost).

4. Matthew Stafford is coming off arguably his best game of the season in Monday night’s win at Green Bay. The offense, which was a bit sluggish early in the season, needs to keep rolling. Marvin Jones and Golden Tate hauled in picture-perfect passes on Monday night and there’s no reason that shouldn’t continue. Also, there’s a chance rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay will return after missing five games with a hamstring.

5. The Lions’ offensive line played better the last two games, giving Stafford more time in the pocket. The good news is that left tackle Taylor Decker has been activated so is likely to play in his first game of the season. On the other hand, right guard T.J. Lang is in concussion protocol and has been declared out.

PREDICTION: Lions 31, Browns 15.

Lions DBs Glover Quin, Darius Slay take different approaches with good results

Browns’ QBs have thrown 17 interceptions

ALLEN PARK — Matthew Stafford laughed when he was asked when he realized that safety Glover Quin and cornerback Darius Slay were really good.

Stafford practices against them all the time.

“I know those guys are really good, and they do kind of in a different way. Glover is extremely cerebral back there. He trusts his instincts. He’s obviously a great tackler. Plays the ball really well in the air,’’ Stafford said. “Slay is quick and fast and aggressive and competitive as any corner we play. So, I think it’s great work for our guys and myself to work against those guys in practice and competitive situations.”

The Lions defense has performed well most of the season. The Lions are 4-4 heading into Sunday’s game at Ford Field against the Cleveland Browns (0-8).

The Browns’ offense ranks 31st in the NFL, scoring just 14.9 points per game. It’s a real opportunity for the defense to take advantage. The three Brown’s quarterbacks have combined for 17 interceptions.

Quin and Slay would like to add to that total this week and keep going with eyes on a trip to the Pro Bowl.

They each have three interceptions so far and Quin returned one for a touchdown.

Coach Jim Caldwell said we haven’t seen the best of Slay.

“I mean, he just keeps getting better and better all the time. He’s got an extraordinary level of competitiveness. He loves the game. I don’t think he’s ever had a bad day. He’s always looking for the next challenge. He’s a high, high, energy guy. And not only that, he’s blessed with an immeasurable amount of talent as well,’’ Caldwell said. “He can run, he’s got courage, he’s not afraid to take a chance. All of those things I think play into what he’s able to do out there on the field. Like I said, you still haven’t seen the best of him.”

All you need to know about Quin happened in the second quarter on Monday night with the Packers going for it on fourth-and-2 from the 50-yard line.

Brett Hundley was in the shotgun and Quin was in the backfield nearly the moment the ball was snapped.

“Absolutely, it’s one of those ‘oh no, yes’ that’s what the play was. He’s a guy that works and studies, he knows tendencies and when things show up they don’t fluster him and he’s able to make a play most of the time,’’ Lions defensive coordinator Teryl Austin said. “Those guys, as you know, nobody’s right all the time but he’s going to be right a lot more often than he’s wrong. I think it speaks to how he prepares, there’s a lot of guys on the defense that prepare but he’s kind of a cut above that way.’’

Quin didn’t have a good explanation for not only making the play, but reading it before the ball snapped. It’s a jet sweep that he’s seen often sometimes with the quarterback under center and occasionally from the shotgun like Hundley ran it.

“They ran it, I saw it and just kind of tried to make a play,’’ Quin said. “When you’ve played a lot of games, you’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve been blessed to play in a lot of games and play a bunch of plays and I’ve got a keen memory of plays that has happened not only to me but to our team, to other teams. I have a real keen memory about certain plays if you’ve been in that situation a lot of different times sometimes you do things that are hard to explain. I don’t have a great explanation. Sometimes during the course of a football game you just have to play football.’’

Versatile Lions Jamal Agnew a DB at heart, but loves his snaps on offense

Rookie has returned two punts for touchdowns

ALLEN PARK — Jamal Agnew says defense is his bread and butter.

Yet, the Lions rookie cornerback has had opportunities on offense the past two games. He is  loving it.

“I’m in the defensive meetings and the receivers coach (Robert) Prince pulls me out and says, ‘Agnew, we need you for a second. You’ll be playing offense a little bit.’ I said. ‘I’ll take it in stride.’ I love it as long as we’re winning. I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”

One reason Agnew was drafted in the fifth round was his blazing speed. He ran a 4.34 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. He has played just one snap on defense in the first eight games, but he has scored a pair of touchdowns as a punt returner. For a rookie he definitely has contributed.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

“Obviously, he’s good in space, and he’s got speed. Whether it will continue, every game is a little bit different. So, served us well a couple times there. It doesn’t mean we’ll go back to it again, but it’s always that possibility,’’ coach Jim Caldwell said.

Agnew made his offensive debut in the loss to the Steelers on Oct. 29. On a first-and-10 at the 50, he caught a 12-yard pass. That was his only offensive snap of the game.

In the win at Green Bay on Monday night, he gained four yards on a first-and-10 at the Packers’ 45.

