Lions coach Dan Campbell credits veteran players for team’s growth

ALLEN PARK — While many of the Lions rookies have been drawing well-deserved praise for the recent turn-around, coach Dan Campbell opened his Monday presser with words of appreciation for the veterans.

After Sunday’s 34-23 win over the Vikings, the Lions have now won five of their last six and playoffs remain a possibility. The team has matured after a 1-6 start, with the veterans leading the way for the talented class of rookies. 

“Sometimes you lose sight of it, you don’t ever want to take it for granted, but they play at such a high level week in and week out. They’re a huge part of our success,’’ Campbell said.

He specifically named left tackle Taylor Decker, center Frank Ragnow, linebacker Jarrad Davis, fullback Jason Cabinda, linebacker Alex Anzalone, special teams C.J. Moore and defensive lineman Romeo Okwara. He also mentioned defensive lineman Michael Brockers who hasn’t been activated in recent games. 

“He’s a huge part, he’s helped develop those young guys in that D-line room. I don’t want that to be lost. Those guys are damned good players for us, they’ve been outstanding in the locker room, they’re great leaders,’’ Campbell said. “They’re workers and they set the tone for everybody and those young bucks fall right in line. We have a number of those guys.’’

Of all the veterans, Decker has the longest tenure in Detroit. A first-round draft pick in 2016, the left tackle has seen the ups and downs from a playoff loss in his rookie season to struggles to get back to the postseason or even just to win more than a handful of games. 

“Honestly I know they’re all kind of similar. Decker is one of the guys I think about. He’s the player who has been around here the longest, he saw some early success then some rough times,’’ Campbell said. “Now to be able to have some hope back is the best way to say it. I know he’s having fun, he’s very much invested in this team. He’s all in. That’s one of the guys you want to win for, you want to help him get there. But we appreciate him, man. He’s putting in the work, he’s all in, he’s a true pro.’’

On Sunday the Lions will play at the N.Y. Jets (7-6), a team that has lost three of its last four. The final three games are at the Carolina Panthers (5-8) on Dec. 24, home to Chicago (3-10) on Jan. 1 and at Green Bay (5-8) on Jan. 7/8.


Five reasons the surging Lions handed a loss to the Vikings

DETROIT – Dan Campbell is drained and exhausted, but in a good way. He can’t wait for the Lions winning to continue through the next four weeks. The playoffs remain a posssibility.

The Lions took another step in the right direction with a 34-23 win over the division rival Minnesota Vikings on Sunday at an electric Ford Field. The win boosted Detroit’s record to 6-7 and 3-1 in the division. The Lions have won five of their last six and had no intention of the Vikings (10-3) clinching the division at Ford Field.

“The guys know how I’ve felt all week about this game. But yeah, look I don’t think there’s a surprise here. I’ve said it before, it’s hard when you get down in the dumps and you were where we were at, it’s easy to lose faith, but these guys never did and we stayed true to what we’re about and they knew, they believed we were one play away and that’s where we’ve been,’’ Campbell said.

It seems a long way since the 1-6 start.

“Now we’re making the play, we’re making the one extra play, this – it’s not costing us. And we’re able to overcome some of these mistakes we were making earlier. So no, our guys, they know they belong,’’ the coach added. “They know they belong and they know when they play football like we’ve been playing the last six weeks we can play with anybody. That’s the truth.” 

Campbell, who has made coaching mistakes and is the first one to admit it, called a game that was not absolutely perfect but was perfect for the opponent and the minute.

He and his coordinators dialed up a fake punt, a crucial third-down pass to right tackle Penei Sewell and set up a 48-yard touchdown pass play to rookie wide receiver Jameson Williams. It was a little edgy and just the right mode for a young team that develops more confidence with every snap.

Five of the main reasons the Lions won:

1. Two plays stood out to Campbell. One was the fumble forced by Isaiah Buggs and recovered by Kerby Joseph late in the first half. The Vikings were deep in the Red Zone and a touchdown would have tied the game going into the half. Instead Buggs forced the fumble at the Lions’ 3-yard line and the Lions got the ball back with 59 seconds in the half. They couldn’t score  — Michael Badgley’s 49-yard field goal attempt was wide left — but they maintain a 7-point halftime lead. The other notable play was the fake punt early in the third on a fourth-and-8 at Detroit’s 26. Failure would have given the Vikings optimum field position, but the ball was snapped directly to C.J. Moore who ran it for 42 yards. “We knew the look they were going to give us and we’ve – and I’ve got a lot of trust in our guys. We’ve worked things a number of ways, seen all kinds of looks and those guys just make it work and I trust Moore.”’’ Campbell said.

