NFC North: Detroit Lions

BAGSHOT, England – The Detroit Lions found out about this trip around a year ago, and when they did, they began to plan. In the interim, the Lions changed coaching staffs, but most of that didn’t matter when it came to the off-field logistics.

It started with a lot of advance scouting and preparations. Lions team president Tom Lewand estimated there were three trips taken to England to scope out facilities in helping the team choose their hotel. The Falcons had the first choice and chose The Grove in Hertfordshire, England; Detroit picked the Pennyhill Park Hotel and Spa. Then it took time to understand all the potential issues they might face.

While that was happening, they were also doing research into how different teams went about this trip before them, from where they stayed to when they traveled and more.

It’s why Detroit traveled Monday night instead of making the trip later in the week, as other teams playing in London have done. Being in the same spot for so long – and in facilities they deemed top-notch – has given this week a similar feel to a training camp, yet a few thousand miles away.

Lions coach Jim Caldwell tried to think of everything. The team collected the passports of players last week and checked on passport statuses of players they brought in for tryouts, so there was no chance of a player forgetting theirs or not having one. Caldwell spoke with sleep specialists and members of the military about the best way to fight off jet lag from the five-time-zone difference the Lions faced when they arrived Tuesday. He specifically spoke with military members because they travel often with quick turnarounds.

“Everything that we talk about, it’s on [the players’] iPads, so they have the information right there readily available to them,” Caldwell said. “And then we also had a sleep specialist that came in and talked to them about what they should do, what they should do on the trip, what these first three days are like, things of that nature to try to make certain that you’re in the best possible shape you can be in, from a rest standpoint.”

Caldwell said that while he did not talk to the team about the Ebola virus because they were flying on a private charter, his medical personnel were aware of it because “obviously, it’s a national issue right now, so it’s not something that you just kind of turn your back on.”

So everything was covered.

The Lions made sure the typical conveniences of their Allen Park, Michigan, facility were also evident – including having a pingpong table and video game systems with FIFA Soccer available. These two things are staples in the team’s player’s lounge in America.

“A few guys brought their systems,” linebacker Tahir Whitehead said. “So even if they didn’t have that accessible to us, we were still going to play some games. But it’s really helped a lot.”

To aid this, the Lions did what many businesses do in shipping things from Europe or Asia to North America. They put some of their equipment and supplies on a ship months ago and sent it across the Atlantic Ocean.

“A lot was office equipment,” Lions team president Tom Lewand said. “We’ve got to set up an office here. Network equipment we had to send over, servers and that kind of thing. And some of the things like athletic tape, supplies.

“It was really supply-based, that we knew didn’t have expiration dates and had longtime items we could plan through. So a lot of it was both office and football equipment-based.”

That includes, somewhat surprisingly, paper. The typical 8-by-11 sheets the Lions use are not the most commonly-used size in England, according to Lewand.

With the office set up and the Lions turning conference and banquet rooms into different meeting rooms around the Pennyhill Park complex, it in some ways feels like home, even though it clearly isn’t.

“I could stay here all week,” Lions center Dominic Raiola said. “I haven’t even been to the spa yet. It looks sweet, though.”

The spa was one of the bigger benefits to staying at their hotel, which is also the training ground for the English national rugby team. So the facility has all the benefits for elite athletes, which has helped in their preparation.

“They have hot tubs over there, cold tubs, obviously massages, saunas and steam rooms,” Lions running back Reggie Bush said. “All those different things. I try to spend quite a bit of time over there.”

Players also marveled at the size of the rooms and cornerback Rashean Mathis said he’d consider vacationing at the hotel another time.

Often, hotel rooms in big cities such as London and New York are small. The Lions have spacious facilities -- and Ndamukong Suh and C.J. Mosley have two-floor rooms to themselves. Raiola said he has a huge tub and heated floors in his bathroom.

It feels more like an apartment than a random hotel room in the middle of a city.

But it is not actually home.

“It’s not Union Lake,” Raiola said. “But it’s all right. It’ll do.”
BAGSHOT, England -- Detroit Lions center Dominic Raiola was asked about the royals on Wednesday afternoon and in the land of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Charles, it can be a confusing question for an American.

“I looked it up this morning, just to see who won,” Raiola said.

Wait, what? Raiola thought reporters were talking about the Kansas City Royals, the team that lost Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night. Instead, though, Raiola was being asked if he was following much of the drama around the royal family, which make headlines in Great Britain regularly.