“I really only have a couple things they put in, they didn’t want to overwhelm me. I basically know what I’m doing every time,’’ Agnew said on Thursday. “They basically keep it simple so I’m not out there running like a chicken with my head cut off. Like last game I was used as a decoy a couple times, I’m all for that as long as it helps us win.’’

He didn’t play offense at all while at San Diego State where he was a defensive back.

He did play on the other side of the ball at San Diego Point Loma High School where they ran an unconventional “fly” offense. He was used as a running back, receiver and fullback.

“I weighed 160 soaking wet,’’ Agnew said when quizzed about being a fullback.

These days he’s 5-foot-9 and 185 pounds.

Conventional wisdom says cornerbacks don’t have good receiving skills but Agnew disagrees.

“I have hands, I can catch the ball. You hear that stereotype a lot. I know a lot of cornerbacks that have great hands. We have a lot of corners on this team that have great hands but I think I have pretty good hands,’’ Agnew said.

Caldwell does not expect Agnew to make a full move to offense. “I don’t foresee that transition. He is what he is. I think he’s a very, very good nickel, but he also does obviously some things for us in the return game as well,’’ Caldwell said.

Agnew said it’s a little odd at practice being the only guy with a different colored jersey in the offense huddle but he’s been welcomed with open arms.

“I love having the rock in my hands but I played defense most of my life so that’s my bread and butter right there,’’ Agnew said. “I was born and raised in the DB room so I can’t leave.’’

He gets a little good-natured grief from his fellow defensive backs.

“They all give me stuff, especially (Darius) Slay. Slay is a little jealous, he’s been wanting to play offense for a while,’’ Agnew said. “So everytime he sees me in there he says, ‘Hey 39 is getting the ball, somebody hit him.’’’

Lions T.J. Lang placed in concussion protocol

Symptoms first appeared on Wednesday

Lions right guard T.J. Lang sustained a concussion in Monday night’s win at Green Bay.
However symptoms didn’t appear until Wednesday when he left practice feeling ill. He was listed on Wednesday’s injury report as having an illness. Doctors saw him after practice and diagnosed him.
Coach Jim Caldwell announced Thursday morning that Lang is in concussion protocol now.
This is not unusual, it can take days for symptoms to appear, per MayoClinic.org.
Concussions vary so it’s impossible to know if Lang will be ready to play on Sunday against the Browns. The timeline seems fairly tight.
Lang has played in seven of eight games so far. He was a late scratch at New Orleans with back issues. In that game he was replaced by Emmett Cleary who could also fill in on Sunday if needed.

Deep threat Marv Jones boosts Lions offense; to make ESPN singing debut

Jones, Stafford have developed trust in each other

ALLEN PARK — Marv Jones, Renaissance Man.

The Detroit Lions wide receiver, who makes jaw-dropping catches, will be on the ESPN pre-game show, “Countdown,” on Sunday morning.

Will they show one of his touchdowns from Monday night’s win at Green Bay? Possibly.

For certain they will feature a segment on his tryout for “American Idol” which was sponsored by the sports network.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

Jones, who has a recording studio in his house, won’t say much about the “American Idol” singing stint. Here’s a hint: He’s an R&B guy.

He writes songs and has been singing since he was 4-years-old.

Still, he’s not ready to quit his Sunday job.

Through eight games, Jones is tied for the most deep receptions with eight (20-plus yards downfield), second in deep yards (257), and second in touchdowns with three. Matthew Stafford has a passer rating of 130.0 when targeting him deep, according to Brett Whitfield from Pro Football Focus.

In the win over the Packers, Jones had seven catches for 107 yards including a 25-yard touchdown catch and another for 11 yards. Both catches were thrown into tight coverage but Jones came down with the ball and made it look easy.

“Marv is like butter, he’s like slippery. You think he’s covered and next thing you know the ball is about to land and he goes from cover, cover, cover to wide open and he makes a heck of a catch,’’ wide receiver Golden Tate said. “So love what he’s bringing to the table.’’

Tate makes some dandy catches himself and had seven receptions at Green Bay for 113 yards.

While the run games sputters, Stafford and the passing game seem to have found their rhythm.

“I know the trust Marvin and Stafford have between each other is at an all-time high right now,’’ Tate said. “When Stafford sees one-on-one or sees a good look I think he gets excited. I think they both get excited. I think the percentage we’re completing right now is very high. That’s what we need for whoever the ball is thrown to.’’

Jones will not say the offense has turned a corner.

“I’m not going to say we’ve arrived because we haven’t and we can never think like that because we always have stuff to prove,’’ Jones said.

He also wouldn’t say this is the best he’s played while midway through his second season in Detroit.

“You just have to keep working, it starts on the practice field with all of us. We all put in the work and we feel we’ve been practicing very, very well particularly this whole year even as of late we’ve been practicing great, and we just have to keep it up,’’ Jones said. “When you practice great you have to cash in, that’s pretty much all I do and we do …’’

Jones is a bit of a humble guy which is rare for an NFL wide receiver.

He said he can’t name the best catch he’s made while playing for the Lions.