2. Talk about efficiency in action, the Lions’ first two touchdowns were on passes of 48 yards to Jameson Williams and 41 yards to D.J. Chark. Campbell said the run game can be better but they can make up for it with explosive plays. “To be able to deliver that element to our offense is huge because I feel like with that we’re pretty well-balanced. We can do – we can kind of play any type of game we need to offensively and that’s a good thing. And it all starts with our offensive line,’’ Campbell said. On that Williams touchdown, quarterback Jared Goff said he couldn’t believe how wide-open he was due to busted coverage.

3. Jared Goff said he is playing the best ball of his career and you won’t find Campbell disagreeing with that assessment. Somebody has to get the receivers those deep balls and run the offense with efficiency. Goff was 27-39 for 330 yards and three touchdowns. It was his fifth straight game without an interception. “He’s playing outstanding and he’s a direct link as to why we are playing better. He’s playing really good football and he’s taking care of the football. He’s making big throws, man. He’s been highly accurate and just – man, there’s a lot of faith. A lot of faith in him and he’s got a lot of faith in us. And so, man, I thought he had another hell of a day,’’ Campbell said. “He stepped in there and I’ll tell you what, he’s cool, he’s calm, he’s collected, he’s making these throws. And the O-line is blocking well. They’re protecting the heck out of him, so I don’t disagree. It was good to see, man.’’

4. The defense’s swagger grows each week thanks to defensive coordinator Aaron Glenn. “He rallied the troops. He never let them give in, he never let them lose faith and he just kept coaching his ass off, as did that whole staff. And they’ve begun to grow, they’ve grown and we had to – we kind of had to bring some stuff. We had to pull everything back to the studs, man, we had to break it down and simplify and now we’re able to start pulling it back in, man, we’ve started to implement a lot of things that we were doing even last year,’’ Campbell said. “So, now that we’ve got them back to where – to where they are playing with confidence, they trust the guy next to him. And all these young guys are growing, now we can be a little more complex.” Linebacker Alex Anzalone’s 9 tackles pushed him to 100 for the season. Defensive lineman Isaiah Buggs finished with three quarterback hits, 1.0 sack and one forced fumble. Rookie linebacker James Houston became the third rookie in team history to record a sack in three-straight games. Rookie Aidan Hutchinson had two solo tackles, two tackles for loss, two quarterback hits and a  sack.

5. That defense stuffed running back Dalvin Cook who had 15 carries for just 23 yards, his lowest total yardage since Week 2. “We put a lot of strain on the front seven is what we did. Honestly, and it was gap responsibility, we asked the nickel to do a lot of things, but man we had to fit it. We asked our big boys in the middle to have to bang away (Alim McNeill) Mac and Buggs, we put a lot on those guys, and so really it was more about those guys up front and our linebackers,’’ Campbell said. They were going to have to take that away because we used an enormous amount of resources on the backend with (Vikings WR Justin) Jefferson, as you can see.’’

BONUS: On third-and-7 with 2 minutes left at the Vikings’ 41, Goff threw a 9-yard completion to Sewel, the right tackle who had reported eligible. “That was part of the package we were going to have that we could use in the red zone if needed. And then, it felt like that was the right time to bring it out. We had practiced – had good practice reps with it. We’d used him earlier in that fast motion, and so we just – we felt really good about it being there because when you see him coming you’re not going to just think he’s going to the flat, he’s going to block you one more time like he did before,’’ Campbell said. “So, it was a great call, we trusted him. Look, we know what kind of athlete he is, he’s a phenomenal athlete. I mean, we talk about – who knows what kind of tackle he’s going to be, I think a pretty dang good one, he already is. But he could be a Hall of Fame tight end in my opinion too if he wanted to lose a little bit of weight. But he is, he’s got real good hands. He’s got real good feet, we felt like he was going to be wide open, which he was. And we told him to stay in bounds and he did.”

(Photo courtesy of Detroit Lions.)

(Up next: Lions (6-7) at N.Y. Jets (7-6) at 1 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 18. The Jets lost 20-12 to the Bills on Sunday.)