“Hell no,” Raiola said. “I don’t know what’s going on. Our cab driver was talking about Prince Harry and how crazy, I guess the Queen was in town because the flag was out last night. [The cab driver said] like this flag is out which means the Queen is staying there.”

In England, though, following the royal family is as much of a gawking sport as celebrity-watching is in the United States and some Lions spent their first day in the country as tourists.

Some Lions traveled into central London, even if their hotel is about 75 minutes away from the city in Bagshot, England. Punter Sam Martin and tight ends Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron all sent pictures in front of Big Ben to their Instagram followers.


A photo posted by Eric Ebron (@ericebron) on

Running back Reggie Bush went into the city, by driver, for a late dinner with his wife, Lilit, at Nobu. Tahir Whitehead's anniversary is tomorrow, so he is planning on heading into London to have dinner with his wife then.

But for many Lions who have not been overseas before -- Bush is well-traveled, as is Ndamukong Suh, who recounted prior trips to London as among his most fun vacations -- this is a completely different experience.

“The impression from other people that I’ve been talking to who actually spent more time down there (Tuesday), they really enjoyed it, did a lot of sightseeing and did some shopping,” Bush said. “I think the big thing was taking the train down into London, a lot of guys did that yesterday.

“So they really enjoyed that part of it. I think everybody has been enjoying it so far.”
BAGSHOT, England -- It has been almost half the season already, but Reggie Bush insists the Detroit Lions are still learning.

When trying to understand why a running game featuring two backs who were considered among the best tandems in the NFL a year ago have been moving in neutral, he looked at the new scheme the Lions are putting in and the time it is taking to learn it.

The learning process and struggles with a running game that could take more of a hit if right tackle LaAdrian Waddle misses time with his concussion, is a bit of an enigma. It won’t help, either, that the Lions’ top three tight ends all didn’t practice Wednesday due to injury.

“It’s getting into a rhythm, into a flow with this new offensive system,” Bush said. “We’re still kind of learning and I’m not at all worried. I wouldn’t want to run behind any other offensive line, just going back to what we did last year, we have the guys here.

“We have what it takes to get it done and it’s just a matter of getting into a rhythm. We’ve had some injuries, too, and that’s obviously hurt us a little bit. We’re getting there. Nobody is worried, it’s not a time to panic, but it is a time for a sense of urgency.”

It may not be a worry, but it should be a viable concern.

A season ago, the Lions had a 1,000-yard rusher in Bush, had Joique Bell with over 500 yards rushing and had numbers in the middle of the pack, mostly because both Bush and Bell were used as receiving threats as well.

Both were averaging at least 3.9 yards a rush (Bush 4.5, Bell 3.9) and were talked about as one of the top tandems in the NFL.

This season, though, they have plummeted. Neither Bush (3.5) nor Bell (3.3) have come close to Jim Caldwell’s goal of four yards a carry. And as a rushing offense, they have been unable to move the ball. Detroit is ranked No. 31 in the NFL in rushing yards a game (82.43) and yards per rush (3.12).

The Lions are also tied for 28th in first downs rushing, with 31, although of the four teams they are tied or ahead of, three have winning records, including Denver.

“The scheme is good,” center Dominic Raiola said. “It’s a matter of one person breaking down here or one person breaking down here. Especially in the run game, all six have to go. We just have to be in sync. No one can go rogue. No one can go off schedule.

“We have to be on schedule all the time for it to go.”

The running issues are more than just the offensive line, though. With the new offensive scheme brought in by Joe Lombardi, some of the blocks have changed from what they were a season ago in both the run game and the screen game -- both of which involve the running backs heavily.

Raiola wouldn’t say exactly what has changed in the way they block this year, only that there are differences.

And Caldwell isn’t blaming one area of the offense when it comes to the Lions’ run struggles. He’s looking at the whole operation of it.

“We just haven’t been as consistent as we’d like,” Caldwell said. “We haven’t blocked consistently well enough. We haven’t run it consistently well enough with the ball in our hands. There’s a number of different things.

“The blocking includes not only linemen, not only tight ends, the lead back or whomever it might be, but then also on the flanks as well, the receiving corps. So all of it, we’re constantly in an evaluation mode with trying to find out what suits us best in terms of what we do best. That’s been the struggle, so we just have to stay after it.”
LONDON -- Each week, we’ll take a look at who or what might be rising or falling with the Detroit Lions.


