O'HARA: Fauria has been an ultra-specialist in Lions' offense

Posted Dec 28, 2013

Tight end Joseph Fauria has become one of the success stories of this year’s rookie crop, and not just among the nine players taken by the Lions who have made up one of the strongest rookie classes of any team in the league

Joseph Fauria didn’t come gift-wrapped to the Lions on draft day in April.  The talent pool had been picked clean – all 254 draft picks, including 16 tight ends – when the Lions came calling with an offer to sign as an undrafted free agent.

From those meager beginnings has sprung one of the success stories of this year’s rookie crop, and not just among the nine players taken by the Lions who have made up one of the strongest rookie classes of any team in the league.

Joseph FauriaTE Joseph Fauria (Photo: Gavin Smith)

Fauria has been an ultra-specialist. He catches touchdown passes at a rate that has been surpassed only twice by a rookie tight end since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.

Fauria had three catches in Sunday’s loss to the Giants, and seven have been for touchdowns. Fauria also caught a pass for a two-point conversion. In the stats, he gets credit for the two points but not for the catch.

Since 1970, only two rookie tight ends have caught more than seven TD passes.

Rob Gronkowski had 10 TD catches for the Patriots in 2010. In 1980, Junior Miller caught nine.

A number of rookie tight ends had seven TD catches, but none had eight.

No catch Fauria has made was bigger than the one against the Ravens in Game 14. It was a dream scenario for any player, let alone a rookie. Fauria caught a 15-yard pass from Matthew Stafford with 2:21 left to give the Lions a 16-15 lead.

It could have been the pivotal moment in the season if the lead had held up. Like a lot of things this season, it didn’t. Justin Tucker’s 61-yard field goal with 38 seconds gave the Ravens an 18-16 victory.

Fauria recalled the moment one day last week – the way his teammates celebrated, with the Ford Field crowd roaring -- and how it felt at the time knowing how much the play meant to his team.

"Surreal," Fauria said. "Matt trusting me -- that meant a lot that he actually gave me a chance to get the rock."

It was a first for Fauria, who was a productive player at UCLA.

"I never had a go-ahead touchdown before," he said.

Brandon Pettigrew, the Lions’ starting tight end, had gone down two players earlier with an ankle injury on a play that he caught a pass that gave the Lions a first down at the 15.

It was third-and-15 when Stafford called the play in the huddle and gave Fauria the alert to be ready.

"Matt goes in the huddle, calls the play and says, ‘Everybody’s up, so get open,’" Fauria said, recalling what happened in the huddle.

"I don’t know if it’s coming to me, so I’ve got to be ready, no matter what. There are some players where you’re the fourth of fifth reed.

"On this one, he said, ‘Everybody’s up.’"

At 6-foot-8 and with outstanding hands, Fauria has a matchup advantage against most players in the red zone. On the touchdown play against the Ravens, a linebacker covering him in the end zone had his back turned to Stafford. Stafford threw the ball high, and Fauria plucked it out of the air.

At that point, Stafford was looking for the open receiver – whether it was All-Galaxy receiver Calvin Johnson or Fauria. He could not pre-determine where he wanted to go with the ball.

"At a point like that in a game, you don’t know how the defense is going to react," Stafford said later in the week. "You don’t know if they are going to all-out blitz or if they are going to double Calvin, or if they are going to play true zone or whatever it is."

The "everybody’s up" meant just that – everyone had to be alert for the ball.

"I just wanted guys to know that this ball could be going anywhere," Stafford said. "They know that on every play, anyway, but just a subtle reminder. Joe ran a great route.

"He had a good matchup with the linebacker having his back turned. He’s a big target. The guy has good hands and usually after he makes a play like that he dances."

Stafford laughed after mentioning the dance routine Fauria has done after every TD catch.

Fauria’s had a lot to celebrate this year. His play has given him a chance to carve out a career in pro football on and off the field. His touchdown production speaks for itself, and his upbeat personality and quick wit – with a dash of self-confidence and ego – has made fans warm to him.

He was asked if he ever imagined he’d have this much success so early.

"Yes," he said firmly, "Because I know what I’m capable of doing."