When Calvin Johnson was in his heyday in Detroit, he and quarterback Matthew Stafford were one of the best deep-ball duos in the league.
In the immediate aftermath of Johnson retiring following the 2015 season, the Lions' offense operated a little differently. They spread the ball around and relied more on the run after the catch than the big ball down the field.
But the big ball appears to be back in Motown with the emergence of Marvin Jones Jr. and rookie Kenny Golladay as legitimate down-the-field threats for Stafford.
Jones has 12 catches on passes thrown at least 20 yards down the field this season for 416 yards and five touchdowns.
Golladay, who missed more than a month of the season with a hamstring injury, has returned to the lineup and been the Robin to Jones’ Batman in that department.
Golladay leads all rookies with four receptions of 40-plus yards this season, and is top six in the entire league in that department. Some of the names ahead of him – Brandin Cooks, Tyreek Hill, T.Y. Hilton and Antonio Brown – are frequently among the tops in the NFL in that department. Golladay’s name being among them is pretty impressive for a rookie who missed five games.
Golladay is tied with Jones for sixth on that list of 40-plus-yard catches.
“Definitely I can see myself as a deep threat, but with No. 11 (Marvin Jones Jr.) right beside me. He’s over there catching a whole lot of deep balls as well,” Golladay said this week.
“If I can do what Marv’s over there doing, I feel like it would be great both of us going down there and catching deep balls from No. 9. It’ll be great. A lot of fun.”
It’s really no surprise with weapons like Jones and Golladay making so many plays down the field that Stafford is one of the NFL leaders in downfield passing. His 120.4 passer rating on attempts that travel at least 21 yards in the air is the third best in the league. He has seven touchdowns and just one interception on those attempts.
Golladay is just seven games into his rookie season, which is promising moving forward. He’s still learning how to play receiver in this league, but the physical tools (6-foot-4 and 213 pounds with speed) are something fans can get excited about.
“I’m just trying to get better at all the little things, you know,” Golladay said this week. “I’m pretty much learning something new every week or I’m being asked (to do) something new every week. I’m just trying to get better at all the little stuff, really.”
Stafford’s confidence is already sky high with Jones, and it’s steadily growing with Golladay.
“Yeah, he’s a big, physical kid,” Stafford said this week of his rookie receiver. “Shown the ability to battle and go get the football. Obviously, he’s got some down the field speed ... he’s made a lot of big plays for us.
“He’s going to continue to get better with reps ... he missed quite a bit of time this year. So, having him back and running around just adds to the weapons that we have. Like I always say, we’re at our best when we’re spreading it around, and all those guys are impacting the game in their own way.”
When Dwight Freeney got to Detroit and talked to the media for the first time last week, he said he can still give the Lions 30 to 40 good reps on gameday at age 37.
He played 17 snaps in his first game with Detroit last week in Baltimore. He didn’t show up on the stats sheet, though he did have one quarterback hurry on a third down that flushed Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco out of the pocket and resulted in an incomplete pass and Baltimore punt.
The Lions could be in a position Sunday in Tampa Bay where they might need Freeney to play a little bigger role. Starter Ziggy Ansah is dealing with an ankle injury, and only returned to practice on Friday. His status for Sunday is still in question.
Cornelius Washington, a key reserve on the edge, was limited this week with a shoulder injury.
“It just depends on what the coaching staff wants to do,” Freeney said this week of the potential for an expanded role. “I’m pretty much leaving it up to them to make that decision on how much or where or what situations to put me in.”
OFFENSIVE LINE INJURIES
Lions head coach Jim Caldwell doesn’t offer up much info in terms of injuries throughout the course of the week, but he was asked Friday if he expected all five of his starting offensive linemen to be available Sunday against the Buccaneers. Caldwell said the chances of that were “slim.”
Right tackle Rick Wagner (ankle) did not practice all week, and it seems unlikely at this point he's ready to go by Sunday. Right guard T.J. Lang (foot) sat out practice Wednesday and Thursday, but did return Friday.
Center Travis Swanson, who missed last week’s game in Baltimore with a knee injury, was limited in practice all week.
The Lions could be looking at a situation where they’ll start their seventh different line combination this year when they take the field at Raymond James Stadium Sunday.
Detroit’s captains for Sunday’s game in Tampa Bay are: Running back Theo Riddick (offense), safety Quandre Diggs (defense), defensive tackle Akeem Spence (defense) and linebacker Paul Worrilow (special teams).