WR Calvin Johnson: It is still unclear if the star receiver is going to play Sunday against Atlanta at Wembley Stadium, but he is clearly making progress on his injured ankle. He said he is feeling good and that he did a little bit of field work last week, which is a step up for him. He also told the NFL Network he has been running more than before, another good sign of his eventual return. It’ll likely be a decision between the coaches, doctors and Johnson as to whether he plays Sunday or waits until after the team’s bye, but it does sound like he is closer to full strength than a week ago.

LB Josh Bynes: He signed with the Lions when Stephen Tulloch tore his ACL celebrating a sack of Aaron Rodgers and has slowly moved his way into some snaps with the Detroit defense. He has played in 30 total snaps the past two weeks spelling Tahir Whitehead. But the Lions clearly have some trust in him as he was in the game on the second-to-last series against New Orleans, when Glover Quin picked off Drew Brees to set up the game-winning score.

The Lions free-agent defensive signings: Detroit made three moves critical to its defense during the offseason -- bringing in defensive ends Darryl Tapp and George Johnson along with safety James Ihedigbo. Ihedigbo was the team’s biggest defensive move and after missing three games due to a neck injury has become one of the Lions’ best defenders and a smart pairing with Glover Quin at safety. The more surprising play has come from Tapp and Johnson, both guys who were questions to make the roster at one point -- Tapp was cut and re-signed in August -- and have found roles in the Detroit defense. Tapp has been good against the run and Johnson leads the Lions defensive linemen in sacks (four) and is third among Detroit defensive linemen in tackles with 16.


WR Ryan Broyles: Another week with the Lions decimated by injuries, another week where Broyles has little to no role in the offense. At this point, it looks like unless there is an in-game injury, Broyles just isn’t going to see the field much at all. He has one reception for 21 yards this season and has not run more than three routes in a game.

The Detroit running game: Reggie Bush, Joique Bell and Theo Riddick have all had injuries this season, but it still doesn’t explain why the Lions have been unable to run with any success. Detroit is 31st in the NFL in rushing yards per game (82.43) and yards per rush (3.12). Neither Bell (3.5 yards per carry) nor Bush (3.3 yards per carry) are even close to Jim Caldwell’s stated preference of four yards per rush and other than brief spurts in second halves, the Lions just haven’t been able to move the ball on the ground.

S Isa Abdul-Quddus: The starter at safety when Ihedigbo was out, Abdul-Quddus has primarily become a special-teams player at this point. His snaps have decreased every week since Ihedigbo’s return, from 19 against the Jets to 15 against Buffalo, one against Minnesota and none against his former team, the Saints. He still has a role on special teams, where he is part of their core, but it looks like he won’t be remaining as a player in a defensive package for Teryl Austin unless there is an injury.
BAGSHOT, England -- The Detroit Lions are on another continent, but they are still without star receiver Calvin Johnson at practice.

Johnson missed his seventh straight day of practice Wednesday, although he did stand off to the side watching the offense work out. He said Tuesday he is making some improvements in trying to return from his high ankle sprain to his right ankle.

He was one of six Lions players not practicing for Detroit on Wednesday at the Pennyhill Park Hotel and Spa, where the team is practicing and where England's national rugby team also works out.

All of the players who didn't practice for the Lions on Wednesday are of significance: right tackle LaAdrian Waddle, defensive end Ezekiel Ansah and three tight ends -- Brandon Pettigrew, Joseph Fauria and Eric Ebron.

When it comes to Fauria and Ebron, Lions coach Jim Caldwell said they are making improvements. Fauria hasn't practiced or played since injuring his ankle before Week 4 against the Jets. Ebron has not practiced since tweaking his hamstring in practice last week.

"Practice would be one of those things where it goes day-to-day with those guys," Caldwell said. "Both of them are rapidly improving and I have to sort of wait and see what happens, what the doctors say where they are before we can utilitze them. So at this point it is kind of a day-to-day thing and see how it goes."

The Lions had Jordan Thompson, Kellen Davis and practice squad receiver Ifeyani Momah working out as tight ends Wednesday during the media portion of practice.
LONDON -- The Detroit Lions have the top-ranked defense in the NFL and after two weeks outside the top 10 of the Power Rankings, the Lions are back pushing for a spot among the elite in the league.