However, coach Jim Caldwell can.

“I got a catch for you. Washington last year, big one down the middle, Josh Norman laid out for it. That’s probably the one,’’ Caldwell said.

In fact, Norman was knocked out of the game with a concussion after landing hard on his left shoulder after giving up that 52-yard pass to Jones in the third quarter.

“(Jone is) getting better all the time,’’ Caldwell said mentioning the “spectacular” touchdown catch on Monday.

Those chunk plays of 20 yards or more are key to a successful offense.

“One of the things that if you take a look at scoring in particular in this league, that it’s hard to score touchdowns without a 20-yard plus play during the course of a drive. So, you’re always looking for those because they change the field position but then they also get you in position to score,’’ Caldwell said. “But typically, you don’t see very often do you see just marches down the field that are incrementally done with five-, and six-, and seven- to eight-yard catches. There’s usually a big one in there somewhere. So, that’s always good for you.”

Lions insist they won’t overlook winless Cleveland Browns

Detroit hasn’t won a home game since opener on Sept. 10

ALLEN PARK — If you listen to the Lions talk about the Cleveland Browns, you’d swear the Browns were a decent team, one that had actually won a game.

Instead, they are an ugly 0-8 heading into Sunday’s game against the Lions (4-4) at Ford Field.

Coach Jim Caldwell has his players believing in the concept of focusing on one game at a time. And from all indications, they do.

Still, they know the Browns haven’t figured out how to win a game halfway through the season and that’s after going 1-15 in 2016.

Cleveland would be the laughingstock of the NFL but the San Francisco 49ers are also winless at 0-9 and the N.Y. Giants are right behind at 1-7.

“I mean if you put the tape on, these guys jump off the screen to you, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They stop the run about as good as anybody in the NFL. They’ve got young, really talented guys in the secondary, some guys that are extremely talented,’’ quarterback Matthew Stafford said. “I mean they got a bunch of first and second-round picks. Guys that have obvious talent, have obvious skill. It jumps off the screen. So, from an offensive standpoint, what we look at is their defense, and you can definitely tell they’ve got a bunch of really nice, talented pieces.”

The Browns rank 31st in the NFL in points per game at 14.9 and 27th in overall offense. Their defense is better, ranked ninth allowing 313.5 yards per game.

Wide receiver Golden Tate says it’s easy to not pay attention to the 0-8 Brown’s record.

“It’s never about who we’re playing it’s always about us, what type of practice are we going to have, are we going to do our assignments correctly? if we do that it doesn’t matter who you’re playing our emotions are going to be pretty even,’’ Tate said. “… We’re not going to get caught up in what players they have, what type of production they have, their record or anything. We’re going to play Detroit Lions football back at home and we shouldn’t need to pump up or do anything other than what we’ve been doing.’’

The Lions are 1-3 at home though. They have not won at Ford Field since the opening win over the Cardinals on Sept. 10.

“Details, us doing the small things correctly I think that 1-3 record could be 4-0 if we do the small things wright. If we get 2, 3, 4, 5 plays back I think that story is a little different,’’ Tate said. “We understand that so we’re going to keep building.’’

(Photo: Golden Tate shows off new shirt depicting the Lions’ touchdown celebration on Monday night)

A look at why the Lions have a chance to win the NFC North

Vikings have a tough upcoming schedule

OK, so the season is half over, the Lions are 4-4 and 2-0 against NFC North opponents after Monday night’s 30-17 win at Green Bay.

From a schedule standpoint, the tough part of the season is behind them. From a realistic view, the season typically gets tougher after the midpoint.

The Lions have a legitimate chance to win the NFC North.

Here are a few things to know:

— Of the next eight opponents, the only one to have a winning record is the Vikings who are 6-2. Next up for the Lions are the Cleveland Browns (0-8) at Ford Field on Sunday. The Lions can’t afford a letdown. If there was such a thing as an easy win in the NFL this would be the opponent.

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

— Those Vikings are atop the NFC North but can they hold on? Four of their next five games are on the road. Their next five are tough: at the Redskins (4-4), home to the Rams (6-2), at the Lions on Thanksgiving, at Falcons (4-4) and at Panthers (6-3). They also will play at Lambeau on Dec. 23 when there’s a possibility that Aaron Rodgers will be back.

— At 4-4, the Lions are tied with the Packers for second in the NFC North while the Bears (3-5) are in the basement. The Lions still can catch the Vikings to win the NFC North, but they must maintain their focus and not overlook opponents like the Browns and the Bears.

— Left tackle Taylor Decker could be back on the field on Sunday. He practiced last week for the first time since his shoulder surgery in June. Brian Mihalik has done a solid job replacing him, but Decker is the real deal. The return of Decker could help (maybe) with the run game.

— Wide receiver Kenny Golladay (remember him?) also could return on Sunday after missing the last five games with a hamstring. The rookie gives the Lions another down-field option.

— The Lions have been a better team in the final eight games of the seasons (2014-16) since Jim Caldwell took over with a 16-8 record in those games. Now is no time for a letdown.