Five Detroit Lions to watch vs. the Vikings

Lions swept the Vikings in 2016

While the Lions swept the Vikings in 2016, it was no easy task.

In the game at Minnesota they needed a last second 58-yard Matt Prater to get to overtime then Matthew Stafford and Golden Tate connected for the winning score.

It won’t be easy on Sunday either as the 2-1 teams meet in a huge division NFC North matchup.

(Photo courtesy of the Detroit Lions)

“I think it’s unique about our division is very competitive. I mean, it’s been that way since I’ve been here. Very good players, very good coaches and it makes for really, really good I think, a contest, week in and week out, home and away,’’ coach Jim Caldwell said. “Obviously, every division game is hotly contested because of ramifications down the road and that’s the key, so yeah, it’s a lot of fun playing in our division.”

Here are five things to watch:

1. Matthew Stafford is 3-4 in his career on the road at Minnesota. He’s off to a good start this season with seven touchdowns against just one interception and a 64.5 completion percentage. He’ll need good protection from his offensive line especially against defensive end Emerson Griffen who has four of the Vikings five sacks so far this year. Griffen called Lions left tackle Greg Robinson “lazy” which might provide more motivation for Robinson who wouldn’t reply to Griffen. Look for the Lions to add some tight end help on that side.  Robinson has struggled while filling in for Taylor Decker.

2. The Lions run defense was dinged last week allowing the Falcons to rush for 151 yards — 106 by Devonta Freeman. That might have been good preparation to face Vikings rookie running back Dalvin Cook whose 96 yards per game average has helped Vikings’ fans forget Adrian Peterson. Middle linebacker Jarrad Davis, who missed last Sunday with a concussion, could return on Sunday. That should help.

3. On the other side, the Lions have to continue to run the ball even if they come up with too many plays of negative yardage. Eventually it should come around — at least that’s what expectations are . Ameer Abdullah is averaging about 54 yards per game and 3.5 yards per catch. Both numbers need to jump. We might see more carries from Zach Zenner who will be active on Sunday since he’s a special teams captain. Also Dwayne Washington (quad) has been declared out. Theo Riddick has been quiet the first three games with just 19 yards rushing and 82 receiving. Stafford is the second leading rusher with 56 yards.

4. Quarterback Case Keenum will run the offense for the second straight week with Sam Bradford still injured. Last week he completed 75.8 percent of his passes for 369 yards and three touchdowns. In 2016, he blew up the Lions while the Rams quarterback. He completed a whopping 84.38 percent of his passes that day for 321 yards, three touchdowns and one interception. The Lions pulled out the win, but Keenum put on a show. At one point he completed 19 straight passes. He may be the same quarterback this year just with a new team. The LIons’ secondary is much improved over 2016 but will be tested by Keenum.

5. Look for tight end Eric Ebron to have a better game. He was targeted seven times last week and only made two receptions. And, he had at least two drop. Caldwell said in the previous week, Ebron had not had one drop in practice (they keep an eye on these things). After the loss to the Falcons, Ebron tweeted out that he knew he performed poorly. He’s got to do better or offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter and Stafford will lose confidence in him. Caldwell still has faith in Ebron. “I do believe this guy works at it, he’s dedicated to it, and I think he’ll be able to have a week like he had last week, last week he had five catches (in win at Giants), no drops, right? So, I anticipate he’ll keep continuing to improve,’’ Caldwell said.

BONUS: Look for wide receiver TJ Jones to possibly get more involved in the offense. “I think obviously he serves a great role for us because he can play almost any position. He’s very smart. He knows I think the assignments of all of the pass eligible individuals and he executes well,’’ Caldwell said. “So, I think depending on the ball game and certain situations, that could happen. But I think we’ve got a pretty good rotation going right now.”

PREDICTION: Lions 27, Vikings 24. It will be a tough win on the road but at this point in the season, Detroit is the better team.

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Detroit Lions notes: Giving the run game a go, Golden Tate, recovering from loss

Abdullah leads in rushing, Stafford is second

Well, we can say this about the Lions run game this season — they are giving it a go.

The Lions have run the ball 78 times in the first three games averaging 3.7 yards per carry. That compares to 64 rushing attempts for their opponents averaging 4.0 yards per carry.

Ameer Abdullah leads with 163 rushing yards (3.5 yards per carry, while Matthew Stafford is second with 56 (8.0 yards per carry). Theo Riddick has just 10 carries for 19 yards.

Certainly there are positive signs.

We’re optimistic but we would like to see more results. We would like to see better production in the run game, carry after carry after carry. As an overall offense, that’s on all of us. That’s on me. That’s on the players. That’s on everybody,’’ offensive coordinator Jim Bob Cooter said. “For us to really get where we need to be as a team, that things got to be better on a carry-by-carry basis and not kind of up and down like it has been.”

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions)

Coach Jim Caldwell is optimistic about the run game which has been a concern since he landed in Detroit, in part due to injuries.

“We’re not going to be a 150, 200-yard rushing team. That’s not how we’re built. We want to just have a good, respectable running game, make teams honor it where they don’t just discount it,’’ Caldwell said. “I think that’s the way in which we’d like to approach this thing. And I think we’re working to get to that point.”

On Sunday the Lions’ defense will face one of the best rookie running backs in Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook. He is averaging 96 rushing yards per game and 4.7 yards per carry.

— Golden Tate isn’t the tallest or speediest NFL wide receiver but he routinely gets the job done. Matthew Stafford calls him “a gamer.” It’s hard to disagree.

Certainly Cooter appreciates Tate.

“He makes plays. Makes plays. It’s not always picture perfect. It’s not always exactly the way it’s drawn on the sheet of paper or the way maybe you thought it might go,’’ Cooter said.  “Sometimes, he kind of gets into some funny body positions but he tends to catch the ball and he tends to make plays once he has it in his hands. And we plan on getting it to him quite a bit this year.”

 

— The Lions are over the call that decided Sunday’s game — the 10-second runoff.  Perhaps it  took longer for some (Tate) than others, but they’ve been focusing on the Vikings since Tuesday.

“I think anytime just in terms of competitive individuals that when things don’t go their way the week before, you would think that they would certainly be eager to get back out there and prove that they can get back on a winning track again,’’ Caldwell said. “I think that’s a normal process, and does not have to do with whatever the situation is.’’

Caldwell says the best teams have the same demeanor on Mondays after a win or loss. That’s been his goal to get these Lions to think like that. He has changed their attitude in his three-plus years as coach.

This goes for wins or losses.

“If they won the game, they know that one is behind us. There’s nothing they can do about it. And they can rest on their laurels. You can’t get caught up in flattery when you do do well. Flattery is much like flowers, you can smell them but you can’t eat them,’’ Caldwell said.

— Caldwell’s quote of the week came from St. Augustine: “A lot of truth is like a lion, you don’t have to defend it, let it loose and it will defend itself.”

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.