The Lions are up to No. 10 this week, the fifth-highest team in the NFC and the second-highest team in the NFC North behind Green Bay, a team on a tear since losing to the Lions in Week 3.

Detroit knows how close it is, though, to being even better than its 5-2 record. The Lions are still No. 1 in the NFL in two categories: defensive QBR (31.8) and total defense (290.3)

"We feel like right now we're in a good position," safety Glover Quin said. "Obviously, we feel like we could be undefeated. We've left some games out there, and we still haven't played a total, total game. So we always feel like no one can beat us if we don't beat ourselves and if we play our game, it's going to be hard for a team to beat us .

"With the weapons we have on offense, the guys we have on defense and our special teams, we feel like we have a complete team."

This is what the Lions are trying to continue in London on Sunday when they face Atlanta at Wembley Stadium.

Just a note -- due to travel to London and the scheduling of events here, my power rankings ballot returns next week.
GUILDFORD, Surrey, England – Calvin Johnson might slowly be making progress toward his return to the field.

While the Detroit Lions wide receiver wouldn’t say he is healthy and wouldn’t say he is going to play when the Lions face Atlanta at Wembley Stadium on Sunday, he did say he has done “just a little bit” of work on the field -- a sign of progress on his injured right ankle.

“I’m still working, working to get on the field each and every week,” Johnson said at a Play60 event soon after the team arrived in Europe. “If I’m good enough to play, I’m going to play. I’ll just leave it at that.”

Johnson has missed the past two games with the injury and has not been fully healthy since Week 3, when he injured the ankle against Green Bay. He practiced just on Fridays but played during Weeks 4 and 5 before aggravating the injury against Buffalo.

He hasn’t practiced or played since.

Johnson said he’s feeling good. As a soccer fan, he also likely would enjoy playing his version of football in Wembley Stadium if he is healthy enough.

“It’d be a great experience,” Johnson said. “Looking forward to it.”

One of the byproducts of Johnson’s injury has been Matthew Stafford gaining trust in other receivers beyond Golden Tate. That includes Corey Fuller, who caught the game-winner Sunday against New Orleans, and Jeremy Ross, who has been part of the passing plan each week.

In Johnson’s absence, Tate has turned into a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Tate is third in the NFL in receptions (48), sixth in receiving yards (649) and first in yards after catch (344). He has been a big reason why Stafford has been able to trust receivers and why the Lions are 5-2.

“I think we’ve done that. Each of us has stepped up in our own way and once we get [Johnson] back, the chemistry is just going to grow between all of us, you know,” Tate said. “I think Matt trusts that he doesn’t have to go to 81 all the time and he can rely on those guys to make some plays and help them out and we’re just excited about that.

“He’s no question one of the best players in the league and we’re going to take off and we’re just going to continue to work hard.”

The Film Don't Lie: Lions

October, 21, 2014
Oct 21
A weekly look at what the Detroit Lions must fix:

The Detroit Lions shored up some of their pass-blocking woes the past two weeks, but in order for them to beat the Atlanta Falcons and go on a run to the playoffs, the Lions have to find a way to restore their running game to a semblance of what they had last season.

Coach Jim Caldwell has a stated goal of having his team run for 4 yards per carry as a metric of success. Neither of his main backs, Reggie Bush or Joique Bell, has come close to that mark. Bush is averaging 3.5 yards per carry, Bell 3.3 yards per carry.

So the suggestion on how to fix this might be a little bizarre, but the Lions should move away from a split-carry approach and give more of the touches to Bell, who has 84 carries to Bush’s 49. That number is skewed, though, because Bush has been dealing with an ankle injury. But Bell has looked like the more explosive and decisive runner this season.

Bush still has the chance to be special, but the Lions should be using him in select spots where he can be a game-breaker and let Bell handle the brunt of the load. It’ll give Bell more of a chance to get to understand a defensive scheme and hunt for holes throughout the game.

“It gives me a lot better rhythm, but they kind of planned [a more run-heavy approach] from the beginning,” Bell said. “We knew we were going to be a little more run-heavy. As a running back, you kind of like that, being able to go out there and kind of put the team on your back.”