Five things to watch as favored Lions face Vikings; plus, prediction

Dan Campbell admits he is shocked that his Lions (5-7) are the favorites in Sunday’s rematch with the NFC North division leading Minnesota Vikings (10-2) at Ford Field. 

“All those things don’t matter, point spread, who’s favored, it doesn’t – this team finds ways to win, and if we’re not ready to go, and we don’t handle our business – it’s going to take every one of us, coaches and players, to win this game,’’ Campbell said on Friday. “That’s what I do know because they’ve got plenty over there, and there again, a team that finds ways to win, those are dangerous teams.”

Detroit, which has won four of its last five, has turned heads around the NFL. Since a comeback win to defeat the LIons 28-24 on Sept, 25, the Vikings are 8-1.

Besides the record, the big difference is that the Lions are learning how to win.

“I think obviously, the more you win and the ways that you learn to win, you get better at it because there’s a number of ways to do it, and that’s really what transpired. We’ve done it,’’ Campbell said. “The gameplans have all been different. The opponents are different. Win with the lead, come from behind, keep the lead in a tight game, I think you learn to stay composed, certainly when things don’t go your way, you don’t go in the tank, and it’s just about cleaning up the errors that maybe cost you a play or two or that gave them a little bit.’’

Five things to watch:

1. Detroit’s young defense improves each week. Coordinator Aaron Glenn said they have found their identity.  “We’re a tough and violent team. That’s who we are. That’s going to attack the football. I think it shows as far as the takeaways that we’ve gotten and just the way that we play defense overall,’’ Glenn said.”We might not be the most athletic, but man, it’s going to be a tough out against us every time you play against us. That’s how I want it.”

2. In their first meeting the LIons held Vikings WR Justin Jefferson to a season-low in yards (3 catches, 14 yards). Obviously the plan is to do the same. “I will tell you this, it’s hard to try to hold that player to that now. I mean, he is a player that I really, really respect on a number of different levels. Just my own opinion, I think he’s – if not the best receiver, he’s one of the top two. And the reason I say that is not just because of the production,’’ Glenn said. “I think he’s – he embodies everything I think a football player should be about. I think he’s tough, I think he’s competitive. Man, you see him take some hits and he gets right back up and gets ready to play. So, he’s an Aaron Glenn type of guy, but we have to get after him just like we did last time.”

3. It would be foolhardy to expect the LIons offense to score on every possession like they did in the win over the Jaguars last Sunday. But expect the offense to keep humming. Quarterback Jared Goff feels like he’s playing the best ball of his career and it’s tough to argue. The relationship with coordinator Ben Johnson has continued to grow and it shows on the field and the scoreboard.

4. Look for rookie wide receiver Jameson Williams to see more action after he got his feet wet last week in a limited debut. Johnson won’t speculate on a rep count for Williams but is encouraged to see Williams and Goff work together in practice to find a chemistry.  “That’s critical, that’s big. Knowing where he’s going to be, what his – the top of his break’s going to look like so our quarterback can anticipate that throw, that goes a long way,’’ Johnson said. There’s much talk about Williams’ potential (as there should be), but D.J. Chark returned from injury last week and shined while Amon-Ra St. Brown continues to amaze. “It’s been fun to watch his progression since he got here over a year and a half ago. And truthfully, I really think he’s playing like a top five, top 10 receiver in this League right now,’’ Johnson said. “He generates separation on a weekly basis. I think he’s very hard to cover. We’re trying the best we can to keep defenses guessing a little bit of where he’s going to line up, but he does a lot of things himself.’’

5. Perhaps the offensive line doesn’t get enough credit for its role in the Lions run game which averages 127 yards per game. “We talk about it in our room. We point things out on the film. You see these guys finishing, coming off the ball the way they do. Those guys take pride in that, talking about the O-line,’’ running backs coach Duce Staley said. “And our guys take pride in hitting the hole. So, we definitely talk about it in my room.”

INS and OUTS: Guard Kayode Awosika (ankle), linebacker Derrick Barnes (knee) and cornerback Chase Lucas (hamstring) have been ruled out for Sunday. Guard/center Evan Grown (ankle) is doubtful. Cornerback Will Harris (hip) is questionable, along with three who were listed with an illness — cornerback Jeff Okudah, wide receiver Kalif Raymond and quarterback Nate Sudfeld.

PREDICTION: Lions 28, Vikings 24.