NOTEBOOK: Hockenson emerging as a key target in passing game

Lions offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell challenged second-year tight end T.J. Hockenson a couple weeks back to get more separation from defenders and become an even bigger factor in the passing game.

"I kind of challenged him a little bit just in terms of gaining separation, but I see a guy that's improving each and every day, a guy that it's super important to, he really is trying to be on his details, trying to do the things that we're asking him to do and I think it's starting to show up," Bevell said this week.

"I appreciate what he's doing in the run game, he's improving there each and every time we go out and then these last couple weeks in particular, you can see him doing a great job of running routes, gaining some great separation and giving us opportunities to give him the ball."

Hockenson was targeted a season-high 10 times last week vs. the Colts. He hauled in seven catches for 65 yards, also both season highs.

Hockenson has been targeted at least four times in every game this season. He has 29 receptions for 321 yards and four touchdowns, including the game-tying score with no time left to help beat the Falcons Week 7.

If last week is any indication, Hockenson could become an even bigger factor in the passing game if the Lions have to play any games without Pro Bowl wide receiver Kenny Golladay, who injured his hip last week and could miss some time.

"I think my routes, in particular, the last few weeks, just coming in and out of releases, getting some separation, especially this last week, just doing that kind of stuff," Hockenson said this week of something he's really seen growth in.

"I'm starting to feel a little more comfortable, getting routes and seeing the coverages and seeing defenses and being able to get open. I think it's what I've tried to improve on each week, and obviously, I need to pass protect better than I did last week. I guess that's a point of emphasis for the weeks to come."

NFL Next Gen Stats has Hockenson gaining 3.7 yards of separation per catch through seven games, which ranks in the top 10 in the NFL among all pass catchers. He averaged nearly a yard and a half less separation (2.3 yards) in 12 games last year.

Hockenson currently ranks seventh among tight ends in catches (29), seventh in receiving yards (321) and fifth in touchdowns (4).

Hockenson has been very consistent in his second season, and the Lions could look to put even more on his plate in the passing game in the coming weeks if they're short-handed at receiver.

"I think I prepared to do what I need to do to help this team," Hockenson said. "Whether it's being that guy (No. 1 option), I'm going to be that guy.

"If it's blocking three out of the four downs, I'm going to be that guy. I think any opportunity I get I'm going to capitalize. I'm prepared for whatever situation I need to be in."

OKWARA ON A ROLL

Defensive end Romeo Okwara has been very good to start the 2020 season, playing more like the Okwara that burst onto the scene in 2018 with 7.5 sacks, than the player last year who recorded just 1.5 sacks.

Okwara is the only player in the NFL this season with at least one tackle for loss in each of their last six games. He's one of just four defenders in the NFL so far this season with at least 5.0 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. The three other names on that list: Myles Garrett, Brandon Graham and Jason Pierre-Paul.

TOUGH TASK STOPPING COOK

Vikings running back Dalvin Cook became just the fifth player in the Super Bowl era with 200-plus scrimmage yards (226), at least three rushing touchdowns, and a receiving score in a single game last week vs. Green Bay, according to NFL statistics. 

He accounted for 163 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 30 carries. He also chipped in 65 receiving yards, including a 50-yard touchdown.

It's no surprise Cook was named the NFC Offensive Player of the Week.

Now it's up to Lions defensive coordinator Cory Undlin to figure out how to stop Cook and the Vikings' rushing attack coming off their best performance of the season. 

"The guy is downhill and fast and makes quick decisions," Undlin said of Cook. "Sticks his foot in the ground and gets vertical. You have to be able to get off blocks at all three levels and you have to have everyone there to help get this guy on the ground. 

"Another tough challenge for us upfront, in the second level with the linebackers and there's no break for the backend, either. This run game is for all 11 guys on the field every time they hand it off."

PRACTICE SQUAD PROTECTION

The Lions have protected three players on their practice squad this week from being signed by other teams. Those players are: Linebacker Kareem Martin, linebacker Anthony Pittman and defensive back Dee Virgin.

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