None of the Lions’ running backs has been able to do that consistently this season, so picking the younger player with fewer yards on his legs to handle the most carries could be the smarter option. Last season was Bell’s first with more than 200 touches. Bush has had more than 200 carries -- not counting receptions -- the past three seasons.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The Detroit Lions are supposed to be landing in England right about now, making the choice to head over the Atlantic Ocean early -- similar to their opponent this Sunday, the Atlanta Falcons -- instead of waiting until later in the week to do so.

The reason was not one out of nowhere. It was, as almost everything else in the NFL is, meticulously studied and strategized for.

“We looked at the teams that had gone over late, weighed that out with teams that got over early and got acclimated,” Lions coach Jim Caldwell said. “We looked at all the parameters.”

That came from first-hand experience from trips offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi and secondary coach Alan Williams had taken to Europe along with the research of every team that had played a game there in the past.

The verdict -- go over, get settled and make it as much like a normal week of work as possible. So while trips to Big Ben and Parliament would be nice -- the team is staying on the outskirts of city the majority of the week before a weekend in Inner London -- they are trying to make this as businesslike as possible.

That includes not disrupting their typical work week with a mid-week jaunt across the ocean.

And when they looked at things, they looked at every possible metric.

“Every single thing,” Caldwell said. “Every place we’re going to stay, the hotels, you know how this league is, very rarely do you leave anything to chance. We know what the practice facility looks like. Our trainers have been over there already, not recently, but in the spring.

“…There are not too many things that happen in this league that all of a sudden you say, ‘Hey, guess what, we’re going to London.’"

No, everything about this trip has been meticulously planned from the outset and that is part of the plan as the league also takes a look at whether or not they’ll eventually try to place a team overseas.

Caldwell believes all of these games -- including playing an afternoon game in London this Sunday equating to a 9:30 a.m. game in the United States -- are test runs for that potential future.

“I’m sure that will be something that will certainly be entertained at some point in time with the popularity of our sport. The difficulties that you have to deal with, I think some of these games are a test run for that,” Caldwell said. “Give you a sense of what it would take and some of the issues that pop up. All the teams that been there before and all of us that are going, these kinds of things have to be dealt with and worked out and do I think it’s possible? Absolutely, I think it’s possible.

“But nevertheless, it takes a little bit of a reconnaissance mission and I think that we’re going to win a game but I think there’s things from an educational standpoint in terms of being able to function over there on a daily basis that we’ll certainly get a good idea.”

This week, the Lions are part of that recon mission themselves.
ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Calvin Johnson hasn't played in two weeks and Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell won't tip off whether that streak is going to extend to three.

Johnson continues to recover from a high ankle sprain in his right ankle, suffered in Week 3 against Green Bay and then aggravated again in Week 5 against the Bills. Johnson hasn't played since and while he'll travel to England with the Lions this week to face the Atlanta Falcons, whether he plays will be up in the air.

Johnson told ESPN "maybe" following the Lions' win against New Orleans when asked if he would be playing Sunday against the Falcons.

Caldwell, though, said it'll either be a full Calvin Johnson or no Calvin Johnson when he makes his return. The Lions have an off week following the London trip before the second half of the season begins.

"It's not going to be a thing of degrees," Caldwell said. "When they say he's cleared, he's ready to go and he’s feeling great, when they doctors say, OK, that's when it's going to happen. It's not going to be a whole lot of in between."

Johnson has missed six straight practices, was doubtful in Week 6, questionable in Week 7 and did not play in either game.
The Detroit Lions were down their top wide receiver, two of their top three tight ends and still had a hobbled running back in Reggie Bush.

And yet receiver Ryan Broyles still rarely stepped on the field against the New Orleans Saints.

The former second-round pick actually saw six snaps Sunday -- the most he’s had all season -- but four of those plays were runs. He was not targeted, was barely used and clearly has no role in this offense now, even with injuries all over the place to skill-position players.

Only one offensive player -- sixth lineman Travis Swanson -- played fewer offensive snaps than Broyles, and Swanson had five of them.

The Lions stuck with a three-receiver base set most of the game, too, with Golden Tate in on 63 of 70 plays, Jeremy Ross on 62 of 70 plays and Corey Fuller on 62 of 70 plays. Then came Broyles, who barely filled in.

He plays a different position, but tight end Jordan Thompson, who was called up Saturday by the Lions, had double the snaps of Broyles (12) and was even targeted once (an interception that bounced off his hands to Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro).

Considering the Lions are in a constant rotation of players and formations to try to gain an advantage on an opponent, the lack of usage for Broyles is pretty jarring.

He fought to make the team during training camp and has expressed both understanding and frustration about his usage before -- on Twitter last week and to ESPN last month.

But as the injuries to other players pile up and Broyles continues to remain on the bench, it is becoming more and more clear there just might not be much of a role for him on the Lions.

Other snap count notes for the Lions from Sunday:
  • Joique Bell saw the majority of the snaps at running back -- 52 for him and 18 for Bush. Coach Jim Caldwell said after the game it was “absolutely not” a benching when Bush sat for most of the second half and that Bush was still dealing with his ankle injury.
  • Nick Fairley played a season-high 47 snaps and had two tackles and a quarterback hit. Pro Football Focus also credited him with four hurries of Drew Brees.
  • In parsing the numbers for defensive alignments, the Lions went to their traditional nickel with Danny Gorrer on 30 of 74 plays, the base 4-3 with Ashlee Palmer on 17 snaps, the big nickel with Cassius Vaughn on 15 snaps and a third nickel package with Don Carey on 12 snaps. Isa Abdul-Quddus, who played one snap last week and was the initial big nickel back, played only special teams for 23 plays.
  • Linebacker Josh Bynes continues to get some run spelling Tahir Whitehead, as Bynes played 15 of 74 snaps but did not record a statistic. He is a core special teams player, too, so he’s carving out a role on this defense.
  • Once again, only backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky didn’t play, but these position players saw less than 10 combined snaps between offense, defense and special teams: Cornelius Lucas (four, special teams); Jerome Couplin (eight, special teams); Caraun Reid (eight, defense); and Broyles (six, offense).
DETROIT -- Earlier this month, Corey Fuller insisted he could do more. He was playing behind Calvin Johnson then, barely the target of any of Matthew Stafford’s attention and resigned to running the deep go routes and posts he had been assigned.

His job then was to pull a defender down the field so Stafford could find Golden Tate and others on shorter routes.

[+] EnlargeCorey Fuller
Andrew Weber/USA TODAY SportsCorey Fuller's first career touchdown catch was a meaningful one for Detroit on Sunday.
Then Johnson’s high ankle sprain became more of an issue and Fuller was put into a much larger, more diverse role. The deeper routes he had to run turned into a fuller route tree, with slants and hitches and the full gamut of plays he learned.

He insisted, at some point, he would do more. That more came Sunday afternoon, with the Detroit Lions five yards from a come-from-behind win over the Saints.

Fuller, lined up on the right side, ran toward the back of the end zone. Initially, rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste hung with Fuller as Tate was doubled by the Saints. Then, Jean-Baptiste, playing the first defensive snaps of his career Sunday, let him go as Fuller rounded his route toward the middle of the end zone, tucked in the back.

“He’s 1A,” Stafford said. “Golden was in there, too, but they doubled Golden. He had done such a great job all game, they put a little double-team down there, a little bracket. Corey had to go outside, beat a corner and he was just trailing on the baseline, saw the double team on Golden and put a ball where I thought Corey could go up and get it and get both feet down.”

Stafford threw the ball as Fuller headed toward the middle of the field. He jumped up, extended his arms and caught the ball. Then he controlled his body enough to make sure both feet landed in bounds before he fell out of the end zone for the game-winning 5-yard touchdown.

“I know I don’t get called much,” Fuller said. “I’m just here to help any way I can. Matt threw a great ball, the line blocked perfectly and all I had to do was come down with it. I had to do the easy job.”

It was a job, though, that he had never had to do before.

It was the first touchdown of Fuller’s career and only his ninth career NFL catch. It was the second week in a row Fuller had five targets and his three catches tied a career high. His 44 yards were the second-best numbers of his career.

As he said, he knew he could do more. He just had to wait for it.

“He’s put in so much work in the past year to get where he’s at,” Lions tight end Brandon Pettigrew said. “He deserved that.

“He deserved every bit of that.”

DETROIT -- On Saturday evenings, during the team’s final meeting of the night before a game on Sunday, Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell ends those sessions with the same message every time.

Above all else, win. No matter what.

It’s a simple message, really. But too often in the recent past for the Lions, it has been the opposite. This used to be a team that would give away fourth-quarter leads and hand victories to opponents. This was a team last season that held leads in the fourth quarter of almost every game in the second half of the season and found ways to lose time and time again.

This is part of why Caldwell is here, because of those collapses. So with four minutes left Sunday against the New Orleans Saints and the Lions needing two touchdowns to win and an offense struggling without Calvin Johnson, they needed Caldwell’s message to somehow resonate.

They needed a spark to resurrect an offense that was built to have many weapons to endure in the face of injuries, not to collapse when Johnson wasn’t in there.

“Just hard finding good rhythm,” tight end Brandon Pettigrew said. “These defenses are putting together great game plans as well, so it’s tough to kind of get through that sometimes.”

The Lions are hoping the double-digit deficit turned 24-23 win over the Saints in the last 3 minutes, 52 seconds is the ignition for the rest of the season.

Facing third-and-14, Matthew Stafford threw the ball up to his hot receiver, Golden Tate. And 73 yards later -- 65 of them from Tate after the catch -- a Lions offense that gained 187 yards through three quarters had a touchdown, a belief and that offensive spark.

“That play he made on that long touchdown is as good a play as I’ve seen in a long time,” Stafford said. “Just to catch it at a standstill, basically I just threw him a ball up. He was hot. He was calling for it. Wanted it.

“I gave him a chance on a ball and he came back, caught it and he did the rest. It was pretty impressive.”

The Lions' defense saw that and started pressuring Drew Brees even more on the chances it could get. On a third-and-9, the offensive spark turned into a defensive play. George Johnson pressured his man from the side and forced Brees off rhythm. His pass to Marques Colston ended up intercepted by Detroit safety Glover Quin.

Johnson said the Lions knew at some point Brees was going to have to hold the ball a split-second longer to make a play. It led to the pressure and the pick.

And Caldwell’s message of believing took hold even more: Above all else, win.

With 3:10 left and 14 yards and an extra point between a loss and an improbable victory, the Lions ran four times, passed twice and received one pass interference call. Then, five yards from the end zone on third down with 1:48 left, Stafford saw Tate bracketed by the Saints and Corey Fuller breaking toward the middle of the end zone.

Fuller started in Johnson’s place Sunday, and in the biggest spot of his career Fuller made a play reminiscent of his mentor. He leaped, controlled his body and got both of his feet down. It was the definition of a role player with a massive play.

“It was a toe-touch,” Pettigrew said. “That’s real Calvinish. I’m not taking anything away from him, but that was pretty good. That’s pretty good.”

That is an offensive spark completed for a team in desperate need of one -- for one day and for the rest of the season.

“Games in this league are crazy,” Caldwell said. “You don’t know exactly how they are going to turn out.”

Down 13 with under four minutes left and no Calvin Johnson -- no, no one could have seen this coming at all. Except maybe Caldwell with his message: Above all else, win.
DETROIT -- Observed and heard in the locker room after the Detroit Lions' 24-23 win over the New Orleans Saints.
  • Corey Fuller had never been in that spot before. He scored his first career NFL touchdown, and after, he became very popular. When asked if his phone was “blowing up,” Fuller deadpanned: “Yes. I feel it in my pocket.”
  • Bush
    Lions coach Jim Caldwell said he did not bench running back Reggie Bush, after he played only a handful of snaps in the second half in favor of Joique Bell. Caldwell said Bush was still struggling with the ankle injury that kept him out of last Sunday’s game at Minnesota, so he stuck with Bell. After the game, Bush declined to speak with the media.
  • Calvin Johnson was seen leaving the Detroit locker room after the Lions’ win, but he wouldn’t give any indication whether he’d play next week against Atlanta. When asked by a reporter if he thought he’d play, he said, “maybe” as he was walking away.
DETROIT -- Calvin Johnson is getting at least one more game to rest his right high-ankle sprain.

The Detroit Lions wide receiver is inactive Sunday against the New Orleans Saints, the second straight game he will not play and the first time he will miss two consecutive games since the middle of the 2009 season.

Johnson didn’t practice at all for the second straight week but was upgraded from doubtful last week against the Vikings to questionable this week against New Orleans on the official injury designations.

He was on the field during warmups but did not run routes.

Corey Fuller, Jeremy Ross and Brandon Pettigrew should see the majority of the work in Johnson’s place, depending on the formation.

Lions inactives: Johnson; TE Eric Ebron; TE Joseph Fauria; OT Garrett Reynolds; DE Larry Webster; RB Theo Riddick; QB Kellen Moore.